Remember when conservatives used to talk about “Peak Trump”? He won Massachusetts but he wasn’t going any further. He won New York, but he had peaked. And then he won Indiana and his opponents dropped out. So I suppose we’re finally at Peak Trump.
The #NeverTrump crowd is still in shock. Sharp objects should be taken from them, Valium prescribed. But they should have seen it coming. Or would have done so had they paid more attention.
What they missed was that politics is about people. They had thought it was a kind of geometry. Start with the right axioms and a bright 12 year-old can work out the theorems. That was Mitt Romney’s 59-point plan. It had absolutely every conservative principle in it. I mean, I didn’t hear anyone saying he had left something out, that there should have been sixty points.
I never met anyone who could remember any one of the points.
Here’s what we heard instead. “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
Romney might have had the perfect set of conservative principles, but who cares if he thought half the voters were schnorrers? He preached a conservatism that combined a perfect fidelity to principle with an indifference to people.
And American voters gave their verdict. If a perfect, theoretical conservatism doesn’t make people better off, then the hell with it.
Here’s how Obama answered Romney. “In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year.… And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent. Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1 percent. One percent. That is the height of unfairness. It is wrong.”
Romney had come across as the person who likes firing people. Obama made people feel he had their back. And Obama won. He had spoken of income inequality, but the real issue was income immobility. Aristocracy.
Without paying much attention to it, we’ve become one of the most immobile societies in the First World, and that’s a complete betrayal of the promise of America, the idea that America was uniquely the country where people could get ahead, where our kids could have a better life than we did. That still happens, of course. But less than in the past. And less than in most other First World countries. The country of opportunity isn’t America. It’s Denmark. Or Canada. It’s called the American Dream, said George Carlin, because you have to be asleep to believe it.
Obama had identified the problem, but he didn’t offer a way back. The Republicans didn’t even see the problem. Some conservative thinkers told us that it really was too bad but we couldn’t do anything about it. It happened because we had moved to a high tech world that rewarded intelligent people (like themselves) and took jobs away from everyone else. Nonsense! That doesn’t explain why other countries are more mobile. Denmark isn’t exactly in the Stone Age.
Other conservatives tell us that only envious people care about wealth differences. The people who say this tend to be pretty well off themselves, so I take this with a grain of salt. And it’s part of everyone’s DNA to care about how we rank as against other people. But the real point is that what we mostly care about is not how we rank but how our kids will rank. There’s nothing wrong with caring about that, and a lot wrong when we don’t.
Democrats tell a different story. Inequality is caused by stingy welfare benefits and low tax rates. Horsefeathers! When it comes to welfare we’re amongst the most generous countries in the world, and our taxes aren’t too low when Canada looks like a tax haven.
Democrats talk a fine line about this. They prize socialist goals, in the form of income equality and mobility. And they propose socialist means to get there. With more candor they’d admit that socialist means — bad schools, a crazy immigration system, a regulatory state on steroids, the decline of the rule of law — are what caused the problem.
In The Way Back I defend the Democrats’ socialist goals. But if that’s what you want, it will take capitalist means to get there. And that’s the secret to Trump’s appeal. Say what you will of him, but he’s the ultimate capitalist.
Photo: Marc Nozell/Creative Commons