Why We Were Obsessed with Trump

The latest polls continue to track Donald Trump’s decline in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Before the last debate, he was poking above 30 percent in the RCP average, seemingly on his way up to higher numbers. Now, most polls show him flopping down into the low 20s. An NBC/WSJ poll recently showed him neck-and-neck with Ben Carson, 21 percent to 20 percent, though in most other polls, Carson also seems to be fading.

Trump is still the frontrunner, and while it’s possible he’ll bail out early when he decides this isn’t fun any more—and it seems he is already contemplating this—he might also be that reality TV show contestant who is obnoxious and abrasive and unlikeable, but who keeps sticking around, week after week, because he makes for entertaining TV.

It’s probably time to stop pulling the fire alarm, but not without an explanation about why so many of us were concerned about Trump. Fortunately, his statements in a recent “60 Minutes” interview highlight why he’s going to continue falling in the polls and why many of us are so eager to see that happen.

It’s not because we’re part of the Beltway establishment. I’m neither in the Beltway nor part of any establishment. It’s not because we are “obsessed” with hating Trump. I actually liked him in the early seasons of “The Apprentice,” back when the contestants were real people (more or less), and not just celebrities. It’s definitely not because we’re wimpy moderates who want to cave in to the Left. Quite the opposite. It’s precisely because we see the need for a big change in course from the Obama years (and from the “big government conservatism” of the Bush years) that we regard the Trump phenomenon as a dangerous diversion.

Which bring us to the “60 Minutes” interview, in which Trump promises to repeal and replace Obamacare. But the central point of his replacement is that “everybody’s got to be covered.” When interviewer Scott Pelley asks who’s going to pay for that, Trump replies that “the government’s gonna pay for it.” Gabe Malor at Hot Air runs down all the aspects of what Trump said about his health-care plan, and they all add up to…Obamacare. The only difference between Trump’s plan and Obama’s is that Trump says he’d negotiate a better deal with hospitals. That’s Trump’s go-to response for everything, of course. That’s how he’ll get Mexico to pay for the wall, that’s how he’ll bring back manufacturing jobs from China, that’s how he’ll get along with Putin. He’s a great deal maker, so he’ll just make us a great deal!

For all the anti-establishment bluster of Trump and his supporters, this is exactly the mindset of your basic establishment liberal: that government can accomplish anything and provide us with everything we want—Trump literally promises us we “can have everything”—if only the right people are put in charge. The only difference is that Trump thinks he is the right people.

But this should put an end to the idea that Trump is a protest candidate against the Washington elites. And that’s the problem. We need such a candidate—but what we need is a real opponent of the Beltway consensus. And 2016 is supposed to be our best shot to get it.

We came into this presidential primary with an unusually deep bench of Republican candidates, and no presumptive establishment candidate whose “turn” it is. (That might have been Jeb, if his last name weren’t Bush.) We could look out on a field with at least five experienced candidates who rose to national attention in the post-Tea Party environment, who made their names by challenging the establishment (Ted Cruz), defeating unprincipled “moderates” (Marco Rubio), promoting a radical small-government agenda (Rand Paul), running states where smaller government is a reality (Rick Perry), and actually dismantling key pillars of big government (Scott Walker).

It wasn’t clear which candidate was going to make it, and you never know who’s going to run a good campaign until the race gets started. But it was clear we had a lot more viable options than in previous years, any one of whom was likely to make a real effort at rolling back the metastasizing government of the Obama years.

It also looked like they were going up against a truly pathetic Democratic lineup that contains not a single new or appealing face. With all of the attention on the Republican race, we haven’t had much time to contemplate the truly dismal prospects on the other side. Democrats have a presumptive nominee damaged by an ongoing and escalating e-mail scandal that turns her only real executive experience into liability. Gaining on her hard—his fundraising is soaring while Hillary Clinton’s declines—is a geriatric self-declared socialist who enjoys little support among minority voters, a crucial Democratic constituency. Rounding out the field, if he chooses to enter, is a charismatic buffoon who is mostly known for giving the kind of terrible advice that has led to the utter collapse of President Obama’s foreign policy.

That’s the other big opportunity in this election cycle. I’ve heard a lot of people on the right say, for example, that they like Cruz but think he’s too far to the right and not personally charismatic enough to win the general election. Maybe so, but put him up against Clinton or Sanders or Biden, and you can begin to imagine that voters might decide he’s worth the chance. So not only do we have the best opportunity in a long while to nominate a candidate who is a real fighter for smaller government, but he will be up against the weakest potential opponents in a long time.

Then along came Trump, and he was messing this all up.

It was partly that his reality TV celebrity sucked up all the media oxygen, asphyxiating the other candidates. (It is arguably what killed Perry’s campaign.) More worrying was that his inflammatory rhetoric on immigration and elevating that issue to the center of his campaign opened a fissure within the Right. The Tea Party era had produced a kind of rapprochement between libertarians and conservatives, who found they could join together to fight a common enemy in the form of a vast new big-government entitlement like Obamacare. But Trump shifted the debate onto grounds that split those two factions apart, mobilizing the Pat Buchanan-style “paleoconservatives” and telling them that the really important issues are China stealing our jobs and illegal immigrants raping our women.

In a way, Trump marks the definitive end of the Tea Party era. The movement had already largely exhausted itself through its own success in moving Congress to the right, partly by ousting a few establishment Republicans (such as Eric Cantor) and mostly by voting out Democrats who were too far Left for their home states or districts. But Trump destroys the Tea Party as a distinctive political persuasion by breaking it apart across the internal fault line between libertarians and paleoconservatives.

What about repealing Obamacare and cutting down the size and scope of government? What about the concrete goals that defined the Tea Party era? Trump just gave his answer by promising to repeal Obamacare—and replace it with something exactly like it. Plus, he’s been taking a lot of cues from his business associate Carl Icahn, who has been railing against “inequality” with a fervor reminiscent of Bernie Sanders. Oh, and in the “60 Minutes” interview, he refuses to consider any reform of Social Security on the grounds that a protectionist trade war with China, Japan, and Mexico is going to make America so rich we will easily be able to afford middle-class entitlements. It’s an assertion that will make any competent economist’s head explode (although Paul Krugman will probably love it).

In a year that was supposed to elevate a genuine, committed advocate of small government as the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, this is a disastrous diversion.

I hope that diversion is coming to an end, or at least coming to a middle. The question that remains is how much damage was done to this year’s prospects by the internal fighting Trump touched off within the Right. That’s because 2016 was supposed to be the year for a small-government candidate, and it still can be.

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