Almost everyone in the commentariat, left and right alike, has now expressed in one form or another surprise, even shock, at Donald Trump’s failure to implode, much less his seemingly inexorable rise in the polls. Last night, managing editor of the Fox News Channel, Brit Hume, joined the chorus of true believers, declaring that “Trump is like no candidate I’ve ever seen.”
The comment was intended no so much as praise as perhaps quizzicality, which hardly distinguishes from other analysts. Another of them, the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, conducted an off-the-cuff poll last month in which he asked Trump supporters why they favored the bombastic real-estate mogul over career politicians. Part of the answer to that question has been clarified since by an actual scientific poll, which ascertained that the vast majority of Americans are unhappy with the direction of the country and with the political class as a whole.
But back to Friedersdorf. Of the thirty answers he published, one, appearing under the heading “Trump is a Corrective to American Culture’s Pathologies,” comes closest to explaining what I believe is the reason for Trump’s ascendancy to frontrunner status and his durability in the polls. Here it is in its entirety:
Although I am not yet committed to any candidate, I nevertheless do see the value in a Donald Trump candidacy. To be entirely honest, his appeal is more emotional than rational. I know this is not the best way to begin an endorsement, but having admitted that, I still believe he is the right candidate for today’s America.
Trump hasn’t elaborated much on any practical policy endeavors he would pursue. However, I think the bulk of his appeal comes through his defiance of the prevailing culture of political correctness among the media and academia. Although a seemingly minor issue relative to the economy or foreign policy, political correctness ignites conservative blogs and social media more than anything else. Beyond speech codes, “trigger warnings,” or Twitter outrage mobs, the preeminence of political correctness among the culture class indicates a momentous shift away from formerly prominent middle-class cultural values and towards something entirely different. Even if Donald Trump were to accomplish little in his presidency, I think there is a hope that were he president, he could in some way alter that prevailing Washington/media culture and set a new cultural tone.
Many would probably question why, of all people, a decadent, rude, and pompous billionaire should be trusted to meddle with American culture? I think it comes down to a perception that America has already drowned in a post-modernist nightmare of moral relativism, from which extreme political correctness and protest culture stem. Trump, on the other hand, is all absolutes. Everything he says, accurate or not, is stated in absolute, definitive terms. His personal morality is clear: He respects people who work hard, are loyal, innovate, and “win,” and he shuns those who don’t meet the criteria. Cruel as it may sound, I think America needs to reenergize these fundamental cultural values before we can ever hope to create a better society.
Trump may well fade yet. But what is apt to remain is an urgency in a country that still polls center-right to restore some sense of normalcy, an undoing if you will of Barack Obama’s fundamental transformation. That won’t happen, it needs to be emphasized, without a fight from the left.