In early December, when President-elect Donald Trump’s post-election “Thank You Tour” arrived at the US Bank Arena in Cleveland, someone hollered out of the audience, “We love you, Donald.” Trump yelled, “I love you, too”—one of the oratorical innovations of Barack Obama’s successful campaign for president in 2008 that few politicians have been able to resist imitating. But then, Trump pointed to the working-class fellow in the audience who had hollered in the first place. Trump said, in his unsyntactical way, “Guy. Some guy. Look at this guy. And I do love him. He’s a rough-looking cookie, though, I tell you. Love. We love. And there’s going to be a lot of love in this country.”
In a strange sense, spreading the love may be the biggest policy challenge Donald Trump faces as he approaches the presidency. His opponents are predicting catastrophe. Some of them are actively wishing for it. Hillary Clinton’s campaign backed an attempt to undo his election through legal challenges in three states. Not since Ronald Reagan has an American president arrived in the White House amid such widespread anxiety over his basic competence. Although Reagan was re-elected easily after four years, it took a long time to disabuse his detractors of the notion that he was too stupid to be president. And Donald Trump has a particular challenge. He was elected on an explicitly nostalgic campaign slogan—“Make America Great Again”. No politician can keep a promise to turn back the clock. Failure of one kind or another seems inevitable.
Yet Trump scored a triumph just days after his election. Carrier, an air-conditioning manufacturer that had been a special target of Trump’s bile on the campaign trail, agreed to cut in half a plan to move production facilities to Mexico. The initiative will keep 1100 jobs in Indiana. Newspapers have mocked Trump’s plans to bring industrial jobs back to the United States. “The reality is more complicated,” says the Los Angeles Times. Maybe so, but the Carrier deal is a sign that Trump is stronger than he looks. Voters who have had their credulity abused by politicians extolling capitalism’s theoretical benefits are likely to be patient with him. “They forgot that it was the American worker who truly built the country,” Trump said of the experts during his Cincinnati speech. Even if Trump cannot re-establish the high-paying manufacturing jobs of half a century ago, they are a symbol that he will not forget working people.
These workers expect no return to a halcyon age. What they want is concrete acts of reassurance that the President will henceforth act in their interests when decisions are to be made. Trump is giving it to them in spades. He is still largely alone in his party in questioning US orthodoxy on free trade. Democrats do question the orthodoxy, but never in such a way as to threaten it. In the days after the election, Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, boasted before a room of trade unionists that the international trade agreements they had long opposed were now dead. True—but only because Senator Schumer’s own party had failed in its attempt to thwart Trump.
This essay appears in the January edition of Quadrant.
The President-elect’s base thus has the potential to grow in all sorts of ideological directions, particularly if he has a few early successes. Trump has never been a crusading conservative but his first cabinet appointments show he is not afraid to govern from the Right on certain issues. There is Representative Tom Price of Georgia, a physician who was an ardent and knowledgeable opponent of President Obama’s healthcare reform, as Secretary of Health; Ben Carson, the eccentric brain surgeon, at Housing; James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense.
The base of support for Trump among America’s non-ideological masses is more solid than it would appear. As was the case in the Brexit campaign in Britain, the entire publicity apparatus of the media and the government was enlisted to make a vote for him appear futile. Now that Trump has shown himself capable of taking power, many previously silent supporters will come out of the woodwork. His prospects of political success may be correspondingly larger.
Trump will be the first president in American history to reach the Oval Office with neither political nor military experience. This has left him in the paradoxical position of being a pure outsider who will require, for that very reason, the counsel of insiders. In some ways, however, he is as qualified for the twenty-first-century office of the presidency as it is possible for a politician to be. His career in urban real estate has involved trend-spotting, navigating and influencing bureaucracies and grandiose executive “big think”: all relevant, all presidential. When the New York Times reported during the campaign that Trump’s tax returns showed a business loss of almost a billion dollars in 1995, the revelation did not hurt him at all. It may even appear a credential for leading a government that for much of the past decade has run trillion-dollar deficits. Trump is an experienced entertainer, and this is a huge presidential plus. The rallies on his Thank You Tour, just like those on his campaign, have been full of people having a rollicking good time. Obama generated enthusiasm, but there was always something earnest about it. There is something different, almost nineteenth-century, about these gatherings. One would have thought alcohol would be necessary to such exuberance.
The Anglo-American journalist Andrew Sullivan believes Trump’s election portends the end of the American republic. Writing in New York magazine, Sullivan argued: “The man has no impulse control and massive reserves of vengeance and hatred.” Perhaps these flaws will emerge. But they are not evident now. In the process of staffing his administration Trump has shown a distinct absence of vindictiveness. He has been especially conciliatory to Republicans who not only supported his opponents but actually sought to sabotage his candidacy, sometimes by insulting his character. Last spring, Nikki Haley, the Governor of South Carolina and the daughter of Indian immigrants, urged Republican primary voters in her state to shun the “angriest voices” on immigration. Trump has nominated her to be UN ambassador. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney travelled the country last March calling Trump a “con man”, a “fake”, a “phony”, and a “fraud”, and Trump has considered him for a cabinet position. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the top-ranking Republican in the Obama era, announced in early October that he would not campaign for Trump, at precisely the moment when Trump appeared to be recovering from the revelation that he had used crude language about women on a film set a decade ago. Trump made no move to thwart Ryan’s re-election as House Speaker when the party took a preliminary vote to back him in November. These decisions have certainly been politically expedient for Trump—but that is only another way of saying that they are signs that he does, in fact, have considerable powers of impulse control.
He can afford it. Trump’s election was not about policy or temperament—it was about sociology. At a time when the elders of the party he sought to join were trying to figure out how to appeal to next generation’s immigrants, Trump had a better idea for appealing to this generation’s voters. He discovered a split between the party’s donors, who tended to benefit from globalisation, and its rank and file, who felt victimised by it. Boldly, he took the side of the latter. He attacked free trade, mass immigration and reckless military intervention. Very few Americans had thought to pursue this kind of politics, practised in Europe for at least a decade, because they assumed America’s armed forces and its reserve currency would insulate it from globalisation’s storms.
Mr Trump appealed to working-class whites, taking around 70 per cent of their votes. There will be time to debate whether this conversion of the Republican Party to “minority”-style politics was cynical or incidental. But appealing to whites did not appear to hurt Republicans among minorities and women. Mr Trump outpolled the Republicans’ 2012 candidate, Mitt Romney, among both blacks and Hispanics. Trump, in his strengths and weaknesses, is more like his voters than meets the eye. While much media coverage of his campaign painted him as a billionaire member of the elite, to the New Yorkers among whom he made his fortune he was an ill-mannered boor, a builder of buildings made of aluminium and plastic in a city where the buildings are made of marble and granite. Nobody ever wanted to listen to him. Many mocked him. It turns out a lot of Americans were in the same position. Being a despised parvenu turned out to be an advantage for him. It made him empathetic. On election night, the Republican Party became something it has never been since it was founded a century-and-a-half ago: the party of outsiders.
Whether Americans were right to choose Trump is not yet ours to know. But their reasons were both undeniable and understandable. Enough voters considered him “one of them” to win him the election. That is why, for a few months at least, there is scant likelihood that he will disappoint his backers. It is wrong to say Americans voted for him out of rage or bigotry or ignorance. They voted for him with their eyes open. According to NBC exit polls, the election was decided by the unusually large group who held “unfavourable” views of both candidates. Among these voters, Trump beat Clinton by 49 per cent to 29.
These are extraordinary numbers. Even people who accepted as accurate the picture of Trump as a caricature villain found reasons to vote for him nonetheless. To ask people how they could possibly have voted for such a flawed candidate is to ask the wrong question. The right question is: How unjust must the system be to make the public overlook such flaws in the candidate who pledges to attack it? Trump’s detractors in both parties made many telling points about him. They just failed utterly to see the context in which he was running. They appear to be no wiser about the context in which he is going to govern.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.