Much of the credit for the unexpectedly large victory by the Liberal Party in Canada this week (it won just short of 40 percent of the national popular vote but that was enough for first-place finishes in 54 percent of the seats in the House of Commons) has been given to the upbeat demeanor of newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He promised “sunny ways” in his victory speech and proclaimed, “A positive, optimistic, hopeful vision of public life isn’t a naïve dream—it can be a powerful force for change.” (See America editor Matt Malone, S.J., for more thoughts on the results from Canada.)
Emphasizing a contrast with defeated Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a rather grim leader who advocated austerity measures, Mr. Trudeau spent the morning after the election happily posing for cellphone photos with Montreal subway riders. Mr. Harper’s probable successor as Conservative leader was quoted in the New York Times admitting, “We need a conservatism that is sunnier and more optimistic than what we have sometimes conveyed.”
An oft-cited rule of U.S. politics is that sunniness and optimism will always beat gloom and doom. One example is Ronald Reagan’s defeat of the Cassandra-like Jimmy Carter in 1980, but you can also go back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who adopted the campaign song “Happy Days Are Here Again” in 1932. A corollary is that it’s bad politics to depict the United States as anything other than a force for good in the world; the Democrats thus suffered for their tendency to “blame America first,” as UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick put it in a speech to the Republican National Convention in 1984. Only in recent years have the party roles seemed to be reversed, with Democratic President Barack Obama consistently stressing hopeful themes and many Republican candidates warning that, as Ted Cruz put it last spring, “The whole world’s on fire.”
But the person leading the polls for the Republican presidential nomination is no Eeyore. Donald Trump is a curious mix of fear-mongering (“rapists” and other criminals crossing our border) and confident assurance that our best is yet to come (“We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning”). Among his supporters, he reinforces both their darkest thoughts (“Our country’s going to hell”) and their belief that we can quickly recapture greatness. He’s the embodiment of a 30-second commercial, telling you that your breath is bad enough to kill trees but can be cured with a swig of Scope. (“We will have a really terrific
mouthwashwall, and it will be for the right price.”) Plenty of Republican candidates during the past few decades have excelled at the first part; Pat Buchanan and Rick Santorum, both Catholics, were especially talented at shaking their heads at how far America has fallen. Mr. Trump has been the most successful at marrying cloudy to sunny days, and his rivals have not yet been able to duplicate the feat or turn voters against it.
Bloomberg is not Trump II
Clearly, not everyone thinks Mr. Trump’s optimism is part of his appeal. On Tuesday the New York Times reported that the real-estate mogul’s success is reviving talk of an independent presidential campaign by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Andrew Ross Sorkin writes that the idea is being pushed by billionaire hedge fund investor Bill Ackman and other Bloomberg confidants: “The conventional wisdom before Mr. Trump’s campaign was that a billionaire was unelectable; given Mr. Trump’s success, Mr. Bloomberg’s friends say he should revisit his stance.”
I’m not convinced that the success of Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Campaign” has anything to tell us about the prospects of Mr. Bloomberg, a terse, no-nonsense administrator best known to the rest of America for trying to ban large sodas. The Times piece also has this hilarious sentence: “Bank chief executives, private equity bosses and hedge fund managers I spoke with have also implored [Bloomberg] to run, but all except Mr. Ackman refused to go on the record, so as not to alienate the other candidates.” The Trump campaign is based on utter indifference to alienating the other candidates—as well as a lack of concern with offending immigrants, women and large segments of the United States. If Mr. Bloomberg’s chief champions are afraid to go on the record, they have not learned anything from Mr. Trump’s campaign.