I have been as appalled as anyone at the style and content of Donald Trump’s search for the U.S. presidency. I have at no point been tempted in any way to support him. I do not intend to vote for him.
But there is something happening that needs to be explained. It is not Trumpism, but Anti-Trumpism. The explanations of Trumpism are virtually endless. No one could have missed them. I do not wish to discuss what accounts for Trumpism – both the level of his support and the fact that he seems to be a Teflon candidate. Every time he does something outrageous and receives criticism for it, the outcome seems to be that his poll numbers rise further just because of the criticism.
What is not discussed very much is the phenomenon of what I shall call Anti-Trumpism. It is of course normal that there are those who oppose the choice of a particular candidate. What is unusual and needs a closer look is why the opposition seems to take on an almost hysterical tone, in which there is a suggestion that the election of Trump would transform the world (or at least the United States) fundamentally and permanently.
There is a group of lifelong Republicans who say that the candidacy and actions of Donald Trump so offend their moral sensibilities that they could not under any circumstance vote for him. Were he the chosen candidate of the Republican convention, they would be forced to do something else than vote Republican. This means for some supporting a putative new ticket labeled Independent Republicans, for others abstention from voting for anyone, and for still others even voting for Hillary Clinton.
This group is possibly quite small, although it includes some very prominent conservative Republicans such as many associated with National Review, for a long time the principal journal speaking for neo-Conservatives. This group sees a Trump candidacy as a disaster for the Republican Party, one that could prove long-lasting.
There is a much larger group who say that everything conceivable must be done to prevent Trump from receiving the nomination. They too see a Trump candidacy as a disaster. This group emphasizes less the moral shame of a Trump candidacy and more the impact it would have both on the election of a Republican president in 2016 and on the ability of Republican candidates to win Senatorial seats in a number of closely contested elections, and therefore the majority in the Senate.
These persons are largely to be found in the so-called Establishment mainstream of the Republican Party. Like the morally repelled, this group also thinks that a Trump candidacy would have a long-lasting negative impact on the Republican Party, primarily by changing its internal structures and personnel in key positions. This group is divided into those who are supporting Ted Cruz as an acceptable, if less than perfect, alternative, and those (a smaller group) who support John Kasich. Cruz is of course more consistently far to the right than Trump but he is much more predictable.
Why then the hysteria? I think it is clearly that Donald Trump is truly a candidate who is not under the control of the so-called Establishment, which does not know what he would really do, were he the president. For example, at the moment, there is much debate and concern about the choice of a replacement for Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Who knows who Trump would select, and whose advice (if anyone’s) he would solicit? That would not be true of any other person chosen as Republican candidate.
When these critics say that Trump as candidate would transform the Republican Party into something quite different from what it has been up to now, they are probably right. What is however most unlikely is that he would pursue a Tea Party agenda.
Look at all the hints he has thrown out about his actual agenda. He does not intend to send troops on the ground anywhere. He does not intend to support so-called free trade treaties. He does not intend to revoke the diplomatic opening to Cuba or the agreement with Iran. He is for a bi-state solution in Israel/Palestine. He will not change Social Security. He is not terribly concerned about issues like abortion. His latest outrage about punishing those who have abortions, and the swiftness with which he recanted when he saw the negative reaction his remarks evoked is actually further evidence about how little he cares about the subject. And perhaps most important of all, he is open to increasing taxes on the truly wealthy. Close your eyes for a moment and he sounds suspiciously like Hillary Clinton.
There is of course a real distinction to make between Trump and Clinton. The biggest difference is Trump’s unceasing use of anti-Muslim rhetoric, whereas Hillary Clinton is building her strategy around appealing not only to women but to non-White populations. The second difference is that Trump centers his discourse around the issue of immigration, which appeals in particular to the so-called Reagan Democrats, who are largely White and older voters, either unemployed or in great fear of becoming unemployed.
There is a third difference. Whenever a journalist or even a supporter challenges him on one of these hints, he tries immediately to change the subject or silence the challenger. Or if he doesn’t succeed, he backtracks on his hinted agenda. He wants the nomination desperately. Therefore he is very inconsistent and very pragmatic. But this is precisely what worries the Establishment. They don’t know what he will really do as president.
So, anti-Trumpism has indeed a rational foundation. But can it succeed? It seems at the moment most unlikely that Trump will fail to have the necessary majority of votes for the Republican nomination. What then will happen in the elections? Whether Trump as candidate will alienate enough traditional Republican voters to lose his campaign against the Democratic candidate and those of Republican senators in ten states or so, or rather attract more new voters to the Republican tickets as he claims, is yet to be seen.
But is a Trump candidacy an irrevocable catastrophe for the United States and/or for the Republican Party? This seems to me a great exaggeration, however you feel about Trump.
Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press).