- - Monday, February 29, 2016

Donald Trump is more than just the Republican front-runner for president. He is the embodiment of a decaying political culture that prizes celebrity over leadership. When the nominee of the party that has historically stood for self-reliance and personal responsibility is more familiar to readers of People magazine than serious policymakers, it’s a sign that the nation’s founding principles have weakened.

But we get the candidates (and government) we deserve. For years, our culture has preached that free lunches do, in fact, exist. From those who believed that buying a house was a no-risk investment, to those who take a starter job and then demand their wages be doubled, to voodoo economists who preach a mystical “multiplier” effect from tax-and-spend policies, today’s growing alchemist philosophy says that we can get something of value for nothing.

The seed of this philosophy was sown by the “Me Generation” (also known as the baby boomers) who came of age in the 1970s wanting everything except consequences. But it has fully flowered with today’s millennials, who look to others — the government, their bosses, their parents — to solve their problems. In a recent YouGov survey, U.S. millennials had a more favorable view of socialism, which promises “free” stuff, than capitalism, which requires self-reliance and trading value for value.

The entitlement mentality of this generation was crystalized to me during a recent speech I gave to a class of university seniors. One student described an “unfair” hotel manager who wouldn’t hire her friend because she could only work a part-time schedule. Stories like these are the sad outcome of a generation that believes the “victim” is always blameless for their choices.

Mr. Trump leads in the polls not only among Republican millennial voters but among Republican voters of all generations who buy into little more than his attitude. His promised 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods won’t bring back manufacturing jobs, but it would start a trade war and significantly drive up the price of everyday goods that Americans depend on. And if there is a more disturbing thought than Mr. Trump being elected, it’s the thought of where his supporters will turn when they find out his policies have consequences or can’t be passed because of Congress or the courts. An overpromising and underdelivering Trump presidency would fuel even more of the division and rancor in the country.

If Mr. Trump is the embodiment of our culture in which people believe unrealistic promises with no specifics beyond “Make America great again,” then the national debt is symbolic.

The national debt recently reached $19 trillion. This news was greeted by a collective yawn from policymakers, commentators and the public. If Mr. Trump is half the business guru he claims to be, then he should be seriously addressing the mass economic illiteracy that ignores the dangers of this debt. But even he doesn’t seem to understand its scale.

Consider some simple arithmetic: A million seconds elapse over 12 days. A trillion seconds? More than 30,000 years. Want to know why people don’t care about a $19 trillion debt? Because they don’t know how big a trillion is, and 19 isn’t a big number. Mr. Trump’s debt solution — to cut “waste, fraud and abuse” — wouldn’t even make up the interest paid on the debt each year.

Retired Admiral and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen has called this debt the greatest threat to our national security. We need real leaders who will address it, not ones whose proposals would make the problem worse. But it’s not surprising that we don’t hear solutions. The message of personal and collective responsibility no longer sells. Celebrity culture does. People have become disconnected from reality. To paraphrase Al Gore, they deny the consequences of almost any truth that is inconvenient.

Real leadership depends on telling hard truths and selling the solution. Instead, reality has been trumped.

Richard Berman is president of Berman and Co., a Washington public affairs firm.

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