- - Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Flouting every purported rule presumed binding upon a “serious” presidential candidate, Mr. Donald Trump has consternated the political class and large swaths of the electorate by leading the polls for the Republican Party’s nomination. Among other idiosyncratic campaign tactics most pundits contend would scuttle another candidacy, Mr. Trump has delighted in personally attacking his opponents and members of the media; relished provoking controversies with his “politically incorrect” views on divisive issues; and flaunted his self-professed exceptionalism. Thus, the Trump conundrum: why does his iconoclastic candidacy rise, not sink, in polls?

Because Mr. Trump’s candidacy and appeal are premised upon a rejectionist agenda. In sum, “it is what it isn’t.”

An enduring narrative of American politics is that voters hate negative campaigns and want to vote for someone and something. Like all narratives, this contains kernels of truth. Most citizens yearn to vote for someone they can trust to do the “right thing”; and most candidates want citizens to vote for them. Yet as Election Day approaches, the unvarnished truth emerges: candidates are content to be elected by citizens voting against their opponents. After all, a vote is a vote, regardless of motive.

Over time, the accumulation of negative campaigns and “broken promises” induces alienated voters to view politics as a systemically corrupt “battle of the bums” who will say anything to get in office and do everything to stay in office — at the expense of the American people.

Enter Mr. Trump and his rejectionist agenda.

Beneath a nebulous banner of “Making America Great Again,” Mr. Trump openly assails the political class’ rotting foundations of systemically corrupt campaign and government practices that are hated by increasing numbers of Americans. This is no standard trashing of his Republican opponents to win by default. Love it or loathe it, Mr. Trump’s operative electoral insight is that Americans believe our nation’s current straits are the fault of the political class; ergo, the more he is against it, the more people are for him.

To date, Mr. Trump is correct, as evidenced by voters’ reasons for supporting him: He’s too wealthy to be owned by special interests. He tells it like it is and won’t cave to the politically correct crowd. He’s a businessman not a politician. He’s so dead set against doing the “wrong thing” that he’ll never flip-flop and sell out, etc .

These voters’ rationales reveal a critical corollary of Mr. Trump’s rejectionist agenda: the political class’ inevitable counterattacks validate him to an angry electorate.

More comfortable co-opting than counter-attacking — let alone being attacked in the first place — the ostensibly puissant political class collectively scratches its well-coiffed heads to undo Mr. Trump. The usual “ist” and “ism” epithets are hurled at Mr. Trump. He wears them as a 21st-century “bloody shirt” attesting to his bona fides as “a man for (if not of) the little people.” Invective is heaped invective upon his supporters. It increases their support for and shared sense of purpose with his rejectionist agenda.

But what is this rejectionist agenda’s purpose? In general, its aims to “fix America” through increasing liberty, security and prosperity (as claims every candidate) by plopping the corrupt political class in the ash bin of history (uniquely espoused by Mr. Trump). How this will be specifically realized remains vague, deliberately open to his audience’s subjective interpretation. Though it has worked for many candidates, a rejectionist agenda’s lack of specific positive goals and united by an aspirational national purpose remains its Achilles’ heel.

Nevertheless, the political class is — and Mr. Trump’s opponents seem — incapable of articulating a national aspirational vision for 21st-century America, one that improves and engages her people’s pursuit of happiness with an exceptional national role on the world stage. (For example, during this unprecedented communications revolution that empowers individual autonomy to an undreamed extent, matching a consumer-driven economy with a citizen-driven government to show the world what a free people can achieve. But I digress.)

To wit: the race within the race: Can anyone articulate an aspirational national vision empowering citizens to vote for something before the Trump conundrum’s rejectionist agenda convinces citizens to vote against everything? Or will Mr. Trump again stump the political class by enhancing his rejectionist agenda with his own aspirational national vision that affords citizens the novelty of voting against everything to vote for something?

It’s a distinct possibility the political class and Mr. Trump’s opponents shouldn’t reject.

Thaddeus G. McCotter is the former chair of the U.S. House Republican Policy Committee.

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