The Two Dimensions of Trump’s Campaign

A few nights ago on Megyn Kelly’s program Chris Stirewalt made a clever comment that epitomized the blindness of political pros in government and the media to the stakes and significance of the 2016 presidential campaign.  Noting Trump’s current unfavorable standing in the pre-election polls, Stirewalt concluded that this election is starting to look more and more like 1996 (or words to that effect). 

What Stirewalt presumably meant was that he expects Hillary Clinton to prevail on Election Day 2016 by a margin similar to Bill Clinton’s margin of victory in 1996.  She might, although I doubt it.  But even if Hillary does prevail and equals Bill Clinton’s re-election margin down to a single vote, 2016 won’t be anything like 1996, except perhaps in the eyes of blinkered professionals like Stirewalt.  That’s because at a distance of 20 years only political obsessives can remember who the Republican candidate was in 1996, and even fewer can remember the issues on which the election was contested.  Donald Trump’s candidacy, in contrast, is a phenomenon that will be remembered and resonate with significance for decades, regardless of the outcome on Election Day.   Whether Trump ever becomes president or not, his campaign has already served, with enormous success, as the platform of a loud cry of popular protest against elite rule of our political and cultural institutions.  Even Trump’s personal flaws, by attracting so much concerted, nasty, and hyperbolical opposition from elites, have had the salutary effect of enticing the elite manipulators out of concealment and into the ugly glare of daylight. 

While a few left-wing media venues have sometimes characterized Trump’s campaign as an extra-political “hate” movement, since Trump dipped in the polls at the end of September the predominant theme of media and insider commentary has focused on the “horse race” and whether Trump is “doing what he needs to do to win” -- solidifying Republican support, seeming presidential, expanding his base, appealing to college-educated suburban white women, etc., etc., etc.  According to this view, Trump goes counter-productively “off message” when he criticizes the media or Paul Ryan, because his only opponent in the election is Hillary Clinton, so she should be the sole object of his attention.  Or Trump may be encouraged to offer a more “positive vision” that will supposedly enhance his appeal to a certain demographic of voters.  This communications-consultant perspective treats the 2016 election like any other presidential election, and the Trump campaign like any other campaign. 

But without minimizing the importance of who actually becomes the next president, it should not be so difficult to recognize that Trump’s campaign has always had a second dimension.  It combines features of both a presidential campaign and a protest movement.  Some elite conservative figures may feel resentful that their party’s presidential ticket has been taken over by a hybrid protest-presidential candidate, when a merely presidential candidate might have stood a better chance of winning the White House (they think).  But this is not a reason to ignore the reality of the protest element of Trump’s candidacy.  In the protest campaign Trump really is running against the media, which his myriad supporters resent and wish to protest against.  He’s also running against Jeb Bush and Paul Ryan.  I’m so grateful that Jeb Bush wasn’t the Republican nominee.  I thank Donald Trump for that.  

The success of this protest campaign is not measured by the margin of popular votes on Election Day, or the Electoral College votes, but rather by the people who join the protest to make themselves heard, by casting votes or in other ways. This is why the large and enthusiastic turnout at Trump rallies is important, although in recent weeks its significance has repeatedly been downplayed by commentators like Charles Krauthammer who observe that Walter Mondale enjoyed large crowds in the lead up to his devastating loss to Reagan in 1984.  It’s true that the attendance at Trump’s rallies may not predict victory in the election, but any comparison between Trump’s candidacy and Mondale’s is absurd and completely misleading.  Mondale was not the leader of a protest campaign, and his events were not protest rallies.  Trump’s are.  They are manifestations of immense popular discontent to which Trump’s candidacy and issues have given concrete form. 

Seen in both his dimensions, as protest leader and potential president, Donald Trump is relatively stronger as a protestor.  Indeed, if Trump’s performance as potential president were half as good as his performance as protest candidate, he’d probably bury Hillary Clinton and the MSM together in one huge landslide.  I hope he does.  But if he doesn’t, his protest candidacy will still have organized a huge constituency that is self-consciously opposed to the elite and primed for political action.  The fight should go on without a stop after Election Day.  Other leaders unburdened by Trump’s personal baggage should run as Trump successors on Trump’s issues of immigration, trade, and national sovereignty.  They’ll win a lot of elections, and Donald Trump will have really made history.

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