Donald Trump

Donald Trump Is the Political Equivalent of the Financial Crisis

He's the culmination of multiple problems and factors, all exploding at once.

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Foter / Gage Skidmore

How to explain Donald Trump? He certainly can't explain himself (not surprising, given his, ah, modest explanatory abilities).

Many have argued, from various vantage points, that he is the fault of Republicans, who allowed nativism to fester within their party, who amped up their anti-Obama rhetoric and oversold their ability to oppose his agenda, who failed to grapple with the economic struggles of downscale Americans and prioritized the concerns of the wealthy donor class. Other have argued that President Obama himself bears some responsibility, or that was a factor, at least inadvertently, a celebrity president who rallied his base in ways that stoked political division, an imperial president who circumvented the political process when it did not suit his ends.

There are other explanations as well: Trump's campaign was powered by his celebrity status and a massive gift of free media, by his own exquisitely developed instincts for generating conflict and controversy, by a certain amount of good luck and the unusual dynamics of the very large GOP field. 

Writing in Commentary, John Podhoretz works another angle, proposing a thought experiment in which the financial crisis occurs not in September 2008, just weeks before the election, but in 2006, with two years left before the next president would be selected.

Now imagine that the meltdown had taken place not in September 2008 but rather in September 2006. Imagine that housing prices and stock prices had fallen in the same way—such that the wealth invested in the 63 percent of home-owned American households and in the stocks owned by 62 percent of all Americans had declined by 40 percent.

Further, imagine that serious proposals arose that the 8 percent of homeowners who had defaulted on their home loans be forgiven their debts—the very proposal in 2009 that led investor Rick Santelli to call for a new "tea party" uprising on the part of the 92 percent who paid their bills on time. Only this time Santelli's comments had been spoken in 2007. Imagine all these things. And then imagine the presidential race that would have followed. Does the rise of Trump and Bernie Sanders suddenly make all the sense in the world? Of course.

Instead, of course, the meltdown happened just before the election, and the ensuing years were taken up with Obama's tentpole policies—the stimulus and Obamacare and Dodd-Frank.

Podhoretz does not mention the George W. Bush administration by name in the column, but it is, of course, a thought experiment in what would have happened if the reaction to the financial crisis had happened under Bush's watch. And so it pairs well with Ross Douthat's column today on the decline of Bushism.

Douthat's piece is hooked to the failure of Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, but it too is an attempt to make sense of a primary race that is now thoroughly dominated by Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, Ted Cruz. Douthat writes that "in purely ideological terms, what primary voters were rejecting when they rejected [Rubio] was the political synthesis of George W. Bush."

This is essentially correct: Rubio was, more than anything, a vessel for the GOP establishment's hopes, slightly modified to account for the emergence of reform conservatism—a tax-cutting, immigration-friendly, foreign-policy hawk energized by the American ideal and its place atop the global order. His political career was designed to emphasize the elements of Bushism, and he was arguably a better and truer for heir to the Bush legacy than the candidate in the race whose name was Bush, at least in theory, because he carried none of the baggage. He was Bush rebranded.

But it turned out that the rebranded version had plenty of baggage as well. The failure of Republican elites to grapple with the failures of the Bush administration and the dissatisfaction that his presidency created amongst ideological conservatives, who formed the basis for the Tea Party, and amongst less ideological working class voters, is part of what explains Trump's rise.

The truth about Trump, I think, is that there are many relevant factors and many plausible explanations, though I would emphasize that Trump is first and foremost a Republican problem created by Republican failures, built up over time. But there is no single, unifying factor that fully explains his rise. 

In a sense, then, Trump is himself the political equivalent of the financial crisis, the result of a rare confluence of long-simmering factors—some bad actors, some mistaken assumptions, some failures of responsibility, some misaligned institutional incentives, some poor decisions on the part of the public, some avarice and ignorance on the part of elites—all culminating in a kind of full-scale meltdown. And just as in 2008, Trump is proving many experts wrong along the way, and causing them to rethink reexamine just what it is they really know about how the system works, and threatening to destroy the system in the process.

As with the financial crisis, most of the damage done by Trump will (probably) not be truly permanent. But it is severe, and it is likely to remain with us, causing eruptions and anxieties and unexpected aftershocks, for a very long time.

Update: Lee Drutman wrote a smart post for Vox explicating the idea that Trump is the financial crisis of politics that went up a day before this one. I hadn't seen his piece when I wrote this one (the Trump-financial crisis connection is an idea I've been mulling for a while), but I wish I had. He does a more thorough and detailed job of drawing the comparison between the two than I did, and his post is well worth reading.