I work in an industry that covers politics the way TMZ covers celebrities and ESPN covers sports. So I probably shouldn’t be surprised we’ve arrived at a point where excitement isn’t merely the icing on the cake of a good candidate — it’s the whole damn cake.
Enter Donald Trump — whose excitement factor is at least half of his raison d’être.
“I’m a believer that politics should have a certain level of entertainment in it,” John Hawkins of RightWingNews recently told me. “So when you have somebody who gets people excited, I don’t think our initial reaction should be: ‘It’s Hitler! It’s another Hitler. Somebody’s excited about a Republican. Oh my God! We should be afraid!!'”
“I’d like to see more Republicans getting people excited and interested about politics,” Hawkins continued. “I think that’s a good thing.”
There is a generally accepted sense out there that normal conservative politicians play it too safe. And that this is boring. But this observation is nothing new. Consider this Murray Rothbard essay from 1992:
It is important to realize that the establishment doesn’t want excitement in politics, it wants the masses to continue to be lulled to sleep. It wants kinder, gentler; it wants the measured, judicious, mushy tone, and content, of a James Reston, a David Broder, or a Washington Week in Review. It doesn’t want a Pat Buchanan, not only for the excitement and hard edge of his content, but also for his similar tone and style.
And so the proper strategy for the right wing must be what we can call “right-wing populism”: exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often-shell-shocked right-wing intellectual cadre as well. And in this era where the intellectual and media elites are all establishment liberal-conservatives, all in a deep sense one variety or another of social democrat, all bitterly hostile to a genuine Right, we need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly.
That could have been written today. Depending on how you look at it, today’s phenomenon is merely a predictable, cyclical, reemergence of an old, if quixotic, brand of populism that has consistently been rejected.
… Or maybe Rothbard was just twenty-five years too early?
As has been widely documented here (and elsewhere), I see this trend as more bad than good. Yes, good statesmen — from Washington to Reagan — almost always possess panache. But they also have humility, wisdom, experience, virtue — other attributes that Trump seems to be lacking. I’m not suggesting we eschew excitement in favor of boring candidates — I’m suggesting we not make “excitement” be the primary criteria by which we elect the leader of the free world.
The search for excitement is the reason you go to an action movie. It’s the reason you watch football. Should it be the reason you support a political candidate?
Serious decisions demand serious contemplation. Emotion should not be our guide. The analogy of dating Donald Trump, but marrying someone else, feels especially appropriate here. Excitement is fleeting. It’s also based on the fact that people lie to you during the courtship phase of a relationship. Excitement is an emotion. And just as suitors can push our buttons by say, taking us to an amusement park (instead of a diner) on a first date, politicians can seduce us into falling in love with them, too.
But marrying the exciting guy or gal is usually a recipe for disaster. Feelings fade. What do you do after the thrill is gone?
Here I must confess some hypocrisy. I got started in politics as an operative, and my first experience in this regard was working for a young conservative firebrand who took out an establishment Republican in the primary in the Maryland state senate. You probably wouldn’t be reading this today were it not for the fact that someone got me excited.
In hindsight, I was probably equally attracted to the superficial attributes (youth and excitement) as I was to his philosophical stances. And my guess is that a lot of voters felt the same way. (We did, after all, oust a sixteen-year incumbent state senator.)
Predictably, the establishment did not like us for upsetting their apple cart. It felt invigorating and revolutionary to take them on — and win! Only later did I realize that this passion for youthful excitement was a fairly authoritarian impulse that is easy to exploit by those who want to manipulate (this is a commentary on my naiveté, not my erstwhile candidate’s ideology). Don’t get me wrong, my guy was better than the other guy; I’m glad he won. But my motivations weren’t entirely noble.
Today, I am different — and probably weirder. This is what I do for a living. I have kids. I read about politics, write about politics, and know some politicians on a personal level. As such, I’m much more skeptical of politicians and more worried about the fragility of western civilization than I was back when I was young and blessed by knowing less.
The average conservative voter has much more in common with the old Matt Lewis than the new one.
The old Matt Lewis would probably love Donald Trump.