WASHINGTON – At this point in the 2016 presidential campaign, the noble, elusive stag of political rhetoric is pretty much road kill.
This judgment is unfair to a few candidates – Rick Perry, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio come to mind – delivering thoughtful speeches. But in portions of the Republican field, the normal limits of civility have been crossed and recrossed in the relentless search for viral attention. Mike Huckabee compared the sitting president to a Nazi prison camp guard. Ted Cruz accused the Senate majority leader of being a liar. Donald Trump, well, opens his mouth. His opponents are invariably “clowns” and “stupid” and physically ugly. He mocks a war hero and reveals the cellphone number of another candidate.
In the current practice of populism, spontaneous expressions of anger and outrage are considered the most authentic form of communication. Apologies are for wimps. “Doubling down” is the trademarked motto of the 2016 campaign.
American elections have never been a stroll in the park. But attempting to put Trump’s hot mess of abuse, pettiness, egotism and bombast in any historical context is difficult. Imagine Abraham Lincoln making fun of Stephen Douglas’ height (he was 5-feet-4) and handing out his opponent’s private telegraph address.
Trump’s success is clarifying about the nature of the populism we are seeing. If he leads the revolt, it has little to do with constitutionalism or limited government. Trump is a recent heretic on nearly every issue important to conservatives, from taxes (raise them on the rich) to immigration (Mitt Romney was too harsh) to health care (more liberal than President Obama). Before ambition revised his views, Trump was far to the left of, say, Jeb Bush, or even Jon Huntsman. So Trump’s candidacy can’t primarily be about ideological purification.
Trump’s appeal is pure style. His emptiness makes him a perfect vehicle for rage. He is angry about everything that makes you angry – because that is why he chose his views. He is a megaphone of resentment against elites and foreigners who are ruining our country, taking our jobs, raping our women or eating our lunch. And he promises to fix it all.
“I don’t care what his actual positions are,” says supporter Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks. “I don’t care if he says the wrong thing. He says what’s on his mind. He gives honest answers rather than prepared answers.”
This is the cult of spontaneity taken to its logical conclusion. In choosing a president, policy positions are held to be irrelevant. Only authenticity matters. And Trump, who has changed his entire political worldview to capture the political moment, represents the brand of authenticity. Whatever his opinions, he delivers a very genuine “— you!”
The Trump candidacy has revealed a huge attitudinal division in American life. Some of us have found it appalling that he should gain any traction in presidential politics. It seems as if World Wrestling Entertainment has conducted a hostile takeover of CNN.
But there are plenty of people I know who have a totally different reaction. They are puzzled by my complacency. The ruling elites stood by as Obama transformed America. The Republican Party’s feckless leaders could have won the funding showdown. They could have overturned Obamacare. In Trump, we have someone who scares and humiliates the elite, exactly as they deserve.
I’m not sure how a divide this deep can be bridged. But here is what I know:
I know that incivility is immoral and dangerous to democracy. People of faith in particular are called to speak and act on the assumption of shared human dignity. This does not rule out vigorous disagreement, but it forbids the cultivation of contempt and the issuing of threats.
I know that Trump is encouraging political fantasies. He is not preparing people for difficult choices, on, say, entitlements; he is assuring them that our problems could be easily solved if elites were not so corrupt. And he is wrong. Our problems are not easy.
And I know that the success of Trump would be the downfall of the GOP. Any party captured by rage and resentment will fail – and deserve it. Republicans should stand for responsible reform, not reckless populism.
During the Revolutionary War, according to historian Ron Chernow, George Washington had two officers review all of his speeches and much of his correspondence to make sure he avoided hasty language and off-the-cuff enthusiasm. The distance from Washington to Trump is not merely change but descent.
Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.