Trump is cul­ti­vat­ing a state of panic

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— The no­tions that Don­ald Trump would make a typ­i­cal pres­i­den­tial pivot, or that his di­vi­sive form of pol­i­tics was merely a pose, lie dead on the con­ven­tion floor in Cleve­land. And it is now nec­es­sary to con­front his un­masked con­tempt for Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions.

Far from be­ing con­fused or op­por­tunis­tic, Trump has a con­sis­tent, well-de­vel­oped view of the uni­verse and his (prom­i­nent) place within it. The world is in chaos. Our coun­try is be­ing in­fil­trated by child-mur­der­ing il­le­gal im­mi­grants and a “mas­sive flow” of dis­loyal, un­screened refugees. Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties are over­whelmed by vi­o­lence, im­pov­er­ished by un­fair trade and be­trayed by politicians who refuse to “put Amer­ica first.” The in­sti­tu­tions that are sup­posed to de­fend us are dom­i­nated by spe­cial in­ter­ests and rigged by elites.

These claims are wrong, ex­ag­ger­ated or cherry-picked in nearly ev­ery re­spect. But the mes­sage res­onates. A ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans regard their coun­try as be­ing on the “wrong track,” and has for some time. Con­ser­va­tive me­dia and “break­ing news”-driven ca­ble net­works re­in­force this sense of de­cline and cri­sis.

And our in­sti­tu­tional chal­lenges are not imag­i­nary: A long-term, wage-earner re­ces­sion (to which Repub­li­cans have of­fered lit­tle prac­ti­cal re­sponse). Ed­u­ca­tional medi­ocrity con­cen­trated in high­poverty com­mu­ni­ties. Con­gres­sional dys­func­tion. A Supreme Court that seems overly po­lit­i­cal and out­come driven. Ev­ery­one can find some rea­son for dis­il­lu­sion­ment.

But there are two pos­si­ble re­sponses to such fail­ures. The first is the in­sti­tu­tion­al­ist an­swer: To re­build with ex­ist­ing ma­te­ri­als. To re­form, re­pair, re­claim and re­new our pat­ri­mony. The sec­ond al­ter­na­tive is the prom­ise of de­liv­er­ance by a man on horse­back — a sin­gle leader claim­ing to em­body the in­ter­ests of “the peo­ple.”

In Cleve­land, Trump of­fered the sec­ond op­tion with more forth­right clar­ity than any politi­cian in my life­time. The speech con­tained al­most no se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion of pub­lic pol­icy or ide­o­log­i­cal ar­gu­men­ta­tion. In­stead, Trump said: “I am your voice.” “I am not able to look the other way.” “I know the time for ac­tion has come.” “I will be your cham­pion.” “I will fight for you, and I will win for you.”

As some­one in­volved in GOP pol­i­tics dur­ing a pre­vi­ous pro­fes­sional life, the mo­ment was sur­real, then emo­tional. A party with a dis­tin­guished his­tory, gen­er­ally led by men and women of pub­lic spirit and de­cency, has em­braced a dem­a­gogue who may be a gen­uine


threat to Amer­i­can democ­racy. Trump is cul­ti­vat­ing a state of panic to in­crease pub­lic tol­er­ance for po­lit­i­cal risk — in this case, the risk of a can­di­date who is untested, un­pre­pared, un­sta­ble and un­fit. And the req­ui­site sense of emer­gency is be­ing cre­ated by pop­u­lat­ing Amer­i­can night­mares with mi­grants, refugees and Mus­lims. Stand­ing on the con­ven­tion floor, I could see what the face of Amer­i­can au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism might look like.

If Trump is elected pres­i­dent, he can justly claim a man­date to pur­sue the en­e­mies of the peo­ple, for­eign and do­mes­tic. If he tests the lim­its of ex­ec­u­tive power to pun­ish ri­vals and in­tim­i­date op­po­nents, he has hid­den none of his in­ten­tions.

The Cae­sar­ian op­tion — rolling the dice with a pop­ulist au­thor­i­tar­ian, us­ing democratic ma­jori­ties to un­der­mine democratic struc­tures — is com­mon in his­tory. Any Latin Amer­i­can or African can tell you what strong­men or “big men” are like.

But Trump’s ver­sion of “Amer­i­can­ism” is not, in fact, very Amer­i­can. Our con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem was de­signed to make per­sonal rule both im­pos­si­ble and un­nec­es­sary. The idea that po­lit­i­cal sal­va­tion might be found sim­ply by re­plac­ing one leader at the top of govern­ment would have been re­garded as per­verse by the Founders. Amer­ica has ben­e­fited from skilled lead­ers — a Lin­coln or an FDR — at mo­ments of gen­uine na­tional cri­sis. But this is not such a time. And this is not such a leader.

Does in­sti­tu­tion­al­ism still have de­fend­ers in Amer­i­can pub­lic life? Cer­tainly there are mem­bers of the Se­nate and House who would re­sist and bal­ance the am­bi­tions of a Pres­i­dent Trump. But his­tory has of­ten shown that un­scrupu­lous ex­ec­u­tive power can run cir­cles around a di­vided leg­is­la­ture.

It is also hard for me to regard Hil­lary Clin­ton — what­ever her other virtues — as the sav­ior of in­sti­tu­tional in­tegrity. While she would be prefer­able, on this score, to Trump, she has her own his­tory of dis­re­gard for the rules and pro­ce­dures that gov­ern other mor­tals.

How­ever quixotic the at­tempt may cur­rently seem, Amer­ica needs a com­mit­ted in­sti­tu­tion­al­ist in the pres­i­den­tial race. Those dis­tin­guished Amer­i­cans who have taken a pass on run­ning as a third­party can­di­date should watch Trump’s Cleve­land speech once again, and weigh the very real risk to the re­pub­lic. Bob Gates, are you tak­ing phone calls?

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­

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