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Trump vs the system: Chris Buskirk

German chancellor Angela Merkel engages with Donald Trump at the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Canada, 9th June 2018. Photo: Jesco Denzel / Bundesregierung via Getty Images

This is the second interview in an eight-part series.

Chris Buskirk
Editor and publisher

Chris Buskirk remembers the moment in 2015 he first took Donald Trump seriously as a presidential candidate. “We were talking about the Republican debate at a family meal,” says the Arizona-based editor and publisher of conservative online journal American Greatness. “And my brother-in-law, a very mild-mannered doctor, a first-generation Chinese immigrant who’s not usually political, said, ‘I really like Donald Trump.’ It would have been no more out of character if he’d said he’d spent the weekend snorting coke and jumping out of aeroplanes. I asked why and he said, ‘Trump is talking about things nobody else will talk about, like immigration – my family didn’t cut the line so why should other people?’ It was a lightbulb moment. If my brother-in-law, of all people, was intrigued by Trump perhaps I should be paying closer attention.”

Buskirk did indeed pay closer attention. He moved away from Ted Cruz, put his full support behind the outsider, and early in 2016 launched American Greatness as an alternative to “legacy conservative media” which, he believes, did not represent him or the millions of Americans who had been ignored by the political class.

What did the conservative establishment miss when they dismissed Trump’s chances of winning? “Trump understood two big things about American voters that they didn’t,” says Buskirk. “One is that the middle-class has gotten smaller and poorer over the last 50 years. People were worried about when they could retire, how long they would keep their jobs, whether their kids would be able to do as well as them… But the jet fuel that propelled him forward was cultural issues. He realised there was a huge tension between the ruling class and what we might call the ‘country class’… The media and political elites in five or six coastal cities disdain people in Phoenix or Dallas or wherever. They thought, ‘The rubes don’t know we hate them’ – but the rubes knew it well. Trump gave voice to that understanding. He was the guy to stick a thumb in the eye of the Harvard professor or the smug person on [TV news network] MSNBC. That was very attractive.”

Trump struck at the most deeply held pieties and priorities of the past 30 years”

However, what looked attractive to Trump’s base appeared ugly to Democrats and some moderate Republicans. Can Buskirk understand why Trump is loathed by his opponents? “Well, his policies strike at the most deeply held pieties and priorities of the past 30 years,” he replies. “The Davos class goes crazy over anything that threatens the idea of ‘We don’t care about Ohio because we can get our toys made five cents cheaper in China, and we don’t care about those local communities in the US because we’ve got quarterly earning targets to meet’.”

Yet it wasn’t just Trump’s policies his detractors objected to. “Trump’s personality made the reaction more intense,” Buskirk admits. “There’s a way of talking about these things without the Davos class wanting to lynch you. But here’s one way to think about his personality – in New York he was a successful real-estate developer but he was always an outer-borough guy; he grew up in Queens, which is very blue-collar, versus the polished Manhattan developers… Trump was an uncanny valley for many people because he was Ivy League, a billionaire and dressed more or less the right way – but the red tie was always too long, the skin was always too orange. He’s rough round the edges, and that’s just not tolerated.”

Asked whether some of Trump’s imperfections – the divorces, the affairs, the seemingly endless scandals – made him morally unfit for the top job, Buskirk says he views things differently. “His personal morality is obviously not something that I would support or endorse,” says Buskirk, who on occasion writes about his faith and the role of Christianity in public life. “But you must ask if he is going to pursue policies that are good for the country… What’s worse, a womaniser or somebody who’s going to ship the middle-class’s jobs to China and leave hundreds of thousands of families worse off? What’s more moral?”

“I don’t want Trump to be the pastor of my church,” Buskirk continues. “If I need heart surgery and my cardiologist is committing adultery with the nurse but he’s the best heart surgeon in town, am I not going to get surgery from him?” Regardless, Buskirk insists that Trump maintained the moral authority of the presidency because he was a “good steward of the power he was given on behalf of the people who elected him”, and that his “personal piety was a secondary issue”.

Buskirk points towards foreign policy when asked to name Trump’s greatest achievement. “He changed the centre of gravity on China,” he says. “He was the first person to come along and say, ‘You know what, the China trade isn’t good. Sure, you can get $10 toasters but no one in rural Ohio can afford them because they no longer have jobs.’ The entire Republican party shifted on this issue and now see China as a strategic competitor.

“This country has been at war since 1917 [almost] without stop,” Buskirk adds. “Donald Trump is the first president in 80 years not to start a new war, and he tried to wind down the old ones.” The claim about starting new wars is not entirely true – Jimmy Carter never involved the US in military conflict.

And where did President Trump fail? Buskirk says that he was less successful than he had hoped at keeping manufacturing jobs in the US, and he wasn’t able to meet his promise of reviving the coal industry, which continued its long-term decline. But Trump’s biggest failure, according to Buskirk, was losing the 2020 election. Buskirk says it was close, that it came down to slim margins in a handful of key states, and that things might have been different had senior citizens voted for Trump in the same numbers as in 2016. “He lost four or five percentage points in these states and in my view that’s pure Covid.” Trump’s campaign may have been short-sighted for encouraging in-person voting when it needed the votes of those most vulnerable to the virus. “Trump spent a lot of time talking about the problems of mail-in voting,” says Buskirk “but if that’s the system then you need to get your people to vote.”

For Buskirk, Donald Trump was the jolt that America needed. Critics believe that the convulsion of the Trump presidency led to greater polarisation in the country, but Buskirk disagrees. “He was a manifestation of existing divisions,” he says. “The problem predated him by decades. He grew out of the dynamic; he did not cause it.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #41 of Delayed Gratification

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