Is Donald Trump proving himself to be the “Ben Carson” of the late stages of the Republican Party presidential primary?
You remember Ben Carson, right?
He represented, for the second consecutive GOP presidential sweepstakes cycle, that peculiar Republican dynamic: the completely un-political and unqualified Black candidate a swath of the lily-White GOP base swoons over in order to pretend they’re not bigots.
That strain of a mass pathology enabled Carson, as Herman Cain before him, to run deep into the primaries before his stunning ignorance of the most basic policy matters caused his candidacy to suddenly explode, as if in a puff of smoke.
Actually, the GOP penchant for idolizing ignorance was hardly limited to Carson and Cain. The Obama years have seen a slew of White conservative wannabes for the presidency and Congress who displayed an equally awful ignorance of policy matters. Of course, none of them matched the spectacular ignorance of Sarah Palin.
Until now. Until the last month Trump’s largely self-funded campaign war chest and talent for inciting the basest emotions of a large bloc of conservative voters enabled him to skate through the GOP primaries and avoid talking about policy issues in any detail while overwhelming all but two of the Party’s starting-line candidates.
That very achievement, however, means that Trump has now got to discuss conservative policy issues in detail if he’s to gain the sizeable number of conservative voters – who voted for all the other candidates in the primaries but him – he needs to defeat his remaining rivals, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, and the stop-Trump forces newly energized by his Wisconsin primary loss. That’s why he announced last week plans to give more formal policy-oriented speeches in the future.
The challenge he faces on that task was thrown into sharp relief within the last month by his lengthy interviews with the editorial boards of the New York Times and The Washington Post, and then, separately, with some of those newspapers’ top reporters. Those sessions have yielded transcripts that underscore two striking aspects of Donald Trump’s character.
One is his overweening egotism and authoritarian nature. For example, he told Washington Post reporters that as president he would make other countries and peoples “respect our country. I want them to respect our leader” through his own “aura of personality.”
The second is a profound ignorance of even the most basic policy matters. It’s not just that Trump’s views are conservative. What’s striking is that they’re incoherent beyond the level of his first sentence. He doesn’t even have the kind of knowledge of policy issues one can readily pick up from reading, for example, news stories and editorials in the Times and the Post on a regular basis. This ignorance is really why he declared in March he was finished with the formal GOP debates. He knew that with a smaller number of opponents on the debate stage there’d be no way to avoid revealing how little knowledge and understanding of policy matters he has.
Trump’s “shellacking” defeat by rival Ted Cruz in the Wisconsin GOP primary has added to the idea those interviews provoked that he’s now vulnerable. In addition, polls taken after he spent much of March wallowing in crude, street-corner-level insults of Cruz and his wife have illuminated how deeply he’s disliked by many voters – especially women – in both the Republican and Democratic parties. All this has intensified some conservatives’ efforts to undermine him.
But Trump’s not going to disappear from the GOP candidates’ list. He still leads in the delegate count. He’s still got a sizeable segment of the GOP base behind him, and he’s restated in several different ways his threat to use them to wreck the coming GOP convention if he doesn’t get the nomination. Those remarkable facts about his candidacy speak volumes about both the Republican Party’s organizational weakness and its relationship to voters with conservative beliefs.
And they underscore a fundamental force in today’s conservative movement: the need to idolize ignorance. The crudest evidence of that, of course, is Trump’s followers, who time and again have shown they don’t care about policy issues but instead want the boasting and bluster, the insults and the bigotry he specializes in.
Exalting ignorance has also been the party’s posture on a range of issues such as climate change. And that dynamic is evident as well in Republican senators’ refusal to do their constitutional duty and hold hearings on President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court seat held by the late Antonin Scalia. For the GOP, cultivating a deliberate ignorance-a willful not wanting to know-has become a foundation for its extreme conservatism.
Lee A. Daniels, a former reporter for The Washington Post and the New York Times, is also a former editor of The National Urban League’s The State of Black America. He is a keynote speaker and author whose books include Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America. He is writing a book on the Obama years and the 2016 election. He can be reached at email@example.com