Although some Republican readers here might not believe it, it’s very important to me to be fair. And I feel I have not been fair to Donald Trump.
My lack of fairness to Trump consists of my not having acknowledged his considerable gifts, and the remarkable accomplishments those gifts have enabled him to achieve. And the reason for my lack of such acknowledgment is that – observe him closely though I do – I don’t understand how he’s done what he’s done.
I don’t mean “accomplishments” in the way Lou Dobbs seems to, when he described Trump as “having accomplished more in his first two years in office than any President since FDR.” (How Lou Dobbs – a former college classmate of mine – could say that, and perhaps even believe that, also defies my understanding. Maybe it depends on what constitutes an “accomplishment.”)
No, I mean the quite obvious accomplishment of getting to where he is: diving into a crowded Republican field of candidates in 2015, hijacking a large segment of the Republican base away from the Republican establishment, emerging with the Republican nomination, and then riding that nomination into winning the most sought-after position in the world, president of the United States.
(And then his subsequent amazing achievement: to get away with so much for so long, trampling on the law yet remaining in office — almost certainly beyond what any previous president could have done.)
How did he do it?! Watch though I may, I fail to see it — except for a few bits and pieces.
For example, it looks like a masterful strategic move he made during the Obama presidency to become the most prominent face of the movement promulgating the “birther” lie. That is, Trump’s jumping to the head of the movement to delegitimize the presidency of America’s first black president by suggesting that he was not born in the United States (and thus could not rightfully serve as president).
That almost surely helped endear him to a segment of the Republican base — one in which matters of race figure importantly in their politics.
But if Trump has made other strategically brilliant moves – in any of his other dealings, whether it be admitting that getting the Russia investigation off his back was his reason for firing James Comey, or giving the North Koreans the respect they’ve long sought while getting nothing in return – I haven’t noticed them.
Perhaps Trump has good understanding of some dimensions of the political world, while failing to comprehend others. Maybe he had deep insight, for example, into the state of the Republican base back in 2015, so that he saw his opportunity and seized it — starting with the birther lie, going on to Mexican “rapists,” and so onward.
(But then again, maybe it wasn’t so much a matter of Trump having insight, as about his being the beneficiary of some unbelievably lucky match between the state of mind of the Republican base – generated over decades by the Republican Party and the right-wing media – and Trump just being what he can’t help being. Maybe such was the fit between them that this celebrity con-artist, with a history of outrageous behavior, could enter the arena and voila— that candidate is as irresistible to that base as catnip is to a cat.)
Which brings us to what seems to me the most remarkable Trump achievement of all: The remarkable loyalty and support Trump has maintained from his own partisan base, more even than presidents usually do!
Nothing demonstrates the limits of my understanding more than this. I’ve admitted here previously my big misjudgment during the run-up to the 2016 election: I felt certain that a great many Republican voters would refuse to support their party’s nominee, given all the ways he transgressed what I thought they believed in. At one point, most Republican voters expressed an unfavorable view of Trump, and I mistakenly believed that would remain true.
But not only did the overwhelming majority of them support Trump in the election, but – even more remarkably – they have continued to support him while Trump has conducted himself as president in ways that would have appalled any previous generation of American conservatives.
I really can’t figure out how much of this is Trump’s extraordinary ability to generate (blind?) loyalty in his followers, and how much that “I could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue” loyalty reflects the extraordinary state into which the Republican base had been led over the past quarter-century (of Limbaugh, Fox News, Karl Rove, and the rest).
The evidence supports either emphasis. But what’s clear is that one way or another, Trump commands millions of supporters who perceive him utterly differently from the way almost all the rest of the world see him.
However it happens, Trump is accomplishing something the likes of which I’ve never come across (though I’ve studied American and other leaders for a long time) — something I don’t know how to praise fairly because I don’t see how he does it.
It’s like watching a magician you know is doing something amazing, but you can’t see how he pulls it off.