At first, in the summer of 2015, it seemed like a joke. Then a novelty. Then a bubble that must surely burst. Then a spectacle, overshadowing all the earnestness and experience of the Republican presidential field.
Now Donald Trump seems on the verge of primary victories concentrated in the South that would establish him as a formidable front-runner. And this has happened in spite of a series of disqualifying comments – ridiculing a war hero, employing misogynist humor, mocking a disabled reporter, displaying ignorance on basic policy matters, slandering the last Republican president – that were not disqualifying at all.
Why has this happened?
Trump is not leading because he has masked his ideas, which have been consistent and forthright. He would (he says) build a Mexican-funded wall across the continent, expel 11 million undocumented immigrants, blow up the global trading order, send Syrian refugees back into a war zone, ban the immigration of Muslims to America and consider a Muslim registry. Trump supporters can’t say they didn’t know the ethnically and religiously charged content of Trumpism.
Yet it is Trump’s style, his defiance of convention and political correctness, that seems to explain the intensity of his support. “We’re voting with our middle finger,” explains a Trump supporter in South Carolina. All the institutions that have failed – failed to stop Barack Obama, failed to save America from adulteration, corruption and destruction – should be overturned. Burn, baby, burn.
This approach to politics has not normally been associated with conservatism, which teaches prudence, proportion and respect for institutions, even if they require reform. Stepping back a moment, it is necessary to say that America, even after seven years of Obama as president, is not North Korea. And American political structures have not failed like those of Weimar Germany. Even as there is much to improve about our country, there is much more to love. And there is much to fear in faces that would appear eager and exhilarated when lighted by the bonfire of American institutions.
The political philosophy of the middle finger – captured by Trump in all its vulgar, taunting, divisive glory – requires an ethical leap. It assumes that practices we know are wrong in our private lives – contempt, mockery, cruelty, prejudice – are somehow justified in our political lives. It requires us to embrace views and tactics that we would never teach our children – but do, in fact, teach them through an ethically degraded politics. Imagine your teenage son (or daughter, for that matter) calling a woman a “fat pig,” “dog,” “disgusting animal” or “bimbo.” Imagine your child labeling someone he or she knows as a “loser,” “moron” or “dummy.”
This is the evidence of poor character, in any context. For Christians, the price of entry to the Trump movement is to abandon their commitments to kindness and love of neighbor. Which would mean their faith has no public consequence at all.
And Trumpism is an existential threat to conservatism. It is not a theory of limited government. It would use government, with augmented powers, to enforce a vision of ethnic nationalism, constructing a wall visible from space and conducting one of the largest forced expulsions in history.
Our circumstance is sometimes compared to William F. Buckley Jr.’s public shunning of the John Birch Society – the extreme conservatives of his day. But we have moved well beyond that precedent. No Bircher contended seriously for the Republican nomination. Until recently, nativists like Tom Tancredo (who referred to Miami as a “Third World country” and proposed to send Obama back to “his homeland” in Kenya) seemed like a fringe element. Now this extreme threatens to become the dominant voice and face of the Republican Party.
Many Trump supporters believe that Obama has changed the country in destructive ways – which I believe is true. But they also would change our country, in ways that should make us sick to the heart. For all our faults, we are a nation that prizes civility and respect. We give our neighbor the benefit of the doubt. We stand up for the little guy. We are grateful for our flawed and wonderful country. And we know our flag stands for shared ideals, not someone’s idea of shared bloodlines.
All this is now at stake. It is time to stand up, to leave nothing that is necessary unsaid or undone, and to give our children an example of bravery and boldness in defending the decent, honorable, generous soul of our nation.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.