On the eve of the Super Tuesday presidential primaries, which could make Republican front-runner Donald Trump that party’s presumptive nominee, Trump-fever is peaking throughout the country. At least until Wednesday morning. Whether he takes the crown, or the fall election, or not, no one should underestimate this development’s revolutionary impact and importance, given Trump’s apolitical background, out-there personality, and rule-smashing campaign. In fact, this Washington Post article from yesterday helpfully reminds us how long the (incestuous) national political and media establishments refused to take the Trump phenomenon seriously.
At the same time, it’s also crucial to keep in mind how little effect the Trump surge has had in two crucial respects.
First – and arguably foremost due to the rising odds of his ultimate success – Trump’s recent and impending triumphs haven’t seemed to have changed Trump much at all. Not that there’s been no progress at all since he declared his candidacy back in June. Most encouragingly, he’s steadily, if unevenly, been blaming foreign culprits like Mexico and China less for America’s problems, and fingering domestic special interests more.
Trump has also made more explicit the promise that previously was only implicit in his campaign of realigning U.S. politics ideologically. Early in his presidential run, he generally ignored or soft-pedaled both the social issues (like abortion) that have long strongly animated the Republican party’s social conservatives, and the tax, spending, and regulation issues that have excited GOP free market enthusiasts. Now, he’s openly praising pro-life movement villain Planned Parenthood, and making clear his belief that all Americans deserve decent health care, whether its government provided or not.
Yet Trump’s style generally remains as stupidly – largely because it is so unnecessary – abrasive as ever. Some examples cited over the weekend have now been exposed as off-target, and pathetically ignorant, examples of gotcha journalism. Read this Bloomberg column for a devastating tear-down of the “Mussolini” controversy propagated by no less than The New York Times, the BBC, and TIME – for starters.
But other charges are more valid. I think Trump has a point in this remark on the Today Show that “I disavowed [former Ku Kux Klan leader] David Duke all weekend long, on Facebook, on Twitter, and obviously, it is never enough.” He could have added that he had disavowed Duke at his Friday press conference unveiling Republican New Jersey governor and former presidential rival Chris Christie as a new supporter – not exactly a low-profile event.
But Trump’s disavowal was perfunctory at best. And his claims of ignorance about Duke – in the face of previous evidence – hardly inspire confidence, especially since Trump has no problems denouncing opponents and others who attract his ire. In fact, these claims raise major questions about his judgment and temperament precisely because it would have been so easy for him to respond by agreeing that Duke is a long-time racist and anti-Semite and then mocking him as an almost equally long-time nothing-burger politically. Further, if reporters and others kept bringing Duke up, Trump simply could have kept repeating this point. So although I think it’s nonsensical (at best) to portray Trump as a white supremacist, it’s far from nonsensical to insist that these kinds of political tests be passed much more effectively – the more so since he’s been at this presidential candidate thing for months now.
Similarly, it’s high time for Trump to give the nation some idea of his policy team. He’s promised for months to release a list of advisers on national security and foreign policy, but still hasn’t come through. (Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has been slow in this regard, too. But at least he’s a long-time Member of the House and Senate.) Maybe Trump is worried about revealing how few well-known specialists are willing to help him out? Possibly. There’s no shortage, however, of less well-known specialists – who have the decided advantage of distance from the bipartisan policy failures of recent decades. Trump might be on the verge of taking the first of the two big steps he needs to take to become president. He needs to get on the stick. And this goes for domestic advisers as well.
The second feature of the political landscape that hasn’t changed significantly since Trump threw his hat in the ring – that intertwined political and media establishment is still overwhelmingly responding to Trump not by seriously addressing the legitimate economic grievances of his growing legions of supporters, but by doubling down on demon-ization. I’ve written extensively on the press’ dreadful performance – because it’s supposed to be reasonably objective, not flagrantly partisan and/or self-interested like politicians in an election fight.
But even a cynic with the lowest expectations of politicians should be dumbfounded by the failure of Trump’s major Republican rivals to budge much from their long-time records on his core immigration and trade issues – at least not credibly. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz are both running as immigration hard-liners. But the former was an original sponsor of the “Gang of Eight” amnesty bill, and though the latter voted against it, he also attempted to attach a legalization amendment to it (which he has since called a “poison pill” gambit designed to kill the legislation.) During this campaign, Cruz has become a critic of the H-1B visa program that technology companies in particular have used as a means of lowering wages in their industry. But previously, he backed not only increasing their numbers but quintupling them. Rubio’s pre-2016 H1B position has been comparably bad .
As for Ohio Governor John Kasich, his main immigration strategy has been (Jeb Bush-like) depicting Trump as a “divider” and belittling the complaints of American workers who have lost either jobs or wages to legal and illegal immigrants.
When it comes to trade, both Cruz and Rubio voted in the Senate for the fast-track authority successfully sought by President Obama last year to grease the Congressional skids for a Pacific Rim trade deal (TPP) based on the current, offshoring-friendly model. (Cruz then switched his vote once it became clear that the legislation was a done deal.) In 2013, the Texas Republican opposed a measure that would have expanded use of the federal government’s Buy American regulations and increased Washington’s mandated purchases of U.S.-made products.
Rubio’s votes have been more numerous and worse, including approval of the disastrous, deficit-boosting U.S.-Korea free trade agreement, and opposition to sanctioning China for predatory currency policies along with that Buy American expansion. Reports that the Florida Republican is now backing away from his TPP enthusiasm merit the skepticism warranted by death-bed conversions in general.
Although Kasich has vaguely complained about predatory trade practices by America’s competitors, he’s on board with TPP, too. The Ohio Republican hasn’t served in Congress since 2000, but his overall mixed trade vote record got steadily more supportive of offshoring-friendly trade policies – including a vote in favor of the crucial decision to admit China into the World Trade Organization in his final year.
(Yes, I’m omitting Dr. Ben Carson’s views because his campaign has been driven so deep into long-shot territory.)
So seven months after Trump debuted so rancorously on the American presidential stage, the nation’s politics keep getting ever angrier, and the heat clearly is being generated on both sides of the elite-electorate divide.