Donald Trump’s ascension presents two tests in one candidacy: a public-affairs exam for the American public and a Rorschach test for the commentariat.
Move beyond nationalist slogans and demeaning nicknames, and what Trump is peddling is a collection of contradictions, a glop of gallimaufry, a hodgepodge of impossibility.
He can't, for example, pass his tax plan and balance the budget. It just won't happen. Deficits are already on the upswing again. His huge tax cuts would only accelerate that — and at a time when the retiring baby boomers are putting increasing budgetary pressure on entitlements.
"There is no plausible plan there," notes Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog. "He is recycling myths that fiscal experts have been refuting for years."
He's just as nonsensical on trade. Take his call for slapping a 35 percent tariff on Ford vehicles coming from Mexico as a way to prevent that company from relocating any automobile production there.
"He can't do it," says Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute and a former trade negotiator for Ronald Reagan. "It would be a violation of NAFTA."
The same goes for the 45 percent tariff Trump talks about levying on Chinese goods. Under the World Trade Organization, member countries have made commitments not to impose tariffs above a certain level.
"If you charge higher tariffs, we are violating our obligations, and the other country could sue and would probably be authorized to retaliate," notes Joel Trachtman, professor of international law at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Further, having granted a country most-favored-nation status, as the United States has China, we can't then impose higher tariffs on its goods than on those from other most-favored-nation countries, Trachtman notes.
Then there's the Iran nuclear pact. Although Trump contends he "will force the Iranians back to the bargaining table to make a much better deal," that's silliness on stilts. Iran is abiding by the agreement, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. If that continues to be the case, Trump will never get our allies aboard an effort to pursue a new, tougher pact.
So why, then, is Trump gaining on presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton?
Here's where the Rorschach test comes in. One's assessment of the public's AQ — that is, awareness quotient — largely determines what they think about Trump's prospects of becoming president. If you believe we are a nation of dupes and dopes, then you despair over the country's ability to detect the feints and evasions of a demagogue. Thus we're seeing warnings about the dire peril the nation faces, even about the possible end of American democracy and a slide into fascist dictatorship.
But there's another explanation.
These issue are complicated, and to average voters, the holes in Trump's plans aren't immediately evident. That kind of awareness takes time — and a concerted critique.
No rival offered such a critique during the GOP primary campaign, in part because that would have required attacking Trump from the left, in part because it would have meant alienating his supporters, whom his rivals hoped to attract. And, to be blunt, the cable-TV campaign coverage has failed badly at assessing either the truth of Trump's assertions or the plausibility of his plans.
But if Bernie Sanders shifts out of cranky Quixote mode and rallies round once the primary season ends, Hillary Clinton will be able to focus fully on Trump. As the campaign progresses, voters should come to see Trump for what he is: a snake-oil salesman.
Have faith in democracy. It, after all, has made us what we are: a country that was great long before Donald Trump came on the scene — and will remain so long after he's gone the way of every other dime-store demagogue.