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The Future of American Politics in the Age of Trump


In a little over twelve months Donald Trump has gone from vanity candidate to the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States. What explains Trump’s meteoric rise? And, what does his candidacy say about the state and future of American politics? E.J. Dionne, one of America’s savviest political observers, is out with a big new book, Why the Right Went Wrong, that digs deep into the Trump political phenomenon.

Why does the “disappointment and betrayal” of American conservative voters explain the rise of Donald Trump?

Since Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964 and signalled the conservative takeover of the Republican Party, Republican politicians have made a series of promises that they couldn’t keep. Promises to reduce the size of government which no president has done since that time, not Nixon, not Reagan, neither President Bush has been able to achieve, to roll back the cultural changes in the 1960s, and more recently, in effect to change the ethnic makeup of the country back to where it was say around 1940 or 1950. These were not promises they could keep, but by making them over and over again, Republicans disappointed their base and created a sense of betrayal. John F. Kennedy famous line comes to mind when thinking about how the Republican leadership got stuck with Trump: “he who rides to power on the back of the tiger ends up inside”. I think the leadership of the Republican Party thought they could keep decades of disappointment and betrayal of their base under control and it turned out they couldn’t. The result is Donald Trump has, at least for now, have taken over the Republican Party.

Can we understand Trump then as a modern-day Barry Goldwater?

One of the key differences between Trump and Goldwater is that Goldwater had a genuine mass of the movement behind him. Goldwater was not just a figure in politics, he represented a surge of a new kind of conservatism embodied by people like William F. Buckley Jr., the famous commentator, the rise of Young Americans for Freedom in 1960s, etc. The Goldwater movement was young and it had staying power.

Trump is much more a creature of the media. Trump does not arise from a mass movement in the same way Goldwater did. There are parts of the Tea Party maybe there for him, but they were split in this election between Trump and Cruz. The Trump constituency is much more a movement of older white Americans who are uneasy with cultural change in the United States and the ethnic makeup of the country. It is very significant that his slogan is, “make America great again”, and the “again” speaks to this being more a movement of nostalgia than a movement about the future.

One of the strangest things about Trump is that a person who speaks so much as an American nationalist, actually represents the rise of a certain kind of European politics in the United States. The kind of coalition that he has put together, this marriage of opposition immigration with economic nationalism, it’s something you can see for example in the French National Front. Now he doesn’t have all of the baggage that the French National Front has but I think there is this element of the European right that’s crossed the ocean into the United States and is being embodied by Trump.

Can Trump beat Hilary Clinton and become president?

At point there is no one in the pundit class will ever again say flat out there’s no way Donald Trump will be president of the United States. I would give him no more than a 10% or 15% chance of winning unless there is some external event that fundamentally alters the political landscape. The reason for that is simple math, and the fact that his standing among women voters is very, very low. I think that ultimately women in the United States will prevent Donald Trump from being president and there is also a very large mobilization in the Latino community to register more of their voters.

The reality is Trump faces an enormous electoral hurdle because he is largely confined to finding support in the white electorate. Romney had already gotten 60%, 61% of the white vote in the last election, it’s not clear how much more Trump can get there. Hillary Clinton will look to lot of voters, including small “c” conservatives safer than Trump. His only path to victory is if Hillary Clinton fails to mobilize younger voters who have been voting for Sanders and not her in the primaries, and if Trump can increase to truly staggering percentages his share of the white working class vote.

What does the rise of Trump say about the future of America and its politics?

If I may borrow a phrase from your politics, I really do believe in “sunny days” and I think, ironically, we have this political crisis happening in the U.S. at a moment when in fact the country is not in terrible shape. We do have serious inequalities; we do have communities that are suffering that need to be lifted up, but when you look at American’s recovery from the 2008 cash, we are doing pretty well by global standards.

All of this said, I do find it hard in the short term to be optimistic about our politics because the fact that somebody like Donald Trump could win control, at least temporarily, of one of our major parties speaks to the fact that there are some serious problems in our political system. There’s an authoritarian side to Trump’s rhetoric that I think rightly worries people who are fans of liberty and democracy on both the right and left. It’s also fascinating and positive that many of the criticisms of Trump in American politics that come from progressives and conservatives overlap. And so I think that if we could get our politics straight again, we – the United States – could be in for a fairly good run. If Trump loses, and I think he will, there could be a much needed period of reflection that might put us on a different path, but we’re going to need some fundamental break with the kinds of extreme divisions we’ve seen in the country pretty much since the Iraq war. In the end I’m with Churchill who said, “Americans always do the right thing after first exhausting all of the other possibilities”. But at the moment we’re sure spending a lot of time trying to exhaust all the other possibilities.
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