It’s hard not to take a fiendish delight in Donald Trump’s scourging of the Republican establishment, even as he continues to roil the political waters by brushing off tonight’s Republican primary debate. For decades, that establishment suppressed any expression of dismay regarding low-skilled mass immigration; establishment commentators have even started playing the racism card of late, accusing opponents of unskilled mass immigration of engaging in “white identity politics.” Now, we are witnessing the return of the repressed in the wildly enthusiastic support for a candidate who is unashamedly ignorant of most matters (including immigration) that will come before a president and is likely to lose against Hillary Clinton, but who has staunchly refused to shut up regarding illegal immigration. Trump’s dominance is also a reminder of the conservative policy world’s limited relevance. Last year, a group of young “reform conservatives” crafted wonky proposals involving arcane tax credits and the like in the name of winning a broader, middle-class base of Republican voters. None of it matters, it turns out, compared with the attraction of someone bellowing that America is going to be great and is going to win again, as guaranteed by the fact that the speaker himself is great and a big, big winner.
While the Republican establishment deserves its comeuppance, the fallout to the country at large of a Trump presidency would likely be as dire as his critics predict. Trump’s fans don’t appear to be dissuadable by argument, having concluded that Trump must be the answer to whatever ails the country—recalling another bout of campaign idolatry eight years ago. But Trump’s conservative supporters should consider at least this: his likely effect on civilized mores. Trump is the most gratuitously nasty public figure that this country has seen in living memory. He is the very definition of a bully: at every opportunity to kick someone when he’s down, Trump takes it, while shamelessly trumpeting his own dominance. Long after former Texas governor Rick Perry had withdrawn from the primary race, Trump was still sneering at Perry’s glasses and intelligence during campaign rallies and gloating about how he had forced Perry’s withdrawal. New York governor George Pataki held out longer in the campaign, but he was never a threat to Trump. Yet nearly every Trump stump speech still includes a mean-spirited reference to this nonentity. Trump followers defend his penchant for ceaseless, obsessive attack on the ground that he lashes out only when he has himself been criticized. But there is virtue in proportionality. Trump escalates a conventional campaign sally into the excuse for nonstop, self-aggrandizing war.
Trump is the embodiment of what the Italians call “maleducato”—poorly raised, ill-bred. Indeed, judging by the results, his upbringing seems to have involved no check whatsoever on the crudest male instincts for aggression and humiliation. Trump is unfailingly personal in his attacks. Nor is his comportment merely a refusal to be politically correct. Trump was on solid ground when he responded to Fox News’s Megyn Kelly during the first Republican debate that he had no time for political correctness. A repudiation of political correctness means truth-telling, however. Trump’s personal sneers are not truth-telling but merely the self-indulgent gestures of someone who makes no effort to control his desire to humiliate.
Conservatives, of all people, should understand the preciousness and precariousness of manners. Boys in particular need to be civilized. That task will be more difficult with Trump in the White House. There is no reason to think that Trump will change his tone should he get elected; he shows no sign of a capacity for introspection and self-correction. Any parent trying to raise a boy to be respectful, courteous, and at least occasionally self-effacing will have a hard time doing so when our national leader is so reflexively impolite, just as it is harder to raise girls to be sexually prudent when they are surrounded by media role models promoting promiscuity. The culture has been coarsened enough already. It doesn’t need further degradation from a president.
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