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On the eve of what could be an historically transformational debate for American politics, I’m still struck by (a) how mysterious to the nation’s chattering classes Donald Trump’s appeal to so many Main Street Americans remains; and (b) how vividly the elites’ befuddlement at – and clear disdain for – the maverick Republican presidential nominee keeps signalling their (witting or unwitting) cluelessness about life outside their increasingly chichi urban bubbles.

First, though, I’m serious about the importance of tonight’s debate between Trump and his Democratic counterpart, Hillary Clinton. His insurgency against an entire, bipartisan national political power structure may be no more sweeping than Ross Perot’s in 1992. But having captured one of the two major parties, he faces none of the so-far insuperable institutional obstacles encountered by third party candidates in presidential politics. As a result, Trump’s odds of victory in November seem solid, and it’s at least arguable that this event would produce the greatest shock to America’s political culture since the Jacksonian revolution of the 1820s.

Of course, American political history has been dotted with other strong candidates for the mantle of revolution (at least by the nation’s admittedly moderate standards). Ronald Reagan originally came from Hollywood, and promised to kill off the post-New Deal model of mixed capitalism that even a critical mass of Republicans had embraced since the Eisenhower era. But Reagan was strongly backed not only by big segments of middle- and working-class Americans who felt neglected, and on the tax front, even exploited, by Big Government politicians. He would never had made the White House had he not also championed a counter-business establishment that had risen outside the Northeast, and especially in a Sun Belt region that styled itself as the embodiment of traditional American rugged individualism.

Moreover, although Reagan also promised a much harder line in foreign policy, in crucial respects his worldview and proposals still fell within the bounds of the strategic ideology that had prevailed in America since Pearl Harbor – which has been dubbed internationalism. Though much more confrontational than his immediate predecessors, Reagan still bought the notion that America’s vital interests still spanned the globe, and the related assumption that active U.S. engagement of some form in even the remotest countries and regions was essential.

Barry Goldwater had run on a similar insurgent platform in 1964, but lost in a landslide – though his nomination victory over that Republican establishment of that era clearly paved the way for Reagan’s far more complete and lasting triumph.

Policy-wise, a strong case can be made that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was more of a break with the past than practically anything Trump has proposed. Nor was New Deal innovation restricted to the domestic economy, as its pursuit of trade liberalization reversed a protectionist approach that had reigned in America for most of its history since the founding. In political, social, and cultural terms, Roosevelt’s triumph in 1932 revealed that eastern ethnic cities and their worldviews had supplanted those of small midwestern towns and rural communities. In many cases, moreover, the New Dealers themselves were something fundamentally new – especially the academics. But in an ironically Reaganesque way, they were less outsiders than representatives of an emerging counter-establishment.

As personally flamboyant as he was, Theodore Roosevelt was an establishmentarian at heart as well. In fact, one of his most important – and underappreciated – contributions to American politics was encouraging his upper class patrician peers to stop looking down their noses at public life, take an active role in politics, and make sure that noblesse oblige steered the nation’s course as opposed to the petty concerns of Democratic machine politicians and the ferocious greed of the nouveaux riches Captains of Industry.

So I really do think that you need to go back to Old Hickory to find an American politician who explicitly stood for the rabble and actually won the White House. Will Trump actually follow through with a populist agenda ? I know how many skeptics continue insisting that Trump’s only interest is further lining his own pockets and those of the Wall Street-ers he’s chosen as economic advisers. Since I’m not clairvoyant, I don’t feel confident in voicing an opinion either way. But interestingly, much of the rest of Wall Street doesn’t seem to agree. Nor does Big Business. Further, would Trump excite such vehement opposition from the nation’s offshoring- and Open Borders-happy Mainstream Media and bipartisan policy establishments if he was simply a crook? Their reactions to Trump’s views on national security don’t seem exactly blasé, either.

Which brings us to the combination of bafflement and outrage voiced ceaselessly by these elites regarding Trump’s appeal – which has brought him to within striking distance of the White House. I don’t claim to have all the answers on this score, but here’s one consideration that establishment Never-Trump-ers not only haven’t thought of but seem incapable of appreciating: Their charges of Trump bullying and even Trump business scamming are failing and even backfiring for the same reason that their charges of Trump’s working the system as relentlessly as any other special interest have met the same fate.

Simply put, when many of his supporters hear these indictments, they’re not thinking about whatever rudeness or prejudice or even indecency the relevant remarks allegedly reveal. Just as Trump’s lobbying apparently has prompted hopes that, “Finally! Someone’s going to work the system for me!” the moral turpitude charges suggest “Finally! Someone’s going to be my bully! Someone’s going to be a con man on my behalf!”

And though these aspirations sound odious themselves, it’s revealing – and in my view encouraging – that the two likeliest issue candidates for this Trump approach seem to be trade and immigration. After all, they concern international relations, where for all the talk issuing from the establishment about the importance of and need for norms and rules, power and skill in its use is the paramount currency, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, as has been true throughout his campaign, this source of Trump strength has been a persistent Trump weakness – or perhaps more accurately, a foregone opportunity. For as I have long maintained, with just a little more precision, these points could be made every bit as powerfully without slurs directed at largely blameless parties (e.g., illegal immigrants, moderate Muslims), or understandably perceived in this way, and without vulgar sexism (against, e.g., his Republican primary rival Carly Fiorina, or Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, or even Clinton for taking a lavatory break). Hard-core Trump-ers would have been just as enthusiastic, and many fewer independents turned off.

All the same, since Trump has essentially pulled even in the race, since not trivial amounts of voters remained undecided, and since big turnout questions dog Clinton in particular, his foregone opportunity has not been completely lost. Will he begin seizing it starting tonight?

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