Listening to Donald Trump’s speech at the Republican convention, and scanning the reaction to it, I have the sinking feeling that he might win in November. He’s extremely effective at what he does. His critics, on the other hand, are not.
The speech was purest populism: nine-tenths grievances and empty promises, one-tenth stupid policy ideas. Yet the formula is working—partly because the grievances are skillfully marshalled, and partly because his opponents in politics and the media (meaning almost everybody in those incestuously connected industries) are deeply confused in their response.
Trump’s populism is potent because it unites the grievances of left and right. This was explicit in the speech when he called on Bernie Sanders’ supporters to back his campaign. With luck, they won’t, but the idea isn’t absurd. The left is fixated on the evils of trade and global capitalism, and Trump (unlike Hillary Clinton) taps those grievances as powerfully as Sanders. At the same time, Trump is as anti-Washington as you could wish, which thrills voters on the right.
Importantly, Trump’s merging of grievances is more coherent than standard-issue liberalism or conservatism. The liberal position is that Washington has been corrupted by crony capitalism, that the system is grinding the faces of ordinary working Americans, and that the answer is more Washington. The conservative position is that Washington has been corrupted by crony capitalism, that the system is grinding the faces of ordinary working Americans, and that the answer is to squeeze Social Security and cut taxes for the rich.
Trump’s critics complain about his relentless invoking of crisis—despite agreeing with him that the system is collapsing. Conservatives keep telling us that the American project is in mortal danger, that liberty itself is at stake. Liberals keep telling us that global capitalism is wrecking everything that’s decent in society, that the US is institutionally racist, and America’s traditional values are so much hypocrisy. I think back to the rapturous reception accorded by the left in 2014 to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital,” which argued that capitalism is an engine of injustice, headed for self-destruction; progressives everywhere nodded wisely in agreement. Here’s what puzzles many of them today: Why does Trump have to be so negative?
If the system is indeed broken, there’s something to be said for simply smashing it to pieces. Trump would appear to be the man for smashing things to pieces.
The only sure antidote to Trump is straightforward, competent centrism. This doesn’t seem like much to ask, and it’s presumably how Clinton will fight the campaign after next week’s convention. Even so, consider the weaknesses that Trump can exploit: Her wavering on trade policy, the reckless incompetence (to put it most kindly) of the e-mail scandal, her financial entanglements with Wall Street, her lifelong dedication to the profession of politics, her sense of entitlement to power. In so many ways, she stands for the very things that populists of left and right most detest about the US system of government.
I shuddered when Trump said, “I am your voice.” Can Clinton say that with any credibility? Trump is a truly frightening prospect, but he’s demonstrated a capacity to channel people who feel ignored, let down and disrespected. This trait doesn’t come easily to his critics. Even now, on the left and on the right, Trump’s critics would rather celebrate the evils of Trumpism among themselves—ever more certain that Trump supporters can’t be worth talking to.
That would be fine if Trump was standing at 20 percent in the polls. A poll conducted during the first few days of the convention showed him tied with Clinton in Ohio, a crucial swing state. If he moves up because of this speech, I’ll be dismayed—but no longer surprised.