Bret Stephens is sputtering so fiercely in today’s Wall Street Journal that spittle fairly flew off the page into my face. “If by now you don’t find Donald Trump appalling, you’re appalling.” Now there’s a strategy sure to work: let’s insult the voters — because, you know, after all, we know best. Bret, I know you guys in the mainstream media don’t get it, but your condemnations of Trump are fueling the increase of his support.
When The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank instructs Republican candidates to attack Donald Trump (“the way to combat Trump’s bigotry and misogyny is to denounce it as loudly as he spews it”), you can be pretty sure the better course is to do the opposite.
What is interesting about the Donald Trump phenomenon is not Donald Trump. He is what he is; appealing to many, abhorrent to some (but take note of the dramatic decline in his negatives — Quinnipiac, for example: in May, 34 percent favorable – 52 percent unfavorable; in August, 59 percent favorable – 30 percent unfavorable — and the transcendence of this support across Republican voter types). What is interesting about the Trump phenomenon is what the voters are trying to convey by their support of The Donald.
It would be wise, therefore, for Republican candidates not to engage in the hyperventilating that afflicts columnists left and right (add George Will and Charles Krauthammer to those cited above, but interestingly not Peggy Noonan), and, instead, listen to what the voters are saying.
What do voters see when they look out from their kitchen window? In a word, mediocrity.
They see an economy which is not prospering, and which is, in fact, rigged against them and for the rich. They see their cost of living everywhere rising, from local taxes to health care to education to food. They see an education system failing their children, from pre-K straight through college, not preparing them for the future. The federal government? Broken, mounting and unsustainable debt, regulations out of control, rampant cronyism. Crime? More mass shootings, often with the color of jihad. Immigration? Dysfunctional. American society? No longer a place nurturing of good moral character, and now actively hostile to religious faith. They see a generation — their children’s generation — which will not enjoy the same standard of living they have enjoyed.
Incredibly, a majority of Americans have not expressed satisfaction “with the way things are going in this country” since the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, and we haven’t had a sustained net satisfaction since the late 1990s (if you’re wondering why there is nostalgia for Clinton; this from Pew surveys).
Currently, we’re at 2 to 1 dissatisfied over satisfied. The good news in this is that the American people, and Republicans in particular, are not yet willing to accept mediocrity as the new normal.
Then these voters look at the Republican field of candidates, and what do they see? Who is offering hope; who has created the impression things will be different under their presidency? Why is it that Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are clearly the candidates in ascendance — is it because Republican voters are looking for a life boat?
So the wise thing for Republican candidates to do now is to not follow the advice of the media pundits, but to ask themselves, “how can I satisfy those yearnings of the electorate now being expressed as support for Trump, while also giving the electorate things he cannot?” — like prudence.
Steve Wagner is president of QEV Analytics, a public opinion research firm, and a senior fellow at the American Principles Project.