What could be more democratic than Mr. Trump's knack in getting votes, albeit by tapping into atavistic sentiments that may be as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July? He is a bulwark of democracy, especially the old fashioned, pre-Citizens United kind in which a man on a stump improvises in front of voters rather than being mediated by an army of campaign advisors.
More importantly, fear of Trump understates the power of this country's institutionalism, e.g., federal judges, rights-based expectations, some form of rule of law. These Constitutional structures are sin-eaters, absorbing and ultimately neutralizing the elements stirred up by Mr. Trump. Our system would not tolerate a Berlusconi, Perón, or Franco, let alone a Hitler.
For starters, please admit that, except for his willingness to express taboo ideas about race and immigration, Trump is fairly moderate as Republicans go. Granted, the Republican National Community has made noises about reaching out to minority voters, but those seem like window-dressing to change the tone rather than the content of the Republican platform. Neither a neoliberal nor a social conservative, he can appeal to people like Bill Weld. Trump's support for Planned Parenthood and relative acceptance of gay marriage alone set him apart from the Republican pack.
Rather than a threat to democracy, Trump is an important step forward in the rebirth of the Republican Party, along the lines of economic historian Joseph Schumpeter's idea of 'creative destruction.' Schumpeter praised capitalism's ability to undo status quos through disruptive ferment, that way creating better products and technologies. Trump renews the hopes of Republican voters that a candidate can speak truth - their truth - to power. The GOP created Trump in its image. Now he's returning the favor, adding some welcome clarity and integrity to the Republican platform.
In that vein, President Obama insists that the GOP and not his administration produced Mr. Trump's Hunger Games march to the Republican nomination. That's not entirely true, though, because the President's identity and politics triggered the backlash politics that spawned the Tea Party, the obstructionism of Congressional Republicans, and, now, the Trump circus. In playing down his role as a catalyst, Mr. Obama risks not appreciating that his presidency is a turning point in American politics, as critical and enduring as those represented by Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
Roosevelt's actions helped to create the Liberal Establishment and the modern federal state. From his election in 1933 to1981, the U.S. had only three Republican presidents (Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford), each of whom is to the Left of today's Republican party. During this period, festering discontent with liberal politics would give rise to the next turning point, personified by Reagan and the rise of a counter-establishment built on neoliberal and social conservative values. (Sidney Blumenthal has a wonderful book about this). From 1981-2009, the conservative establishment rezoned our political imagination and the federal judiciary Right-ward. This interval included only one Democratic president (Clinton), yet his centrism reflected the enduring limitations of the conservative establishment.
Obama is a third inflection point. No New Dealer, he is an administrative wonk in terms of regulation, without some of the knee-jerk tendencies associated with pre-Reagan Democrats. Synthesizing strains of the liberal and conservative establishments, Obama moves with the country in some new direction with racialized and multicultural dynamics too complex too parse here.
As the antithesis to this move, Trump is the new Republican Caesar, dangerous only to the Republican political establishment. However, he may be the clarion call to a new Republican consensus, one that defines how the party reacts to contemporary society. That's what a leader is supposed to do.