Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Wages of Underestimation

Some of the voices that are now declaring Donald Trump to be an imminent threat to the Republic were, a few short weeks ago, pronouncing that he would be a flash in the pan--someone who would pull about Buchanan's margins in the 1996 primary.  I think it's arguable that Buchanan's rise pointed to serious tensions in the GOP coalition, but, even leaving that contention aside, it seems clear that many on the right severely underestimated Trump.  Other than Jeb Bush and, eventually, Ted Cruz, many leading Republican presidential contenders avoided hitting Trump hard throughout much of 2015 and early 2016.  As this New York Times story notes, many institutional figures opposed or were indifferent to anti-Trump efforts for a long time.  (Some on the right have been far more prescient in understanding the rise and appeal of Trump, so this underestimation of his candidacy was far from unanimous.)

However, even if some are just now waking up to the seriousness of Trump's presidential bid, many continue to risk underestimating the forces that gave an opening to Trump and fueled his rise.  As Tucker Carlson, Reihan Salam, David Frum, Peggy Noonan, and others have noted, Trump's ascent did not happen in a vacuum.

Last summer in NRO, I argued that the failures of the governing elite have paved the way for a populist insurgency:
However, contrary to the pretensions of the anti-populists, it has been technocrats — not populists — who have had egg on their faces over the past decade. Pedigreed members of the meritocracy were the architects of the real-estate bubble and the 2008 financial crisis. Technocrats flocked to Barack Obama, sure that “No Drama Obama” with his perfectly creased pants would be the return to competence. As the rise of ISIS, the OPM hack, and the Affordable Care Act rollout demonstrate, this belief was sorely mistaken. And the establishment hasn’t exactly been the embodiment of judicious sobriety, either. Many in the cultural and economic elite drive the frenzy of the new intolerance. It’s not slack-jawed yokels who want to ban Civil War video games, suppress Latin literature, and hector transgressive comedians. The philistine demagogues of our day can, unfortunately, all too often be found in boardrooms, college classrooms, newsrooms, and seats of government. The current ruling establishment has not lived up to its own standards, which has made it harder for this establishment to ward off populist challenges.
Preaching identity politics, defending cronyism, and facilitating economic decline, the current iteration of corporatist transnationalism wages a total war on the institutions of civil society.  Growing civil alienation and economic anxiety increase public appetite for outside-the-box figures, and Trump seized the mantle of populist tribune early in the campaign.  (Whether or not he should be the vessel for these populist energies is a separate question, and other candidates can still try to harness these energies.)

Conservatives can offer solutions that respond to these anxieties, but those solutions will require policy reform.  Reforming guest-worker programs, ending Too Big to Fail, decentralizing educational policy, offering trade reform, attacking the poison of identity politics--all these things can help expand the GOP coalition and address some simmering anxieties.  Talking points won't be enough.  Sneering at the concerns of the alienated will actively detract from that enterprise of reform, as will a hazy nostalgia that uses tired assumptions to ward off rigorous thinking.  Doubling down on the Beltway's vision of anti-opportunity "comprehensive immigration reform" will almost surely increase popular anxiety.

Civic alienation and economic decay open the door to demagoguery.  If we want to defend the enterprise of the United States as a free republic, those who seek to govern must accept the responsibilities of principle, learn from experience, and realize their duties to their fellow citizens.

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