The Trump Paradox

President Trump’s decision to direct the General Services Agency to begin working with the Biden transition team, along with several failures of the president’s legal team to garner enough evidence to change the outcome, has made it increasingly likely that Biden will be the next president. These moves do not mean that Trump and the Republicans should stop working on exposing the electoral fraud that certainly contributed to Biden’s victory. But the odds have increased that Biden will take office in January.

Perhaps that’s why we’ve been seeing more postmortems of Trump’s presidency and his apparent failure to get reelected. The various explanations all point to a paradox at the heart of the Trump phenomenon, one that exposes a larger paradox among the American electorate.

We don’t need to explain why progressive Democrats voted for one of the weakest, least accomplished, and most unsuited candidates in American history. The party fancies itself a technocratic elite, motivated not by Madison’s “passions and interests,” but by “science” and credentialed “experts.” This faith is stubbornly resistant to the decades of empirical evidence that repudiates the assumption that the human mind, behavior, motivations, and free will can be understood sufficiently enough to generate scientific truths to govern them. What appears to be a technocracy is in fact a political religious cult, a fact made obvious by the last four years of hysterical, irrational tantrums thrown by the Democrats.

The paradox really concerns maybe several hundred-thousand swing-state voters at most, many of whom in 2016 voted for Trump but switched in this election. 

One explanation rings various changes on the “love the policy, hate the personality” theme, evident in post-election polls that showed nearly a third said they voted against Trump. These voters, including large numbers of white suburbanites, had swallowed their distaste in 2016 for Trump’s boisterous, rude style and took the chance that he would correct the failures of the Obama years, especially on the economy, but also on issues like border control or a feckless foreign policy. Nor did it hurt Trump’s chances that Hillary Clinton was the epitome of the fossilized D.C. establishment, leveraging government service for profit, and dripping with a sense of entitlement and unearned superiority over the common folk “deplorables” and “bitter clingers.”

Trump, of course, delivered with a booming economy that created wealth and jobs. But his aggressive, take-no-prisoners personal style got to be too much for some voters, the argument goes, who were worn out by the constant Twitter storms of abuse and insult. They wanted to return to “normal” political discourse, a government of “comity” and polite “norms” that supposedly Trump had blown up with his alleged narcissism, thin skin, and vanity, resulting in unprecedented “divisiveness.” The all-Trump 24/7 news cycle had grown tiresome. Joe Biden, with his near half-century, duplicitous persona as an ordinary, working-class guy who could “reach across the aisle,” appealed to voters who wanted a break from political warfare.

No More Submission

Herein lies the paradox––the facts don’t support this skewed take on American political history. 

In general, the ideals of “comity” and “decorum” have been scant in American politics. Even during the beloved George Washington’s presidency, the fault lines in American political philosophy were dividing the new nation, and by 1800 had created two parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. There is no subsequent period of American history in which stark divisions and vicious rhetoric equal to, or even worse than, what we are used to, did not dominate political discourse.

And in recent decades, it has been the Democrats who took the lead in waging total political warfare against their enemies. Their disdain for and insults of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and both Bushes, not to mention Supreme Court nominees, seem to have been forgotten by the NeverTrump champions of civil discourse. As for Donald Trump, you have to go back to Lincoln’s presidency––when the Great Emancipator was regularly called the “original gorilla”–– to find the levels of sustained, irrational vitriol as intense as those inflicted on Donald Trump. 

Worse, Trump’s first term was dominated by the Democrats’ attempts to cripple or end a presidency they claimed was “illegitimate” due to “Russian collusion.” Federal investigative and police agencies were corrupted by illegal tactics and specious pretexts like the “Steele dossier” paid for by the Democratic National Committee. And this effort had the support of the media, entertainment, and popular culture. Not just the president, but his wife and family were made targets of insult and derision. 

So why should we have been surprised that a man whose personality was forged in the bare-knuckled, tough-talking, working class world of construction, casino and hotel development, beauty pageants, professional wrestling, and reality television, a man whose outsized, braggadocio style had been known globally for over 30 years, would bring that style to the presidency? Or would react to unprecedented, unrelenting insult and obstruction exactly how his well-known persona should have told us he would? 

And don’t forget, Trump rarely initiated these duels of insult and invective, but responded to unreasonable and excessive attacks of the kind that establishment Republicans had always meekly swallowed.

I can understand why progressives are so incensed. They had grown used to Republicans taking such abuse and saying “thank you, sir, may I have another?” They were like the beach bully in the old Charles Atlas ads when the geek he’s humiliated comes back and breaks his face. But it’s strange to see people who voted for Trump because they were sick of Republican pusillanimity in the face of Democrats’ aggression suddenly deciding that style is more important than a record of achievement that rivals Ronald Reagan’s.

The next paradox results from the weakness of Joe Biden, and the public displays of progressive violence, toxic socialist policy proposals, and naked power grabs during the pandemic. I could perhaps understand some voters switching from Trump if a younger, charismatic candidate with a Clintonesque “third way” platform had been the candidate. But Joe Biden? C’mon on, man! A septuagenarian person of pallor with a Senate career marked by carrying water for the banking industry and viciously attacking Supreme Court nominees, and a history of plagiarism, mendacious personal anecdotes, and inappropriate behavior around women and girls? And let’s not forget, he is a former vice president, who traded on his office to grift profit for himself and family, and who now shows obvious signs of cognitive decline and confusion. How can that cancel out Trump’s many achievements?

Then there are the “peaceful” protests––riots, arson, assaults, and looting since May that blue-state mayors, city councils, and governors have abetted and, in some cases, openly supported. And don’t forget the radical leftist aims, like defunding the police, advocated by Black Lives Matter and the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-Bernie Sanders wing of the party. How can someone who voted for Trump in 2016 as a reaction to Democratic misrule and overreach, now turn back to the very same party that makes Barack Obama look like a moderate? Especially when, under cover of the pandemic, blue-state politicians have imposed draconian lockdowns and other unconstitutional policies that privilege rioters over church-goers––not to mention severely damaging the booming economy Trump’s policies had created out of the Obama-Biden sluggish recovery from the Great Recession?

The Ultimate Paradox 

What this means for a significant number of voters who supported Trump in 2016 and switched to Biden despite all these arguments against doing so is that style is more important than substance for them––and that’s the paradox that was exposed over the last four years of NeverTrump hysteria, culminating in Biden’s likely win. This incoherence suggests that the habits of consumerism and advertising are more powerful than a commonsense recognition that words and subjective feelings are less important than actions. 

This phenomenon is not new in politics, of course. JFK’s persona was created by a brilliant advertising campaign run by Henry Luce’s Time and Life magazines, aided by the growing influence of television. Ronald Reagan attracted voters with his natural wit and humor, conviviality, and lack of pretense and hauteur. Bill Clinton had the gift of communicating empathy and good-ole-boy simplicity. And, to a people hungry for racial reconciliation, Barack Obama and his family sold them on his sincere desire to transcend the old racial and party divisions.

Trump, however, was a different candidate for a different time. By 2016 half of America had grown tired of pre-fab Republican politicians whose personae and conservative bona fides seldom were consistent with their actual policies when in office, and who spoke too often in the conciliatory phrases that Democrats regularly scorned. Trump was not a creature of focus groups and consultants: he was the same man people had seen for more than 30 years, and he promised to serve the interests of ordinary people outside the credentialed class and the cognitive elite. And he kept his promise.

That’s the ultimate paradox. If Trump had, as many now are suggesting he should have, backed off of his personality once he became president, many of those nearly 74 million voters he won this year would have defected, and the election would have created the blue tsunami that the pollsters and pundits were prophesying, but that Trump’s coattails prevented. Despite Ann Coulter’s wish, you are unlikely to have Trumpism without Trump. We would need a lot more straight-talking, non-cringing Republicans for that.

In the end, a few hundred thousand voters––not to mention an unknown number of fraudulent votes–– likely will have given us either the most radical presidential administration in history, or one that, checked by the Senate, still will be likely to undo many of the economic and foreign policy achievements of the previous administration. 

That’s the system we have inherited; but that same system gives us the opportunity to change course.  

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About Bruce S. Thornton

Bruce S. Thornton is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His books include "Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization" and "Democracy's Dangers & Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama."

Photo: Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images