Yesterday we talked about how the 2016 presidential election is about one thing. It’s about Donald Trump’s one big idea.
Trump is the Republican nominee for president, but he is not a typical Republican nominee and this is not a typical Republican vs. Democrat election. This is about something else. It’s almost exclusively about something else.
Trump is the first major party candidate in my lifetime who hasn’t produced detailed policy plans and agendas.* This is something that every presidential nominee, whether Democrat or Republican, has always done, with every candidate’s plans generally aligning with their party’s established positions and platforms. Voters in 2004 who were interested in Social Security, or military funding, or abortion, or criminal justice, could turn to the campaigns of George W. Bush and John Kerry and learn all about their positions on those various issues, which corresponded, generally, with the contemporary positions of their respective parties.
Donald Trump isn’t like that. When asked, he’ll offer a boilerplate affirmation of generically Republican responses on things like abortion, but those aren’t his priority. He has no passion for or interest in such things, often bungling such statements in a way that shows he hasn’t explored or understood them beyond a first glance, and forcing his aides and spokespeople to scramble to explain what he really meant to say.
Overall, generic Republican ideology and the GOP platform aren’t a useful guide to where Donald Trump stands on any given issue — not in the way that party identity was for Mitt Romney, and John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, etc. Donald Trump is shaped and guided by something else — by his one big idea.
So, then, what is that one big idea?
Well, Trump hasn’t stated it explicitly. He’s not brave enough, or honest enough, to do that. There are rules about saying such things, out loud and explicitly, in this generation of American politics, and those rules are one of the few political norms he hasn’t yet contemptuously shrugged aside.
But it doesn’t require any special insight or intelligence to discern what Trump’s one big idea is — the single principle that serves as a compass and guiding light, shaping his every statement and policy position. It’s obvious in everything he does, every policy he advocates, every applause line in his speeches, every hiring decision, every tweet and retweet in his overactive feed.
That big idea is this: Some people are legitimate Americans and other people — regardless of citizenship — are illegitimate and not really real Americans at all.
That is the big idea that drove Trump’s initial foray into national politics as the King of the Birthers. He did not challenge or question President Barack Obama’s policies, or the substance of his decisions, or even his party. Trump challenged Obama’s legitimacy as an American.
Trump bombastically proclaimed that he had secret evidence and that he was commissioning a squadron of private investigators to Hawaii who would return with blockbuster evidence to prove Obama’s illegitimacy — as a president, as an American, as a human being.
Trump never presented any evidence of any of that. But, for his fans and enthusiastic supporters, he didn’t need to. They praised him because he was “Telling it like it is” and “Saying what everybody knows is true.” And what they all meant, of course, was exactly what Trump himself meant in all of his ridiculous, empty birther posturing — that a black man could never be counted as the legitimate equal of real, true, white Americans.Trump was able to milk the birther thing for years, but there’s only so many months that can go by while one is promising blockbuster revelations in the coming weeks before you eventually have to put up or shut up. Trump never could put up, but he couldn’t shut up either, so he changed the subject. Now it was Mexicans — hordes of rapists and murderers streaming across the border threatening real, true, legitimate white Americans. Trump promised to revive Operation Wetback, to build a yuge wall, and to begin mass deportations shipping away all the brown people — 3 percent of the population, in fact.
For Trump and his supporters, these “illegals” were illegitimate Americans — illegitimate, criminal people — because they had trespassed borders or overstayed their visas. But it was crystal clear, all along, that Trump and his followers didn’t restrict this judgment of illegitimacy to illegal immigrants, or even to legal immigrants, but to anyone whose family came here from the wrong places, no matter how long ago. That was the undeniable message of Trump’s attacks on Judge Curiel, and on the Khan family.
Donald Trump is not a “hard-liner on immigration.” Immigration is one form of the big idea, one expression of it, one of many. That big idea shapes and directs everything the man does.
By all means, test this theory. Take anything Trump has said or done, any policy position he has defended, any person he has hired, or retweeted, or endorsed, and see if it doesn’t align with this one big idea. Muslim ban? “Black voter outreach”? Talk of “rigged” elections? List of potential Supreme Court jurists? Economic advisers? Foreign policy advisers? Top campaign staff hiring? Speech after speech, tweet after tweet? Anything that attracts his passion or attention is related to this one big idea. Anything not directly tied to it in some way bores him.
This is what Donald Trump is all about. This is all that Donald Trump is all about.
This is what you are voting for if you are voting for Donald Trump. And that is the only thing you are voting for — it eclipses everything else. You cannot vote for Donald Trump without endorsing, and participating in, his one big idea.
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* Trump is also the only major-party presidential nominee in my lifetime to hide his personal finances from the public by refusing to release his tax returns. What’s he hiding? A great deal, I suspect — evidence that he has lied about his wealth and financial security, evidence of legal-but-sleazy business practices, disturbing ties to foreign lenders to whom he is beholden. I want Trump to release his tax returns because voters have a right to know what they might tell us. And because his so-far-successful refusal to release them sets a dangerous precedent for future elections. I think every reporter who speaks to Trump, every day, should press him on those tax returns, hard.
But at the same time, Trump’s arrogant lack of transparency and whatever details might be revealed in his tax returns are, at best, peripheral and tangential to the one big idea that sits at the center of this election. I don’t want to see voters reject Trump because he refused to release his tax returns, or because of some financial scandal revealed by them. I want voters to reject Trump because he’s a big honking racist who is empowering and encouraging and creating a horrifyingly stupid, brutish, immoral army of other big honking racists.