Love him or loathe him, people can’t stop talking about Donald J. Trump, almost always in hyperbolic terms.
As I write this, Mitt Romney has just uttered his very unlike-Mitt Romney cri de coeur about the intolerable impending fate the Republican Party is about to meet if Mr. Trump becomes its presidential candidate. Now that the unlikely may become the inevitable, Republican leaders are in full-throated cry that the end of the Republican Party as we know it is upon us.
This does not seem the worst thing in the world, given how much the Republican Party has become the Party of No. And the Republican angst on display does have its diverting side. Mr. Trump’s deviation from party orthodoxy—on trade, taxes, entitlements and other issues—has party leaders between a rock and a hard place. Do they embrace the outsider who has wriggled into the fold, bringing new voters with him, or turn to the much-disliked but more ideologically reliable Ted Cruz?
Mr. Trump has scrambled the Republican Party into a frenzy. Listening to his rivals on the debate stage assail him as a liar, a fraud, a phony and con man, you might think that if he wins the nomination Republicans will have to forgo partisanship this fall and vote Democratic. But no. Apparently the good of the country extends only so far.
The Democrats are hardly to be outdone in their loud repudiations of Mr. Trump. Last weekend I went to a party where my hostess compared him to Hitler and the U.S. economy to that of post-World War I Germany. These are big statements, almost Trumplike in their overreach. Certainly, we have problems in this country, and both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are tapping into Americans’ anxieties: about their own economic prospects, about the growing divide between rich and poor, about the capture of our democracy by special interest groups and oligarchs.
Still, to compare the economy of the United States, which is actually doing pretty well, with that of post-World War I Germany is a considerable stretch. So is the comparison of Trump with Hitler. The man is a populist egomaniac playing to people’s xenophobia, but is he bent on world conquest? I don’t think so. He wants to wall off the United States from the rest of the world, not plant the flag in non-American soil.
The pendulum always swings. Whatever criticisms you have of Barack Obama, he is a sophisticated man possessed of elegance and grace. Perhaps it’s surprising, then, that the Republican front-runner to succeed him is a loud-mouthed vulgarian. If by chance Mr. Trump becomes president, the American public will soon be remembering fondly Obama’s fine qualities: his intelligence, his discretion, his scandal-free administration. He has not always provided answers, but few people suggest that he does not have a good grasp of the problems.
Enter Donald Trump, the blow-hard and braggart, the thrice-married man with several bankruptcies in his past and a string of lawsuits in his present, the man for whom everything is very simple. ISIS? Syria? Not to worry. He is very, very smart and will quickly sort out those pesky problems in the Middle East.
Mr. Trump is not Hitler so much as our own Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire businessman and former prime minister of Italy whose time in office was marked by corruption charges, sex scandals and verbal gaffes. Like Berlusconi, Trump is a rich man with the common touch. Authenticity is what he has going for him. His candor, even more than his nationalism, is what supporters like. What detractors see as abusiveness his admirers see as courage and evidence of integrity.
A contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will pit polar opposites. One is well-qualified and experienced; the other is very much not. She is controlled and disciplined; he is dynamic and loose-lipped. He seems unscripted and unfiltered. Her every word seems carefully crafted and run through a political calculus.
And yet there’s a curiosity factor with both. What does each really believe? Mr. Trump seems so entirely pragmatic one wonders if he has any principles. Clinton seems like she does, but she’s so much the politician you’re never going to find out what they are.
It will be an interesting match, and you can count on the rhetoric escalating. Even now it’s as over the top as Mr. Trump’s hairstyle.