Presumptive Republican Presidential nominee or not, Donald Trump is not the leader of the Republican Party. That is so because by definition, Trump cannot lead the GOP. Political parties exist to promote shared principles. Parties institute conventions to decide upon platforms, a statement of those principles. Elections exist to give voters clear policy choices to make among platforms. Do you value limited government? Vote Republican. Oppose Obamacare? Republican. Think the deficit is a major issue facing the country? Republican again.
But Trump lacks an essential element necessary to claiming the mantle of Republican leadership. Namely, he can’t lead a party based upon ideals when he lacks conviction on any issue of substance. Trump’s ardent followers don’t rally to him out of a sense of shared values. Rather than rally around values, Trump’s followers have bought into the cult of personality that Trump has carefully built up around himself through his bestselling autobiography and through his regular appearances on reality television and on fake wrestling shows. His followers support him because they’ve bought into his tough-guy, win-at-all-costs persona, whether it reflects reality or not.
Think of this country’s most storied leaders and their statement of principles. There’s Thomas Jefferson’s assertion of the right to popular government in the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s defense of democratic principles enshrined in the Gettysburg Address, and Ronald Reagan’s defense of basic human freedom in his Brandenburg Gate remarks, when he famously intoned “Mr. Gorbachev: Tear down this wall!” What each of these great leaders shared was a positive vision of the future behind whose unifying power they rallied their followers. They had clearly defined principles, and they placed those principles ahead of their own good fortune.
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Jefferson risked his life and everything dear to him to defy the greatest world power of the time, the British Empire. Lincoln endured incredible personal tragedy, and his life was daily in jeopardy as the beleaguered leader of the Union during the Civil War. Reagan did not shirk his historic duty to oppose the “Evil Empire,” as he termed the Soviet Union. This while Trump refers to former Soviet KGB operative and current Russian premiere Vladimir Putin someone he would “get along very well with.”
What are Trump’s definable values? What are the lofty principles that are so dear to him that he’s willing to risk his very life to lead this great country through adversity to advance them? It’s hard to name even one principle to which Trump ascribes other than his fidelity to engorging his own ego and expanding his own power. He’s guided not by a vision to which he aspires and which he hopes to rally followers behind. Rather, he’s defined by his ability to invoke anger bordering on hatred, through his disquieting comfort with those ready resort to violence and by his opposition to those that are different, Muslims and Mexicans to name two such groups. History is littered with examples of would-be leaders who resorted to such mechanisms in an attempt to consolidate their own power. Such people are typically referred to as demagogues.
The list of high-profile Republicans who previously opposed but now support Trump’s candidacy is growing: Chris Christie, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Bobby Jindal, to name a few. From a straightforward political calculation it’s easy to see why they’ve re-aligned themselves to support Trump. If he wins, they stand to gain with choice positions in his administration, but even if he loses, they’ll have access to his donors and political network which could aid them in future races.
But if one aspires to leadership, there must be unifying principles, calls to defeat Hillary, deport Mexicans and exclude Muslims notwithstanding. It seems likely that Trump’s candidacy is doomed to failure in the fall. The polls currently reflect deep antipathy towards Trump among general election voters, even if there is widespread apathy towards the Clinton campaign. Polls can change, and Trump could win. But success alone does not a leader make, and those who aspire to lead the Republican Party in 2020 and beyond would be wise to remember that.
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