Donald Trump is the only President we have right now. Two conclusions follow.
One is that all Americans, including his critics, should wish Trump success in the office. Even if they define success differently, hoping for a failed administration because they despise the person at the head of it is absurd. Thus Trump’s critics may reasonably hope he fails in certain policies, or that his concept of the presidency fails to take hold, but they should not wish for the holder of an office that is not at the center of our constitutional order, but that still occupies an important place in it, to flounder. To the extent they expect ill of him, they should hope he surprises them.
The second is that Donald Trump—not Donald Trump as compared to Barack Obama, or to George W. Bush, or to Millard Fillmore or to whomever else—is responsible for the conduct of the presidency while he occupies it. The refusal of his ardent apologists and even his moderate defenders to allow Trump to stand alone and be accountable—to measure him, that is, according to the standard of the strong leader he proclaimed himself to be—suggests something is amiss.
It may be true, as Daniel McCarthy says in his thoughtful reply to my Liberty Forum essay, that Trump lies more transparently and thus less insidiously than his predecessors, even if it is unclear on what grounds McCarthy suggests the deceptions of past leaders (Bush’s weapons of mass destruction, Obama’s insurance) were subtle. It may also be true, as David Henderson writes in another perceptive reply, that Trump, unlike Edward M. Kennedy, never left a woman at the bottom of a lake. One can grant that point while still hoping Presidents of the United States clear a higher bar. And it is certainly true, as Julie Ponzi says in her compelling essay, that voters confronted a rawer version of politics in 2016, one she describes as more authentic than what they witnessed in past elections.
Some of this is based on a misreading of my original essay, which did not merely accuse Trump of being a fabulist who eats his entrée with his salad fork. His private moral standards were not the point, which is not to say they should not be a point: It is harder than McCarthy suggests to separate the character of an administration from the personal character of the President, which is undeniably one reason Bill Clinton was impeached.
Regardless: The concern about Trump’s unconservatism stems from his public temperament and official manner. Ponzi does not regard his unconservatism as a problem, but some still rue it; perhaps we are retro, but so is conservation. Henderson, for example, says he testified before Kennedy’s committee without excoriating him for his personal conduct. But I did not take after Trump for bragging about breaking up marriages. I criticized him for the damage he is doing to the office he occupies. I do not believe any mention of him or Kennedy necessitates reciting personal faults. His official conduct supplies adequate fodder.
So I return to the question I posed after acknowledging his policy successes. Do his disposition and conduct matter? While Henderson, McCarthy and Ponzi have offered useful correctives to my analysis, I continue to insist that these factors do matter. We should not have to and, indeed, do not have to choose between basic decency and political effectiveness. The price Trump is charging for his policy successes is unnecessarily steep.
I am sympathetic to McCarthy’s argument that Trump has demythologized the presidency, an institution of whose swollen importance and power I have been critical. But the symbolism of the presidency is important even if it is currently inflated. James Madison, a longstanding critic of executive power whose own presidency has been widely criticized because he declined to inflate the office, nonetheless kept portraits of the American Presidents in his lifetime on his wall at Montpelier. He understood the presidency’s indispensable status as the single most concentrated representative of the American regime.
Thus it matters that Trump has not merely demythologized the presidency. He has vulgarized it. Calvin Coolidge demythologized the presidency, too; so did Gerald Ford. They did so with dignity. It is possible. A certain mystique surrounding the presidency can, in the proper hands, be a constitutional asset. Regardless, a standard of vulgarity—in every sense of the word, not just coarse language—as an inherent good because it deflates the office is incapable of placing any floor under presidential behavior. It is a measure according to which more awful behavior is preferable, the better to strip the veneer from the office. We might put the question thus: What is too much for conservatives to tolerate?
At a minimum, the answer should be: no more than is necessary. In his response, Henderson usefully surveys Trump’s policy successes and evenhandedly identifies his flaws. I very much appreciate that analysis, especially insofar as it clarified and corrected my own. But the larger question of whether the costs are necessary to obtain the objective remains. The nominal author of The Art of the Deal ought above others to recognize that paying more for something than one has to is a bad bargain, even if the good purchased was legitimately desirable.
McCarthy regards Trump’s lying as superior to, because it is more overt and less consequential than, that of his predecessors. Trump, McCarthy asserts, tells self-evident “whoppers,” whereas everyone knows what he really means when he speaks.
First off, it is unclear to me, and one suspects, to many legislators of both parties, that even Trump knows what he means when he speaks. News reports—please hold on the “fake news” epithet, it would be extraordinary if every media outlet not openly cheerleading for Trump were to have every critical story about him dead wrong—routinely portray the President as making competing commitments to different people nearly simultaneously. He shoved House Republicans out onto the Obamacare limb only to describe the bill he had just demanded be passed as mean-spirited. He privately defended his “sh*thole” remark even as he was publicly denying that he made it. Would an ally rely on Trump’s word with questions of life and death at stake?
More important, McCarthy’s claim that we know what he means is exculpatory only if the human capacity of logos, which entails communicating with words rooted in objective meanings (what Aristotle said makes us “political animals”) is unimportant. It is the electoral version of living constitutionalism, a politics according to which words mean not what they indicate in plain language but rather what their subjective spirit supposedly embodies.
What is unique about Trump is not that he lies, but rather that he rejects the norm against doing so. McCarthy is of course correct that “all leaders lie.” Republicanism could not survive literal truth at all times any more than marriage could. But there is a difference between recognizing the norm while occasionally violating it and rejecting its authority altogether, much as there is a difference between swerving across the double yellow lines on the highway to avoid an accident and denying the authority of traffic laws. Burke wrote that it is “far from impossible to reconcile . . . the use both of a fixed rule and an occasional deviation.” That is different from rejecting rules in general.
Past leaders may have been guilty of prevarication. But those leaders, whom I have amply criticized, are not President right now. Donald Trump is. His partisans, like parents, should beware “He did it first” or “She was worse” defenses for bad behavior. That normalizes bad behavior and is incapable of controlling it.
But consider whether, when it comes to deviations from the norm, we ought to prefer a self-evident liar over a subtle one. Perhaps it could be compared to a condemned man preferring a firing squad to burning at the stake. Neither is a good option, and, in this case, neither is a necessary one. Nothing about Trump’s lying or vulgarity has contributed to his policy successes. McCarthy asserts that Trump’s “immodesty leads him” to speak once unspeakable truths. The problem with Trump is not that he is immodest; the presidency does not typically attract the humble. The problem with Trump is that he lies nearly as a reflex, and that his instinct for lying on what McCarthy deems small things should not incline us toward believing him on big ones.
On the contrary, McCarthy’s desire for a “clarion” defense of American civilization depends on language: its integrity and its eloquence. Place “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” in Trump’s mouth rather than Reagan’s and ask whether it would have the same force. Ask, similarly, whether Trump’s narcissistic instinct for reacting to every adversity as if it were a personal insult to which he must intemperately respond would serve the nation well in the case of a genuine and immediate crisis, which he has not yet faced.
For her part, Ponzi seems implicitly scandalized that I associated a “taint” with Trump voters. Such is the way of populism: Everyone is culpable for politicians’ sins except the voters who enable them. Trump voters are not deplorable. There is a difference between criticism and condescension. Frank criticism is a mark of respect. Shielding Trump voters, or anti-Trump voters for that matter, from it is infantilizing.
Ponzi’s debunking of philosophical conservatism would be more compelling if it painted conservatism in more complex colors than the black and white hues in which the Left (stagnation bad, progress good) caricatures it. Ponzi equates conservatism with “standing pat for pat’s sake.” I am unaware of any strain of philosophical conservatism, including Aristotle’s, Burke’s, or Alexis de Tocqueville’s, that espouses this view. Conservatism requires neither standing pat nor doing so for pat’s sake. This is the same kind of “conservatism” that would have legitimated the French Revolution on July 15, 1789, or that placed Barack Obama in the Burkean mold because he defended the New Deal consensus.
Philosophical conservatism (with apologies to Burke, “excuse the term, it is still in use” in some quarters) holds that the accumulated wisdom of tradition and custom is a likelier means of identifying the good than abstract reason divorced from the past. Say, for example, the kind of abstract reasoning that would jettison enduring norms for policy victories right now, or that would appropriate the label “conservative” as a vehicle convenient for transporting to power someone who had long disclaimed any such commitments.
In fairness, Ponzi is perfectly comfortable abandoning the “conservative” label given that she says people do not understand what it means anyway, and given how unavailing for contemporary ills the old partisan dichotomies have been. “From Weiner’s keyboard to God’s ears!”, she proclaims of my argument that those who are plainly not conservative should stop using the label. How about from Weiner’s keyboard to Ponzi’s website? Its editorial manifesto proclaims an aspiration to make American Greatness “the leading voice of the next generation of American Conservatism.” Trumpism can have its conservative cake or eat it. Doing both is not an option.
The integrity of the conservative label matters if ideas have any transcendent value beyond immediate exigencies. Philosophical conservatism—that which is being stigmatized as “Conservatism Inc.,” a purported corporation whose dividends are apparently reserved for the secret society it implies—would avoid what Tocqueville identified as “the philosophical method of the Americans,” which was to “take tradition only as information.” Ponzi doesn’t avoid it; for her it isn’t relevant that conservatism has a pedigree that precedes Donald Trump. But even those who argue that conservatism is ill-suited to contemporary needs may someday find the word and what it signifies useful.
Ponzi says she has “seen this movie before” in 2008 and 2012, elections in which she alleges the Republican candidates were simply more “polite” while also, like Trump, being “deeply flawed human beings.” Adherents of Burke, who emphasized the importance of manners in social relations, may have to be forgiven our troglodytic beliefs that politeness is admirable—the “give-no-offense” quality that McCarthy rues does not license giving gratuitous offense—and that “flawed human being” is redundant.
In any case, I have criticized John McCain and Mitt Romney, but some skepticism is in order before refusing to draw any moral distinction between, for example, McCain and Trump, whose personal Vietnams consisted, respectively, of more than five Trump-deprecated years of torture in the Hanoi Hilton and dodging venereal disease in the 1980s. The relativism of the refusal to make distinctions—since all candidates are flawed, all can be grouped together—is inexorable. Robert Bork’s wisdom is better. As he said, living on a slippery slope is not a license to “ski it to the bottom.”
What differentiates McCain and Romney from Trump, one suspects, is their commission of the only apparent sin in Trumpworld: losing. Thus Trump is praised for his fighting spirit, especially his broadsides against the media. Pushing back against media bias is one thing; threatening to revoke the licenses of hostile broadcasters, deploying lawyers to try to impede publication of a critical book, and proposing to strengthen libel laws as a weapon against an independent press are another. A republic requires the capacity freely, including wrongly, to criticize political figures. The outrage had Barack Obama proposed altering libel laws or tampering with broadcast licenses to shut Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly up would have been severe and justified.
Yet Trump is somehow excused for behavior that would have been obviously intolerable in any other President given that he “fights,” “wins” and is “strong.” He also praised the communist Chinese for exhibiting the latter quality at Tiananmen Square, which illuminates the fact that fighting and strength are instruments that ought to be measured by the fit between the extent of their need and the ends to which they are put. They are not values in themselves. To repeat, admiring a leader for his “strength” as an intrinsic good is not the mark of a mature republic.
McCarthy offers a richer appreciation of Burke, who believed, as he correctly notes, that a state that cannot change cannot preserve itself. Again, I did not oppose change. But Burke also said the purpose of reform was restoration and that he would, in repairing a political edifice, make it as much as possible in the style of the original building. Trump is reforming in the image of Trump.
McCarthy also denies that an un-Burkean cult of personality exists in the case of Trump. He writes that Trump is criticized and that conservative journalism is more diverse now than it had been under George W. Bush. Conservative journalism certainly is diverse; it is on this site, among other places. That Steve Bannon—for whom it is, to be sure, difficult to muster much sympathy—was drummed out of Breitbart.com at the explicit suggestion of the Trump White House did not add to this diversity, nor did it reflect any appreciation of a limited role for the state vis-à-vis civil society. Republican members of Congress who have stood up to Trump have been driven into retirement. He is responsible for staggeringly rapid reversals in longstanding Republican beliefs—perhaps errant ones, but it is nevertheless difficult to account for this aside from personal devotion to or fear of Trump.
That a cult of personality surrounds Trump—if not in circles of conservative journalism, certainly more broadly—seems exceedingly hard to deny, nor is it excused by the messianism of Obama followers or the intolerance of Bush supporters. It of course is not universally the case that Trump commands support by force of personality. As I said at the beginning of the essay, it was entirely reasonable to vote for Trump as a better alternative than Hillary Clinton. Ponzi wrongly attributes to me the belief that this “tainted” the 2016 election. It did not. What tainted it was the normalization of patent demagoguery and the depreciation of philosophical conservatism. The headline over my original essay called these “costs” of the Trump presidency. Perhaps there are payoffs that exceed them, but that they are in fact costs—serious and enduring ones that need not have been paid—is a conclusion by which I unreservedly stand.