The Donald Trump phenomenon continues, and so does the commentary upon it. In the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens termed the latter “a parade of semi-sophisticated theories that act as bathroom deodorizer to mask the stench of this candidacy.”
Rusty Reno took note of Stephens’s column yesterday and rightly remarked upon the inversion of popular sovereignty implied by it. There’s more to be said.
Stephens specified a few theories as to why Trump has held steady for weeks: his “can-do image,” his blunt expression of “fears of cultural and economic dislocation,” his independence, and his reflection of “the broad disgust of everyday Americans with their failed political establishment.”
Stephens himself has a simpler explanation: “Trump is a loudmouth vulgarian appealing to quieter vulgarians.” Trump is what he is and always has been, and “The leader isn’t the problem. The people are. It takes the demos to make the demagogue.” (Hence Reno’s citation of Brecht.)
It’s a wholesale indictment of Trump and his supporters, whom Stephens casts as stupid, self-destructive, fringe, celebrity-obsessed, tasteless, nativist, and “paranoid.”
The problem with all of this is that I have encountered several people recently who favor Trump’s candidacy, but who don’t fit the profile. They don’t necessarily favor Trump himself and they haven’t said they would vote for him as president. But they do appreciate his presence at the center of the campaign. The ones I’ve encountered are educated professionals, not the backward masses Stephens envisions.
They know that he is sometimes appalling (Stephens’s term), but they’re not appalled. They recognize his “meretricious” style, but it doesn’t alter their gratification. The reason is clear: They are, indeed, disgusted, utterly disgusted, with the political establishment.
Though he mentions that disgust, Stephens doesn’t take it seriously enough. It isn’t just “everyday Americans” who are disgusted with the political class. Disgust ranges up and down the income-and-education ladder.
The Americans who despise the political class include all the people who felt nauseous as Lois Lerner declared she did nothing wrong, then took the Fifth and walked away with a hefty pension. They were disgusted by the roster of Senate candidates put forward by the Republican Party in 2010 and 2012 (as was Stephens). They were angered by the bailouts (as Rick Santelli proved) and they are tired of race politics and white guilt. When reporters and TV hosts make the other candidates wriggle and fumble, they want to shout, “Why do you let them frighten you? Challenge them!” And they’re sick of the will of the people being cut short by a few lawyers sitting in judgment. They’re tired of timidity, ingratiation, and pusillanimity.
Trump is the voice of their dismay. I’m not sure how many of his supporters even think about Election Day at this point. Right now, the important thing is the relief he provides.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.