When standing next to Sarah Palin shouting, "Hallelujah!" Donald Trump easily seems to embody modern conservative ideology at its purest, unchecked confrontational extreme. It’s almost a parody of the right-wing id. Where other candidates would limit Syrian refugees except for Christians, Trump would ban all Muslims. And so forth. Most of Trump's rivals responded to him by scrambling even further to the right, competing for the ideological space now held firmly by Sen. Ted Cruz.
Mixed with Trump’s far-right positions, though, have been some that seem off-key to modern conservative ideology: his support for Social Security, for example, or his December 28 tweet that American "wages are too low," which is too close to the AFL-CIO slogan "America needs a raise" for any Republican to risk saying anything like it, lest he or she open the door to an increase in the minimum wage.
Analyzing Trump in the ideological terms that are now the only political language we have, journalists have seen Trump as an inconsistent conservative — "going rogue, left and right," as Palin put it. Or as Lee Drutman suggested here, he’s a brilliant ideological tactician, marketing a formula — conservative on identity politics but liberal on pocketbook issues — that precisely matches the circumstances of downwardly mobile white voters.
Rather than try to make sense of his mixed, inconsistent positions, perhaps it makes more sense to see Trump as simply unmoored from any strong ideological commitments. Running through all his riffs is really a rejection of ideology and an assertion of simple competence. Even on immigration, Trump has been insistent that his Muslim freeze is not based on any deep conviction, but just a pause to "figure out what’s going on." (Trump is quite insistent on this point when criticized.)
Most other Republican candidates adopt the language of a "clash of civilizations." (Marco Rubio, the last hope of the GOP establishment, in November declared, "This is a clash of civilizations. ... There is no middle ground on this. Either they win or we win.") While Trump taps the same basic anxieties and fear of the others, he presents it as simply a problem of incompetence — "our country is being run horribly." Once we "figure out" the problem, we can once again open the door to Muslims. There’s no apocalyptic battle to be fought.
Describing one of Frank Luntz’s focus groups of Trump supporters, Time reporter Sam Frizell said they "sounded like relations of an ill patient, furious that all the previous doctors have botched a test or fumbled the scalpel. To them, Trump actually is the real-deal fixer-upper."
The nerve Trump has struck may not be one of ideological extremism, but rather a raw desire for managerial competence and an exhaustion with ideological battle. To those of us who know a little bit about Trump’s business history, this seems risible. If we recognize the limits of presidential power and the complexity of the veto points in the US political system, Trump seems dangerously ignorant. But if you don’t pay much attention to legislative politics, didn’t read Spy magazine in the early '90s, and assume that Trump is the unfailing managerial genius that he presents himself to be, it makes perfect sense.
The irony is that the claim to technocratic competence and rejection of ideology and ideological conflict was once identified with American liberalism. In 1962, delivering the Yale commencement speech, John F. Kennedy declared, "What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies … but the practical management of a modern economy." (Even as Kennedy spoke, conservative activists in a New York office were planning Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, in which Ronald Reagan would call the election a "time for choosing" between a government-managed economy and freedom.)
One really simplified version of American political history since the late 1970s would see it as a fight between technocratic managerialism and ideology, in which ideology won. Postwar liberalism, in a story that goes back at least to Woodrow Wilson, began to fail not because it was an unpopular ideology but because it did not recognize itself as an ideology at all. It was all common sense, things we must do. From Goldwater through Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and now Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz, conservatism emerged as a tight, coherent ideology — low taxes, small government to challenge the technocratic pose of postwar liberalism.
Liberals, meanwhile, struggled to redefine their commonsense, practical vision into something like an ideology: In 2006, as editor of the American Prospect, Michael Tomasky launched an online contest asking readers to send in their "elevator pitch" for liberalism, one of many attempts to solve a problem that conservatives had never had to spend much time on.
With the emergence of voices like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and, in a different way, Barack Obama, liberalism seems now to have a clearer definition, and the Democratic Party is far more coherently liberal than even at the beginning of Bill Clinton’s presidency. But the deep wonkiness of Hillary Clinton’s policy proposals, with their air of commonsense problem solving, seems directly connected to Kennedy’s anti-political vision.
Having a strong ideology was very useful to conservatism in the past several decades. Ideology helps forge tight loyalties to the party and movement (although often ties of identity as much as ideas). By first sowing mistrust of government and then putting forward a tight and specific ideology, conservatism could get around that distrust — like Gingrich’s "Contract With America," ideology represented a specific set of actionable promises rather than a generalized, "Trust us."
To conservatives like Erick Erickson of RedState, the Trump phenomenon flows directly from that ideological bond: "The Republican Party created Donald Trump, because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them," he told Molly Ball of the Atlantic in August. Ideology creates bonds but puts those bonds at risk, because ideologues rarely can deliver on the promises they make.
But more importantly, ideological politics leaves a lot of people out. Vast numbers of people don’t have the time or the emotional energy for the passions of confrontational politics, whether for the Tea Party or for Sanders’s pseudo-socialism. Trump may be appealing to some in the Republican base who feel betrayed by ideological promises, as Erickson suggests, but his appeal to infrequent voters and those who say they haven’t participated in the Iowa caucuses before suggests that he’s also reaching people who were never part of the ideological base and were turned off by it. Trump’s "trust me" technocratic pitch, as implausible as it is, may appeal to them as an alternative to the deep engagement ideological politics requires.
Centrist pundits have been predicting for years that in the exhausted wake of decades of ideological warfare, a technocratic, competent third-way manager would emerge, with a commonsense agenda, mainly involving balancing the federal budget. Election after election, it doesn’t happen, despite tens of millions of dollars invested in projects to find that technocrat, such as AmericansElect.
It might turn out, though, that the non-ideological problem solver they were waiting for has arrived, and his name is not Michael Bloomberg but Donald Trump. Trump is a parody not just of Palin-era conservatism but of technocratic managerialism. His appeal is a reminder that politics needs some of both — coherent ideological parties that align politicians to clear commitments, as well as the trust that allows government to engage with the complex challenges of a modern economy, a changing society, and an unstable world. Trump is a terrible messenger for a valuable idea.