Donald Trump is an unconventional, untested, and polarizing presidential candidate, and I think many who plan to vote for him will do so holding their nose—but the fact remains that his ascendance to candidacy represents a significant trend in American politics and cannot be dismissed. The more one investigates Trump and his move from liberal-leaning Northeast blue blood to tentative champion of the GOP, the more interesting it becomes.
It seems, in many ways, that there are two Donald Trumps: the relatively quiet, thoughtful Trump of the 80s and 90s, where in interviews and TV appearances he worries about our national debt and OPEC’s power, saying we need a capable president but admits he’d rather not do it, and then there’s the Trump of now, the loud, brazen, fix-it man, the autocrat in training itching for the reigns. Trump in 2016 looks an odd amalgam of these people, and this seems to make him complex enough to allow people to see what they want to see in him. He is both a successful business man who knows his craft and a pompous windbag who flexes his relative power to exhibit pettiness and solipsism (read his Twitter feed sometime).
If we could extract the competent (though, if we’re being fair, not any kind of amazing self-made) business man from Trump, the man who understands how the market works and what a government can do to make a mixed market flourish, we might end up with a capable commander in chief, but that person and the unbearable, self-made caricature are inextricably connected. Much like we can’t in Hillary Clinton have the experienced and intelligent lawyer without the lying, scandal-ridden politician, we can’t have the best of Trump without the worst.
And if this is the case, then what Trump supporters get from him, even knowing his significant downsides, must be worth it, and what that seems to be is an “I’ll get things done” mentality. Trump posits himself as a doer, and argues that this country needs fixing—just hand him the tools. And in this, his primary urge and appeal, he is his most un-conservative and unappealing. Much like Clinton, Trump represents America’s increasingly external locus of control.
If one wants to learn about American sensibilities and circumstance in the 20th century, one can examine trends in automobile manufacturing and marketing. The models that role into the showroom provide a mirror of American values: the gargantuan luxury-mobiles of the 1950s, the power-laden cars of the 1960s, and the economic cars of the late 1970s tell a story about who we were collectively in that moment. Politicians work very much the same way, and if Theodore Roosevelt reflected the American desire for independence and autonomy, Trump is the latest model of let-me-take-care-of-you.
In this, he is decidedly not conservative—at least not in any small government sense. He supports eminent domain, the federal reserve, Social Security, government-funded healthcare, the Patriot Act, and closed borders. If the dominate sensibility of the GOP is fiscal responsibility and individual liberty, then Trump is an imposter. Or, more troubling still, we’re moving away from these values entirely in favor of a demagogue who vows vaguely to make everything “great” again, though he never really explains what that means (allowing people to quietly pencil in their own meaning there). I fear that Trump supporters might be right: Trump will get things done. I fear that what he’ll accomplish is contributing to an ever-increasing and overreaching federal government.
So, what’s a liberty-minded, fiscal conservative to do? Both parties are differently-packaged brands of big government, both promising, if you just give them the power, to fix our country. Certainly, Gary Johnson provides an appealing alternative, though it seems that Johnson will be more like a Nader and pull votes from Trump rather than a genuine third-party contender—as unfortunate as that is. If any substantial benefit will come from this election cycle, it’s that we might recognize the uniformity of American politics—that the oft-touted values of both the Democratic and Republican parties are simulacra, artfully-crafted lip service—and recognize that the push-and-pull that matters is between individual liberty and politely forced conformity, and that it’s not always easy to tell who’s on what side. And if our political system is broken enough to leave us with no other choice but one, I hope we might have the sense to change that system.