It turns out some of the great political thinkers can help us to understand the rise (so far) of Donald Trump. As I observed the other day, Machiavelli sheds some light on the issue. Machiavelli suggested that when the people are all worked up, it is a sign they have a bad prince. After all, if he knew how to govern, they would be satisfied. Thus, I suggested, Machiavelli would blame Republican leaders for the problem they face in Trump. If they had understood how to treat their own voters, Trump would not be able to get any traction.
The same lesson, it turns out, can be drawn from a far more moral, but equally astute, student of politics like Edmund Burke. Burke is famous as a critic of the French Revolution, but he was also famous (in his day, anyway) as a defender of the Americans in their clashes with the British government. He and other defenders of the Americans were reprimanded by the supporters of British policy, who said that those who expressed sympathy for the Americans were encouraging their rebellion. Said Burke in response:
Men of great presumption and little knowledge will hold a language which is contradicted by the whole course of history. General rebellions of a whole people never were encouraged, now or at any time. They are always provoked.
Burke’s point is that it is silly to talk of a people being encouraged into rebellion by the speeches of others, as if they were itching all the time to launch into rebellion. The people generally want to be left alone to tend to their own business. If they are treated decently by their rulers, there is very little chance of their being agitated into rebellion–always a dangerous business–by the mere talk of outsiders.
Now, the Trump phenomenon is admittedly different, because we are not dealing with a real rebellion but a kind of political rebellion, one in which voters are showing their disdain for their ordinary party rulers. And it is not a rebellion of a whole people, but (so far) of only part of a political party. Nevertheless, I think the analogy holds. Trump’s supporters are only a piece of America, but I suspect they are drawn from a variety of segments of the population. They are not only extreme conservatives. This suggests, however, that they are not so much ideologues as ordinary voters who think the country is being ill-served by a party that it out of touch with or disdainful of them.
And although this is not a shooting rebellion, it does involve certain risks. Judging from the past, Republican voters are powerfully inclined to respect their party’s establishment and deliver its nomination for the presidency to the most established candidate: George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney. These are not the selections of a reckless party, but, if anything, one that it too cautious. If a large chunk of Republican voters are now very interested in departing from this usual course, it is probably not because someone has encouraged them to do so–like Trump has done, by running–but because they have been provoked into doing so–by a party leadership that makes promises it does not seem seriously interested in trying to keep.