WASHINGTON – Among the many maddening aspects of Donald Trump’s domination of American political discourse are the twin challenges he poses to clear thinking. You can overstate his significance and the power of the forces he is unleashing. You can understate them, too.
We have heard the words “Trump leads in the polls” for so long you’d think he has taken the entire country by storm. In fact, Trump is not broadly popular. He leads only in a minority subset of the population – depending on the survey, projected Republican primary voters or Republicans combined with Republican-leaning independents. Neither of these groups represent a majority of Americans.
Moreover, most Republicans pick another candidate over Trump. He is ahead, sometimes by sizable margins, because there are so many other candidates fracturing the non-Trump vote.
Thus, in a New York Times/CBS News survey released late last week, Trump led the GOP field among Republican primary voters with 35 percent to 16 percent for Ted Cruz and 13 percent for Ben Carson. The rest of the candidates took a combined 26 percent. So, yes, Trump’s lead matters.
But it also matters that Republican primary voters constituted only 38 percent of those interviewed by the Times/CBS pollsters. If you take 35 percent of 38 percent, you are talking about 13 percent of Americans. This is almost exactly the same percentage that George Wallace, who ran a racist-populist third-party presidential campaign, won in 1968 against Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey.
Was the Wallace campaign important? Yes. Did Wallace speak for anywhere close to a majority of Americans? No. The same is true of Trump.
It is thus a grave mistake to pretend that anything more than a relatively small proportion of Americans is ready to march lockstep behind Trump’s extremist and racist pronouncements on Muslims and Latinos or to rally behind his strongman image. Our country is far more tolerant and sensible than you might imagine if all you did was pay attention to the Trump mania in the news coverage.
This is something we should be shouting from the rooftops to our friends and allies around the world who, thanks to Trump’s rise, are wondering if we have gone stark raving mad. Trump does not speak for America and he is not our future.
But there is always a danger in politics of swinging wildly between complacency and panic. All the evidence before our eyes tells us that most Americans will reject Trumpism when they finally get to have their say in a voting booth – perhaps in the Republican primaries and certainly in the general election. Yet to ignore his ability both to win a following and to mesmerize the media is to wish away what is a real threat to democratic tolerance across the world’s free nations.
Trump has a flamboyance all his own, but he is not an isolated phenomenon. Even more worrying than his rise is the extraordinary result of the first round of the recent regional elections in France. Marine Le Pen and her National Front came in first, ahead of the center-left and center-right mainstream parties.
The National Front really is rooted in the old anti-Semitic and nationalist far right, even if Le Pen has downplayed the party’s old intolerance toward Jews in favor of its intolerance toward Muslims.
Far-right parties have also been showing strength across many other usually moderate and levelheaded European nations. All of these democracies face comparable challenges growing out of fears of terrorism, economic unease, worries about the impact of globalization, a widespread alienation from political elites and insecurities about national identity in response to immigration.
For the first time in decades, the word “fascism” is being used seriously by non-hyperbolic people in countries with a history of temperate politics. The historian Robert Paxton defines fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, or purity.” It is a disturbingly apt description of many of the new movements of discontent.
As the polling on Trump suggests, American voters overwhelmingly resist extremism and I suspect this will remain the case for some time in most of the other liberal democracies. But an exasperation with traditional politicians, anxieties over personal security and apprehensions about economic opportunity extend well beyond the far right.
The politicians who count on the moderate majority can try its patience only for so long. Trump is a containable menace. He is also a wake-up call.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.