A political novice like Donald Trump couldn’t have caught fire, built a deeply loyal following and defeated 16 experienced candidates without saying something many people found compelling. The Republican nominee did this from the start, with some important, honest statements, and some untrue and ugly ones.
It’s no coincidence that many of the most compelling points the New York billionaire made were also stressed by the Democratic Party’s upstart candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders. Both men were convincing in their attacks on a system in which big-money contributors buy politicians, elections and laws. The two targeted the ruling class of politicians and powerful supporters who so often rig the game to their advantage.
And both men caught the mood of the moment when they attacked treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement as unfair and poorly negotiated. There is a sense among many Americans that these deals have sent good jobs out of the country to mostly benefit wealthy corporations without safeguarding our workers or industries.
Increased automation and outsourcing of jobs have been changing this country for decades. Establishment politicians from both parties have ignored the pain the changes have caused. Hard data show the middle class is shrinking across the nation. The government has to do more to restore the growth of this bedrock segment of our society, a point Trump made brilliantly.
Trump also deviated from mainstream Republican philosophy to his benefit and credit. He never told a GOP base increasingly dependent on the social safety net that he planned to slash programs like food stamps, Medicare or Social Security to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy. There is no political future for the Republican Party if it insists on continuing to make such a promise.
And Trump gave voice to the widely held belief that government is a maddening bastion of incompetence and inefficiency that needs a free-market nudge.
But Trump also said terrible things, and it is disheartening that some of his most vehement supporters seemed to be more attracted to his travesties than his truths.
Trump kicked off his campaign by saying Mexico sends us rapists and drug dealers. His degradations of women are revolting to hear and impossible to explain away. His presumptions that Muslims are dangerous and that all black people live in crime-ridden neighborhoods and have no jobs are ignorant and bizarre.
Trump flouted crucial traditions like the release of tax returns by nominees. And rather than the hoped-for pivot to an acceptable general election campaign after the primaries, Trump began cynically attacking and questioning our treasured institutions: the rights of a free press and freedom of religion, the judicial system, and the credibility of the FBI. Worst of all, in a pre-emptive move to explain away his likely loss, he claimed an unfounded fear of fake votes and a “rigged” election that could be heard by his most vehement fans as a justification for Election Day vigilantism.
Trump never said how he would defeat the Islamic State, or force China or Russia or Mexico or any nation to do his bidding. He never said how he’d rebuild the military or the nation’s infrastructure, how he’d improve education or health care or pay for his tax cuts.
The flaw in Trump’s candidacy is that his best promises are fairy tales, but his worst attributes are real. He can’t bring back 1950s-style manufacturing jobs, immediately end illegal immigration or quickly squelch terrorism. But he would bring callous indifference and divisiveness to our society and furious, impetuous and ignorant leadership to the White House. Three times in debates with Hillary Clinton he tried to remain calm and presidential. Not once could he keep his cool for even 90 minutes.
Our leaders must address the needs Trump deftly identified. He has proved himself singularly incapable of doing so.