Published May 17, 2016
A recent story in Politico reported the following:
A source familiar with [Donald] Trump’s thinking explained that the billionaire businessman was reluctant to add new layers of policy experts now, feeling it would only muddy his populist message that has been hyper-focused on illegal immigration, trade and fighting Islamic extremists.
“He doesn’t want to waste time on policy and thinks it would make him less effective on the stump,” the Trump source said. “It won’t be until after he is elected but before he’s inaugurated that he will figure out exactly what he is going to do and who he is going to try to hire.”
This is quite an admission from a Trump source, that the former reality television star “doesn’t want to waste time on policy.” Then again, why should he, since he’s now admitted every position he’s laid out is merely a “suggestion.”
This merely reinforces what anyone who has been paying attention already knows: Trump has zero interest in ideas. He has no governing agenda and no attachment to any political philosophy. He merely makes it up as he goes. One of the most striking things about Trump – based on his debate performances, his interviews with newspaper reporters and editorial boards, his speeches and his television interviews – is that even now, he has given no thought to public policies.
To cite just one example, in the course of several hours he changed his position multiple times on one issue (high skill immigration). He started out a debate against H-1B visas (they “decimate women and minorities”), declared during a debate he has softened his position (“we need to have talented people in this country”), and ended the evening once again against them (“I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.”)
This kind of thing has been replayed over and over again, on issue after issue. But no matter; we’re supposed to overlook that, according to columnists like Peggy Noonan, who once believed in the centrality of serious ideas and logic in politics and political speech, as well as “patriotic grace.” Now we’re told Mr. Trump, as antithetical to “patriot grace” as you will find in a politician, “understood, either intuitively or after study, that the Republican base was changing or open to change, and would expand if the party changed some policies. He declared those policies changed. And he won.”
He did, and — are we allowed to say this? — the voters got it wrong. Vox populi is not vox Dei. It is still remarkable to contemplate that a plurality of Republican voters, and several high-profile figures in the conservative movement, have supported and defended a candidate for president who is so proudly ignorant, so transparently uninformed, so indifferent to ideas.
It was not always thus. In the 1980s, one of the Republican Party’s main sources of attraction to younger conservatives like myself was its growing reputation for intellectual seriousness. “Of a sudden,” wrote Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, in 1981, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.”
Today, it is on the verge of nominating a man who is aggressively anti-intellectual, who has obvious contempt for ideas and believes they would “muddy his populist message.”
Mr. Trump is right; they would. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? His “populist message” is all affect, all bluster, all bread and circuses. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “there is no there there.” Yet it not only didn’t matter; it turned out to be an essential part of Trump’s appeal. That’s a problem, whether we’re talking about blue-collar voters in Cleveland or affluent columnists living on the Upper East Side.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Previously he worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.