An early look at 2016 dynamics Trump working the fear and anger of followers
Donald Trump became a household name as the celebrity host on the reality show “The Apprentice.”
But in politics he’s been making his mark by taking his cues from another program, the Discovery Channel series “MythBusters.”
The chief myth he has busted is the notion of “small government conservatism.”
Almost every president since Franklin Roosevelt has overseen an expansion of federal power. Even Republicans — including Dwight D. Eisenhower (interstate highways), Richard Nixon (EPA, Medicare), Ronald Reagan (Social Security, space defense) and George H.WBush and his son (tax increases, banking bailouts, Medicaid expansion, and military and intelligence spending)— have supported significant expansions of federal taxation and reach.
Some of the Republican oligarchy— super-rich campaign financiers like Charles and David Koch— seek an end and even a reversal to the growth of federal power. But their desires are out of sync with the anger of the Republican base.
Donald Trump has claimed the lead in the race by figuring out that it’s not the size of government but what it does — or does not— do for most voters that is the issue. What people want is a government that benefits them. He’s convinced a big chunk of working class Republicans (and some Democrats and independents as well) that he can deliver that in a way that nobody else can.
Trump’s simple self-confidence— some would call it a confidence game— and success have shaken the GOP establishment. And Sen. Ted Cruz has been cleverly riding Trump’s coattails, hoping that Trump will stumble. Trump has punched back, disputing Cruz’s qualifications to be president.
To deconstruct some of the drama around the Trump phenomenon, it’s worth looking at the prophetic words of author George Orwell. James M. Lang of The Boston Globe recently observed: “Long before he envisioned the charismatic figure of Big Brother, Orwell argued that most people are not casting their votes for executives based on their political positions. The most successful leaders, he (Orwell) suggested, know how to manipulate the emotions of their followers: ‘The energy that actually shapes the world,’ Orwell wrote, ‘springs from emotions— racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war.’ ”
Trump has recognized what Orwell
described. As Lang wrote, “Our most powerfully felt emotions are negative ones, and they demand action and resolution.”
Trump works the fear and anger of his followers like a virtuoso conductor or “mythbuster-in-chief,” stirring up these emotions and then resolving them into support of his promise to vanquish foes near and far.
Indeed, these resonate with far more effectiveness than Jeb Bush’s complaints about Trump’s seat-of-the pants rants about the need for tariffs on Chinese imports or wonkish plans to reduce small-business regulation from John Kasich.
As the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary approach, and voting begins in the presidential primaries, insurgent candidates Trump and Cruz on the right and Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left seem poised to win some victories. On both sides, the insurgency is fueled by anger over declining real wages for most Americans, over the government’s failure to hold people accountable for the financial crisis, and over the takeover of our politics by a super-rich oligarchy.
On the Republican side, the two leading candidates are taking a decidedly Orwellian path. Both Trump and Cruz are masters of stoking anger and anxiety in their base. They both rely — though in some subtly different ways— on vilifying the “other” (immigrants, Muslims), on self-aggrandizing statements, on appeals to religion, and on bellicose language (such as Cruz’s threat to “carpet bomb” civilian areas held by the Islamic State) to fire up their base.
And, like Big Brother in “1984,” the true genius of Trump lies with his specific strategy for whipping up the emotions of his supporters, one depicted by Orwell as Big Brother’s most effective tactic: uniting his followers in hatred of a common enemy.
Interestingly, and with incredible hypocrisy, Trump has recently attempted to raise the birther issue with regard to Cruz, who was born in Canada to an American mother and a foreign father.
The irony here, of course, is that President Obama— about whose birth and legal qualification to be president was made into a big deal by Trump and the far right— is more clearly qualified than Cruz because he was born in the United States. But Trump’s use of the birther issue was never really about where either President Obama or Sen. Cruz were born; it was and is about making them “the other.”
Much of the Republican establishment recoils in horror at the thought of a Trump candidacy, and perhaps of a Cruz candidacy as well. In addition to the long-term damage they might cause (think Barry Goldwater in 1964), Trump and Cruz represent a form of big government conservatism.
It would take an enormous expansion of federal power to deport all the undocumented immigrants, as Trump proposes. And the military and intelligence escalation that both Cruz and Trump envision— if you take them at their word— would be very substantial. That prospect has the conservative establishment from conservative billionaire Charles Koch to columnist George F. Will warning about the dire consequences of an insurgent victory.
On the Democrats’ side, the insurgent Sanders is an unabashed believer in ever-bigger government. His proposals for universal health care and free college tuition, while politically appealing to the Democratic base, would be enormously expensive. And Hillary Clinton has proposed expanding the role of the federal government in significant ways as well.
If any combination of these four leading candidates get their respective nominations, we can expect further expansion of federal power and little debate about the proper role and size of government. Instead, this presidential campaign is likely to focus on “what your country can do for you” or “against the other” as targets for vilification.
That outcome would turn the legacy of John F. Kennedy upside down.
Donald Trump, in his role as host of television’s “The Celebrity Apprentice,” mugs for photographers at a press tour in Pasadena, Calif., in January 2015. Trump has claimed the lead in the presidential race by figuring out that it’s not the size of government but what it does for most voters that is the issue. Chris Pizzello, Invision via Associated Press