A few nights ago, my missus and I were walking along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, minding our own business while trying not to think about Donald Trump — or Ted Cruz, or Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders.
Presently we passed the Old Post Office Building, a venerable pile dating to 1899. It looks a bit like Big Ben atop a ten-storey Romanesque atrium. There in front was a billboard the size of Montana proclaiming ‘TRUMP’. It is to be — shudder — a hotel.
Clutching my beloved’s arm, I gasped: ‘A drink — quickly. For the love of God, a drink.’
She rushed us to the restaurant, where a martini revived my colour and vital functions. But my depression remained. Through the fog of woe I remembered years ago his purchase of another venerable American pile, New York’s Plaza hotel. He remarked then: ‘The Plaza is a trophy. I only buy trophies.’
What finer trophy than the White House, just a few blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue from the Old Post Office? Then it dawned: perhaps all along his quest has been about real estate. Just last night, braying to an audience in Philadelphia, he said, ‘One way or the other, I will live on Pennsylvania Avenue.’ This rings rather more as a threat than a vow.
As I lifted a second martini to my lips, carefully, for my hands were still shaking, I mused on an article published in the Wall Street Journal in 2000. Sixteen years ago, when the very idea of a Trump presidency was quaint and happily unthinkable.
The article was a jeu d’esprit in the form of Trump’s presidential inaugural address. It began with his looking out over the -National Mall, America’s front yard: ‘My fellow Americans, this is a great day for me personally. You’re very smart to have voted for me because I’m going to do positive things for this country, starting with this so-called mall I’m looking out over.’
I recited the lines aloud to my wife.
‘Didn’t you write that?’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I said defensively, ‘but I never … I didn’t … it was …’
‘Spit it out,’ she said.
‘It was — a joke.’
‘Not any more,’ she said, returning to her moules frites, leaving me staring into the middle distance, contemplating the futility of political satire in America.
We’ve been reassuring ourselves that Trump cannot win since last June, when he was insulting Senator John McCain for stupidly getting himself shot down over Hanoi. Loser! Now, however, the people of New Hampshire have spoken. Soon the people of South Carolina will speak … and … and …
Coming to terms with Donald Trump as the Republican nominee is like being told you have Stage 1 or Stage 2 cancer. You know you’ll probably survive, but one way or the other, there’s going to be a lot of throwing up.
What’s left of the ‘GOP Establishment’ is addressing the Trump ascendency in distinct, which is to say, schizophrenic ways. It has divided into Camp One and Camp Two.
Camp One, having swallowed a large bottle of Xanax, says, OK, if he’s going to be the nominee, we can (deep breath) deal with it. After all, Margaret Thatcher said she could do business with Gorbachev. And he can’t really believe in all that rot he spouts. Can he?
A conservative columnist for the Washington Post writes that donors ‘are trying hard to get comfortable with Trump’. Another Washington paper reports that ‘The feeling among the GOP’s business wing is not entirely negative toward Trump. The billionaire has found a couple of champions — including billionaire investor Carl Icahn … A number of Republican donors … are making peace with the fact that there is some chance Trump could win the nomination.’
Former senator Bob Dole, a fine, decent and reasonable man, is making approving noises about Mr Trump: ‘He’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.’ (I demur on his first point, but never mind.)
The New York Times meanwhile, reports that many members of the ‘Republican influence apparatus … say they could work with Mr Trump … believing that he would be open to listening to them and cutting deals, and would not try to take over the party.’
The last bit is a reference to another potential Republican nominee, Ted Cruz, whom the ‘influence apparatus’ also abominates. Everyone seems to hate him, except the thousands of people who tell pollsters they adore him.
In the next paragraph of the Times story we find the escape clause: ‘Of course, this willingness to accommodate Mr Trump is driven in part by the fact that few among the Republican professional class believe he would win a general election. In their minds, it would be better to effectively rent the party to Mr Trump for four months this fall, through the general election, than risk turning it over to Mr Cruz for at least four years, as either the president or the next-in-line leader for the 2020 nomination.’ Their fear, you see, is that Senator Cruz would actually change things, put in his own people. God forbid!
So it’s come to this: the Grand Old Party becomes the Rent-a-Party. You could call this a case of Stockholm syndrome. Not the most admirable stance, but forgivable when your plane has been hijacked and you find yourself hostage.
Camp Two, meanwhile, is digging in its heels. To the Trump (and Cruz) golem, it declares defiantly: No! This shall not stand! If the Republican party has descended to Elsinore-level rottenness, then let the cleansing whirlwind howl! Translation: If Trump or Cruz are nominated, we’ll hold our noses and vote for the ghastly Hillary. At least then when the White House phone rings at 3 a.m. she’ll be able to conference in people who know what the hell they’re doing.
Camp Two prefers for the time being to hold fast to its belief — increasingly desperate — that Comrade Bernie Sanders of the Vermont Soviet will not be the Democratic nominee. Good luck with that.
The Trump (and Cruz) ascendency has at least provoked self-soul-searching among the influence apparatchiks of the Party of Lincoln. Now they are admitting: we did this to ourselves. We created this Frankenstein. For years we told our people that we were going to reduce government. We didn’t. For years we told them we would do something about immigration. We didn’t. We told them we’d reduce the deficit. We didn’t. We told them we’d cut spending. We didn’t. We told them we’d fix Iraq and we created Isis.
What else did we promise? Oh yes, reasonable medical insurance. Punted on that, too. Meanwhile, every day out in what we call ‘the real America’, real Americans are reading about the latest Scrooge hedge fund manager who’s made $100 million betting against the American economy, while their wages have remained stagnant since the 1970s. We failed them at another level, too: we bored them to death with unoriginal, platitudinous and feckless pols. And look what’s happened — now the ‘real Americans’ (that is, the proles) are enchanted by this candy floss-haired ranting populist who’s tapped into the deepest recesses of their frustration.
Is it too late to say to them: People! Please listen! We, your leaders have screwed up. But you do not want to hand this guy the keys to the White House. And heck — he’s renovating the Old Post Office Building, just down the street. If he really wants to live on Pennsylvania Avenue, let him stay there!
One can deplore Trump for his vulgarity, incoherence and demagoguery. But one mustn’t deplore the people he has enthralled. They may not have degrees, most of them, and they may be a bit susceptible to a voice that inflames their darker passions. But they have been disappointed and deceived, and their anger is real.
A similar argument, mutatis mutandis, can be made by the hard left on behalf of the Vladimir Ilyich of Vermont. His followers feel cheated — insulted — when they read of Mrs Clinton’s Wall Street consiglieres and capos who lavish her with six-digit speaking fees for lunch and dinner-time bromides. If all this depresses you, all I can say is: me too.
Christopher Buckley was a speechwriter for George H.W. Bush. His novel The Relic Master came out last year.