What is needed today is a framework that would enable us to understand—rather than to simply dismiss or endorse—populism and demagoguery.
Donald Trump in 2016 struck me as indicative of several negative trends in our country. Trump embodied the generations-long coarsening of our culture, the obsession with celebrity, the decline of marital and familial stability, the democratic indulgence of political amateurism, and the perennial dangers of demagoguery. Besides, I had long loathed the man for his narcissistic self-promotion. The thought of Trump holding the office once held by George Washington convinced me that we were not capable of keeping the republic bequeathed to us.
I hesitated when I read Michael Anton’s “The Flight 93 Election” upon its publication in September of that year. Anton appealed to the compelling political principle that in this imperfect world we have to often choose the least objectionable option we have available to us. He made a stronger argument than this, but given the practical possibilities we had, I thought he made a good case for Trump, even if I thought then, as I do now, that Anton wasn’t sufficiently attentive to the actual details of governing.
What’s changed since 2016 such that an argument I couldn’t embrace a mere three years ago now convinces me? Anton argued that “a Hillary presidency would be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire progressive-Left agenda” and would result in a wave of “vindictive persecution” and censorship of the dissenters against her technocratic globalism. I shared that concern and had little hope that the left would be chastened by Hillary’s humiliation. Rather than learn how to live peaceably with their fellow citizens, the left doubled-down on both its ideology and tactics.
The Kavanaugh hearings demonstrated a strategy of character assassination that could see no gray area. I don’t share Anton’s confidence that Kavanaugh is a “fine man,”—I’m agnostic on the question—but I believed the utter disregard for the foundations of the rule of law—presumption of innocence, the need -for compelling evidence and corroborating testimony, a fair trial that would guard a man’s reputation—coupled with a “believe the accuser” (if the accuser is a woman) mindset would embolden the left to accomplish its agenda through fear and intimidation.
Indeed, on college campuses such as my own, while administrators and faculty were indulging their globalist ambitions, student life divisions, and their ideological extremists in the diversity-industrial complex became shriller in their denunciations of any dissenting views. Their conduct justifies Anton’s claim that the left has an “all-consuming drive for absolute power”, is hostile to American and Western norms,” and demonstrates a “boundless destructive enmity,” even if casting it so negatively may blind conservatives to the reasons why the left has been electorally successful.
It’s not likely that Hillary’s support came primarily from those who are enthusiastic about “managerial Davoisie liberalism,” especially when you consider her run against Bernie Sanders. Rather, at the electoral level, the Democrats have gone all in on culture war issues. Hillary is the instructive person: consider how far the Democratic Party has come from “safe, legal, and rare” to the pressure being put on current candidates to fully endorse abortion as a substantive good. Abortion is what the Kavanaugh hearings were really all about, an indication of the sullied lengths abortion advocates will go to in order to remove any restrictions on the procedure.
As campus life and political life make increasingly clear, many on the contemporary left have no interest in making progress through the time-honored democratic practices of persuasion, negotiation, and compromise. When you are on the right side of history, it can’t get here fast enough. But unlike disagreement on economic or standard policy issues, cultural issues entail the correction of beliefs and attitudes. Those who will not be shamed will be remediated; and if not that, then ostracized.
Part of Trump’s appeal flows from the fact that he infuriates these people. I have my complaints about his conduct and character, but at least someone is standing up to the bullies on the left. On college campuses the left will keep thumping you in the chest, and when you’ve finally had enough and raise your hands to defend yourself, they accuse you of being aggressive. The same mindset infects our politics, and Trump has shown he won’t be pushed around. My favorite part of Anton’s essay is when he compares modern conservatives to the hapless Washington Generals: we are expected to suit up and lose, never playing too hard and never scoring too much. I think that’s right, even if it seems to me that our leftist Globetrotters would prefer now to have the court to themselves.
If I bracket my distaste for Trump and his imprudent conduct, and I’m not inclined to “see his vulgarity as a godsend to the conservatives,” I find myself liking much of what he has done. He has changed the debate on immigration, and while I favor a generous immigration policy and an easier path to citizenship, I also support an orderly policy. He understands that incentives matter in political and economic life. I applaud his judicial appointments. I thought the tax bill was an important first step in the simplification of our tax code. I think he understands well how a leader might want to use all the tools in his toolbox and to strengthen his negotiating position. I find it difficult to argue with growth and unemployment rates both hovering around 3%. He’s been one of the most effective presidents we’ve had on abortion issues. He hasn’t gotten us embroiled in foreign wars. He’s made gestures at restraining the administrative state and forcing Congress to do its job. Set aside your feelings about the man, and the presidency looks pretty appetizing.
It’s difficult, of course, to do that. The presidency is about much more than policy. Anton observes that Trump’s rise could only happen “in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times,” and I find myself wondering if a sick body can produce from within itself a pathogen that will promote its own healing. In other words, if in fact, as Anton claims, America is in decline, is Trump a cure, a purgative, or a comorbidity?
I’m sympathetic to the general mood of the essay and am inclined to see Trump as a symptom of a diseased body. I don’t think, however, that Anton fully diagnoses the disease, and thus doesn’t really provide us with the right cure. The core illness of our politics is the refusal to accept limits, an expansive appetite that consumes the barriers that would otherwise restrain its consumption. So while I think Trump’s more modest foreign policy that emphasizes the national interest, his fitful and imperfect efforts to restore a system of checks and balances, and his nodding toward cultural restraints might be (to mix a metaphor) a pumping of the brakes, I doubt it will keep the car from careening its way down a cliffside road. Neither will it be likely to get everyone in the same car, by which I mean there are those who won’t be interested in national unity if it means giving up ideological purity.
For Anton is right when he says that “the money will dry up and—what then?” The body politic is dying of over-consumption, and neither Trump nor anyone else is willing to put it on the strict regimen it will need to regain some of its health. The underlying conflicts of our politics have been mitigated by the illusion of affluence created by the massive amount of total debt in the economy. When those bills—including our unfunded liabilities—come due and a recognition of the realities of scarcity is introduced into our politics, our current political battles will seem tame by comparison. The immense size of the fiscal gap (the calculated difference between 75 years of future expenditures and anticipated receipts) requires an immediate 27% cut in spending (Kotlikoff claims the number is actually 47%). The longer we wait to operate, the more difficult the recovery. Unless Trump starts making serious efforts to trim entitlements and scale back the military, our disease will keep progressing. It seems unlikely that a populist politician will make that case for the public or to his supporters, many of whom are on the dole. What happens then will make people left and right pine for these halcyon days and will make us wonder why we were busy debating cosmetics instead of putting ourselves on a diet.