What does Donald Trump actually want? That is the practical question posed by his increasingly bizarre, and increasingly successful, “campaign.” Jon Chait gets the essence of Trump’s appeal exactly right: it’s not just that, as many people have noted, Trump employs an air raid siren rather than a dog whistle when pandering to the racist id of the GOP base — it’s that he has either cannily decided to exploit, or simply stumbled upon, the huge disconnect between that base and the party elites:
By design or (more likely) by accident, Trump has inhabited a ripe ideological niche. Both parties contain ranges of opinions within them. And both are run by elites who have more socially liberal and economically conservative views than their own voters. (There are plenty of anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-same-sex-marriage Democrats not represented by their leaders.) But the tension between base and elite runs deeper in the Republican Party. Conservative leaders tend to care very little about conservative social policy, or even disagree with it altogether. Conservative [leaders] care a great deal about cutting the top tax rate, deregulating the financial industry, and, ideally, reducing spending on social insurance — proposals that have virtually no authentic following among the rank and file.
This chart by Lee Drutman, tracking public opinion on immigration and Social Security, displays the disconnect:
The sparsely filled bottom right corner represents the libertarian-ish leanings of the Republican elite, which would like to liberalize immigration law and decrease Social Security benefits. The upper left corner, thick with dots, represents the populist, opposite combination: higher Social Security spending and less immigration. The Republican field — all of which, other than Trump, has endorsed raising the Social Security retirement age — is fighting over the tiny right side, leaving the huge upper left all to Trump. A new poll shows Trump leading New Hampshire with 35 percent, and the next-highest candidate, John Kasich, pulling in 11 percent. A South Carolina poll has Trump pulling in 30 percent of the vote.
Trump has homed in on a bona fide weakness in the Republican Party structure, one that has fascinated liberal critics in particular. The Republican Party has harnessed one set of passions, and then channeled them into unrelated policy outcomes favored by the party elite. Historically, the passions they have harnessed have revolved around foreign policy — like anti-communism, or the surge in nationalism following 9/11. Some of those passions have revolved around culture — a love of guns, the Pledge of Allegiance, a disdain for politicians who look kind of French, and so on.
But the classic formula seems to be yielding diminishing returns.
Now, as Chait points out, from the perspective of a businessman exploiting a potentially profitable niche, turning himself into an updated hybrid of Huey Long and George Wallace is a great idea. From the perspective of somebody trying to become president it’s a sure-fire loser, which means, of course, that the Republican elites will probably do just about anything to keep Trump from getting the nomination.
So what, ultimately, is Trump trying to accomplish?
Which brings us back to the question of what it is Trump is after. His presidential campaign seems to have come at enormous financial cost. His undisguised (or less-disguised) racism has made him an economic pariah. He has lost sponsorship agreements from a long list of corporations that want to sell things to people who aren’t white. He’s traded his lucrative brand for Pat Buchanan’s brand.
This immunity from consequence gives Trump the power to wreak apparently limitless havoc upon what is currently his party. The consequences Republicans impose for Trump’s offenses have no effect on him. You cannot threaten a man if you don’t even know what he cares about. Is Trump running to spite the reporters who mocked him as a bluffer? As an expensive lark, like the time he got piano lessons from Elton John? To use his political fame to trade up for his next wife? Does Trump actually believe he can become president of the United States?
It’s a good question, and my guess of an answer is that Trump’s campaign started as a publicity stunt, but has since spun out of control. It’s the plot of The Producers, but, increasingly, the joke’s on the GOP. And, now that Trump’s bottomless narcissism is being fed by the spectacle of his transformation into a “serious” candidate, it’s hard to predict where all this will ultimately end up.