Candidates like Mr. Trump serve a valuable purpose. They provide an index of disaffection. The political class in the US is held in very low esteem these days. There have been other such times, but the decline in our national fortunes has created division rather than unity, and there has been not just a coarsening in our politics but a small-d democratization that does not bode well for the republic.
It is hard to say when the train went off the rails. My guess is that it started with Watergate, but the recent descent seems to me to have started in the Clinton era. The impeachment of Bill Clinton over sex cheapened the mechanism. The lack of respect shown to W was disgraceful, and the GOP's refusal to work with Obama will someday be the stuff of legend.
Through it all, our politics has become increasingly dysfunctional. The Iran deal is an excellent example. The Republicans are going to vote the deal down as a matter of party politics. They do not care whether it is the best deal that could have been had (it's so easy to pretend a better one was there for the negotiating) or whether abandoning it would be better policy than embracing it. They care only about saying that they do not like it and saddling the Democrats with it as a political matter. It is precisely this sort of cynicism that brings us a Donald Trump.
The threat to renege on the national debt by not raising the debt ceiling, the failure to negotiate something better than the "sequester" to constrain spending, the failure to produce a robust stimulus deal in 2009 - where's our Hoover Dam? - the constant threats to shut down the government over this or that, all of these things remind us that our politicians are either not interested in, or not capable of governing. Why not, then, elect someone who, if he fails, will fail by doing rather than by not doing?
Jon Stewart says "If you smell something, say something." Trump's supporters smell something, and they are saying something. They are saying that the political class is worse than useless, that they would rather have a loose cannon than a circular firing squad. They will tolerate Trump's political incorrectness because it pales against the pros' political fecklessness. Carly Fiorina stood out at the recent parade because she is not tarnished with the "Assembled in D.C." label. She is tapping into the same disaffection as Trump, but with more class and, so far, less name recognition. We will see how far that takes her.
Sadly, there are no Republican Keynesians anymore. I would like to be a Republican. The result-oriented, identity politics of the Left has always left me cold. But conservatism these days entails a distrust of government, and spending by government, the only way out of our economic mess, is too easy for right wing demagogues to equate with spending on government. The right says we should let the private sector fix our roads and bridges, that we should not saddle our kids with debt when we can instead saddle them with a decaying physical plant. These subtleties are the reason why we have a representative form of government, why we send wiser people than ourselves to do our business. But in recent years, we have sent people who make no pretense of expertise. They are there to speak for the people, to act as if only what the public can understand can be understood.
They are useless. They are the blackness against which as dim a star as Trump's stands out. Our repugnance to a candidacy like Trump's is the canary in our political coal mine. When it dies, we know that the air must be foul indeed.