Circling the Drain with Trump

Americans need to come up with a better way to disrupt the status quo—before it’s too late.

Chuck Burton / AP

Hard to imagine anything more jolting to the body politic than a candidate who declares war on a religion (“Islam hates the U.S.”), who incites violence (“I’d like to punch him in the face”), who gets his foreign-policy advice from TV (“I really watch the shows”), who calls Mexican immigrants rapists, who mocks a disabled reporter, who winks at KKK supporters, and who is quantifiably the biggest liar in politics (which is like being the nastiest person in Hell).

But this may be how it starts, not how it ends.

America could trump Trump.

From the start of his campaign, I’ve maintained that Trump’s disruptive potential says less about him than it does these times. In June, I called him “a combed-over reflection of angry America”—people cut adrift by globalization, buffeted by intense social change, and disconnected from a corrupt political duopoly.

Still, Trump has surprised even me with his ability to inflame and exploit people’s anger. What did I miss? First, I overestimated the political establishment. Nobody in a crowded field of rivals built a strong and sustained case against Trump; one after another, the bully made them flinch. In Washington, clueless Republican leaders dismissed Trump’s chances for months and, even now, lack the moral courage to defy him. Meanwhile, professional Democrats cheered Trump’s ascent as a sign of their own superiority, smugly ignoring the fact that his voters could be their voters if the Democratic Party hadn’t disconnected from their concerns.

Second, I overestimated the media. My profession is no longer a trusted arbiter of the truth, which means the country lacks a common set of facts around which to argue. A broken business model makes media companies desperate for clicks and ratings, which makes news leaders vulnerable to Trump’s deal-with-the-devil bravado. You can’t talk to a journalist today without hearing about the shrinking of their newsrooms—in both size and mission.

Third, I didn’t realize just how urgently people want to see the evisceration of the political status quo. They witnessed massive disruption in the retail, entertainment, and financial industries—in virtually every institution except for politics and government—and they can’t understand why Washington doesn’t change.

They want change in the worst way. Trump is the worst, but he’s a way to change.

In a series of tweets Sunday, the Dartmouth political science professor Brendan Nyhan explained why Trumpism has taken hold.

I don’t think Trumpism goes away. If anything, under any scenario, it’s likely to get worse.

Maybe Trump wins the GOP nomination and the presidency. If a bigoted, sexist, divisive, vainglorious fan of political violence can win a major-party nomination, he can become president. “A major party nomination is a powerful thing,” Nyhan tweeted. “Millions of people will instinctively support Trump. Many/most GOP pols will back him.”

Or perhaps Trump wins the GOP nomination and not the presidency. Trump would emerge either as the sole owner of the party, emboldened for a second run, or tarnished. Either way, the anger that fueled his rise will not go away. It would likely intensify, especially if Democrats piously interpret a victory over Trump as affirmation of their party and the status quo.

But perhaps Trump loses the GOP nomination. He would claim that it was stolen from him. His supporters would add this to their list of grievances against the establishment. Anger roils.

I don’t see another scenario. I can’t imagine, for example, President Hillary Clinton breaking the cycle of American political fratricide—not by coming to office with two-thirds of the public questioning her honesty, with disapproval ratings just south of Trump’s, and with so many scores of her own to settle.

No, I fear the worst. I fear more violence, much more—like the United States and other nations have experienced in past times of great change and division.

I fear a further coarsening of the culture, now that Trump has given people license to say things in public they were once ashamed of even thinking.

I fear more polarization in politics and even less progress toward addressing the nation’s long-term problems such as the debt, climate change, immigration, crumbling infrastructure, racial tensions, and income inequality.

I fear more public cynicism toward the fragile institutions that stand between democracy and anarchy.

I fear the brightest young Americans will abandon government and politics.

I fear—no, I expect—several more cycles of circling the drain. What I don’t know is what comes next: A final plunge into the abyss, or re-circling and renewal. The latter only comes if the American public stops settling for demagogues like Trump and half-measures like Clinton.

Institutional disruption doesn’t happen until more people vote and all voters demand major reforms.  More competitive House districts, transparency in campaign spending, and the elimination of election laws that allow two stale parties to operate without fear of competition—these and scores of other status-quo-busters are attainable if Americans wake up and realized they’ve got the power to change. They alone can break the cycle of negative partisanship.

Trump has galvanized a small percentage of people with the promise of change, but he actually would take America back to its darker ages. Could there be something better—positive disruption that builds, over time, a new set of institutions for campaigning and governing in the 21st century?

Only if the rest of the country wakes up.