The Tribunes of Discontent

Jack Spencer
‘Presidents,’ South Dakota, 2005; photograph by Jack Spencer from his book This Land: An American Portrait. It includes a foreword by Jon Meacham and is published by University of Texas Press.

As the campaign to delegitimize Donald Trump goes forward, GOP leaders are doing little to stop it. In fact, they appeared to be leading the attack after Trump bypassed them to cut a deal with the Democrats on the debt-ceiling and also—though the signals are mixed—immigration. This came after The New York Times reported, in late August, a “profane shouting match” between Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, over McConnell’s refusal to protect Trump from the widening investigations of Robert Mueller.

A week earlier, House Speaker Paul Ryan and others had condemned Trump’s sympathetic remarks about the “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which white supremacists and neo-Nazis, some in guerrilla camouflage and carrying automatic weapons, clashed with peaceful counterprotesters, causing the death of a young woman. Yet all this is undercut by the stubborn fact of Trump’s continued support from the GOP base. Republicans still give him an approval rating of about 80 percent, five times higher than they gave congressional Republicans following the Senate’s initial failure to pass the long-promised bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. However erratic Trump may be, and however unsuited for high office, the voters who elected him are still loyal. “Right now, it is his party,” the former Bush official and vehement “Never Trumper” Peter Wehner recently said.

The insistent portrayal of Trump as a “counterfeit Republican and no conservative,” in George Will’s words, overlooks the most important fact about him and his supporters. He is the latest in the modern pantheon of right-wing tribunes—Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan were others—who have risen to power by seizing on and directing passions that more conventional politicians have been careful not to exploit.

A strong early indication of Trump’s bold approach came during the first GOP presidential debate in the summer of 2015. Today it is his exchanges with the moderator Megyn Kelly that are remembered most vividly. But a more telling moment occurred earlier, in the very first question, put to all ten candidates on stage by the second moderator, Brett Baier, for the purpose, it was plain, of exposing Trump as an interloper. “Is there anyone,” he asked,

and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person?

Again, we’re looking for you to raise your hand now—raise your hand now if you won’t make that pledge tonight.

A single hand went up: “Mr. Trump.”

The irony became explicit seven months later, when Trump’s struggling opponents would be asked if they would pledge their…

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