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Donald Trump’s Politics of the Berserk
Why Trump's rivals for the GOP nomination stand no chance.
The Republican Party’s primary season officially gets underway four months from today, on January 15, 2024, the day the Iowa caucuses are held. That makes this a fitting moment to take stock of where things stand—and to reflect on the most astonishing and disturbing fact of America’s political present, which is that, short of a medical event that requires him to bow out of the race, the twice-impeached, serially indicted former president Donald Trump, who has led the field by a wide margin for over a year and is currently ahead by 43 points, is going to win the Republican presidential nomination by a mile.
It's not as if Republican voters haven’t been given alternatives to supporting a man who’s been indicted four times and faces 91 felony counts in multiple jurisdictions for crimes ranging from the mishandling of classified documents to conspiracy to commit election fraud. The field of law-abiding challengers includes two sitting governors, several former governors, a former UN ambassador, a sitting U.S. senator, a former congressman, and a businessman. It includes several candidates seeking to revive the high-minded and optimistic form of conservativism that dominated the party beginning with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, and a couple of candidates who hope to build on the right-wing populism Trump rode to the White House in 2016.
Yet none of them have come close to threatening Trump’s lead. Indeed, that lead is so enormous that even if every candidate not named Trump save one dropped out of the race tomorrow, allowing a single alternative to consolidate support, this imagined challenger to the frontrunner would still be losing to him by 19 points. (Meaning: The polling support for the entire field combined falls 19 points short of Trump’s lead.)
The question is why—and the answer is found in the way Trump blended the populist strand in Reaganite conservatism with a much wilder tradition in American society and culture.
If we look at the data in greater detail, we can see the remarkable extent to which Reaganism has been repudiated by Republican voters. The three populists in the race (Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy) are polling at a combined 75.7 percent. The eight Reaganite conservatives, meanwhile, are supported by a grand total of 17.3 percent. That’s not just a win for the populists. It’s a blowout.
When it comes to the populist field, DeSantis continues to stand out, holding on to second place, several points above the third-place Ramaswamy (who nonetheless narrowly outperforms all of the Reaganite options). But far more noteworthy is the extent of DeSantis’ fade in the polls since Trump’s first indictment at the end of March. The Florida governor hovered for months around 30 percent, about 13 points behind Trump. But the moment Trump was indicted, he surged and DeSantis fell, first to 20 percent, but eventually to his current position in the low teens.
It seems clear, then, that not only has a solid majority of the Republican electorate firmly and unambiguously rejected Reaganite conservativism and embraced right-wing populism in its place. Those who have undergone this populist shift also vastly prefer Trump’s uniquely rabid, irreverent, and bombastic version of it to the alternatives—even when (and perhaps especially when) it crosses the line into alleged criminality.
That preference makes a sort of sense when we recall the populist themes in Reagan’s successful campaign for the presidency in 1980. Populism is defined in part as a style of politics that takes angry and resentful aim at an entrenched establishment in the name of the people. Reagan never led with indignation. But he did claim to be speaking on behalf of the hard-working decency of ordinary Americans, defending them against an overweening federal government that rode their backs and had “grown beyond the consent of the governed.” It imposed onerous taxes and regulations, driving interest rates and inflation through the roof, smothering opportunity, stifling productivity. Government wasn’t the solution to our problems. It was the problem.
In retrospect, it’s clear that the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 two years into Bill Clinton’s presidency and the Red Wave election of 2010 that grew out of the Tea Party’s attack on “Obamacare” both represented populist radicalizations of Reagan’s message, with the anti-government sentiment growing angrier in the face of real and imagined expansions of federal spending and regulation under Democratic presidents.
But that was nothing compared with what happened with Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The Trumpian Berserk
Some insist Trump was more moderate than rival Republicans when it came to attacking government. And there’s some truth to that assertion. Trump backed off longstanding Republican pledges to privatize Social Security and cut back on Medicare spending. He promised in vague terms to replace the Affordable Care Act with a better form of universal health insurance. He vowed to use government to browbeat businesses into keeping manufacturing jobs stateside, even when moving overseas promised greater profits.
But I think it’s more accurate to say that Trump combined greater ideological flexibility with much broader attacks on public norms and institutions than Reaganite conservatives ever entertained. Trump took aim at the Republican and Democratic parties as institutions, calling them thoroughly corrupt. He directly attacked “the media” and journalists for disloyalty to the nation and, later, himself. Once investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election were launched, he lashed out at the intelligence community, the FBI, and the “deep state” more generally, claiming they were the prime movers in a conspiracy to discredit his presidency and drive him from office. Later on, he attacked the courts for failing to give credence to his lies about a “stolen” 2020 election. And now, with him facing federal and state trials around the country, he’s gone to war with institutions and people (the Justice Department, the special counsel appointed by the Attorney General of the United States, prosecutors, and judges) tasked with enforcing federal and state law. At times it sounds like Trump is out to tear down the rule of law itself.
Viewed in the proper perspective, it’s not especially surprising that someone would say and do such things. The United States has always been a freewheeling place populated by more than its share of conmen, outlaws, blowhards, and bullshit artists looking for suckers to deceive. Mark Twain described it, with just the right touch of irony, in his essays. PT Barnum turned it into a comprehensive philosophy of life. Writing in the 1990s, the late novelist Philip Roth called it the “indigenous American berserk.” (No recent example of popular art has done more to explore the allure of this tradition in a contemporary setting than the television show Better Call Saul.)
Trump’s demonic genius was to blend this distinctively American tradition of antinomian hucksterism with politics, synthesizing the anti-government impulse within Reaganite conservatism with a far more radical populist drive to break free from and tear down any and all constraints imposed from above. John Dillinger turned himself into a folk hero by getting away (for a time) with bank robbery and prison breaks. Trump has done (and continues to do) something similar but on the vastly grander stage of presidential politics. His acts of defiance, his refusal to abide by the normal pieties of the political game, his willingness to do and try anything to prevail against his opponents, his ability to drive those opponents to apoplexy—all of it and more makes him seem almost superhuman to tens of millions of Republicans. Even if they don’t fully approve of his behavior, his political tightrope dance is unlike anything else in our (or any other country’s) politics.
This explains, I think, DeSantis’ inability to challenge Trump in the primaries the way so many intellectuals on the right expected him to. Republicans like DeSantis. For a politician, many GOP voters think, he’s just about as good as it gets. But he is a politician—a professional trying to advance his career by adopting positions he hopes will translate into popularity. That makes him, inevitably, a little fake, a little inauthentic, a bit of a poseur. The voters get it. If Trump wasn’t running, they might have accepted DeSantis as a fallback (though they also might have gravitated to the wilder and less professional Vivek Ramaswamy instead).
But with Trump still in the mix, fighting for his very freedom in multiple trials as he attempts to exact retribution against his own and his supporters’ enemies by winning back the White House in a rematch with Joe Biden? What could be more thrilling than that?
America Against Itself
None of this is meant to suggest that Trump’s feral defiance of norms, myriad alleged violations of the law, and stupefyingly irresponsible displays of demagoguery are continuous in a conscious or straightforward way with Reaganite conservatism’s critique of big government. Yet Trumpism is nonetheless a heretical outgrowth of that political dispensation—one that blends its populist defense and flattery of ordinary Americans against established powers with the (until now) wholly distinct social and cultural tradition of the American berserk.
As we observe the Republican primaries unfold over the coming months, watching in disbelief as a would-be outlaw-in-chief sweeps the GOP primaries while essentially tying the sitting president in the polls, we would do well to keep this lineage in mind. Democrats are facing a new and potent form of populist politics—but one with very old American roots. Defeating it (again) will take intelligence, resolve, and more than a bit of good luck. There’s nothing that can guarantee the better angels of our collective nature will prevail. We therefore have no choice but to make the most valiant effort we can while hoping for the best.
Damon Linker writes the Substack newsletter “Notes from the Middleground.” He is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow in the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center.
This article was cross-posted at Notes from the Middleground.
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