Explaining the Trump phenomenon in a paragraph


“Trump is running not to be president of all Americans, but to be the clan leader of white Americans. Those white Americans who respond to his message hear his abusive comments, not as evidence of his unfitness for office, but as proof of his commitment to their tribe.” — David Frum

Photo: David Frum


David Frum is a conservative lawyer, journalist, intellectual, and commentator. In an insight-filled article written for The Atlantic, which you can and should read here, he describes what has happened thusly:

“The television networks that promoted Trump; the primary voters who elevated him; the politicians who eventually surrendered to him; the intellectuals who argued for him, and the donors who, however grudgingly, wrote checks to him—all of them knew, by the time they made their decisions, that Trump lied all the time, about everything. They knew that Trump was ignorant, and coarse, and boastful, and cruel. They knew he habitually sympathized with dictators and kleptocrats—and that his instinct when confronted with criticism of himself was to attack, vilify, and suppress. They knew his disrespect for women, the disabled, and ethnic and religious minorities. They knew that he wished to unravel NATO and other U.S.-led alliances, and that he speculated aloud about partial default on American financial obligations. None of that dissuaded or deterred them.”

It almost sounds like the Germans who voted for Hitler even though they knew better. So, naturally, the burning question is: Why? Frum’s article does a masterful job of answering this question, which is why you should spend time reading it. In summary, Frum identifies seven “guardrails” safeguarding the GOP nominating process the party’s primary voters crashed through on their way over the cliff:

  1. Expectations about how candidates should behave. Frum doesn’t have a good handle on this; he simply says, “Something’s obviously changed in the American definition of acceptable behavior in those who seek power.”
  2. Candidates should be trustworthy. Frum believes Trump gets away with dishonesty no other politician would because he’s “exciting.”
  3. Presidents should be knowledgeable about public affairs. Frum says, “What’s different now is the massive Republican and conservative rejection of the idea that a candidate for president should know anything substantive about governing at all,” which he attributes to a deep despair among Republicans which causes them “to value willpower over intellect, combativeness over expertise,” and Trump fits this mold perfectly.
  4. Adherence to conservative principles. Frum argues this guardrail failed to hold because identity politics has overwhelmed ideology in American politics.
  5. A president needs national security expertise. After decrying Trump’s woeful ignorance about the subject, and noting his fondness for authoritarian rulers, Frum observes that Republican voters are thrilled by Trump’s violent rhetoric and complains that, demoralized and depressed, “they seem no longer to care about the larger architecture of security built since 1941 to keep America and its friends safe, prosperous, and free,” which he thinks is “ripping open a danger to the world.”
  6. “A deep belief in tolerance and non-discrimination for Americans of all faiths, creeds, and origins also once functioned as a guardrail against destructive politics,” but has been shredded by America’s growing diversity and whites’ retreat into a protective shell (see the highlighted quote introducing this posting).
  7. Partisan identity now rules the day. Frum says, “Once you’ve convinced yourself that a president of the other party is the very worst possible thing that could befall America, then any nominee of your party—literally no matter who—becomes a lesser evil. And with that, the last guardrail is smashed.” In other words, American society is reverting to tribalism, and as much as Republican insiders fear and destest Trump, it’s unthinkable to let the other tribe win. Thus, now that Trump has clinched the GOP nomination, those Republican politicians and voters who held back all winter and spring are now donning brownshirts as fast as they can.

It’s deja vue all over again.


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