As we near the end of the pre-season in this election cycle, voters in the early states are starting to look closely at the candidates for the first time. Over the past few days, I’ve tried to get a sense of what those who are really paying attention are hearing the candidates say. As far as possible, I’ve aimed to avoid the filters through which we political junkies have been following the race for months. So I have spent some time listening to the stump speeches that the major candidates have been delivering in the last couple of weeks in the early states. C-SPAN makes it easy. Most voters don’t attend campaign events and hear complete speeches from the contenders, but in the earliest primary states they can – and do. And these speeches are in any case a good indication of how candidates understand themselves and their message at this stage.
The most striking thing that emerges from listening to these speeches one after another is that the theme of this election year so far for Republicans is the question of the establishment and the public. That’s not surprising. But how candidates are taking up the question did surprise me. The natural way to think about the subject — a kind of generic populist template — is that our governing elite in general and the Republican establishment in particular are awfully strong and are oppressing the public in some way. But that’s not really how most Republican contenders are talking about the issue. More often, at least implicitly, their subject is not the strength but the weakness of the establishment, even if they don’t quite put it that way. All of them describe the hollowing out and decay of America’s elite, its core institutions, and its political leadership. And some of the key differences between the candidates become a little clearer when we see them as differences in how they would approach that serious problem.
Four candidates in particular — Donald Trump, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio — have in their stump speeches been offering distinct and instructive ways of thinking about this question.
Donald Trump says that the establishment (and not just the Republican establishment) is weak and stupid, and that he would instead be strong and smart. The problem America faces, as he sees it, is not the dominance of the establishment but rather its lack of backbone and good sense. The alternative he offers is himself, rather than any clear or principled vision of government or of American life. He does suggest, however, that a key source of the establishment’s weakness and stupidity is our elites’ loss of faith in the meaning of the nation — and therefore in the existence of a distinction between Americans and others.
Having lost sight of this distinction, Trump says, the establishment is not troubled enough by the prospect of America’s becoming a loser nation, and it’s no longer even trying to win. By keeping sight of the distinction between Americans and others — most notably, but not exclusively, by enforcing that distinction at the border — Trump says he will be able to offer strong leadership and help the country win again. More than any other candidate, Trump talks about the gap between elites and the broader public as a gap between losers and would-be winners. He doesn’t argue that the establishment is too strong and domineering, he argues that it’s pathetic.
Of course, “argues” is a little strong when it comes to Trump. His stump speeches are almost unbelievably incoherent, yet his basic thrust is rarely difficult to understand. Trump doesn’t make arguments; he effuses. It is possible (if not easy) to take him seriously only as a diagnostician. When he moves from diagnosis to prescription, he shows no sign of having any grasp of what government does, what the president’s role is in our system of government, what the American Constitution is or means, or how he might even try to think like a conservative. Trump is also frequently vulgar, mean, crass, and callous, and the way he talks about himself comes across as a desperate cry for help.
On the right, the people who are impressed with Trump and the people who are horrified by him talk past each other because the former group mostly emphasizes his diagnoses and the latter his prescriptions. His fans like the way he calls out the blindness or weakness of America’s political class and that he points out the absurdity of some elite sensitivities. They like his emphasis on the nation — “a country is a country” — and his willingness to say that the status quo isn’t working. Many also clearly like his willingness to blame some of these problems on immigration and immigrants, and on the stupidity of our elected leaders, particularly in relation to foreign leaders. This last is not a new theme for Trump; he has been pressing the point for decades.
His critics, meanwhile, myself included, tend to focus on the solutions Trump is offering, most of which are not solutions in the traditional sense but just further ways to unsettle elite opinion. So if you press a Trump supporter on the merits or plausibility or decency of a specific Trump proposal, the response is usually that at least Trump is willing to talk about the issue while others are afraid to. Many of his fans like the fact that he’s not politically correct, in our contemporary sense of the term: He’s willing (even eager) to offend. Many of his critics are appalled that he is not politically correct in an older sense, closer to Founding Father James Wilson’s late-18th-century notion of “not politically correct”: He seems to have little sense of the principles underlying our political system and of the purpose and limits of government action. Those are both broad generalizations, but they seem to me suggestive of the pattern. Trump’s strength is his diagnosis of a rot at the core of our public life, but his weakness is what he proposes to do about it — which in many cases strikes me as likely to make things far worse.
Among the other candidates, the one who comes closest to Trump’s kind of diagnosis is Chris Christie. Christie, too, doesn’t so much rage against the power of the establishment as worry over the consequences of its collapse. He doesn’t call other elected officials stupid, exactly, but he worries that they are weak and naïve and are leading us to ruin. And he has a particular kind of ruin in mind: It is the ruin of chaos and savagery.
Christie talks in terms of civilization and barbarism. His recurring theme is order and safety. He is running for president because he thinks that the country is in danger and that the sources of order are being undermined. So he instinctively returns to defending the keepers of order: the police, the military, and determined leaders who take decisive action. This is a classic conservative message, in some respects, but it is not actually a great fit for the mood of Republican voters this year. They seem to want a shakeup more than a reaffirmation of the pillars of stability, and they feel angry more than they feel unsafe. Christie does anger well, but he offers himself up as a guardian, not a disrupter.
So while Christie diagnoses the political establishment as weak and incapable, he proposes not so much to replace it with the power of his personality as to shore up its foundations and enable it to restore order. This doesn’t necessarily make for an effective organizing principle for a political or policy agenda, and Christie struggles to fit some of his particular policy proposals (he has emphasized entitlement reform for instance) into this framework. He gets some of the diagnosis right, in other words, but he doesn’t often connect it to a coherent response; and he describes problems as requiring a response only if he understands them as causes of mayhem and disaster. Everything is World War III, or else it’s nothing.
Ted Cruz, meanwhile, offers a different (and perhaps more standard) attack on the establishment. He argues that the Republican establishment in particular has become not so much weak or stupid as corrupted: It has lost its way and been co-opted by Washington. What remains of the establishment needs to be blown up, he suggests, by a public uprising that he would lead or spark. This revolt would allow the country to find its way again and in a sense to recover a lost order. Cruz implicitly identifies that lost order with Ronald Reagan’s America, and he proposes himself as the one who would take us back to a time when the country grasped that conservative ideas could help address our problems.
Cruz wants to recover that mood and maybe also those particular Reaganite ideas. So his appeal is exceptionally nostalgic. The future figures in it only as the scene of a recovery of a lost time, a time that worked. And the Obama years (and here and there also the Bush and Clinton years) figure as a disastrous detour. This nostalgia strikes me as the core of Cruz’s message, essential to his appeal. Many conservative voters, especially older ones (who are predominant) surely find it easy to love.
A nostalgic case against a corrupt establishment is an argument for a better establishment. But Cruz’s case is nonetheless also genuinely populist, and in an interesting way. His vision of political change is rooted in an enormous faith in the power of public outrage. Cruz implies that by getting people angry about where the country is headed, he can channel great democratic energies toward changing direction. What we are missing, he suggests, is a leader who can get us angry about the right things. Cruz believes he is that leader and that his time in the Senate has proven it. That’s why he describes himself as having led various successful efforts — as having the experience necessary to be the government’s chief executive. Those efforts have been public-relations efforts; they have been efforts to channel public outrage.
So, nostalgia and a populist faith in the capacity of anger are at the heart of Cruz’s message. It’s probably not a bad combination for the primary voters he needs. And it’s an interesting conservative parallel to the Left’s message at this point — which also often calls upon nostalgia. (The Left’s better time, ironically, is further in the past, in the economic arrangements, if not the social norms, of the post-war golden age.) But Cruz’s populist nostalgia leaves him talking about a lot of things he would undo or reject, while he doesn’t put forth much of a substantive policy agenda. He has a tax proposal, though he doesn’t make it a central theme (and its value-added tax probably wouldn’t appeal to the voters who like the rest of his message). And beyond that, he has not generally translated his approach into an agenda. He seems to promise a lot without committing to much. It’s savvy, if not substantive.
Marco Rubio offers a particularly interesting contrast to Cruz. Rubio argues that the establishment (Republican and otherwise) is not so much weak or even corrupt as it is anachronistic and stuck in the past. He worries that some of the establishment’s old 20th-century ideas — most of which take the worldview of a certain kind of welfare-state liberalism for granted — are holding the country back and blinding us to the possibility that conservative ideas can help America adapt to 21st-century realities. This is a very different message from those of the other major candidates. Conceptually, it’s actually closest to Trump in its diagnosis of the problem, though Rubio outlines quite different solutions. But tonally, Rubio’s case is distinct. Because it is an argument for applying conservative ideas to help the country adapt, it is an argument for positive change; and so it lacks the anger, outrage, and hopelessness of most of the others.
Rubio does not seem to think we are at the edge of an abyss. Instead, he suggests we are wasting opportunities and losing time we could be using to help America adjust to a new world in which it could thrive. It’s easy to imagine how this could be a recipe for a pretty appealing political message, but it seems to be a poor fit for the current mood of many Republican voters. Rubio just isn’t angry enough. And he doesn’t seem to think that outrage will lead to conservative policy victories.
But for him, the future is center stage. Rubio often talks about how things have changed in America, just as the other candidates do; but he thinks these changes have created opportunities as well as risks, and that among the greatest risks we face is that we might fail to grasp the opportunities. In this view, he is practically alone among Republican presidential candidates.
Rubio’s rhetoric could probably benefit from more emphasis on the challenges posed by the collapsing legitimacy of our core institutions, and from more explicit links between those challenges and the sorts of solutions his brand of conservatism would offer. Cruz, meanwhile, could benefit from something like the mirror image: more of a sense that the future, and not just the past, offers opportunities and that conservatives know how to seize them.
I have left out a few candidates who still deserve to be counted in the first tier of contenders. That’s not because I don’t think they matter but because they don’t much take up this key set of themes, or they don’t offer a clear case for themselves at all.
But among four of the candidates, exceptionally talented political performers all, there is a debate going on about the establishment and the public. And it’s not quite the debate we often imagine. It’s a debate about how to handle the public’s collapsing faith in the establishment — that is, in our political elite and our core governing institutions. The post-war American consensus has been fragmenting for decades, and the public’s loss of trust seems to be reaching a crisis point. These candidates offer different diagnoses of the problem and distinctly different prescriptions, but they are arguing about the same crisis of confidence.
That they’re having this debate is on the whole a sign of strength, even if the outcome might not redound to the immediate benefit of Republicans. The Democrats are not really engaged in this argument yet: All of them are proposing various policies that would require an enormous amount of public trust in our governing institutions and the elites who run them. If they approach the public that way in the fall, they might be surprised by the reception they get from an impatient, anxious, irritated portion of the populace. Perhaps Republicans haven’t found the recipe for appealing to those voters, but they do seem to be looking for it.
– Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the editor of National Affairs, and a contributing editor of National Review.