Donald J. Trump has skyrocketed to dominance of the presidential campaign conversation and a big lead in the Republican polls. This past Sunday, he began phase two of his campaign with the release of his first policy paper. You want specifics along with the insults and braggadocio? You got ’em.
“Immigration Reform That Will Make America Great Again” opens by positioning Trump with the people against “the corporate patrons who control both political parties.” It’s a standard populist move. But tucked into the proposals that follow rests this keystone contention: “Decades of disastrous trade deals and immigration policies have destroyed our middle class.”
That sentence contains the essence of Trump’s promise and appeal: I will seal off the Southern border, deport all the undocumenteds, end birthright citizenship (forget it, DREAMers!), redo trade deals with Mexico, and thereby (my emphasis) bring back lost jobs and restore rising incomes. “They must go” not just because they have broken the law and run riot through our society —but also because booting them out of the country will cure the economic ills Bruce Springsteen has sung mournfully about for more than 35 years.
How can the other Republican candidates compete with this argument? And, to be even-handed, how can Trump consolidate his support so it will register when the voting starts next year?
No one will outspend Trump enough to drown him out. Personal attacks won’t work; candidates who have responded in kind to his provocative remarks in the last few weeks have fallen in voter approval. Rational arguments about the cost, practicality, and exact meaning of his proposals will also fail. Donald’s the doer, and no rival can say he or she has built big things and closed good deals as much as he has. Appeals to political arithmetic —Republicans need Latino votes in the general election— will sound unprincipled and presumptuous.
It’s possible another issue might break into the news and supersede immigration, and someone might beat Trump to the framing and claiming punch. The Republican party could work the nomination rules against him, but he retains a credible threat to bolt and run as a third-party candidate, dooming the nominee. Trump does lack a field organization right now, and those can’t be staffed up and snowballed very easily. However, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) loves Trump’s immigration proposal and can aid him in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. Trump should thus ally with King, Tom Tancredo in Colorado, and others favoring deportation who can bring him seasoned volunteers.
I think the best move to make against Trump this fall would be to suggest by indirection that his immigration proposal does not reflect Christian values. John Kasich foreshadowed this approach in the Aug. 6 debate when he talked about gays: “You know what,” he said. “God gives me unconditional love. I'm going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.” That speaks directly, respectfully and caringly to many of those inclined to vote for Trump, suggesting that they think twice about what he stands for.
The real causes of Trump fan grievances range far beyond illegal immigration. No one knows how to fix the economy to create long-term jobs that pay for themselves in growth. No one can project American power abroad or at home as effectively as in the immediate post-WW II era. No one can settle longstanding racial, class, and gender inequities through “dialogue.” No one can fix the government so it acts smarter and quicker and bolder.
But presidential candidates must pretend they are “the one” who can. So-called “voter anger,” an umbrella term covering the entire ideological map, bubbles up within citizens who, for a variety of reasons, have a frustrating time choosing among the “un-authentic” pretenders. To some of them, Trump’s “unfiltered” reality-show rap sounds authentic by comparison, and his scapegoating of undocumented immigrants seems bracingly appropriate.
Trump’s current numbers are inflated by rubberneckers gaping at the outrageous things he says and does. His views on immigration are out of step with many Republicans, not just Americans. But to judge from the unprompted and unshaped things people say about him on social media, his support has arisen from people fed up with politics altogether. Their deep disappointment and unease explains how, in just two months time, Trump has parlayed an attention-getting shtick and a signature issue position into the lead for the GOP nomination, ahead of the career politicians and his fellow outsiders Benjamin Carson and Carly Fiorina (who have also gained on the governors and senators).
Commentators quick to pronounce Trump as having peaked, or as an eventual loser, should take a closer look at why he has gotten as far as he has. The Trump phenomenon reflects something much bigger than his self-regard: a shared wish for insulation from the impacts of forces beyond local comprehension and control. An understandable but untenable fantasy, that.
The Donald is not the real problem. His approach to problem-solving is.