Donald Trump and the myth of the free man in politics
Trump's greatest appeal is that he's not an encumbered politician. But it also means he has no obligations to voters.
I still think that Donald Trump's moment is drawing to a close, that his poll numbers are inflated because reality television stars and billionaire blowhards have higher name recognition than puny elected officials. But he's still here. Why? He's the de facto candidate of American nationalism, and he's a free man. And in the space between those two personas, he will fall.
Donald Trump has received vociferous support from working-class Americans, including these displaced workers in Detroit who want American jobs for American men and who have gone wild for Trump. But Trump is also bolstered by a certain type of culture warrior. When people think of the culture war they usually imagine the Moral Majority or pro-lifers. These groups oppose liberalism because it encourages, sanctions, and approves behavior that is an offense against God. Trump is not the candidate of this crew. See his willingness to fund Planned Parenthood, but only the "good" parts. Or his total infelicity when speaking about matters of the soul.
Trump is the candidate of culture warriors of a different cast, those who hate liberalism because they believe it is the ideology of Western suicide. He's the candidate for people who take the far-left advocates of mass immigration at their word when they say one of the benefits of America's demographic transformation is that it will make the country less white-bread. He's the candidate for people whose major problem with capitalism is that it is indifferent or hostile when choosing between Americans and foreigners.
He is, in other words, the de facto candidate of American nationalists. Some of these people identify with the label neo-reactionary. Some call themselves pro-Western. Ann Coulter, a big fan of Trump, says it is about culture, and that's probably what powers the surge of support for Trump among writers at Breitbart. Plenty of the most pro-Trump, anti-"cuckservative" voices are forthright that the racial composition of America is foremost on their mind.
They are drawn to him for obvious reasons. America's system of elections does not naturally produce nationalist parties like France's National Front or the Danish Peoples' Party. And here's a billionaire candidate who says nasty things about Mexican immigrants.
Nonetheless, Donald Trump makes an odd champion for this crew. Trump may be an embodied indictment of a completely neutered American political elite. But he isn't exactly Charles Martel, or even a Tom Tancredo, for that matter. He's for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who live in the United States. His stance on immigration changes with the exigencies of his campaign. Back in 1999, during one of his many flirtations with a presidential run, Trump did his best parody of a campus activist by berating Pat Buchanan — then the most out-front advocate of restricted immigration — as a Hitler lover. As recently as 2012, Trump was criticizing Mitt Romney as too hardline on the immigration issue.
Beyond the fact that he fails many litmus tests, Trump is a crudity. I've always thought that the whole point of being a reactionary was that it allowed you to admire the kind of greatness and excellence that aristocracy produces, the kind that democratic cultures ignore and impugn. But no man is more democratic than Donald Trump, whose first thought when contemplating a princess is that he "had a shot" with her. Trump is a nationalist by default, not conviction or temperament.
And that is the other side of the coin. People are attracted to him because Trump is a free man. He is free to ignore conventions of running for politics. He is free to say he won't give up the leverage of a third-party bid while running for the GOP nomination. He's free to say, to a conservative audience, that single-payer health care works in Scotland and Canada. A man who doesn't need permission and consistently resists any external demands on his behavior is a fantasy character. In another time, this romance of the free man settled on the vengeful, rich, violent Andrew Jackson. Today it is on Donald Trump.
This isn't an insight original to me, or to conservatives who are unnerved by the way Trump has captured the imagination of a certain segment of Americans. Some have attributed Trump's success to his anti-PC style. "I don't have time for political correctness," he explained to Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly. And it is true, Trump will not be shamed into asking for forgiveness from the language cops. Not even God can get a "my bad" from The Donald.
But it's not just PC. Most Americans are not free men in the way Trump is free. Trump commands others. Even people who are supposed to be his adversaries suck up to him. Most Americans spend most of their time being commanded. They have bosses. They have HR departments informing them on how to socialize. They have creditors checking in on them. They can't even put a little fright into their kid's little league coach, let alone the head of Fox News.
But free men and reactionary nationalists are not the same thing. A reactionary wears the burdens of his office, and a nationalist defends his people. Trump brags about making a lot of money in Atlantic City, then ditching the place as it slid into misery.
And that's the paradox. Trump is admired because he doesn't give a crap about political conventions and niceties. But there is a reason why Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio bow and scrape before certain institutions — the party, the movement — which is that they are the very things that demonstrate some form of connection between a politician and the interests of a nation. Those mechanisms for accountability may be broken, or they may be weighted dangerously toward the wealthy, but they still serve a basic purpose.
Believing Trump will bring America back is as foolish as believing he would bring Atlantic City back. Unlike Rubio and Bush, he's a free man — and perfectly willing to walk away and say it was your fault, but that he enjoyed the ride anyway.