The election of Donald Trump can be seen not so much as an endorsement of Trump himself as it is a rejection of what has been perceived as weakness by Congressional GOP House and Senate members who were given majorities in 2010 and 2014 specifically to tackle issues that are of deep concern to conservative voters (and others): the exploding national debt (which has doubled under President Obama’s administration), a refusal to enforce the immigration laws we already have, and a very unpopular healthcare law that was passed (by Democrats alone) on the basis of lies shamefully told to the American public by the president himself (“You can keep your doctor,” “You can keep your plan,” “The average annual premiums for an American family will be reduced by 2500 dollars”)—not to mention the deeply insulting characterization of American voters as “stupid” by Jonathan Gruber, one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act. And then there was the fact that not a single member of Congress had read the 2000-plus page bill—an omission which would be actionable malpractice in any other profession.
On all of these issues, Republicans did precisely nothing. And while the reality of a looming presidential veto cannot be ignored, voters have felt for some time that the GOP was more interested in being obsequious to a hostile press than in listening to their constituents. During presidential election years in particular, GOP leadership has tended to foist onto its grumbling, reluctant base candidates who were considered “centrist” and therefore “electable.” (See, e.g., John McCain and Mitt Romney.) Those choices were driven in large part by demands from the press—only to have these otherwise good and decent men later savaged by the same press as callous, greedy thugs, eager to profit on the backs of widows, orphans, minorities, and the poor.
McCain and Romney were both soundly defeated.
It only takes an instance or two of that before the public gets wise to it, and the WikiLeaks email dumps this fall revealed what many of us have observed for decades—that much of the national press is in the pocket of the Democratic Party. Attempts by earnest, well-meaning GOP candidates to please the media were always doomed to result in ignominious defeat. Voters made it clear that they wanted a candidate who would stand up to the press. In Donald Trump, they got that, for certain.
And it wasn’t just the press that voters were disgusted with. Republican primaries in earlier off-year elections had sent warnings (see, e.g., Eric Cantor, Virginia, 2014) of voter discontentment with party bosses. This year, they took that rebellion to a national level. I admit, it was amusing to watch the party lose complete control of the primaries. (It is also noteworthy that this happened in both national parties, and the way the Democrats handled the Bernie Sanders phenomenon is among the reasons that Hillary Clinton lost.)
Republican and conservative voters are also fed up with the Left’s characterization of them as ignorant bigots consumed by hate, with the media’s complicity in efforts to humiliate, denigrate, and silence them, and with the Democratic Party’s obsession with “identity politics.” Again, GOP candidates have tended to be timid and ineffective here.
For want of a better explanation, voters across the political spectrum gravitated to the idea that we have a “ruling class” made up of political elites of both parties, deceitful media, condescending academics, and smug Hollywood denizens. These groups, along with the ubiquitous “Wall Street,” are perceived as doing quite well for themselves, thank you, while the rest of the country languishes in an economic “recovery” whose benefits have somehow never materialized.
Trump tapped into all of this. His campaign is denounced as one of negativity, fear, and every -ism the Left can conceive of. But the nerve I think he touched was Americans’ fatigue with negativity and fear. They are tired of war, tired of violent inner cities, tired of a lawless border, tired of an ineffectual response to legitimate terrorist threats, tired of government waste and fraud, tired of an administration which doesn’t count you as “unemployed” once you’ve despaired of ever finding a job again, and tired of being called names when they dare raise their voices.
Americans are looking for reasons to be positive. Trump gave them those reasons. Feeling otherwise voiceless, they voted.
Is Trump’s victory a “win” for the conservative movement? That depends on what you care about, I suppose. Trump is a mixed bag. But then again, so are most of us. He’s fine with gay marriage (though he very well might defend the rights of small, artisanal businesses to decline to participate in gay weddings). I’m sure he has no problem with contraception, but I’m also guessing that his administration wouldn’t have sued the Little Sisters of the Poor for refusing to provide it. He claims to be pro-life on abortion, and the names he has submitted as potential Supreme Court nominees appear to confirm that. He may very well be more protectionist on trade and isolationist on foreign conflict.
Are those “conservative” positions? Perhaps not. But they are—at least at present—”big tent” positions, as Trump’s ability to draw Democrat voters demonstrates.
What does seem to be a “victory” for conservatives is the fact that the Left is now being hoisted on their own petard. Small government conservatives complained loud and long about President Obama’s “I’ve got a pen and a phone” disregard for the limits of the executive branch’s powers; the Left thought it was great. Now that it will be President Trump, they’re reconsidering the benefits of checks and balances. That’s a good thing.
Second, Congressional Republicans now have what they’ve claimed they needed: control of Congress and a Republican in the White House. At this point, the only thing stopping them from taking the actions they’ve promised their constituents is their own timidity and tendency to seize defeat from the jaws of victory.
Third, Trump’s victory is also proof that “identity politics” is, short-term, a lousy way to run an election and, long-term, a lousy way to run a country. People long for statesmanlike leadership like that provided by JFK or Reagan, but neither spent their time running around the country calling people “bitter clingers” or “a basket of deplorables.” The Democrats have become a splintered party of special interests, each clamoring for supremacy on the victimhood scale. The national conversation on the Left seems never to be about what great things are possible in the future, but always about what awful things have been done in the past. Worst of all, they have moved from victimhood on the basis of group identity, to blame on the basis of group identity. This is a recipe for electoral disaster. Need it be said again? People do not like to be blamed for things they themselves did not do. It does not go better for you when you tell them that their distress is nothing more than proof of their culpability.
What both parties got this year was a heapin’ helpin’ of humble pie. The “opportunity,” as it were, is to see this as the gift that it is. Instead of demonizing half the country, politicians who want to win elections—and to lead a better country—need to have much more confidence in the great American experiment of self-governance. That means listening to people instead of assuming that you always know better than they do.
Laura Hollis teaches business law and entrepreneurship at the Mendoza College of Business, is a concurrent Associate Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School, and is a faculty advisor to the Irish Rover.