Let's Assume Trump Is Shrewd and Disciplined, Principled and Patriotic

As a Ted Cruz supporter, I embraced the standard conservative depiction of Donald Trump as a megalomaniacal buffoon, lacking in principle, prone to shooting his mouth off, barely Republican and not at all conservative.

The problem with this view is that it lacks explanatory power.  How did such a person sweep aside 16 serious Republican candidates and put himself in good position for the general election, despite the unrelenting hostility of an MSM that is probably costing him 5 to 10 points in the polls?

Marking my views to the realities of the political market forces me to consider some alternative assumptions, and in the end come down on the pro-Trump side.

Suppose that Trump is in fact shrewd and disciplined, and that his braggadocio-laden persona is a calculated act adopted as a matter of business utilitarianism in a celebrity-obsessed culture.

Suppose also that he is both principled and patriotic and is determined to do what he can to pull the nation back from the tide of cronyism, leftist ideology, and special interest capture that is about to engulf it.

Suppose finally that Trump's attitude toward the political world has been that of the pragmatic businessman or financial operative.  The job is to make money for one's shareholders or clients, not reform the system.  Real estate developers, especially, know that they live "in the sewer of Romulus," not "the Republic of Plato" (in the words of Rome's Marcus Tullius Cicero), and would no more waste time in trying to reform corrupt political machines than they would in complaining about soil conditions or traffic.  The political environment is what it is; deal with it, or get out of the game.

His political history must be viewed in this context, and it should be seen not as cynical but as realistic.  He has lived in the world as it is and done what was necessary to survive and succeed.  If this has meant wading in the sewer of Romulus, or supporting Democrats (but I repeat myself), well, he did not create the sewer.

With the pragmatic view of politics goes an amused contempt for nerdy conservatives, who want to examine what the perfect conservative polity would look like and moan that we are not there and that most people do not understand it, but say little intelligible and nothing practical about getting from today's reality to the desired state.

The pragmatic view can also accept the current conservative meme that "politics is downstream from culture" and that the culture war has been lost, especially among the millennials, so conservatives must reclaim it.  A fine thought, and probably correct, but the logical conclusion is that any political success would be about 20 years away, and in the interim, the Leninist left will have made cultural reclamation impossible.  But it is a counsel of despair, and the question is what to do between now and November to preserve the option of long-term cultural rejuvenation.

So how would a politician with this set of priors see the campaign?

Two things must dominate the analysis: the electoral map and the message.

The Electoral Map

The electoral map does not favor the Republicans. To get to 270 electoral votes, a Republican must pry 64 electoral votes away from the Democrats' 2012 total of 332.  The realistic possibilities for a generic Republican come down to the few states in which Romney ran within 5 points of Obama (number of electoral votes in parentheses): FL (29), VA (13), CO (9), OH (18).  Holding all the states won by Romney and adding these four would add 69 votes, and the Republican would squeak through.

Holding the Romney states looks doable; of the states he won, only in NC (15) was Obama within 5 points.  But adding all of the necessary four looks unlikely.  So more states need to be put in play, and the best possibilities are the 77 electoral votes from the states that Obama won by 5-10 points: IA (6), MI (16), MN (10), NV (6), PA (20), NH (4), NM (5), WI (10).  Making these competitive would open up a number of routes to adding 64 votes, with the most obvious being the Rust Belt quadfecta of OH, PA, WI, and MI.

If the Democrats win in 2016, the map will get steadily worse, as the electorate is pumped up with immigrants, released felons, and fraud, and because younger voters favor the Dems, by 60-37% among the 18- to 29-year-olds.

So my idealized Trump might see 2016 as do-or-die for saving the American Republic.

The Message

After Cruz's speech at the Republican Convention on the great principles of the free market and liberty, some expected Trump to embrace him, saying, "Yes!  With these great principles, we will win!"  Didn't happen.  And the opportunity was so obvious that one wonders why not.

Assume that the snub was calculated and for good reasons.

The brutal reality is that embracing Cruz would have pleased people like me and the National Review crowd, and would perhaps have upped Trump's margin in the deep red states, but it would have not have helped in the crucial 12 that will decide the election, and in particular, it would not have helped with the young, or with women, or with blue-collar voters (of every race), and it is these groups that can shift the balance in the 12.

Among the oldest and wisest of political clichés is the idea that voters pay little attention to issue papers and specific policy prescriptions.  The rational voter knows that issues are complicated, so he seeks candidates who sympathize with the voter's basic problems and shares his concerns and values, trusting that such candidates will come up with superior approaches than would the voter himself.  Specific proposals are primarily clues whether the candidate meets this test.

However, there exists an important qualifier to the voters-focus-on-basic-concerns truism.

Some specific proposals become a shorthand signal for concern about particular people or groups, even if their actual effect would be damaging.  The minimum wage is a good example.  It encourages the substitution of capital for labor and hurts most those it purports to help.  No policy proposal is more effective at reducing conservative intellectuals to a state of sputtering rage.

Nonetheless, minimum wage proposals are popular, and opposing them brands a politician as a foe of labor, particularly of low-skilled labor.

Similarly, women in the workforce would benefit from fewer regulations because they need maximum flexibility to work out arrangements that are friendly to work-family balance.  Every rule that inhibits flexibility will, in the end, disadvantage women, often by creating disincentives to hire or promote them.  Nonetheless, opposing special accommodations such as parental leave brands the politician as a combatant in the mythical war on women, and not on the right side.

Overall, in my view, conservatives are absolutely correct in their economic catechism about the stifling effect of over-regulation, the benefits of making labor markets more flexible, the importance of property and contract rights, the benefits of trade, and the importance of relying on freedom, flexibility, and marvelous deep strength of American civilization.  A majority of the electorate in the red states seems to embrace candidates with these values, or at least to accept these values when they go along with a set of socially conservative principles.

However, the Republicans have failed to persuade enough voters in the swing states, particularly those who view themselves as economically precarious.  Currently, 40 percent of American families receive some kind of means-tested public assistance, and the Republicans have not articulated a convincing link between the conservative catechism and an improvement in their situation.  No group is so conservative, in the sense of "resistant to change" rather than "supporters of conservative political principles," as those on the edge of economic disaster.  And the current situation is the welfare state, so calls to leave it behind look like a promise of immediate disaster rather than long-term benefit.  No wonder the generic Republicans fall short.

Conservative purists cannot accept this reality.  RedState, a conservative blog that has converted to shrill anti-Trumpery, argues that Trump's courting of the blue-collar vote is reprehensible because it is based on a lie – that the decline in manufacturing jobs is due to trade rather than to the mighty forces of automation.

It is an interesting philosophical point, rather marred by RedState's subsequent confession that of course Trump's opposition is lying all the time about most everything and its wishy-washy conclusion that the real problem is that the voters "demand lies and punish the truth" and that the electorate needs to be "taught," not lied to.

There is no way for a candidate to meet RedState's standard and succeed, any more than one can meet some generalized exhortation to revamp the culture.  So a principled but pragmatic candidate would not allow such gruel to determine strategy.

A second wise political axiom is that campaigns are not the time to educate voters about which problems and issues should concern them, or about the subtleties of fundamental forces.  Campaigns are the time for a candidate to convince voters that he is the best person to deal with the concerns they already know they have.

This is what Trump is trying to do, on numerous issues.

For example, he is doing this with respect to the loss of blue-collar jobs, and, contrary to RedState, he is simplifying but not misleading.  I favor free trade, but is a 5,500-hundred-page TPP really free trade, or is it, like most contemporary "reform" legislation, a hodgepodge of cronyism and influence-peddling?  A real free trade bill would take one page, so what is in the other 5,499?

Further, on the trade issue, the accusations that the Chinese have manipulated  the currency to cheat us is dubious, but the position of the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency fostered a debt-financed consumer binge that has left us in precarious position while killing off some industries and many jobs.  But how is a principled politician to make a campaign issue out of one of the most confusing questions of macroeconomics?

And how does one separate automation from other issues, such as the supposed labor protections that encourage capital investment as a substitute for labor, or an education system that channels students away from productive skilled labor and into economically useless studies in abstraction?

No, Trump is not exploring these complexities, nor should he.  He is assuring American workers that he cares about their concerns and that he does not buy into the elites' mantra that no mistakes were made and nothing can be done.  That is the most he can or should do at this point.

On trade and other issues, his basic strategy is to signal is that he is on the side of the people, not the elites of both parties who have produced the present situation, and devil take the details.  When such signaling requires him to offend conservative orthodoxy, so be it.  That is the only way to enlarge his potential base.

The strategy may work; it may not.  But it is the best one available.

The Bottom Line

Realistically, politicians "oversimplify" to the electorate all the time in an effort to assure groups of voters that the politician is on their side.  When we agree with their ends, we call them statesmen.  Abraham Lincoln misled the electorate in the early days of the Civil War when he said he was indifferent to the preservation of slavery.  He was determined to end it, but he needed the Northern Democrats on his side to win the war.  Franklin Roosevelt's 1932 campaign was one long exercise in mendacity and in no way foreshadowed the New Deal.  The national experience thereafter was less fortunate than in Lincoln's case, as Roosevelt prolonged the Great Depression for seven years.

If one adopts my alternative assumptions about Trump and how he sees the situation, his campaign makes sense.

So when I consider my earlier views on Trump, and mark them to the market of ongoing events and realistic expectations, I recall Oliver Cromwell's admonition: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."

I am prepared to admit that I was, and that Trump is indeed a worthy candidate.

James V DeLong lives in Quicksburg, Va.  He is the author of Ending 'Big SIS' (The Special Interest State) and Renewing the American Republic.