Let's take a journey back to the last time Donald Trump went on an extended bender of White House hallucination. The year was 1999. Pets.com stock was trading at $11 per share. Nobody was all that interested in Bill Clinton's birth certificate. More important, the Republican Party's nomination looked ungettable, sure to be captured by George W. Bush. So Trump left the party.
"I really believe the Republicans are just too crazy, right?" he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press. "I mean, just what's going on is just nuts."
For a few months, Trump hashed out a policy agenda. It wasn't much, but it was enough to fill a quickie book: The America We Deserve, published in January 2000. The Trump of 11 years ago sounds a lot like the Trump who has taken over cable TV and the Drudge Report top banner these past few weeks: He's against immigration amnesty. He's worried about terrorism. He's rending his hair over America's economic decline. Oh, and there were a few other things. *
"We must have universal healthcare," wrote Trump. "I'm a conservative on most issues but a liberal on this one. We should not hear so many stories of families ruined by healthcare expenses."
The goal of health care reform, wrote Trump, should be a system that looks a lot like Canada. "Doctors might be paid less than they are now, as is the case in Canada, but they would be able to treat more patients because of the reduction in their paperwork," he writes.
The Canadian plan also helps Canadians live longer and healthier than Americans. There are fewer medical lawsuits, less loss of labor to sickness, and lower costs to companies paying for the medical care of their employees. If the program were in place in Massachusetts in 1999 it would have reduced administrative costs by $2.5 million. We need, as a nation, to reexamine the single-payer plan, as many individual states are doing.
Today, Trump does not think the Republicans are so crazy. Two new surveys, from Public Policy Polling and Newsmax (which editorially egged him on to run), put him at the top of the GOP's thrilling list of 2012 presidential hopefuls. CNN's poll has Trump capturing much of Mitt Romney's support, even though some in the pundit class think Romney can actually beat President Obama. Pundits know that Trump can't, but they appreciate what he does for their traffic and clickthrough rate.
Romney's biggest current problem with the GOP base, of course, is his stewardship of Massachusetts's market-based universal health care law. So how has Trump avoided any damaging fallout from his single-payer flirtation? Well, the first answer is that maybe he won't. It's a nice, fat target if he surprises everyone and gets into the race. The second answer is that he's avoided conservative opprobrium because Trump is not quite a conservative, in the sense that conservatives would like to think their politicians are. He's an emissary of screw-the-experts, everything-is-broken populism. He's found an audience with Republicans because all of the voters who believe in this have, maybe temporarily, joined Team Red.
This is not necessarily a happy thought for Republicans. Republicans, like Democrats, like to think they have principles. They do not, as a general rule—I may be going out on a limb here—believe in a government-run health care system. They believe in low taxes. They ask their candidates to sign all sorts of pledges, Norquistian and otherwise, affirming their principled stance. They've studied their Hayek and their Russell Kirk.
The thing is, a lot of voters make up their minds while they're blind with rage. And the targets of their rage change from year to year. That's why Trump's 2000 platform is instructive. He was bidding to lead the Reform Party, which grew out of Ross Perot's two presidential bids, which were themselves inspired by the first real backlash to the national debt. The Reform Party's platform opposed any tax cuts before the deficit had been eliminated; excess revenue should be spent on debt payment, not tax cuts.
That was more or less the vintage 2000 Trump position on taxes, sold with a unique combination of angst and bravado. "When was the last time you heard a major politician warning of economic downturn?" he wrote. "It's just not in the vocabulary of any public figure. Except mine."
In The America We Deserve, Trump proposed a one-time 14.25 percent tax on individuals and trusts "with a net worth of over $10 million." He predicted that it would raise $5.7 trillion, "which we would use to pay off the national debt" and pay for Social Security. (The first part of this seems quaint now.)
"By imposing a one-time 14.25 percent net-worth tax on the richest individuals and trusts," he explained, "we can put America on sound financial footing for the next century." Like basically every other Trump idea, this one came with a story of epiphany and self-sacrifice. "The plan would cost me $700 million personally in the short term, but it would be worth it."
This is what a swath of people were angry about or panicked about in 1999. They were worried about campaign finance reform, so Trump sided with them. "If I were drawing a political cartoon to represent the situation," he wrote, while not actually drawing the cartoon, "it would include a very large guy with a huge bag of money. On that bag would be written one word: soft. Soft money is the bane of the current system and we need to get rid of it."
How far can this schtick take you? In 2000, not very far. That was when a lonely nation cried out for blandness, and demanded candidates with smart ideas of how to spend budget surpluses. There was none of the anger and immediacy that there was in 1992 or 2010. And Trump's success, such as it is, is coming because he will say anything that fed-up people are thinking.
Here's an example that's more recent than his book. In 2008, after George W. Bush's party lost, Trump made a critique of the Iraq war predicated on the idea that Bush was a lousy president. * "He'd go into a country," said Trump, "attack Iraq, which had nothing to do with the World Trade Center, and just do it because he wanted to do it." When he said that, that's what people thought about Bush and Iraq.
Smash-cut to this month, when Trump sat down with the Wall Street Journal for one of many interviews with baffled reporters. He went at Iraq from another direction. "I always heard that when we went into Iraq," he said, "we went in for the oil. I said, 'Eh, that sounds smart.' "
Different rationales, different solutions different times—the only thing connecting them is the degree of anger out there in that 18 percent or so of the country that hates and mistrusts both parties, and for the moment is still with the GOP. They like successful businessmen, or they at least like people who can sell themselves that way. They hate anything that sounds like political double-talk. They think Obama is wrecking the country. They can be sold snake oil, as long as the person selling it is brimming with confidence about the recipe. Enter, once again, Donald Trump.
Clarification, April 15, 2011: This paragraph originally cited the prevalence of Trump articles on the Huffington Post. Their prevalence on the Drudge Report is a more apt example. (Return to the revised sentence.)
Correction, April 18, 2011: This article originally referred to 2008 as the year "George W. Bush lost"; it was the year Bush's party lost, with John McCain leading the ticket. (Return to the corrected sentence.)