The true believers

Trump voters have been mocked for believing that a pampered billionaire is somehow a man of the people. Yet on an important level, he really is one of them. That is to say, he really believes the right-wing conspiracy mongering that the Republican Party has been foisting on its base since the advent of right-wing talk radio. Yes, he breaks with certain orthodoxies such as trade, and in general his beliefs — if that is the appropriate way to characterize his stance toward these ideas — are, shall we say, eclectic. But if you talk to a Republican true believer, you will find that they always have some distinctive opinion of their own. None of them, perhaps aside from sad College Republicans in bow ties and sweater vests, are 100% true believers, embracing every one of the talking points. No, they are free-thinking individualists, proving that their side is a space of authentic and vigorous debate, as opposed to the oppressive orthodoxies of the politically correct left.

The problem with conventional Republican candidates is that they operate in the uncanny valley. In their efforts to appease the imagined primary voter who believes all the talking points, they themselves make an effort to embrace all the talking points, but no one actually believes all that stuff. In attempting to connect with their voters, they wind up coming across as fake, a phenomenon that finds its physical echo in the fact that Marco Rubio appears to be a CGI-rendered facsimile of a handsome man. They were willing to put up with Romney, whose open embrace of fakeness somehow looped back around into a perverse form of authenticity, but what they really want is Trump — someone who, like them, embraces only 95% of the talking points, who watches nothing but Fox News but with what they imagine to be a critical eye, who says horrible, and frankly make-up, things but reserves the right to back away: “just throwin’ it out there.”

The relationship between Trump and conventional Republicanism has been much-debated. Clinton tried to differentiate Trump from the Republicans, which proved to be both a tactical and a substantive mistake. Clearly, whatever else Trump is, he really is a Republican, he didn’t just choose his party at random. He is an intensification of Republicanism, albeit not in ways that we might have predicted in advance. He is substantively worse, as his budget proposal amply demonstrates, while still being very much in the spirit of past Republicans. How do we account for this strange phenomenon?

My theory is that Trump is what happens when Republicans start electing the kind of voter that their propaganda produces. This is a process that already began with the Tea Party, who also bucked 5% of traditional Republican orthodoxy while taking literally many of the demands that had historically been mere window-dressing. Trump is not different in kind from a Tea Party Republican legislator, and doubtless if he had eyed a Senate seat rather than the presidency, he would be hard to distinguish from his colleagues. But he’s not just a member of Congress, he’s the president.

Up till now, the Republicans have tried to manage the true believers by indulging them symbolically while counting on the real adults to get things done — Obama, Senate Republicans, Boehner. But now there’s no adult in the room (other than Paul Ryan, ha ha!) to provide the stable background for their venting. And I don’t think anyone knows how to handle the situation or can predict how it will turn out — because the longer he’s in office, the more the potential “adults” will be coopted and discredited.