Daniel Henninger has a great op-ed at the Wall Street Journal today, in which he opens an important window into the sentiments that drive the Trump phenomenon.
In my view, he comes really close, if still without quite nailing the matter on the head. But his observation is a usefully framed jumping-off point.
It’s not as useful that the title given to the piece is “The Trumpen Proletariat,” or that Henninger opens the bidding with Marx’s description of the “lumpen proletariat.” Since Henninger doesn’t really mean to embrace the view of Trump supporters as a lumpen proletariat, the device is a bit too precious for its own good.
But when he gets down to it, he spears a truth that an awful lot of pundits have been circling for months without impaling. Emphasis added:
What has really “angered” so many more millions who now feel drawn into the Trump camp isn’t just PC itself but that its proponents show such relentless moral contempt and superiority toward everyone else. People in America can take a lot, but not that. Marx would have a field day with how progressivism’s cultural elites have reordered social classes between the right-minded and everyone else.
Despite years of winning Supreme Court assent to their views, the left insists that the other side must remain on the moral hook. On race, sex or the environment the moralistic left seems to think it can keep the population incarcerated forever on vague, unproven charges of cultural guilt. For what?
In nearly eight years of presidential speeches, Barack Obama, by explicit choice, has come to embody the holier-than-thou idea of showing secular moral contempt for those who disagree with him.
Now, I know, I know. Let me finish. You don’t care if these people want to feel morally superior, and neither do I.
But their practice of systematic vindictiveness, using the power of government – that very real “incarceration forever on vague, unproven charges of cultural guilt” – is indeed the problem.
Just two observations about this. One, Henninger gets close without scoring the Kewpie doll here because he misses that point. It’s the real, actively destructive, systematic vindictiveness that the people object too.
The people are literally having damage inflicted on their lives. They’re not just having to be annoyed by moral-superiority theater when they watch the TV news. They’re actually losing jobs, losing the use of their property, losing their health insurance, finding economic doors closed to them, finding other people vaunted unequally over them, yea even unto beating them up, and rioting in the streets and destroying their property, without consequence or punishment. The people are losing freedoms and a sense of personal safety that they had only last year, or the year before, and being astonished and horrified that it’s all happening.
This isn’t theoretical, or about feelings. It’s about things that are actually happening, at the gunpoint of an armed state – and mostly without due process of law.
And the reason there are plenty of women and “minorities” turning to Trump is that it’s happening to them, every bit as much as to white males. It’s happening to everyone who is a middle-class, self-supporting, productive taxpayer.
(It’s actually happening to everyone else too, especially to lower-income people whose life prospects are materially degraded by the freight costs an intrusive state heaps on households. But failing to advance, which is what those people are condemned to, isn’t as visibly appalling as being pillaged and pushed backward.)
The average Trump supporter knows better than to worry about whether other people are running around with a moral superiority complex. Whatever, dudes. Get some therapy.
It’s the weaponization of the armed state against the people, in the service of that assumed “moral superiority,” that is intolerable.
The other observation is something that the political class just doesn’t seem able to grasp. I’m going to highlight it here, because it’s so important. Donald Trump doesn’t have that vindictive moral superiority complex, or any apparent intention to use the power of government in its service. His supporters recognize that in him, and it matters tremendously.
I’ll say for the hundredth time that I am not a Trump supporter. He’s not a political “answer” for America. I’m certain of that.
But I’m also certain that he doesn’t have the disposition of most of our politicos to act from the framework of that moral superiority complex. It’s not just Barack Obama, and it’s not just Democrats. Too many Republicans have the moral superiority complex too. It’s evident in their dealings with the people, whom they bother less and less to respect and represent.
It’s no accident that Ted Cruz came in second to Trump in the primaries, because Cruz doesn’t have the moral superiority complex either. He actually made the case repeatedly for not using government in a vindictive manner out of a sense of moral superiority. He focused on the most important point: that government should not be given that power, period.
We shouldn’t have to be perpetually at risk from a government so powerful, so into everything, that it might be used at any time for someone’s pseudo-moral crusade. If there’s a third point to be made here, it’s that one.
The “moral superiority,” for the progressive left, is really about government power anyway. Ted Cruz made the limited-government argument – the Founders’ argument – that government should pose no such risk to us, for any purpose.
In the meantime, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, even Marco Rubio — each of the other flame-outs, in his way, came with moral-superiority baggage. Each had a record of willingness to do the people active harm using government and justifying it on the basis of some moral-superiority argument: dismissing their religious liberty, accepting the destructive logic of “income redistribution,” undermining the rule of law with immigration policy. Indeed, that power-justifying moral superiority complex has become the baseline mindset of governmental politics. That’s why the few who don’t have it, like Ted Cruz, are so non-clubbable among their professional associates.
But Trump? Sure, he has no intention of making government smaller or more limited. He doesn’t even think in those political-philosophy terms. But mainly, he doesn’t make moral-superiority arguments, or show a disposition to act on them using the power of government.
It’s pretty simple, but it means everything. The Trump voters, seeing that, are wiser than the political class. Although being wiser than the political class isn’t hard, in the America of 2016.