Imagine that President Obama summoned the New York Times to the Oval Office and demeaned the United States, declared his support for an authoritarian leader, threatened to expose U.S. allies to Russian control, and offered a one-word solution to a globe afire: “Meetings.”
Donald Trump’s head would explode. Obama hates America! He’s leading from behind! Sad!
And yet these are the positions the Republican presidential candidate presented in an extraordinary interview on the eve of accepting his party’s presidential nomination.
Setting aside his hypocrisy and reckless rhetoric, the interview offers a chance to understand Trump. These comments are consistent with his populism—they appeal to his base and, more importantly, could find appeal beyond his nominating coalition.
This is not a defense of Trump; I think he’s making an uninformed, dishonest sales pitch that would bring buyer’s remorse to a Trump presidency. But the reaction to his interview is a reminder of how the insurgency of angry Americans, spanning the spectrum from Bernie Sanders’s repackaged socialism to Trump’s new nativism, is misunderstood by the media and political elite.
Defeating a demagogue requires delegitimizing his views in the eyes of his supporters and giving them a better alternative. The first step is understanding his appeal. I’ve been talking to voters, consultants, and politicians throughout this campaign, and here, based on those conversations, is my speculation about how Trump’s comments may play very differently among varied segments of the American population.
What Trump Said: According to the Times, Trump had nothing but praise for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s increasingly authoritarian but democratically elected leader. “I give great credit to him for being able to turn that around,” Mr. Trump said of the coup attempt on Friday night. “Some people say that it was staged, you know that,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
What Elites Think: Trump loves dictators because he wants to be one.
What Populists Think: Trump likes winners. Maybe he would be a winner. In scary times, we’d rather have a president who is strong and wrong than weak and right.
What Trump Said: As president, he would not pressure Turkey or other authoritarian allies to stop purges of political adversaries or crack downs on civil liberties. “I don’t think we have a right to lecture,” Trump said. “Look at what is happening in our country. How are we going to lecture when people are shooting policemen in cold blood?”
What Elites Think: After years of accusing Obama of “leading from behind,” the GOP has nominated a man who opposes global leadership. Republicans also want Americans to believe the Obamas hate America and, well, Trump doesn’t exactly sound like a proud patriot.
What Populists Think: What happens in Turkey is none of our damn business, especially when the United States is such a hot mess. Don’t blame Trump. He’s not perfect and is a big risk, but he can’t be any worse than Clinton, Bush, and Obama.
What Trump Said: He explicitly raised new questions about his commitment to automatically defend NATO allies if they are attacked, saying he would first look at their contributions to the alliance, the Times reported.
What Elites Think: What a disaster! Does Trump not know that 20th-century alliances have prevented a third World War? Russia would take advantage of a weakened NATO to expand its control. President Trump would make the nation weaker, less relevant, and more exposed to threats abroad.
What Populists Think: If these countries want our help, they’ve got to pay their bills. We’re not asking for the world—only what they promised to pay under a treaty that obliges the United States to defend them. Fair is fair. What makes us weak is defending and extending one-way alliances. As for the post-World War II order that Trump threatens to upend, this is now a post-9/11 world; it can’t hurt to pressure-test the old institutions.
What Trump Said: He could persuade Turkey to put more effort into fighting the Islamic State. But, as the Times noted, the Obama administration has run up, daily, against the reality that the Kurds—among the most effective forces the United States is supporting against the Islamic State—are being attacked by Turkey, which fears they will create a breakaway nation. Asked how he would solve that problem, Mr. Trump paused, then said: “Meetings.”
What Elites Think: WTF!
What Populists Think: YOLO!