- - Monday, November 2, 2015

Conventional wisdom in Washington seems to be that the insurgency candidates for the Republican presidential nomination — Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — will fade, and then the party will revert to its traditional political norms with a traditional kind of candidate. The insurgency will be over.

This represents a profound misreading of what’s going on in Republican politics, indeed in national politics.

The insurgency politicians may fade — in fact, probably will. But the insurgency won’t be over until the political establishment responds to the call it represents. That call is for the establishment to recognize and deal with the crisis of our time, which is nothing less than a crisis of the status quo.


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Large segments of the electorate know what politicians are always loath and late to acknowledge — namely, that conventional political thinking these days is inadequate to the challenges of the nation. The old political fault lines and rhetoric and coalitions can’t break the country’s deadlock crisis or foster a new matrix of interests and sentiments constituting a governing force. Until such a governing force emerges the country will continue to be mired in its crisis of the status quo. And it will continue also to spawn insurgency politics such as what we’re seeing in the GOP nomination battle — and also on the Democratic side with the emergence of Vermont’s socialist senator, Bernard Sanders.

This is not the first time America has faced a status quo crisis. Early in the republic, it became clear that the Federalist Party, with its interest in a kind of American aristocracy, was standing athwart national progress. Thus did Thomas Jefferson emerge to destroy the Federalists and move politics into a new era operating along a new political fault line. The 1850s witnessed a complete political breakdown with the seemingly intractable slavery issue; then Abraham Lincoln emerged to break the status quo crisis of that time and ultimately resolve the slavery deadlock. The Great Depression generated widespread fears that the old political norms couldn’t ameliorate the economic crisis — until Franklin Roosevelt tossed aside the old norms and built a new governing coalition. During Jimmy Carter’s failed presidency of the 1970s Americans began to think that the country was ungovernable and its crises intractable — until Ronald Reagan built a new coalition (remember the Reagan Democrats?) that broke the logjams of that day.



We are in another of those fundamental crises today. The status quo can’t hold; it can’t solve our problems; it can’t break the logjams. The collective electorate increasingly sees this fundamental reality of our time. It’s trying to tell the politicians, but the conventional politicians aren’t listening. So large segments of the electorate turn to insurgency politics as a means of communication. Thus do we get Mr. Trump, Dr. Carson, Mrs. Fiorina and Mr. Sanders. The Tea Party movement, which emerged in 2010, was an early manifestation of this same phenomenon.

In this context it isn’t difficult to see the meaninglessness of such flashes of rhetoric as, “This campaign is about leadership, and I’m the person who can provide that leadership.” Or: “We need a president who can bring people together, and I can do that.” That’s the underlying message of Jeb Bush and John Kasich, and it explains why they are languishing in the polls. What the voters want is evidence that at least some of the contenders can actually pull together new clusters of political thinking that can actually create a new governing coalition.

Of the candidates on the Republican side, only Mr. Trump has shown evidence of thinking along the lines of nontraditional coalitions. He embraces many hallmark conservative causes. He would eliminate corporate and estate taxes. He despises Common Core and attacks the teachers unions. He advocates big increases in defense spending. He would build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants. But then he also embraces positions anathema to conservatives. He rejects austerity economics and would increase spending on health care, veterans and women. He would protect entitlement programs. He hates free-trade policies. He would increase taxes on hedge-fund profits.

In foreign affairs, Mr. Trump is the only candidate who suggests he can get along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he would enforce the Iranian nuclear deal, not tear it up. No doubt this effort to patch together a fresh collection of positions and views has contributed to Mr. Trump’s solid standing in the polls.

Of course, Mr. Trump also displays massive weaknesses. His bombast can get tiresome, and he often seems woefully lacking in any detailed understanding of many crucial issues. If those traits ultimately lead to his political decline as the nomination battle reaches full force, it will be because the voters will have lost faith that he can truly address the country’s status quo crisis. But the status quo crisis will remain and will continue to poison the country’s politics.

The American political system is a presidential system, which means that serious, systemic crises of the nation must be solved through presidential leadership, or not at all. That’s true of the status quo crisis that now has America in its grip. If this presidential election doesn’t produce that new brand of politics capable of leading the country into a new era, then our crisis will fester for another four years — and poison our politics further.

The voters are trying to get the attention of their conventional politicians on this. The politicians would do well to listen.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy.

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