Donald Trump will never be mistaken for a cosmopolitan, but he will bring a distinctively European flavor to the 2016 presidential election, should he win the Republican nomination.
As in continental Europe, the two parties in a Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton race would accept the basic parameters of the welfare state, and the debate about the size of government — so central to American politics for decades — would fade to the background.
No matter how appalled the left may be by Trump, his prospective takeover of the GOP would be a watershed for progressives. For 80 long years, they have demagogued and shamed the GOP in a forlorn attempt to get it to give up on fundamentally reforming the welfare state. How much time and energy have been devoted to depicting Republicans as shoving elderly people off cliffs and as hell-bent on destroying Social Security. And here comes Donald Trump to finally cry “uncle.”
The mogul is adamantly — and apparently sincerely — opposed to entitlement reform. He thus is perfectly content to accept the status quo on half the federal budget. Never mind that the programs are built on badly flawed New Deal and Great Society assumptions and, if unreformed and unconstrained, will make it impossible to deal with the debt over the long term. These are details beneath Trump’s notice.
The scholar Sidney Milkis has observed that the New Deal sought to put the welfare state “beyond the vagaries of public opinion and the reach of elections and party politics.” If Trumpism has any staying power, it will be mission accomplished (although the congressional GOP will presumably remain committed to re-shaping entitlements).
Consider how far the GOP has come. In the 2012 race, Newt Gingrich said that Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform was “right-wing social engineering” — he didn’t mean it as a compliment — and the former House speaker saw his campaign nearly implode. Trump blames the selection of Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate for the party’s defeat in 2012, and no one bats an eyelash.
What has made American politics so distinctive for so long is the presence of a mass party committed to limited government, thanks to the conservative movement. In most European countries, there is nothing like such movement, and the limited-government tendency is relegated to think tanks and small political parties, where it usually has no real influence.
Trump as the leader of the Republican Party would, in effect, reject limited-government conservatism and instantly make the GOP at the presidential level more like an accommodationist center-right European party in which a Ted Cruz would have no home.
Of course, mainstream European political parties tend not to be nationalist or anti-immigration. Here, Trump bears a closer resemblance to Europe’s outsider parties on the right. He is less the candidate of American exceptionalism — which has a keen appreciation of our national creed as enunciated in the Declaration and the limits on government power set down by the Constitution — than a robust nationalism of a blood-and-soil variety found nearly everywhere else in the word.
Trump’s understanding of the Constitution — the most valuable American contribution to the art of self-government — runs somewhere between attenuated to nonexistent. He has lately been making noises about loosening libel laws so that he can more easily sue publications for printing things he doesn’t like. On “Fox News Sunday,” he complained that “in England, I can tell you it’s very much different and very much easier.” Yes, it is — because England doesn’t have a First Amendment. The United States happens to have a bulwark of free speech written into its foundational law, although Donald Trump apparently can’t fathom why.
You can say this about a Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton race: It will be more nasty, personality-driven and entertaining than anything we’ve seen in decades. It will also, in important respects, be less American.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.