I attended the Freedomfest in Las Vegas last week. A last minute speech was arranged for Donald Trump on Saturday. I expected some resistance from this crowd of largely libertarian conservatives. Standing outside the hall was a lady with a hand made poster reading “Trump is No Libertarian”. She said she was motivated by a call from her mother who had expressed with some surprise, “I didn’t know Trump was a libertarian!” Some mothers will support their children’s passions without understanding them. Mine did.
Talking with a handful of her friends gathered around her sign we were predicting some booing of the Great Donald.
We were wrong.
With about 2500 attendees to the conference the room was packed and the general response to the Donald was quite supportive. Donald is more than an egocentric billionaire; he is an entertainer. He is a character on a stage playing to an audience. After 13 seasons of Celebrity Apprentice he honed his format to the ratings. He knows his controversial immigration speech has propelled him to the front of the pack and attracted the emotional response celebrities crave. The more that the Meet The Press pundits focus on him the less forgiving and more ostentatious he will be.
We have seen this play before.
Ross Perot was also a self made billionaire that had never been elected to public office, with no obligations to the political elite that so exhausted so many political purists. He, like The Donald, was thus free to ‘tell it like it is’. Like The Donald he eschewed theory and principles and focused on competence and accomplishment. Like The Donald, he had no political baggage because he had no record of failure in the political realm because he had never been in the political realm. By that same logic Bernie Sanders would be a great CEO because he has no record of failure in the private sector.
Perot’s early surge was weakened by political infighting with his staff, and in what seemed to be a momentary lapse of sanity, he suddenly withdrew from the race claiming that George H. Bush was trying to sabotage his daughter’s wedding. He later found his meds and re-entered to race with enough support remaining to heavily influence the outcome, likely costing Bush a victory.
In a comment that mirrored the thinking of the early progressives, Perot stated, “”Keep in mind our Constitution predates the Industrial Revolution. Our founders did not know about electricity, the train, telephones, radio, television, automobiles, airplanes, rockets, nuclear weapons, satellites, or space exploration. There’s a lot they didn’t know about. It would be interesting to see what kind of document they’d draft today. Just keeping it frozen in time won’t hack it.”1
Donald and Ross practiced a strain of populism reminiscent of Huey Long. Like Ross, Donald will likely quickly tire of the constitutional constraints to power, compromised as they are by a century of progressive constitutional respiratory therapy.
The reliance on competence or intelligence, while avoiding commitments and clarity on issues and governing principles, is the mainstay of the modern populist. Such a populist will change his position on any issue after the election, because we should trust his wisdom and competence to fit the situation. There is no governing philosophy moored in a party platform. They were elected because they are outside of party constraints. They are a cult of personality, not a slave to political beliefs. They will find themselves reaching for more power than the office allows.
Peggy Noonan noted in Donald Trump’s Appeal—and Its Limits in The Wall Street Journal:
Donald Trump is an unstable element inserted into an unsettled environment. Sooner or later there will be a boom.