One of the enduring mysteries of the 2016 presidential campaign is why Donald Trump’s history of exaggerations and improprieties has not cost him more dearly than it has. While his offensive characterizations of primary opponents and later criticisms of people like the Khans have clearly turned off some prominent members of his own party, his campaign is nevertheless attracting a majority of Independents, a growing number of blue-collar Democrats, and earning him back a very large percentage of the Republican base.
What clouds our understanding of Trump’s ability to survive his seemingly reckless behavior is the lack of historical perspective. As it turns out, Trump has not so much exceeded the bounds of political decorum as he has updated an effective strategy developed nearly a half-century ago by the radical predecessors of today’s progressive movement.
To those of us old enough to remember firsthand the notorious “sixties” (really the late 1960s and early ‘70s), Trump’s tactics of sarcasm, exaggeration, and insult are all-too-familiar. They made up the standard playbook for Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd, and many other prominent activists of that period.
While it is understandable that someone who did not live through those turbulent times would dismiss such behavior as the naïve and undisciplined enthusiasm of a relatively young leadership – perhaps amplified by the psychedelic influences of the day – it was neither impulsive nor deluded. Davis, Hayden, Rudd and their ideological allies understood full well that a certain sensationalism was required to capture the attention of those opposed to racial injustice, sexual inequality, and of course the Vietnam War but skeptical that conventional politics could do much about them.
Similar to today’s Republican NeverTrumpists, many moderate Democrats back then were uncomfortable with offensive protest rhetoric and, while they acknowledged support for many of the demonstrators’ goals, nevertheless washed their hands of the means. Yet the larger boomer audience quickly came to appreciate activist theatrics as an effective way to discredit the status quo while simultaneously mobilizing dissent.
The only real question in the minds of sympathetic onlookers was whether the outspoken protest leaders were willing to persist long enough to effect actual political change. As it turned out, they were – and, in fact, did.
Today’s tolerance for Trump’s exaggerations and improprieties cannot be understood without seeing it as a variation on the sixties, only with the Left and Right reversing positions. More than ever before, the American establishment – its universities, government agencies, and even many corporate interests – has come to represent progressive thinking while long-simmering traditionalists have been forced to the sidelines, waiting for an effective opening.
Some have tried to explain Trump’s candidacy as part of a general dissatisfaction with governing elites throughout the advanced industrial world. Together with the rejection of his candidacy by George Will, National Review editor Rich Lowry, and many other conservative intellectuals, this theory suggests a resentful tantrum on the part of those who have failed to prosper in the globalized economy.
That Trump is supported by many struggling to maintain their standard of living is undoubtedly true. But to stop there is to ignore the frustration of thoughtful citizens who for decades have believed that the best way forward for America is with school choice, entitlement reform, and other policies stressing personal responsibility, only to have their efforts thwarted by the nation’s most powerful progressive faction, the public employee unions.
The fact is that there are tens of millions of Americans who have not been hurt by globalization, yet oppose much of the progressive agenda, including hiring quotas, the censorship of campus speech, open borders, diminished religious influence in the public square, the heavy regulation of commerce, and treating domestic terrorism as simple crime. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray observes in his book Coming Apart, even many in the entertainment and news media, whose day jobs make them accomplices to the promotion of progressive values, are far more conservative when it comes to their families and personal decision making.
Many people today would happily (if quietly) indulge any candidate brazenly mocking the status quo, just as long as they believed the rhetoric would ultimately lead to needed policy changes. No one understands better than the Left, which is trying furiously to convince his sympathizers that Trump is merely an egotistical blowhard, incapable of actually governing.
A look back at documentary footage from the sixties is instructive, especially the shots of university administrators grimly warning of the country’s decline if undergraduate protestors ever attract a larger following. Their stunned sense of losing control is eerily familiar.