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It is fascinating and instructive to the see the reactions of the media elites and GOP establishment at every campaign grenade launched by Donald Trump. It seems each week “the Donald” catches them off guard, launches a projectile that hits its mark, and then doubles down and watches those talking heads like the condescending Charles Krauthammer on Fox, or the pundits on CNN, NBC, and elsewhere scurry about frantically to explain how he has finally shot himself in the foot, how he is playing off the worst fears of the American people, or how, by his “racism and fascism,” he has disqualified himself for a chance at the nation’s top elective position.
Very few pundits and commentators have really fathomed what is occurring with Trump and his supporters, who can genuinely be called a “movement.” Rush Limbaugh has, perhaps, come the closest in his analysis, in that he understands that Trump is basically using the mainstream media to actually go around the media, that is, using the media itself to accomplish this, and at the same time, go over the heads of the Washington inside-the-beltway political establishment, both Democratic and Republican, to reach average everyday citizens. For whatever one may think of him, Trump has become a greater-than-life symbol, a talismanic figure, for millions of American citizens who feel deeply dispossessed, increasingly ignored by the political establishment, and separated from any influence over that establishment.
It is not simply a case of conservative and “tea party” voters disgusted and angered by the negation of conservative majorities elected to Congress in 2010 and 2014, although that frustration certainly figures in the equation. It goes much deeper, and reflects a growing bitterness, even desperation, by a broad segment of the population—disaffected conservatives, disillusioned Republicans, independents, former non-voters. For millions of these citizens the country they once knew and loved somehow has slipped away from them, the beliefs and values they hold have not just been ignored, but are now declared out-of-bounds, passe, racist, sexist, homophobic; and they perceive that the leaders of both parties form a kind of elitist cabal that cares very little for the “small guy.”
Of course, Obama and his actions, including his fumbling policies in the Middle East and regarding terrorism, are seen as partially responsible for the frustration. But, as this desperate cri de coeur has mushroomed, it has also understood almost intuitively that those Republican establishment elites in Washington and in many state capitals who are charged with opposition to Obama, go along to get along—and things continue to get worse. Thus, the leaders of the Republican Party, from Mitch McConnell, to Paul Ryan, to Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee, to the talking heads on Fox and the scribblers at The Weekly Standard and National Review, always advocate relief from and opposition to the leftward spiral. But, in effect, when put to the test or in power they either succumb to its enticements or at the very least, collaborate with it.
Back on December 4 I attended a Trump event in Raleigh, North Carolina. In an arena intended for 7,500 people, nearly 10,000—standing room only—were present. The vast majority, I would estimate, were white, and probably a majority young, white males. There were a few folks in coat and tie, but most came in regular street clothes. Although there were quite a few young men, there were entire families present as well.
What impressed me especially was the connection that Trump made with the crowd. It was if they invested in him both their fears and their hopes. He connected profoundly with them, not so much by the eloquence of his words. Not that, for he speaks brashly, directly, even at times employing some expressions that most politicians would studiously avoid. But there was what I would call a “symbolic” connection, in that the crowd saw in Trump more than the sum of his words—he is a symbol, a kind of bull-in-the-china shop, who would, despite his checkered past and off-the-cuff language, break the stranglehold that the establishment and political and financial elites have on this country. In that sense he is not a man of what currently parades as Mainstream Conservatism, but he is a Man of the Right.
Even admitting that Trump speaks from the hip, his targets are those mostly left unaddressed by the regular establishment politicians who draw their sustenance from the big donor Super PACS, the Chamber of Commerce, and Wall Street. And whether it be his assertion of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after 9/11, first completely denied by the media and the other GOP candidates, but now proven to have happened. Or, his most recent hurled projectile, a proposal to bar Muslims from entering the United States until we get a handle on Muslim terrorism—he actually is no fool, no ingénue. His prepares his battle ground carefully.
Thus, after making his proposal on Muslims, and drawing the media and his Republican opponents into denouncing his proposal as “unconstitutional,” he can produce various examples of previous American presidents having done the same thing he advocates, including Jimmy Carter (refusing entry to Iranians and requiring Iranian students to report to immigration offices, and expelling some of them). Then there is the case of legislative action taken by Congress in 1952 during the administration of President Harry Truman, incorporated into the federal statutes (U.S.C. 1182), which gives the president the right to bar whole classes of potential entrants for a length of time “that he may deem necessary.” And we can also add the war time actions of Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II and others.
Other critics scream that Trump’s proposal would violate our historic constitutional provisions on religious freedom that the Founders wisely implemented. But, here again, Trump is on much stronger ground than they. The Founders never envisaged potential Muslim jihadists coming to these shores; they assumed that the new American nation would continue to be a Christian, if non-denominational, nation. More, the Constitution did not in any way bar the particular states from religious tests and restrictions. As the classic study of early American Constitutionalism, Democracy Liberty, and Property: The State Constitutional Conventions of the 1820s (Merrill Peterson, editor, 1966), summarizes it, during the first seventy-five years of the republic “the states dominated the federal system. Basic institutions such as schools and churches; basic freedoms such as the right to vote, to worship freely, to hold office, to speak one’s mind….all were state controlled.” (p. v) The Founders wanted it that way. Indeed, most states entering the original compact had religious tests and some had taxes for the support of established religion enshrined in their constitutions. The federal Constitution did not forbid that on the state level, and, indeed, the Founders knew that if they had tried, the federal union would have never happened. Many of those restrictions continued on well into the 19th century—North Carolina required an elective office holder to be a Christian until 1868. At no time during this period did the federal courts declare such laws unconstitutional.
Moreover, the thought that thousands of Muslims would somehow reach American shores was never a consideration on the part of the Founders. Lest we forget, only one hundred years earlier, in 1683, the Islamic Ottoman Turks, with an army of 300,000 under the command of Kara Mustafa, had besieged Vienna, which was rescued only by the arrival of the army of King Jan Sobieski of Poland. Kara Mustafa had vowed that he would water his horses in the Tiber River and transform Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris into a mosque, just as the Ottomans had done to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the 15th century. And, failing that, he pledged that Islam would someday in the future dominate the West. Many citizens in Europe…and the United States…see those prophetic words coming true now.
From the 8th century until the early 20th Islam was recognized in its orthodox formulation as expansive and totalitarian. Wherever it went, it brought submission and the sword. At Tours, at Mohacs, during the siege of Malta and at Lepanto, and twice before the gates of Vienna, Europe experienced the ravages and brutality of Islam. Certainly, there were and have been notable exceptions, but, as Trump would probably point out, they are just that: exceptions. King Abdullah of Jordan is a “moderate” and many American Muslims reject and do not partake of the zealous orthodoxy that is, let us face it, prescribed in the Quran. But, again, that is the point: until this country can establish better and surer screening and verification of those coming, is it not preferable to avoid the chance of more terrorism as we have seen in San Bernardino and in Boston or on 9/11?
By throwing that political bomb, Trump, once again, has altered the debate and tapped deeply into the public pulse. By laying what in reality is a trap for his opponents, he connects directly to citizens who not only feel threatened by terrorism here in the United States, but he goes around and through the media, and demonstrates once again that he is not “bought-and-paid” for by the establishment, that he is a vocal symbol for the voiceless, that his persona is much greater than the sum of his many times inelegant words, for they, in their simplicity, represent a desperate cry by millions who have been dispossessed in their own country, isolated, looked down upon, and ignored. They want nothing more than to regain some modicum of control and influence in what goes on in their lives, command of their destinies, and security for their families.
On CBS’s December 9 morning news program, host Charlie Rose asked mainstream Republican pollster Frank Luntz about the results of one of Luntz’s famous “voter panels.” This one was composed of Republicans, a few Democrats, and some independents. Rose asked Luntz: “About how many of them support Trump?” Luntz, with a pained establishment frown on his face, responded: “Probably 40%.” You could have heard Rose’s gasp all the way to Greenland. “That many?!” Rose exclaimed in astonishment. “Yes,” replied a dour Luntz.
The media and the establishment haven’t come to terms with the movement Trump represents and probably won’t, because to do so would mean the admission of their failure and their arrogant disregard for the genuine welfare of the nation whose interests they supposedly protect.