Talking about Donald Trump can be an exhausting and pointless exercise: no sooner does he say or do one outrageous thing than he follows it up with another (the latest being an appalling and viciously misogynist menstruation-based jab at Megyn Kelly, giving Erick Erickson the excuse he wanted to disinvite Trump from the RedState gathering.)
But Trump isn’t really that interesting for his own sake. Trump’s candidacy is of interest because of what it says about the Republican base and about American conservatism itself. I’ve been hammering lately on the theme that conservatives are in such a cultural defensive crouch that they’re not seeking a policy leader so much as insurgent cultural one.
But the focus on Trump has also helped hide a fundamental lack of seriousness in the entire Republican firmament, a point effectively noted by Paul Krugman:
For while it’s true that Mr. Trump is, fundamentally, an absurd figure, so are his rivals. If you pay attention to what any one of them is actually saying, as opposed to how he says it, you discover incoherence and extremism every bit as bad as anything Mr. Trump has to offer. And that’s not an accident: Talking nonsense is what you have to do to get anywhere in today’s Republican Party.
For example, Mr. Trump’s economic views, a sort of mishmash of standard conservative talking points and protectionism, are definitely confused. But is that any worse than Jeb Bush’s deep voodoo, his claim that he could double the underlying growth rate of the American economy? And Mr. Bush’s credibility isn’t helped by his evidence for that claim: the relatively rapid growth Florida experienced during the immense housing bubble that coincided with his time as governor….
The point is that while media puff pieces have portrayed Mr. Trump’s rivals as serious men — Jeb the moderate, Rand the original thinker, Marco the face of a new generation — their supposed seriousness is all surface. Judge them by positions as opposed to image, and what you have is a lineup of cranks. And as I said, this is no accident.
Pundits keep pretending that Donald Trump is a media creation–a charlatan and entertainer who is crashing the otherwise serious political party to generate headlines. But he wouldn’t make those headlines without having an enormously popular appeal to the Republican base, which pundits attribute to general frustration with the political system on both sides of the aisle.
But that’s just not true. If it were true, then the Democratic Party would be just as susceptible to a liberal version of Trump. But it’s not. It’s hard to even imagine what that would look like.
The reality is that mainstream Democratic positions also happen to be broadly popular positions already without the need for demagogic bluster. Left-of-center positions tend to be based on science and a more complex, nuanced understanding of social problems. Even more importantly, liberals in the United States promote solutions that have already been shown to work elsewhere in the world. In terms of party divisions Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders simply present a more rhetorically forceful version of those positions, and where their opinions differ from centrist Democrats (especially on, say, Wall Street), their takes tend to be backed up by history and economics, and to have the support of the majority of Americans.
Once again, it’s important to note that both sides don’t, in fact, do it when it comes to political extremism. American conservatism has gone far, far off the rails. Donald Trump’s successful candidacy is only the latest–but far from the only–proof of that.
Liberals don’t have a Donald Trump because we don’t need one. Even liberal populism is a doggedly rational, evidence-based, internally consistent and broadly popular affair. Populist conservatism is anything but.