Watch this clip from Trump’s CPAC speech; it has a Darth Vadery feel to it:
Two initial reactions from me.
First, this is horrifying. We have here a man who wants to return to the White House selling himself as the candidate of vengeance. Not justice, not a return to common sense and normality. Revenge. To say this is not healthy politics is to vastly understate matters. In his chief rival, Ron DeSantis, we have a tough politician who — unlike Trump — actually takes risks to roll back wokeness, and does so effectively. DeSantis offers a positive vision that’s vastly tougher than the usual do-nothing Republican normie crap. But I have doubts about the power of that up against Trump’s appeal to the darkest, most primitive emotion. I really hope I’m wrong. Even if DeSantis should win the GOP nomination, it’s easy to imagine Trump playing spoiler, and locking up the vengeance vote.
Second, though, the Left should ask itself why it is that Trump arose, and can stand there getting loads of applause promising people to be their agent of retribution. How did we get to a point in our country in which vast numbers of people would be willing to vote for a candidate that openly promises vengeance on their enemies? I don’t expect anybody on the Left to think about this, but they sure as hell should. Spain did not spiral into civil war in the 1930s because of the Right’s actions alone.
For what do Trump voters seek retribution? It’s not that hard to think of causes. Maybe they resent that the United States, for the first time since World War II, is living through a decline in life expectancy. Maybe they resent the fact that the country seems to be falling apart — drugs, crime, etc — and nobody in power seems to be able or willing to do anything about it. Maybe they resent that the ruling class — Biden at the top — has brought into being a world that privileges some people on the basis of skin color, and punishes others (most recently, see Biden’s “equity” executive order). Maybe they resent that entire institutions and professional fields have been seized by ideological fanatics who are destroying the possibility of excellence therein. Maybe they’re sick and tired of seeing all the crime return to their streets, and watching it explained away or ignored by the media because it doesn’t fit the Narrative. Maybe they are fed up with Washington politicians of both parties who won’t stop mass immigration by sealing the southern border (which could have been done for a fraction of the money we have sent to Ukraine). Maybe they resent that their children are propagandized at school and in the media to hate their own bodies and think that they might be happy if they severed their breasts or testicles. Maybe they hate that Washington in this century hasn’t yet found a war it didn’t want to fight, using their sons and daughters. Maybe they hate that our woke ruling class has created Weimar America, and calls it Paradise.
Maybe they are tired of feeling dispossessed in their own country. I think of this passage from the introduction to (liberal) Alan Ehrenhalt’s great 1996 book The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community In America, about how Chicago changed in the 1960s and 1970s. Ehrenhalt writes in these paragraphs with sympathy about the losers in the great cultural revolution of that era:
Ehrenhalt’s book is almost thirty years old. American expats living in my circle in Budapest agree that the Hungarian capital feels like life in America in the mid-1990s: things were loosening up, but it still felt like things were cohesive, and purposeful, and … normal. Unlike today. A lot of us wish we could have the mid-1990s back.
Anyway, the danger about Trump’s positioning himself as a crusader for vengeance is that he is tapping into something real. A lot of Americans have good reason to want retribution. But if that’s what they pursue, they’re going to tear our country apart. Joe Biden, the Democrats, and their woke battalions marching through America’s institutions have done a hell of a job ripping apart the social fabric of our country, and tearing to bits the classical liberal virtues that made life together in our highly diverse nation possible. We can hope that a DeSantis presidency will be the beginning of a restoration. We can be certain that a Trump presidency might give the Left what it deserves, but will also lead America even further into chaos and internal conflict.
If Biden had not gone pedal-to-the-metal on wokeness, we might not be here today. But he did, and we are. If you haven’t read Tucker Carlson’s excellent January 2016 Politico essay about Trump’s candidacy, titled “Donald Trump Is Shocking, Vulgar — And Right,” you really should. Right now, read it. He explains in it how then-candidate Trump, who was not taken seriously by GOP officials and media folks at that point (mea maxima culpa!), despite his crudeness, made a necessary critique of the rottenness of Washington — especially the establishment GOP. Here’s an excerpt:
He Exists Because You Failed
American presidential elections usually amount to a series of overcorrections: Clinton begat Bush, who produced Obama, whose lax border policies fueled the rise of Trump. In the case of Trump, though, the GOP shares the blame, and not just because his fellow Republicans misdirected their ad buys or waited so long to criticize him. Trump is in part a reaction to the intellectual corruption of the Republican Party. That ought to be obvious to his critics, yet somehow it isn’t.
Consider the conservative nonprofit establishment, which seems to employ most right-of-center adults in Washington. Over the past 40 years, how much donated money have all those think tanks and foundations consumed? Billions, certainly. (Someone better at math and less prone to melancholy should probably figure out the precise number.) Has America become more conservative over that same period? Come on. Most of that cash went to self-perpetuation: Salaries, bonuses, retirement funds, medical, dental, lunches, car services, leases on high-end office space, retreats in Mexico, more fundraising. Unless you were the direct beneficiary of any of that, you’d have to consider it wasted.
Pretty embarrassing. And yet they’re not embarrassed. Many of those same overpaid, underperforming tax-exempt sinecure-holders are now demanding that Trump be stopped. Why? Because, as his critics have noted in a rising chorus of hysteria, Trump represents “an existential threat to conservatism.”
Let that sink in. Conservative voters are being scolded for supporting a candidate they consider conservative because it would be bad for conservatism? And by the way, the people doing the scolding? They’re the ones who’ve been advocating for open borders, and nation-building in countries whose populations hate us, and trade deals that eliminated jobs while enriching their donors, all while implicitly mocking the base for its worries about abortion and gay marriage and the pace of demographic change. Now they’re telling their voters to shut up and obey, and if they don’t, they’re liberal.
It turns out the GOP wasn’t simply out of touch with its voters; the party had no idea who its voters were or what they believed. For decades, party leaders and intellectuals imagined that most Republicans were broadly libertarian on economics and basically neoconservative on foreign policy. That may sound absurd now, after Trump has attacked nearly the entire Republican catechism (he savaged the Iraq War and hedge fund managers in the same debate) and been greatly rewarded for it, but that was the assumption the GOP brain trust operated under. They had no way of knowing otherwise. The only Republicans they talked to read the Wall Street Journal too.
On immigration policy, party elders were caught completely by surprise. Even canny operators like Ted Cruz didn’t appreciate the depth of voter anger on the subject. And why would they? If you live in an affluent ZIP code, it’s hard to see a downside to mass low-wage immigration. Your kids don’t go to public school. You don’t take the bus or use the emergency room for health care. No immigrant is competing for your job. (The day Hondurans start getting hired as green energy lobbyists is the day my neighbors become nativists.) Plus, you get cheap servants, and get to feel welcoming and virtuous while paying them less per hour than your kids make at a summer job on Nantucket. It’s all good.
Apart from his line about Mexican rapists early in the campaign, Trump hasn’t said anything especially shocking about immigration. Control the border, deport lawbreakers, try not to admit violent criminals — these are the ravings of a Nazi? This is the “ghost of George Wallace” that a Politico piece described last August? A lot of Republican leaders think so. No wonder their voters are rebelling.
It goes on, concluding:
Washington Republicans look on at this in horror, their suspicions confirmed. Beneath the thin topsoil of rural conservatism, they see the seeds of proto-fascism beginning to sprout. But that’s not quite right. Republicans in the states aren’t dangerous. They’ve just evaluated the alternatives and decided those are worse.
We know what happened next. Now, if I were a Democrat, I would try to hold my disgust with “I am your retribution” in abeyance long enough to think about why that kind of raw appeal speaks to people — especially in a time when American infrastructure is collapsing, and there’s no clear economic stability for more and more people, yet both parties in Washington find it urgently necessary to send over $100 billion to fight Russia in Ukraine. Maybe, just maybe, normal people have had it with the ruling class.
Y’all know me: I’m very enthusiastic about Ron DeSantis’s candidacy, and think he would be a great president. But I get why the Darth Vader of Palm Beach reaches people. Trump had four years to show what he could do, and he mostly flopped. We on the Right can’t afford four more years of lib-owning rhetoric, while the Left solidifies its hold on institutional life. But we just might get it. And if that happens, the Left’s outrageous excesses in the Biden years will be the main cause. I know, I know: liberal readers are going to construe this as me giving Trump voters a “look what the libs made me do!” excuse. Come on, though: think! I know people who are fundamentally conservative, but who voted for Biden because they could not stand Trump. You could mock them by saying their stance is “look what Trump made me do!”, but that is a childish way to cope with a real political phenomenon. After all, the votes of people who cast them out of sheer disgust for the other guy count just as much as the votes of people who cast them out of principled analysis. If you want to understand how we got here, and where we might be going next, you had better consider both the shocking and vulgar aspects of Donald Trump, but also the things that the Left in power (in politics and in institutional and business life) have done to wreck the country from the point of view of ordinary conservatives. If liberals and progressives become so drunk on their own sense of moral righteousness that they can’t see why so many Americans hate what they are doing, and take it as a personal attack, they won’t see a second Trump term coming.
For many of the people to whom “I am your retribution” rhetoric appeals, the radical erosion of community and authority, and of a sense of national purpose, in the last generation is not a matter of intellectual debate. It is something they can feel in their bones, and it makes them shiver.
(Readers, today begins the final week of this blog at TAC, after twelve years. Once again, I invite you who have enjoyed what your have read here to move over with me to Rod Dreher’s Diary, my subscription-only Substack. It costs only five dollars per month, or fifty dollars per year. You get at least five fresh posts per day from me, though this past week, I will have sent out one each day after I get today’s mailing out. And you can participate in what is fast becoming one of the best comments sections on the web. Please join me today, and together we can rule the galaxy, or at least the back row at the Prytania Theater.)