CLEVELAND – The notions that Donald Trump would make a typical presidential pivot, or that his divisive form of politics was merely a pose, lie dead on the convention floor in Cleveland. And it is now necessary to confront his unmasked contempt for American institutions.
Far from being confused or opportunistic, Trump has a consistent, well-developed view of the universe and his (prominent) place within it. The world is in chaos. Our country is being infiltrated by child-murdering illegal immigrants and a “massive flow” of disloyal, unscreened refugees. American communities are overwhelmed by violence, impoverished by unfair trade and betrayed by politicians who refuse to “put America first.” The institutions that are supposed to defend us are dominated by special interests and rigged by elites.
These claims are wrong, exaggerated or cherry-picked in nearly every respect. But the message resonates. A majority of Americans regard their country as being on the “wrong track,” and has for some time. Conservative media and “breaking news”-driven cable networks reinforce this sense of decline and crisis.
And our institutional challenges are not imaginary: A long-term, wage-earner recession (to which Republicans have offered little practical response). Educational mediocrity concentrated in high-poverty communities. Congressional dysfunction. A Supreme Court that seems overly political and outcome driven. Everyone can find some reason for disillusionment.
But there are two possible responses to such failures. The first is the institutionalist answer: To rebuild with existing materials. To reform, repair, reclaim and renew our patrimony. The second alternative is the promise of deliverance by a man on horseback – a single leader claiming to embody the interests of “the people.”
In Cleveland, Trump offered the second option with more forthright clarity than any politician in my lifetime. The speech contained almost no serious discussion of public policy or ideological argumentation. Instead, Trump said: “I am your voice.” “I am not able to look the other way.” “I know the time for action has come.” “I will be your champion.” “I will fight for you, and I will win for you.”
As someone involved in GOP politics during a previous professional life, the moment was surreal, then emotional. A party with a distinguished history, generally led by men and women of public spirit and decency, has embraced a demagogue who may be a genuine threat to American democracy. Trump is cultivating a state of panic to increase public tolerance for political risk – in this case, the risk of a candidate who is untested, unprepared, unstable and unfit. And the requisite sense of emergency is being created by populating American nightmares with migrants, refugees and Muslims. Standing on the convention floor, I could see what the face of American authoritarianism might look like.
If Trump is elected president, he can justly claim a mandate to pursue the enemies of the people, foreign and domestic. If he tests the limits of executive power to punish rivals and intimidate opponents, he has hidden none of his intentions.
The Caesarian option – rolling the dice with a populist authoritarian, using democratic majorities to undermine democratic structures – is common in history. Any Latin American or African can tell you what strongmen or “big men” are like.
But Trump’s version of “Americanism” is not, in fact, very American. Our constitutional system was designed to make personal rule both impossible and unnecessary. The idea that political salvation might be found simply by replacing one leader at the top of government would have been regarded as perverse by the Founders. America has benefited from skilled leaders – a Lincoln or an FDR – at moments of genuine national crisis. But this is not such a time. And this is not such a leader.
Does institutionalism still have defenders in American public life? Certainly there are members of the Senate and House who would resist and balance the ambitions of a President Trump. But history has often shown that unscrupulous executive power can run circles around a divided legislature.
It is also hard for me to regard Hillary Clinton – whatever her other virtues – as the savior of institutional integrity. While she would be preferable, on this score, to Trump, she has her own history of disregard for the rules and procedures that govern other mortals.
However quixotic the attempt may currently seem, America needs a committed institutionalist in the presidential race. Those distinguished Americans who have taken a pass on running as a third-party candidate should watch Trump’s Cleveland speech once again, and weigh the very real risk to the republic. Bob Gates, are you taking phone calls?
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.