Donald Trump consistently out-polls his Republican presidential rivals. While frontrunner status is often fleeting, Trump’s success might be cause for worry.
To see why, let’s examine his campaign. Finding the substance in the bombast is not always easy, but what substance we find is disturbing.
Trump presents himself as the consummate deal-maker, an image he has long cultivated; his first book (1987), Trump: The Art of the Deal, was a bestseller.
Whatever the value of his business advice, we’re entitled to ask what deal-making has to do with the presidency. Trump sees the president as America’s CEO and Deal-Maker-in-Chief. Since no one can make deals as well as he can, he must be the best qualified for the White House.
One might think Trump means his ability to deal with Congress over legislation. But he has bigger things in mind. On the stump he regularly contrasts himself with past presidents, saying they were incompetent, even stupid, deal-makers on trade, immigration, and other matters with China, Japan, Mexico, and other countries. He says he would make smarter deals because of his personal qualities and business success.
People who value freedom should ask this: why should a president make deals at all? Wouldn’t Trump’s deal-making require an intolerable amount of power concentrated in the hands of the government and particularly one man? Is that appropropriate in a free country?
Trump seems not to realize that individual freedom entails the freedom to trade with whomever one wishesanywhere in the worldon terms agreeable to the consenting parties alone. In a free society government butts out. Trump doesn’t see it that way. He wants to be the Buttinsky President, cutting deals to “make America great.”
Note his “fatal conceit”: he believes he could cut deals for the entire diverse American population, preempting the spontaneous process in which we as producers and consumers engage in voluntary exchange for mutual benefit. Moreover, in principle he repudiates the global market economy when he sees nations as competitors. Individuals and firms should compete and cooperate across national lines. When nations (i.e., governments) compete, we have mercantilism or even fascism.
Trump applies the same buttinsky principle to immigration. Xenophobically, he promises to get the better of Mexico rather than let America continue to be defeated. But individual freedom means that 1) all individualsnot just Americanshave a natural right to move as long as they respect private property, and 2) we all have a right to welcome immigrants to our homes and businesses without government permission. Government-erected walls to keep people out are as bad as walls to keep people in.
Trump also sees deal-making as a zero-sum gameone side’s gain is the other side’s loss. He says America always loses to other nations, and he promises to turn that around. Here Trump misses a key to understanding how free societies work: in peaceful voluntary interaction, both sides benefit; otherwise the interaction does not take place. Trump doesn’t get it. On the campaign trail he vows to grab oil from the Middle East rather than leave it to buyers and sellers. Similarly, he assures us he’ll persuade American manufacturers to build factories in the United States instead of, say, Mexico (further displaying his misunderstanding of free trade). Would he make them an offer they can’t refuse?
Let us note that Trump has repeatedly used the government to steal people’s landthrough eminent domainwhen owners were unwilling to sell. Is that how he would conduct himself on the national and world stage?
Perhaps most disturbing is Trump’s palpable ambition to wield power personally. He’s going to make America great. He’s going to cut great deals. He’s going to do this, and he’s going to do that. He presents himself as the Great Leader who will rescue a once-great nation. In brief, he is an Americanized Mussolini.
Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Less well-known is what he said next: “Great men are almost always bad men.”
But let’s not exaggerate the differences between Trump and his rivals. He outrages the establishment because he’s a caricature of it.