Is Donald Trump Invincible?
Ross Douthat’s columns are never pointless — far from it. That’s the first thing Douthat gets wrong in his most recent Sunday offering for The New York Times. The second is he misunderstands the source of Donald J. Trump’s appeal. Let me explain.
In his Sunday column, Douthat adds his name to the long list of pundits offering a prescription for stopping Trump. Characteristically insightful, Douthat’s piece suggests Trump is impervious to traditional attacks and will therefore only be vulnerable to a narrow set of special, particularized criticisms allegedly effective in eroding the trust supporters have placed in him.
I am skeptical of Douthat’s proposals.
We’re asked to recall Chris Christie’s fall from grace. Just two years back, the New Jersey governor enjoyed a moment as the odds-on favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination. Then Bridgegate happened.
Why was Bridgegate so devastating to Christie? Because it “flipped his brand.”
“Instead of the jerk who looks out for the average guy, [Christie] became the jerk whose allies had stuck it to commuters. Instead of the tough guy fighting for you, he became the tough guy whose goons would mire their constituents in traffic for a pointless little feud.”
We’re offered an argument by analogy. Trump, like Christie, is a loud, bombastic, jerk. Yet Douthat notes that characterizing Trump as such is not going to repel supporters. What a rival needs to do instead is successfully flip his brand the way Bridgegate effectively flipped Christie’s. “To attack [Trump] effectively,” Douthat writes, “you have to go after the things that people like about him.” That’s how Trump will be stopped.
So, what is Trump’s Bridgegate? Douthat offers a series of counter narratives intended to expose Trump’s roaring swagger as ultimately amounting to just a bunch of empty bluster. Oh, you’re supporting him because he was such a successful businessman? Try again: he’s the beneficiary of a large inheritance, of bailouts, and of generous bankruptcy provisions — though not generous enough for workers, who were laid off in the process.
Though I don’t doubt that opponents repeatedly pounding the airwaves with a message like this would be effective, I remain deeply skeptical of just how effective it could be against the Teflon Don(ald).
Consider another counter narrative Douthat offers. He writes: “[D]on’t get mired in philosophical arguments about big government and crony capitalism. Find the people hurt by Trump’s attempts to exploit eminent domain: The widow whose boarding house he wanted to demolish to make room for a limo parking lot, the small businessmen whose livelihoods he wanted to redevelop out of existence.”
I share Douthat’s sentiment that Trump’s utilization of eminent domain for personal financial gain is reprehensible. But there are reasons to be suspicious of how successful a line of attack like this would be against the Donald. It certainly is no Bridgegate, as Rand Paul found out when he brought it up months ago as an intended game-changer only for the stark realization to set in that Trump’s supporters just didn’t care very much.
It’s true that Bridgegate destroyed Christie, and I agree with Douthat that Trump’s exploitation of eminent domain is similarly damning. But the reason Trump’s behavior hasn’t damaged him is simple: Christie was seen as abusing his powers as a politician, i.e. while holding political office; Trump’s outsider status immunizes him. The reaction to Christie was: “See? He’s just like every other politician — looking out for his own interests.” But Trump glides above the charges because his supporters have come to choose the flattering rather than the unflattering narrative about him.
In response to Trump’s usage of eminent domain, the unflattering narrative says that Trump, like so many despised Wall St. execs, is running over people just to fatten his own pockets. Yet the choice to repudiate this narrative has long been chosen by Trump’s supporters. Instead, they embrace the flattering narrative, which says that Trump builds great things and gets things done. It follows that if he had to avail himself of eminent domain in an epic struggle against an obstructionist elderly lady, he is justified in doing so. After all, he is trying to build something successful and some dumb person, some loser, is running interference against him.
This is the source of Trump’s appeal. His trampling march over the poor widow in order to build a beautiful limousine parking lot will continue all the way down to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where there will be more losers who will have to be crushed under the weight of whatever Trump sees as necessary to make America great again.
What inoculates Trump from getting the Christie treatment is a set of mutually reinforcing characteristics, perfect for this political season. First, he is an outsider; a non-politician. Above I argued that Christie foundered because, in being a politician, the revelation that his team used the power of the office to stick it to his opponents exposed him as just like every other political figure. But as an outsider, any past bullying on Trump’s part is part of what it takes to succeed in the business sector. He thus avoids being associated with political greed and abuse of power.
Yet in addition to being an outsider, Trump is a billionaire, which is crucial. As movements like Occupy Wall St. recently showed us, and as the political viability of a Bernie Sanders presidential run is reminding us, there is enough anti-rich sentiment in America to go around. Yet Trump is experiencing none of it. This is because instead of being mired by his largesse, instead of being saddled with his riches as some sort of a political liability, Trump’s supporters have interpreted his massive wealth as evidence of his disinterestedness (in the old political use of the word). He is not beholden to special interests, lobbyists, fellow billionaires, etc. — since he already has all he needs, he cannot be bought or illicitly convinced to do anything other than what he naturally sees as being good for the country.
And in addition to being an outsider and a billionaire, Trump is willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, however unpopular a course of action might appear to our country’s elites, and however unethical a statement might seem to career politicians, whose politically correct tendencies are emblematic of our great nation’s decline into fear and mediocrity. So Trump inherited his money — What of it? He has turned it into a greater fortune than the one he started with. So Trump ran roughshod over the principle of private property when he bulldozed an old widow’s home to construct a parking lot — ask yourself, Do we admire the meek or the strong? Imagine the possibilities of a president Trump bulldozing all the obstacles that stand in the way of America recapturing its lost greatness. That is Trump’s appeal, and the difficult reality to accept is that it might just be the sort of charisma that only fades when it is tried and found wanting. If nothing for the moment can deter his supporters from thinking he’s exactly what America needs, then it will have to be a lesson they learn after the fact. God help us.