The Dangerous Election

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Reno, Nevada, January 2016

Everyone who has seriously worked in politics and journalism agrees that this has been the strangest and least predictable presidential campaign we’ve ever seen. This is largely because of Donald Trump’s angry elephantine presence. Though not solely: Bernie Sanders’s fund-raising prowess and skill at campaigning have rattled all Democratic assumptions. And then comes an event like the death of Antonin Scalia, which will reverberate throughout the length of the campaign.

None of us has experienced anything quite like it. And yet with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that what is happening in this campaign, for all its crazy-sounding dogmatism, isn’t so crazy at all. The developments within both parties reflect the long-standing anxieties that liberals and conservatives feel about the country, anxieties that have only grown sharper as time has passed. For liberals, the chief concern for thirty-five years now has been about the unfairness of the economy—virtual wage stagnation for most workers, huge gains for the top 1 percent, and the lax regulatory and enforcement regimes that have permitted those outcomes, along with slow recovery from the most recent recession.

For conservatives, for about the same period of time, the main worry has been what is broadly called “culture,” by which we really mean the anger and resentment felt by older white Americans about the fact that the country is no longer “theirs” and that their former status and authority no longer seem what they once were. This rubric takes in a number of issues—immigration, especially illegal immigration; same-sex marriage; a black president in the White House; all the things that conservatives bundle under the reviled label “political correctness.” In their minds it is some sort of taint that has infected every institution in this once-great nation and is destroying it daily before their eyes.

It is no wonder, then, that a man who possesses a sharp instinct for identifying and simplistically fulminating against all these evils should have emerged to define the shape of the Republican race. Donald Trump’s rise has taught us a few things about him, chiefly his instinct for dominating the daily news; but mostly it has taught us what the central voting issue of conservatives in the Obama era really is. It’s not taxes or terrorism or even abortion rights. It is that we have been letting in too many undesirables who reject conservatives’ values, compete for jobs, and are changing the country radically and irreparably for the worse.

Trump has committed many apostasies, such as his increasingly aggressive condemnation of the Iraq War. (In the February 13 debate, he went so far as to accuse George W. Bush of intentionally lying about Iraq’s alleged weapons. This diverges sharply from the standard Republican line that it’s simply a pity that the intelligence was so wrong.) Trump’s record of statements and positions, which include past support…

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