23 Jan All I Can Think to Say about our New President: My Posture and Position
On Friday, January 20, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as President of the United States. Millions of people around the country have celebrated the event, believing it means the political messiah they have been waiting for has come to town to restore law and order, clean up the brokenness of Washington D.C., and usher in a new era of America First. On the other hand, millions of others have protested and weeped, worried that a regime of hate and intolerance has taken over the White House. The polarization between the most ardent of Trump friends and Trump foes is the most intense we have seen in our lifetimes. The entire campaign season has begged for some sober analysis, and now that President Trump has been lawfully sworn in as President, I hope this piece will prove to be that.
Like most people, I have spent countless hours since election night analyzing what happened. As I committed to just hours after the election, I have approached the transition to a Trump presidency with an open and optimistic mind. And most of all, I have tried to filter through the noise to carefully understand what exactly took place on election night, and what it means for the future of our country, and for the future of the conservative movement which I so passionately believe is the best hope for the American project.
The most important thing one can do in understanding what led to the shocking Trump victory is discarding the truly dangerous interpretations that are out there. On one hand, it is easy to conclude that it means the Democratic Party is dead; Trump represents a new coalition that cannot be broken; and that Trumpism is the GOP’s last, best hope. This interpretation is deeply flawed. And on the other hand, it is easy to conclude that this was a mere anomaly, that Hillary’s wide margin in California and the overall popular vote means she basically had it taken from her, and that without Comey and Russia and WikiLeaks this whole Trump nuisance would have died a painful death. This interpretation is not just wrong, but self-serving for those on the political left. I have come to the conclusion that its real lessons were quite nuanced and nowhere near as black and white as either of these narratives would call for.
Let me get this part out of the way: I do not stand with some in the Never Trumper movement in condemning every single thing Trump has done since the election. And I do not stand with many of my conservative friends in praising every single thing either. It is this latter camp that scares me to no end. Trump is very likely to nominate a very good candidate for the Supreme Court to replace the irreplaceable Antonin Scalia. And he has, for the most part, put together a remarkable cabinet. Rex Tillerson was a surprising appointment for Secretary of State, though few can doubt his global experience and competence. The Steve Mnuchin appointment for Treasury Secretary was not my first choice, but was far above some of the names I worried he may consider. Beyond those two, I consider Rick Perry at Energy Secretary, Andrew Puzder at Labor, Betsy DeVos at Education, Scott Pruitt at EPA, Tom Price at HHS, and General Mattis at Defense among perhaps the finest cabinet I have seen in my lifetime. I am honest enough to say that I do not believe Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would have been able to put together so conservative a cabinet, largely because the more conventional approach of “balancing” the cabinet with various ideologies would have been more likely. Trump, especially by delegating so much of this to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, deserves conservative accolades for this cabinet. I suspect we are still likely to get a couple duds here and there, and Flynn at NSA doesn’t excite me a lot, but yes, this is a phenomenal cabinet, and for that I am really grateful.
But the problem with the pleasure conservatives will understandably feel with a good court pick and with this cabinet is that the will to resist where resistance is in order becomes weak and diminished. As we saw throughout the campaign, I believe we are about to see in spades a complete and total collapse of resistance where conservative resistance is warranted. Mike Pence references America losing because of the free market, and no one blinks. Trump has quadrupled down in various protectionist, anti-trade, pro-tariff rhetoric, and totally thoughtful people are nodding their head in agreement about “fair trade” (the permanent buzz phrase for those who oppose free trade). Particular, targeted crony deals are offered to companies who have threatened to move jobs out of the country, and conservatives take to the airwaves to praise the deals (well, not all conservatives, of course). I am by no means defeatist about a few of these hints we have seen so far. And very little I have written has anything to do with what Trump has done or will do. It has to do with the general spirit and composure of those who believe conservatism is an ideology that brings out what is best in the American experiment. My conservative friends who have sort of melted into Trumpism are human. There is something incredibly human about what I have watched transpire. I offer no judgment against anyone. But I do wish to express my own fear. The right does not owe President Trump blind loyalty if he is wrong any more than the left owed President Obama blind loyalty when he was wrong. House Speaker, Paul Ryan, expressed a few tactical ideas for immigration and tax reform that were compatible with but not pulled verbatim from the playbook of President Trump, and Lou Dobbs said on Fox Business, “who the hell does this guy think he is?” Friends, blind submission to anyone in this day and age will be your undoing.
I am on a tangent, but the point I want to make is that Trump should be supported when he does things good for the country and good for the cause we believe in, and he should be resisted when he does not. Do I grimace when he sends tweets about Celebrity Apprentice and Saturday Night Live and the New York Times and how big his turnout on Friday was? Yes, I do. But I can ignore his poor personal discipline for a few years because (a) I don’t really have a choice, and (b) His twitter immaturity is not the lever on which the future of conservatism hinges. But conservative resistance to him when he promotes a decidedly anti-conservative agenda is the lever on which our future hinges. I pray my conservative brethren are up to the task – of not being obstructionist for no reason, but not giving a carte blanche green light to the things we have said matter. If you want a hint of where I see this coming to a head, google all you can about the tea party’s founding, government spending, the national debt, and Obama’s stimulus programs. Then, when Trump announces his “infrastructure” bill, sit back and watch.
No comment on the appropriate posture to take towards Trump properly diagnoses what the need of the hour is for the right. There is a severe polarization in the country, not just between traditional political left and right wing ideologies, but between rural and urban America, between a cultural left and cultural right. This is perhaps the greatest threat to social order, as the events of this weekend have shown. But there is also a polarization within the right that I believe requires thoughtful attention if the conservative movement is to hold together, and with the preservation of its ideology, electoral successes are to be found.
Ramesh Ponnuro has a useful article in the post-election issue of National Review where he refers to the need for synthesizing “Trumpism” and “Ryanism.” I suspect if flushed out this would be another way of saying “synthesizing the ideology of conservatism with the sociology of populism.” I wish all we were talking about was mere “messaging.” Republicans always love to talk about how much they would change the world if they could just “talk better” to such-and-such group (minorities, women, millennials), which I take to be a way of taking for granted that various groups would be buying what we are selling if we worded it a better way. Trump did not win working whites in rust belt states by “messaging” better. He some how, some way, convinced them he cared, and that he had a solution which would improve their lives. He connected on a purely sociological level. The future of conservatism requires not giving in to the populist ideology of Trump, Buchannan, Perot, etc. And yet, I strongly suspect the electoral future of conservatism requires a connection with sociological personality of populism. How that can be done without pretending that a political philosophy of populism is even remotely compatible with conservatism is above my pay grade. But it must happen.
I tend to agree with Andy McCarthy over Sen. Mike Lee in the little debate over conservatism’s relationship to populism. Conservativism as a movement believes that there are principles and ideas which warrant conserving, and that this trumps what is popular at a given point in time (the textbook definition of populism). The amount of Republicans yelling such drivel that “we tried conservatism – it doesn’t work” – and “ideas don’t matter – it’s time to drain the swamp” – etc. etc. – is disheartening, but I suppose understandable. A true and abiding conflict (or should I say tension) exists between the street-level poetry of conservatism – one that attracts a certain populist instinct because of its opposition to big government and its skepticism of concentrated power – and intellectual movement conservatism. Thoughtful policy prescription and the pursuit of better ideas is treated with as much contempt as statism. A long and patient effort to bridge this divide is the need of the hour, if that need is defined as actually impacting the country with the principles we believe in, and winning the elections necessary to effect change.
Donald Trump shocked the world by winning the election, and I am the first to say that the wins in PA, MI, and WI are both shocking and impressive. He was polling ahead in OH most of the time, so that was not a shock, per se. Florida always polled neck and neck, and he won in a real neck and neck outcome. He needed to pull an inside straight and he did so, adding on Michigan for an electoral result far outside the national polling expectations. He won a smaller percentage of the vote than Mitt Romney did, but he won more counties. I do not believe the final analysis indicates this was a Trump wave (he lost Colorado and Nevada and New Mexico, and gave up margin in victory in Texas and Arizona, and then got blown out of the universe in California, a state he wisely put no resources into). He under-performed his Republican counterpart in most battleground states dramatically. Marco Rubio won Florida by over 700,000 votes – a nearly 8% margin; Trump won Florida by just over 100,000 votes, a roughly 1% margin. Rubio won 48% of support from Hispanics and a stunning 17% from African-Americans. He carried a black precinct in Jacksonville, in fact. Let’s look at Rob Portman in Ohio. Trump won by an impressive 8% margin, but Rob Portman won by an incomprehensible 21% margin. I don’t join the chorus of the left in saying, “he lost the popular vote, so there!” Trump ran a campaign geared towards winning the electoral college, and his resources into PA, OH, FL, MI, WI, etc. were the story of his win (yes, this can be called the Kellyanne Conway strategy). There is a duo of conclusions that are inescapable when one looks at the numeric results of this election. The broadest takeaway is that this was a story of poor Hillary turnout more than anything else. That is not a surprise; I maintained all along that Hillary’s woeful ability to generate enthusiasm (largely driven by her being corrupt, uninspiring, inauthentic, and boring) was the single reason Trump was even remotely in the race. But lest that sound like I am marginalizing the Trump victory, his wins in the Rust Belt cannot be ignored for what they mean to the state of Republicanism at large and conservatism more specifically. Those were impressive wins, and I for one to intend to humbly get that message right.
I am not a populist, and believe it to be antithetical to the very existence of conservatism. I am not a nationalist, and believe at its core nationalism is a danger to the nation that nationalists claim to promote. I do not believe Trump has called for a new ideology of populist-nationalism, though I do fear his most ardent supporters who desire such may get what they want. Rather, I think Trump represents a sociology of populism, a personality if you will that rejects the calm and sober demeanor of people like Paul Ryan, and instead is looking for more bite, more anger, and less traditional manners in dealing with parasites like the national media. This personality is not really in the DNA of many conservatives. I have long believed that one of the hallmarks of conservatism is its need to conserve etiquette, discourse, and sober reasoning. We live in a time where a plethora of social frameworks have broken down, and patience with conserving norms and traditions is thin.
All I can say to my friends on the right is that Donald Trump is my President now, fair and square, and I will be eagerly supporting him in his goals that advance the cause of liberty and prosperity and security in our country. I would be lying if I said that I am now free of reservation or trepidation – quite the contrary. Temperament matters, and it saddens me that so many are willing to act as if it doesn’t. But I recognize that this President deserves a chance to unify the sociological and ideological forces that are presently in tension, and I certainly hope he can do so. I vehemently reject the media’s cartoonishly unfair hypocrisy, and I further recognize the incredible political strength the left-wing media and the Hollywood cultural left is giving Trump. I stand on the right side of history in opposing those forces of bozo-ism. I think Trump will do a lot of things well, and I will be eagerly following the campaign promises around energy deregulation, tax reform, and the repeal/replace of ObamaCare. He’ll have no bigger fan than I as those agenda items are pushed.
But does a conservative owe it to Trump to support a zero-sum view of global trade – that all improvements in foreign countries have come at the expense of the United States? No, quite the contrary. Perhaps if Trump has done anything for me, it has been to totally remind me how much I love the truth. Partisan alliances mean less to me right now than they ever have, and that is a good thing. Our job as thoughtful Americans engaged in day-to-day living is to live and pursue truth. Trump, and any other leader, should be supported when they pursue policies and actions that advance the cause of what we believe in. Our integrity is at stake if we do not do the opposite when he does the opposite. This is not a mere strategy for “coping with Trump” – it is a suggested manual for interaction with all leaders of all categories in all eras. In my 20’s and perhaps 30’s perhaps I was still formulating much of what I believe in, and obviously now into my 40’s I continue to learn new things along the way. But a belief in a messiah out of politics, whether his name is Barack Obama or Donald Trump, is sad, pitiful, and antithetical to principled conservatism. The left would do well to learn this message too, and avoid the group-think that has left their party in a panic state of electoral failure. But as for me any my house, we will stand for truth, wherever that leaves us in the social strata of the day. Sometimes that will mean supporting Trump, and other times it will not.
But here is one thing I know: The results of the next four years will be much, much improved, if everyone takes the same stance. The truth will set us free.