The Republican establishment has swung into defcon i, maximum force alert. Last month I contributed to a widely publicized symposium at National Review. Our hope was to stop his rise. The liberal establishment is, if anything, even more agitated. Trump transgresses the rules of political engagement, to say nothing of political correctness. A stream-of-consciousness, reality TV show insult machine leads the race for the Republican Party nomination. How did we come to this point?
The wonder is that we wonder. Trump is a creature of today’s political and cultural establishment. How could a master of comic mockery like Stephen Colbert object to Trump’s political style? Or Jon Stewart, who concludes his regular political rants with crude obscenity? I can’t think of any public figure on the Left who wouldn’t be flattered to share the stage with either man. Why should Donald Trump embarrass—other than the fact that his political positions aren’t liberal.
Our side isn’t any different. Rush Limbaugh makes a living denouncing people on talk radio. He’s even derided Pope Francis as economically ignorant and called his ideas “pure Marxism.”
You can’t get more conservative establishment than the Bradley Foundation. In 2013 one of the winners of the Bradley Prize was Fox News founder Roger Ailes, perhaps the single most influential person behind the transformation of politics into entertainment over the last generation. Very Trumpian.
It’s not just Fox. MSNBC and other networks have developed their own political shout shows—verbal versions of World Wide Wrestling matches. Talking heads bluster, interrupt, and otherwise disport themselves in rude ways. Viewers rejoice in the spectacle. Advertising is sold. Money is made. Very Trumpian.
I don’t want to give the impression that it’s just the popular media that has prepared the way for Trump. The National Review symposium I contributed to also featured Glenn Beck. If he’s acceptable to the conservative establishment, is Trump a stretch?
Then there’s the fact that for the last few years so much has been for sale in the conservative movement. During the Romney campaign, one could almost hear the consultants and operatives counting their money. In this venal atmosphere, which surrounds so much of the establishment of both parties, Trump’s verbal raspberries and rhetorical roundhouse punches hardly seem untoward.
And then there are the supposedly high-brow liberals. I turn to the always-reliable New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who illustrates the thinly disguised Trumpianism of the Left. In a recent column he blamed the Republican Party for the rise of Trump. It’s a not an implausible claim, as my comments above suggest. But Kristof has no time for sober analysis. Instead, he foams at the mouth.
For a long time, he says, the Right has promoted “a toxic politics of fear and resentment, sometimes brewed with a tinge of racial animosity.” Given this cynical strategy, employed over many decades, it’s no surprise to Kristof that the man leading in the polls for the Republican Party nomination “is an ill-informed, inexperienced, bigoted, sexist xenophobe.” That’s a fancy, New York Times kind of name-calling and reputation smearing. But for all intents and purposes, it’s identical to Trump’s claim that our country is being run by “very, very stupid people.”
Kristof even manages to out-Trump Trump. Trump says our leaders are very, very stupid. He’s even called George W. Bush a liar. The implication is that the American people have been hoodwinked by a professional political class that’s not up to the job and lies about it. Perhaps we should say, “Shame on you, Mr. Voter, you shouldn’t let yourself be taken in like that.” Kristof implies something different. His line of reasoning implies that many Republic voters are wicked. After all, why would those cynical Republican Party grandees cook up their toxic politics? It can only work if the Republican base is actually motivated by fear, resentment, and racial animus.
And then there’s Bill Clinton. The Monica Lewinsky affair, followed by the fire hose spewing money at him after his presidency, shows that there is nothing Bill can do to discredit him among liberal elites. I can’t think of any Democrat of standing, in public life or not, who wouldn’t be thrilled to have Bill grace their cocktail receptions or dinner parties. Why, then, should Donald Trump be held accountable for his many excesses?
Perhaps I too am being drawn into the body slamming race to the bottom. In all honesty, I find myself wanting to hit someone, if only to awaken him. This primary season is revealing an astounding blindness in the members of our ruling class, both Right and Left, as well as a remarkable lack of self-criticism. Donald Trump should be no surprise. He’s made in their image.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.