Donald Trump’s announcement Tuesday that he will not participate in the next Republican presidential debate stems from a dispute over host Fox News’s choice of moderator: Trump and Megyn Kelly have clashed before, and he wanted Fox to remove her. But even if Trump lost this negotiation, the decision to sit out the debate fits his campaign strategy. If your pitch is total contempt for other politicians and their “establishment,” and you are riding high in the polls on that message, then standing among them and trading rehearsed barbs diminishes you. Trump likes to be on Trump properties, or at least the properties of his rich and powerful friends, and the GOP debate is neither right now.
The difference between Trump and the “mainstream right,” especially second-place Ted Cruz, is often couched in terms of orthodoxy. Trump promises trade barriers, tells audiences he opposed the Iraq War, and doesn’t seem allergic to strong government as long as it is his government. Cruz is an orthodox economic libertarian who, like every conservative candidate since Ronald Reagan, sees regulators on the backs of small businesses. Moreover, Trump’s political record is a motley on issues from abortion to party affiliation, where Cruz is a pure creature of movement conservatism.
There is another difference that may be more telling about just what the Trump phenomenon is. His political language conjures up a very different world from the other candidates’. He dismisses the high-church liturgy of American politics: rag-tag colonists, a terrible Civil War, World War Two and fear itself, the sin of slavery (either lingering or long-since overcome), the Constitution, the Constitution, the Constution. That will be the language of the GOP debate, along with its pathetic jabs and sick burns. Cruz, although a man of the hard right, speaks this language just like virtually every American politician of the last century. Trump’s language, less consistently anti-government than Cruz’s, is something different and strange. That is part of Trump’s unsettling novelty.
When Trump mentions the Constitution, it tends to be the Second Amendment. “We’ve got to have the right to protect ourselves,” he told students at the evangelical Liberty University earlier this January. Announcing his candidacy last June, he praised a couple who, fearful of being attacked by escaped convicts, told him, “We now have a gun on every table. We’re ready to start shooting.” Vigilante fantasies of citizens shooting back at terrorists have become standard on the right, but the meaning of Trump’s Second Amendment is especially private and personal. In his America, haunted by illegal immigrants out for rape and murder, under a government too cowed by political correctness to protect its people, people have to be prepared to look out for themselves. No one is looking out for them.
That turns out to be the key to Trump’s message: no one is looking out for you. Consider his religious appeals. Cruz’s evangelical tribalism is a version of constitutional principle: an authoritarian, secular government is oppressing nuns, investigating preachers, and generally violating the First Amendment. And that at least mean that Cruz’s principles are meant to apply to everyone: if he wants the government out of churches, he and his prosecutors and judges are theoretically committed to keeping it out of mosques, too. For Trump, the problem is that Christians have not been tribal enough. He told his audience at Liberty University, “We don’t band together, frankly. Other religions, they do. We’ve gotta band together around Christianity.” He had just finished describing the decapitation of Christians “under siege” in Syria, and explained, “We’ve gotta protect [sic], because bad things are happening.”
Trump’s economic rhetoric is tribal, too. It isn’t just his economic nationalism, but how he describes restoring American dominance. “Deals,” which for Trump are the keys to leadership and power (Obama and Kerry didn’t read his Art of the Deal, he laments), turn out to be strong-arm, zero-sum wrestling matches. Again and again, Trump insists that he loves China and Mexico—the Chinese government is a tenant of his, he likes to explain, and “Hispanics” are fine people—but their negotiators are too tough and clever for our weak leaders. He will take them to the cleaners. He will take Saudi Arabia to the cleaners, calling in their oil money to pay for American troops in the Middle East. Maybe he will just take the Iraqi oil fields for American use—“to the victor go the spoils.” He sounds like he is running for the office of Pirate King.
By contrast, Cruz’s economic language is utterly conventional: repeal regulation, cut taxes, and let the market’s rising tide raise all boats. This formula builds in a certain (perhaps disingenuous) idealism: the market works for everyone, if we would just let it work. Trump’s version of capitalism is zero-sum—either they keep ripping us or we rip them. To get rich again, you need a ripper, a strong man on your side. Then, from Beijing to Riyadh, there will be respect again. “There’s no respect,” he laments, for a country that elects weaklings and fools. Respect, too, is zero-sum, the spoils of the victor.
Trump offers a politics for the abandoned. He speaks to people who feel they have no one on their side, whose economic experience is of decline and being ripped off, who fear they will need to protect themselves when no one else will, and who know they need to band together. Given that experience, who might not feel this way? Trump’s total indifference to standard political language—the Constitution, history, the American miracle—disowns all the pieties that his constituency suspect are lies anyway. His brutal, pseudo-pragmatic tone is a promise that he is real, and can get real on his supporters’ behalf.
The world Trump conjures fits the bleak landscape of the white working class that Victor Tan Chen recently described in the Atlantic: socially isolated, increasingly irreligious, facing grim economic prospects, beset by addiction and early death. The irony of tribalism is that its appeal can be strongest when actual community is at its weakest: when political principles ring hollow, friends are few, and the economy looks to be a cycle of rip-offs, it is more urgent than ever to find some people like you, especially strong ones.
There is no such thing in Trump’s language as a set of consistent principles, let alone time-honored ones, that should anchor politics. For Trump, being a businessman seems to mean there are no principles but shrewdness and self-interest, and coming out on top. His constant harping on his polls is not simple narcissism, but a sped-up version of a quarterly earnings report: he is reassuring his supporters that they are with the smart money, in on the ground floor of a big thing. Only a loser would harp on principles instead of delivering the goods. This fact makes Trump’s candidacy uniquely fragile—if he starts losing, he is not a noble dissident, just a loser, because there are only winners and losers. It also makes him uniquely ungoverned as long as he is winning.
Where does this leave Cruz, who himself rose as a crusader against the establishment? Nominally to Trump’s right, Cruz remains a much more conventional figure in movement conservatism. He weaves his far-right proposals into the Concord-Gettysburg-Berlin Wall pageant of American heroism, the archetype-ringing stories of his father’s immigration and his parents’ religious conversion. “Compared to that,” Cruz told the audience at the Freedom Summit in Iowa last January, “the challenges we face in this country are nothing.”
For Cruz, restoration means “reigniting the miracle of America” by going back to basic political principles. “We need to defend our constitutional rights—every single one of them,” he told the Freedom Summit. To defend religious liberty and limited government, we need to honor every clause in the Constitution. To restore opportunity, we need to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and adopt a flat tax that can be filed on a postcard. To save the rule of law, we have to withdraw the unconstitutional executive order that President Obama used to slow deportations.
This liturgy assumes that Americans share deep and perennial principles, which go back to the Founding and define the country’s character and mission. Using this language presupposes that one of the purposes of political leadership is to remind citizens of this and keep them true. This can mean restoring the old order, in the manner of Reagan and Cruz, or fulfilling its promise in new circumstances, which was what FDR, LBJ, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all claimed to do. President Obama has followed in the second, progressive tradition. The division between the two traditions comes down to whether America needs restoration, as Cruz and his ideological ancestors insist, or redemption, to become not what it used to be, but what it should always have been. The latter, harking back to Abraham Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” in the Civil War, is the expansive, reformist tradition that Obama embraces and Cruz rejects as a betrayal of true principle.
Much as Cruz’s campaign is powered by hatred of Barack Obama, the two men speak from opposite rooms in the same rhetorical mansion. But not Trump. He announces his not-a-politician persona by entirely ignoring the high-church conventions, not just of conservatism, but of presidential politics generally.
The America that Trump evokes is adrift in an opaque history, struggling for survival with no compass but self-preservation. The answer isn’t in politics as we have known it, even in its far-right versions, but in abandoning the old political tropes and pieties and finding a more candid strength: “We’ve got to run it like a business, but with a heart,” he said at Liberty University. Trump’s America is the decent employer that went to Mexico in the 1990s, or the Ford Motor Company of the 1960s, but without the infrastructure of labor law and working-class power that created that world. What he takes from China and Saudi Arabia will be his gift to his people.
Trump’s campaign has been called everything from neo-fascist to post-argument. Its version of politics might also be called post-imagination. Traditional political language adds a principled gloss to a hard world and posits ideas of national community and solidarity that experience often undercuts. Ted Cruz recasts that language into a dark-hued story about constitutional liberty, its betrayal, and the virtuous citizens who will take it back. Trump shrugs it all off. He will tell you how things are, nothing more. They are not good.
Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015).