- - Monday, February 29, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There’s a comical element in The New York Times’ excellent Sunday piece about the desperate and utterly paralytic efforts by the Republican establishment to thwart the GOP presidential nomination of New York billionaire Donald Trump. All the machinations, negotiations, warnings and cries of ennui recounted by The Times call to mind the most famous line from Walt Kelly’s old comic strip “Pogo”: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

For the anxious party establishment figures described in the piece, the enemy is clear — Mr. Trump, and the prospect that he could become the party’s presidential nominee. But behind the Trump insurgency are Republican voters — a larger chunk of them by far, at this point, than any other Republican candidate has been able to collect. And within that chunk of voters is seething anger at the state of American politics and the Republican Party’s inability or unwillingness to ameliorate that sad state of affairs.

In South Carolina exit polls, fully 92 percent of Republican voters said they were angry or dissatisfied with the federal government. And 52 percent said they felt “betrayed” by the Republican Party. The New Hampshire exit polls indicated 47 percent of Republicans in that state felt betrayed by their party. This is a party whose leadership consists of such figures as Karl Rove, Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell — the vanguard, according to The Times, of the stop-Trump effort. It appears that half the party feels deep disdain for these people and their companions.

Thus do we see the spectacle of party elders trying to stop Donald Trump without any regard to what he represents within the party. He represents a large sump of anxiety, frustration and anger directed at its leaders. They are the enemy.

Suppose these party leaders somehow managed to surmount the haplessness that has characterized their efforts thus far and actually stop Mr. Trump. What then? There is no evidence in The Times piece that any of these party elders have even contemplated that question. They seem serene in the belief that, if they can only get rid of this meddlesome amateur, they can go back to politics as usual.

Mr. Rove, the man who gave us George W. Bush and his foreign policy and economic calamities, can continue his role as party wise man, power broker and super PAC maven. Mr. Romney, whose 2012 presidential campaign serves as a textbook example of how not to do it, can continue to tell GOP voters what’s best for them. Mr. McConnell, whose self-avowed aim to ensure the failure of Barack Obama’s first term represents probably the stupidest political utterance of the past decade, can run the Senate as he has thus far.

That will never happen. They can carry on in their old roles, of course, but Mr. Trump is changing the nation’s political landscape, and the landscape is going to change irrespective of the fate of this brutal political combatant. We are seeing in this campaign year the crumbling of the status quo. Mr. Trump is merely one manifestation of it. Another is Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose socialist passions would have been rebuffed by the Democratic Party a decade ago. Now he generates enthusiasm among young people who are just as agitated with the old order as Mr. Trump’s GOP followers.

Journalist and social scientist Thomas B. Edsall, writing in The Times, suggested that the politics of Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders overlap in four important ways: Both tap into the frustrations of those stuck at the middle or bottom of the economic ladder; both reject the free-trade mantra that has guided both parties for a generation; both oppose limitations on major entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, despite looming financial woes facing those programs; and both attack super PACs as contributing to endemic political corruption.

All these positions are populist in essence and origin, indicating we’re living through a time of rare populist intensity. Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders didn’t create this populist agitation — they’re merely instruments of it. The American people will have to work their way through this pregnant time. As Mr. Edsall puts it, “How the Republican and Democratic parties will remake or reset themselves is part of the drama of this unprecedented collective decision-making season. Or will the two parties be supplanted by an as yet unimagined political system?”

Good question. The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan captured the essence of it on Saturday when she posited the idea that the country is beset by a widening rift between the nation’s “protected” classes and its “unprotected” classes. The protected people run things — and run them to their own great benefit. The unprotected manage as best they can in a world created and maintained by the protected ones.

“In wise governments,” she writes, “the top is attentive to the realities of the lives of normal people, and careful about their anxieties. That’s more or less what America used to be. Now it seems the attitude of the top half is: You are on your own. Get with the program, little racist.”

Ms. Noonan adds, “I don’t know if the protected see how serious this moment is, or their role in it.” Based on The New York Times article on Sunday detailing the GOP elite’s panicked effort to stop Mr. Trump, without any apparent regard for the underlying political realities he represents, it seems clear that Ms. Noonan’s “protected” classes remain oblivious of the moment — and certainly don’t see their role in it.

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


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