Donald J. Trump’s campaign for the U.S. presidency fills us with a mixture of bewilderment and dread. The Trump “phenomenon” appears calculated to discredit conservatism, to make a laughingstock of the party whose leadership he would seek, and to implicate American democracy in the low-rent spectacle of the reality TV star. When Trump boasts of the imperviousness of his supporters to any argument or evidence, he serves only to undermine respect for democracy as such. Trump’s supporters, meanwhile, take it as a point of pride that they are willing to ignore any fact that cuts against their vision of the man as the great tonic to all that ails us. Trump represents the final triumph of celebrity over substance in American politics.
The Left’s open embrace of lying as a legitimate alternative to persuasion seems to have found its corollary in Trumpism, which can be reduced roughly to the belief that “real” conservatism can find its strength in the abandonment of reason and, with it, whatever remains of the standards of uprightness in public behavior. It is a concession to the idea that the politics of a free society are but a stage for ever-more-evocative performance art by professional charlatans, who are expected to be by turns ridiculous and vicious. In Trump’s public persona, outlandish statements and a firm refusal to admit fault ally themselves with a thuggish resort to highly personal invective in the face of scrutiny. If he were a literary archetype, we might call him the Silly Brute. This is not the stuff of a proper conservative standard-bearer.
Of course, Mr. Trump stands little chance to win the general election, so his nomination would also represent the triumph of spite over sound political judgment. A further explication of our rejection of Donald Trump follows.
Update: Comments are back open, with the firm emphasis that anti-Semitism is despicable and will not be tolerated. Nor will profanity, including a certain fashionable Twitter insult.
Donald Trump is not a Conservative
Given Donald Trump’s lifetime of support for left-wing positions on every issue from abortion to guns to socialized medicine, his sudden conversion not only to conservative views, but to the whole smorgasbord of conservative views most palatable to Republican primary voters, should be viewed with more than mild skepticism.
Such a sudden reversal of conviction on matters of national politics is, it must be admitted, possible—barely. However, claims of such a transformation will require some credible demonstration to convince the reasonable observer, particularly under such politically opportune circumstances. Trump has never made the explanatory case for his own conversion, beyond the aforementioned occasional, extravagant effusions of right-wing spleen on some topic of the hour. (It is worth pointing out that these outbursts, which so excite his supporters, suspiciously resemble a liberal millionaire’s crude caricature of what a right-wing Republican might sound like, if he ever were to meet one.)
It should be noted that conservatives love a good conversion story. If Donald Trump has had his encounter on the Road to Damascus, he could recount it for us, along with an explanation for the process by which it happened, who his primary influences were, and so forth. We suspect that no such story is forthcoming because Trump himself knows it would not contain the ring of truth (see: his clumsy and ineffectual references to Scripture). Similarly, his personal bearing and the manner in which he comports himself is not consistent with a man who has been humbled by the sudden realization that he has been wrong on practically every subject of consequence for his entire adult life.
On the contrary, Trump remains an egomaniacal self-promoter whose rhetorical stock in trade is a distasteful stew of boorish insults and braggadocio. He is to all appearances wholly unacquainted with the sense of gratitude and self-restraint which together form the ethical underpinnings of a conservative view of human affairs. Neither of these are virtues Donald Trump has exhibited before or since his supposed conversion to an appreciation of the Eternal Things. Even if he had the words, he hasn’t got the tune.
As a matter of practical policy, meanwhile, Trump has been willing to cave in to whatever political expediency demanded, contrary to the breathtakingly counter-factual claim that he is an enemy of “establishment” cronyism. In point of fact, the sudden onrush of support he has received from the GOP powers that be (and if former Sen. Bob Dole does not represent the GOP old guard, then who does?) has been greeted with an infuriating lack of interest on the part of his defenders. That this support has been explicitly targeted at Trump’s principal rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, in an undisguised effort to preserve the arrangements that have served the ensconced interests of the GOP leadership class for decades, is the simplest and most obvious evidence that he is neither reliably conservative nor particularly attached to any governing principle that might extend beyond his own immediate self-interest.
Donald Trump is Bad for Conservatism
Setting aside the question of whether he really comprehends conservatism or whether he has become a conservative in any durable way, Donald Trump’s ascendancy would be disastrous both for conservatism’s self-understanding and for its image in the wider society. As has been emphasized already, Trump’s bombast and vulgarity serve to confirm in the minds of many a false and scandalous impression of conservative “thought” as neither particularly thoughtful nor even minimally decent. And if conservatism does not stand for the maintenance of standards, what then is it for?
The usual liberal calumny against conservatives is that they are paranoid, unenlightened, and driven to misanthropic bile by their primitive ids. The insistence by conservatives that people must accept the tragic element of the created order, which manifests itself in the hard truths and paradoxes of human nature, make it all too easy for the liberal opinion-maker or politician to slander social conservatism as driven by malice. Trump's reckless appeals to populism and nativism make that task yet easier. It cements in many otherwise receptive minds the caricature of conservatism as weird, dangerous, and conducive to violent passions.
Moreover, identification with a cretinous opportunist does damage to the probity of otherwise honest and sensible people. Taking after their hero, Trump’s supporters are not only permissive of his many offenses against decency, but often conspicuously nasty and combative whenever any presentation of the facts about Mr. Trump is made. This stubborn anti-intellectualism has become such a characteristic of the Trump enthusiast that the candidate himself has lately insulted them to their faces, boasting that he could literally shoot someone on the street without losing a single vote. (Yes, a viable candidate for President of the United States now speaks this way without consequence.)
With characteristically fascistic flourish, he contrasted this insuperable loyalty with the “softness” of those who would support Sens. Cruz and Rubio. To all appearances, he was precisely right, inasmuch as his supporters have come to take this insouciance to reality as a point of pride, and none appear to have objected to his characterization. One is reminded of the notorious Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor, in his final campaign for public office in that blighted country, whose campaign slogan ran, “He killed my ma. He killed my pa. I’ll vote for him.” This sort of willful blindness portends the terminal corrosion of our civic norms. In the dark happenstance of a Trump presidency, it portends the identification of conservatism with the secular authoritarian’s will to power.
Fortunately, that outcome seems unlikely--another fact in which Trump’s fans show no obvious interest.
Trump Will Not Win the White House
One contemporary aphorism has it that while conservatives are talking philosophy, liberals talk strategy. We judge that, given the passionate support for Donald Trump with a plurality of Republican primary voters, many Americans who describe themselves as conservatives have lost any interest in both. The inescapable truth is that Trump stands little to no chance of becoming our next president, at least if we are to take the world as we find it, rather than projecting the attitudes of a bare plurality of Republican voters in Iowa onto the whole of the voting public.
In spite of the grandiose promises of the Trump partisans that their man is poised to “get things done” that haven’t been possible under any previous Republican administration, the hard facts are that Trump is under water with the general electorate. How far beneath the waves is he? Far enough to rank dead last among Republican contenders in the crucially important favorability/unfavorability metric, worse even than the poster child for Tea Party electoral disaster, Christine O’Donnell. His numbers are worse than former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s, whose campaign has become synonymous with pointless futility.
These unfavorability numbers are not the consequence of a lack of name recognition. There is no sense in which the American electorate just doesn’t know Donald Trump well enough to have formed an opinion about him. He has received wall-to-wall coverage for months, practically free of charge, and people do not like him, do not like what he says, do not like what they think he stands for. That means that his odds of dramatically changing the public’s impression of him are low. He is, in fact, one of the only Republicans in the race who has polled worse than Hillary head-to-head from the very beginning of his campaign. All of this while the press has not yet turned its Medusa’s glare on him as the Republican nominee, treating him instead as an entertaining curiosity.
Besides these practical problems, Trump’s florid promises to mount a “deportation force” and other similar claims are more or less impossible from either a legal or political standpoint, assuming a man as thin-skinned as he would be willing to endure the kind of criticism he would receive just for trying. As big a leap of faith as is required to buy the philosophical case for Donald Trump, the political case is more or less non-existent.
Given the many preceding claims against Donald Trump, and in anticipation of the question of whom else we would commend, we would urge any reader to give his full consideration to Sen. Ted Cruz, as both the strongest non-Trump candidate in the polls, and the most conservative candidate in the race. People of good faith can disagree, of course, on Sen. Cruz’s tactics during his freshman term or to what extent his ambition outraces his judgment. However, there can be little doubt that among active members of the U.S. Congress, he is among the most forthrightly conservative. His attachment to principle has often come at high cost, and he is famously unpopular with the leadership of his party precisely on the grounds that he cannot easily be corralled into unprincipled compromises.
With the Iowa caucuses only a week away, we are at once dismayed at the necessity of such an editorial as this one and heartened by the unanimity in which it is offered.