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Do Trump’s manners matter?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a rally at Radford University in Radford, Va., Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. AP Photo/Steve Helber

Won’t fiddle with Social Security. Won’t mount an assault on Planned Parenthood. Not a doctrinaire opponent of trade agreements. Favors some government role in health care.

These are some of the Donald Trump policy positions that are broadly congruent with Hillary Clinton’s views and that are at odds with some if not all of his remaining Republican opponents. And taken together they may prompt us to re-evaluate the common wisdom about the Trump campaign, which portrays the billionaire businessman as one of the insurrectionists inside the Republican Party.

In fact, these four views, along with others, are completely consistent with those of the Republican establishment that Trump, along with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, are customarily regarded as attacking. But the truth — hard to swallow by that very Republican establishment — may be that Trump’s views may have far more in common with the establishment than he or they will admit.

The greatest difference between that Establishment and Trump centers on two issues, Trump’s strong stand on immigration (proposal: build a wall and force Mexico to pay for it) and his deep distrust of Muslims (proposal: ban their entry).


These are positions that establishment Republicans revile, not only for policy reasons. They reject these views in part because they are stunning departures from the comity that establishment Republicans embrace. Beyond all policy positions, they revere tolerance and moderation.

Moreover, the establishment is conservative because – this is not a contradiction – it believes in moderation, and there is a difference, in manners as in politics, between believing in moderation and being a moderate. Moderation is a social style, while being a moderate is a political position. Since the ascension of Calvin Coolidge to the presidency in 1923, this cultural element of the Republican party has been its distinguishing characteristic.


There have been departures, of course — Barry Goldwater in 1964 was one, and the Ronald Reagan who ran for president in 1976 was another. But the Ronald Reagan who ran in 1980 was less of a departure, and his selection of George H.W. Bush as his runningmate and his approval of a big tax hike in 1982 are proof of the argument.

The reason regular Republicans are wary if not appalled by Trump is that to them he seems vulgar (his comments about Megyn Kelly), impolite (his dismissal of rivals as a “liar’’ and a “choke artist’’), disrespectful (his critique of the prisoner-of-war years of an earlier GOP nominee, John McCain), and impetuous (his dismissal of former nominee Mitt Romney as a “dope’’). These are controversial comments, to be sure, but what ties them together is their intemperance.

Even some self-proclaimed Republican rebels are rattled by the Trump style. “There’s no question he says things no one else is willing to say,’’ Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania said in an interview. “That’s part of his appeal for many people, who think we’re dominated by a politically correct culture that suppresses the truth.’’

For a long time, Trump has operated by the Huey Long rule, as identified by the Kingfish’s biographer, T. Harry Williams, who said of the Louisiana governor and senator: “When Huey violated an established political rule, he did so knowing that the rule had no validity and that he would gain by the violation.’’ That is the Trump way.


But dismissing the validity of the rules and gaining by their violation does not score points with the establishment, and, in fact, further isolates the candidate from it. Like Long, Trump is resented for his audacity and condemned for his refusal to bow to custom. Indeed, custom is at the center of the old conservatism of Edmund Burke, who since the late 18th century has been regarded as the founding father of the creed.

Perhaps the greatest departure from custom in American politics came in 1828, when Andrew Jackson (rough-hewn and from Tennessee) toppled John Quincy Adams (refined and holding a Phi Beta Kappa key from Harvard). It represented a change of policies, but mostly it represented a change in presidential, and national, style.

This may be another such moment, especially since Trump holds an Ivy League degree and yet defies all the social norms of the Republicanism of his youth.

Trump turned 21 in 1967, when John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and Charles Goodell and Jacob Javits of New York were Republican members of the Senate and Nelson Rockefeller of New York, Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma, William Scranton of Pennsylvania, and George Romney of Michigan occupied governors’ chairs as Republicans. Every one of them would have considered Trump’s braggart-and-bully persona unsuitable for national office.

An explanation for some of this may be found in the unlikely pages of Psychology Today, a magazine which this year published a piece called “How to Pick a President’’ that examines the traits essential to White House success.


“Impulsivity, arrogance, a tendency to move and think too fast — all work against the measured, sober, thoughtful and patient study that good judgment requires,’’ argues John D. Gartner, a psychotherapist who has been teaching at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School for more than two decades.

Trump’s critics describe him as impulsive and arrogant, but the question facing Americans is whether the Gartner view is merely a restatement of past experience rather than a formula for future success. And one question more: Is Gartner’s view a classic reformulation of the outlook of the Republican establishment?

Trump’s campaign is not merely against his remaining rivals, or his possible opponent in a 2016 general-election campaign. It is a campaign about style and about the resilience of old forms of respect. Many of those old forms have eroded in recent years. Reagan, for example, made it a point never to enter the Oval Office without wearing a suit coat; he thought it was an affront to history. Barack Obama has appeared multiple times in shirtsleeves.

So perhaps this campaign is not really about immigration, or taxes, or how to deal with ISIS, after all. Perhaps it is about what the Republican establishment cares about most. Perhaps it is about manners. And perhaps it is about whether manners matter, or whether Trump is right, that manners matter less than straight talk.


David M. Shribman, a former Globe Washington bureau chief, is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShribmanPG.