WASHINGTON, November 9, 2016 – The voters who elected Donald Trump to be our 45th president were sending the nation a message. Exactly what that message is, however, remains less than clear.
Were they embracing the Trump candidacy because of his reckless rhetoric, disparaging women, minorities, the disabled and his opponents, in both parties, or in spite of it?
Did they vote for Trump because he said NATO was irrelevant, found Vladimir Putin and Saddam Hussein to be stronger leaders than our own president, and suggested that the proliferation of nuclear weapons would be no problem, or did they view this as mere embellishments of his anti-establishment campaign?
We will never know precisely why voters selected for president a man with no government experience, who seemed surprised when he was told that Russia had invaded the Ukraine and occupied Crimea, and a personal life fraught with problems and shortcomings. Was it because his opponent was Hillary Clinton, a cornerstone of the establishment who, together with her husband, got rich through politics and the selling of influence? Would an opponent with less personal baggage, Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, for example, have done better?
This, also, we cannot know.
What does seem clear, however, is that a vote for Trump seems to have been a vote against politics as it has been practiced in Washington in recent years by both Republicans and Democrats. Both parties have engaged in “crony capitalism”, subsidizing and bailing out Wall Street and other large business interests, and taking the country to war needlessly, and at great cost, as in Iraq. Both parties have ignored the needs of working class Americans, and this election shows that these voters have come to understand this reality.
Donald Trump may not be the best person to embody this frustration with Washington, but he is the person who rose to oppose politics as it is now practiced. Whether he will address the real problems before us, seems an open question. When it comes to job losses by poorly educated workers, he has blamed what he calls bad trade deals. Most conservative economists, on the other hand, support such trade agreements as good for our economy and blame job losses on robotics and other technological advances. When automobiles arrived in our economy, blacksmiths rapidly became unemployed. We may be in era like that. Unskilled jobs are not coming back.
What is needed is not an assault on trade but re-education and re-training for those who have been displaced. Misdiagnosing a real problem will not help to solve it.
The Republican Party has taken a gamble by nominating a man who has no history of being a Republican or a conservative, or of having any political philosophy at all. Indeed, many Republicans refused to embrace this candidacy, among them our two former Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and our two most recent Republican nominees for president, Mitt Romney and John McCain.
This is unprecedented.
Not a single important conservative newspaper endorsed Donald Trump. He was opposed by, among others, The Arizona Republic, The Manchester Union Leader, The Deseret News and the San Diego Union. The two leading conservative journals, National Review and The Weekly Standard rejected him, as did conservative commentators from George Will to Charles Krauthammer.
In 2000, Donald Trump was already talking about running for president. Asked his opinion of Trump, the leading conservative voice of the time, William F. Buckley,Jr., provided this assessment:
“Look for the narcissist. The most obvious target in today’s lineup is, of course, Donald Trump. When he looks at a glass, he is mesmerized by its reflection. If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America. But whatever the depths of self-enchantment, the demagogue has to say something. So what does Trump say? That he is a successful businessman and that is what America needs in the Oval Office. There is some plausibility in this, though not much. The greatest deeds of American presidents—-midwifing the new republic; freeing the slaves; harnessing the energy and vision needed to win the Cold War—had little to do with a bottom line.”
“In the final analysis, just as the king might look down with terminal disdain upon a courtier whose hypocrisy repelled him, so we have no substitute for relying on the voters to excercise a quiet veto when it becomes more necessary to discourage cynical demagogy, than to advance free health care for the kids. That can come later. In another venue, the resistance to a corrupting demagogy should take first priority.”
In the end, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republicsn National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and most Republicans, with a number of exceptions, such as Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, supported the Trump candidacy and, one must assume, his jumble of policy proposals, from building a wall on the Mexican border to banning Muslim immigrants, to opposing trade agreements, to thinking climate change is a “Chinese hoax.” To embrace Trump but reject the policies he pledged to pursue if elected would appear to most observers to be less than honest.
In a democracy, someone wins and someone loses. Donald Trump has won. The election, as he had claimed for months, was not “rigged” after all. All Americans should wish him well and hope that he will surround himself with experienced men and women who will keep the ship of state afloat.
But, if this is not the case, if he governs as he campaigned, all of us will be the losers. The Republican Party gambled its future and any principles it may have left on Donald Trump. If this gamble fails, our two party system will need a serious overhauling. And the Democrats, who overlooked the serious shortcomings of their own candidate, have helped move us down this potentially dangerous path.
We don’t know exactly what Donald Trump’s voters were trying to tell us, except that politics as usual is off the table. Let’s hope it is replaced by something better, not something worse.
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