Trump, the Great De-Mythologizer

Greg Weiner seeks a virtuous mean between two extremes—between, on the one hand, idolization of President Trump and, on the other, the demonization of everything for which he stands. In rejecting Trump the man, the Never Trump splinter of the conservative movement risks failing to learn the lessons that his successes have communicated. Those successes have been considerable, and Weiner does not go quite far enough in enumerating them.

But there is a more serious flaw in Weiner’s Liberty Forum essay: its author misjudges the spectrum along which a virtuous mean is to be found. Trump is in fact far less subject to idolization than either Barack Obama or George W. Bush had been. And Never Trump is in reality something that long preceded Trump’s candidacy and presidency. It is a tendency that has wanted for a half-century to move the Republican Party in a “modern” direction, to the detriment of conservative principles—and, as the record shows, to the detriment of the country, too.

Let me begin with a reminder of Trump’s political achievements. He won states in 2016 that had been out of reach for Republican presidential candidates for 25 years or more: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin. For all that the people who now criticize Trump had talked about broadening the Republican Party’s appeal, it was Trump who actually broadened the party in the way that counts—by winning elections rather than by scoring meaningless diversity points with the priesthood of multiculturalism.

As President, Trump has delivered relief to some 80 percent of taxpayers. The tax law just passed has also taken the teeth out of Obamacare, removing the feature most philosophically objectionable to conservatives—the individual mandate, which forced citizens to buy a private product (or at least a product whose profits lined politically connected private pockets) as a condition of living. If Obamacare truly is the great service that Democrats insist it is, now the public can freely choose to purchase it.

The economy has been performing well under President Trump, and there is no reason to be stingy about crediting him for what he has not done. After all, if free-market economics is correct, the best course a government can take is usually to leave well enough alone. Trump has done that and something more: He has sent businesses a powerful signal. Job-creation and entrepreneurship were choked during the Obama years by what Robert Higgs has called “regime uncertainty,” the fear that at any moment unexpected new regulations could make new ventures hazardous. That fear has been dispelled under Trump, who has made a start at dismantling old regulations and—even more importantly—is trusted not to impose capricious new ones.

The character of an administration—as distinct from the personal character of the President—is of the utmost consequence not only in domestic policy but also for foreign policy. Under Trump, ISIS has been smashed militarily. But the spirit that animates ISIS has also received blow after blow. Instead of Americans being cowed and timid, more worried about giving offense than asserting the justice of our civilization, there is a new vigor in the country’s words and deeds.

In the same way that the socialists and liberals who thought communism half-correct were not the men and women to bring the Cold War to a peaceful end, liberals and give-no-offense Republicans are not the ones who will annihilate the morale of Islamist radicalism. President Trump can be crude in how he expresses the will to win the war of confidence. But for too long we have had leaders who refused to speak in the language of America First and Western Civilization First, even as they invaded Iraq and brought regime change to Libya—violent actions that were spectacularly counterproductive. To see liberals now claim that President Trump’s intemperate tweets might make us more enemies—as if our bombs and nation-building escapades had not been doing that for 15 years—is telling.

Trump may go too far; others refused to go far enough. Not violent language but clarion language, in place of violent but strategically impotent actions, is what we need. That was what Ronald Reagan gave us at the end of the Cold War, in place of the futile hot wars and weak language of the administrations that preceded him. He won on the battlefield of morale. President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a masterstroke in this regard. It merely acknowledges an on-the-ground reality, but its symbolic importance is vast. It shows Islamists and their sympathizers that their cause is losing ground, and it puts pressure on regimes such as Saudi Arabia to choose between clinging to Islamist ideology or accepting differences with the United States in a diplomatic fashion.

To be sure, the relationship between Washington and Riyadh continues to be unwholesome, and Trump’s support for the Saudis’ war in Yemen is a humanitarian disaster that risks turning out much like Obama’s meddling in Libya. The administration has made ill-considered moves to increase the presence of U.S. “advisors” on the ground in other hotspots of the Islamic world as well, even as the President has imposed new immigration controls on travel from those same hotspots. The administration would do well to look at the long-term success and failure of Reagan’s European and Third World strategies—a study in contrasts. We need more Polands and fewer Afghanistans.

But here we see the falsity of claims that conservatives have succumbed to a Trump cult of personality. Even the President’s most ardent supporters, from Ann Coulter to the comment boards at Breitbart.com, registered fierce opposition to his decision to bomb Syrian airfields last spring, as they feared another debacle like those in Iraq and Libya. And if there were a cult of Trump, it would have made the Trump-endorsed candidate in Alabama’s Republican primary, Luther Strange, the party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate last year instead of Roy Moore. No doubt there are conservatives and Republicans who believe that Trump can do no wrong, as every President has his sycophants. But there is a universe of difference between what little blind faith there is in Trump today and the virtual infallibility that was once ascribed by movement conservative leaders to George W. Bush.

Trump has done more to demythologize the presidency than to build up the cult of the commander-in-chief. That’s hardly because he’s a modest man, but his immodesty leads him to speak truths that were unsayable in American politics just a few years ago. Trump has not let the Jimmy Carter of the 21st century, Barack Obama, bask in unearned glory in retirement: Obama’s “hope” and “change” were failures on every front, foreign and domestic, leaving a country with rising homicides in major cities (including his not-quite-hometown, Chicago), a torpid economy, and spiraling epidemics of opioids and despair. Trump has been no mere partisan score-settler when it comes to the reputations of Presidents past, however; he has also refused to perpetuate the myth of the “man who kept us safe,” under whose administration, in fact, more Americans died from terrorism than under any other President.

The cult of personality surrounding George W. Bush was not the imaginary thing that the Trump cult is. There were serious career consequences for conservatives who spoke out against Bush in the way that Bush’s longtime defenders now speak out against Trump. My colleague Donald Devine was nearly fired by a previous employer because he did not give Bush 43 a standing ovation; Devine, who had served as Reagan’s director of the Office of  Personnel Management, failed to see what was “conservative” about a President whose early acts in office included the largest expansion of entitlements since Lyndon Johnson (Medicare Part D) and a bipartisan scheme cooked up with Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) to expand the Department of Education.

I began working in conservative journalism in 2003, and I can attest to the night-and-day difference between the oppression of the Bush years and the openness of today. Now the largest-circulation conservative print publications are known for having been Never Trump in 2016, and they still feature many writers who fit that description. In their pages there is debate about the merits and vices of the new administration. By contrast, in the early 2000s practically the only way to get serious criticism of the Republican President into a conservative magazine was to start a new one.

This was so despite the norms and constitutional safeguards that the last Republican President shredded, not least our civilization’s fundamental norms against unnecessary war and the sanctioned use of torture. Donald Trump may yet follow the baleful precedent set by his predecessor—Weiner is right to warn that once a norm has been torn down, it may never be recovered. But these are the stakes that matter, not whether the President tweets insults at the media or his political opponents.

Something must be said about the styles of untruthfulness that characterize different administrations as well. No American will have any difficulty thinking of instances where Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or any number of other leaders misled the public. “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan,” right? Saddam’s WMD. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinski.” That’s just a recent selection.

Even those untruths tended to be couched carefully, however—just what are “sexual relations” in the strict legal or biological sense?—and Americans are anyway accustomed to misrepresentation in politics: bureaucratic blather, euphemism, and technically truthful words uttered with a disconnect between the speaker’s inner intentions and the effect he knows he will have on his audience. Most political untruths are not lies in the most literal sense, just as oral intercourse is not “sexual relations” in the most literal sense. But deceit is every bit as much the point.

President Trump prefers exaggeration to subtlety. He tells whoppers. He says a great many things that even sympathetic listeners have a hard time giving the slightest credence—so much so that during the 2016 campaign it became a truism that Trump should be taken “seriously, but not literally” rather than “literally, but not seriously.” He often seems to insist most strenuously on exaggerating things that are most trivial—such the size of the crowd at his inauguration, which his press secretary was forced to claim was larger than the one that had turned out for Barack Obama in 2009.

Leaders lie, and they do it everywhere except in Utopia. Yet some lies are more dangerous than others. The subtle lie is doubly pernicious: first because it is more likely to be believed by the unskeptical and second because once listeners have become inured to such deceit, they become not just skeptical but cynical. The result is a complete loss of faith in what public figures say. This was the situation when Trump arrived on the scene. But he represents a change: everyone knows what he means whenever he speaks, no matter what he says. His tactlessness might be an overreaction to the jaded political discourse that came before, but there is no question that what came before was corrosive to the republic in ways that elicited none of the conscious resistance with which Trump’s bombast has been met.

On policy specifics as well as matters of style and character, there are ample grounds for conservatives to air their differences with and about President Trump. There is never anything inherently disloyal in a conservative, or anyone else, criticizing a leader. As Weiner’s thoughtful essay indicates, not every conservative who takes a critical view of this President can labeled “Never Trump.” Yet the Never Trump phenomenon is real, and it deserves closer scrutiny than it has so far received—above all scrutiny of whether it is really about Trump or would be more accurately called “Never Conservative.”

Weiner acknowledges that Donald Trump has accomplished conservative goals, but he says he has done so in an un-conservative manner. Yet we have long seen in Republican politics, including in both Bush administrations, what the opposite combination looks like: a conservative veneer in the service of un-conservative goals, such as the first Bush’s tax hikes and the second Bush’s Medicare expansion at home and nation-building abroad. Some self-identified conservatives prefer the appearance of conservatism, coupled with policies that reinforce the welfare-warfare state, to the practice of conservatism if that practice entails disrupting Washington, D.C.’s norms.

This division among self-described conservatives did not begin with Donald Trump. As different as he may be from Ronald Reagan, and as different as Reagan was from Barry Goldwater—a smaller difference, it must be said— the intramural critics of all three are strikingly similar. The Rockefeller Republicans of 1964, including Nelson Rockefeller himself and Michigan Governor George Romney—yes, Mitt’s father—refused to support Goldwater, whom they characterized as an extremist (or as culpable for his supporters’ extremism).

Goldwater then, like Trump now, was tarred as ignorant, unqualified, reckless, not to be trusted with nukes, and possibly outright insane. Reagan, like Trump, was too old, an unqualified showbiz idiot, an extremist (or culpable for his supporters’ extremism), and possibly in deteriorating mental health. The “Never Reagan” movement was so strong that it fielded its own presidential candidate in the Election of 1980, one who did much better than Never Trump’s Evan McMullin 36 years later. While McMullin mustered barely more than half a percent of the popular vote, the anti-Reagan Republican John Anderson took nearly 7 percent.

Just like Never Trump, the Republican opponents of Goldwater and Reagan claimed to be on the side of moderation against extremism and expertise against ignorance. They wanted to exclude in turn the Goldwaterites, the Reaganites, and the Trumpists in the name of a more inclusive Republican Party. And in the administrations of the two George Bushes, they got what they wanted: the elder purged his administration of Reaganites, the younger presided over an era of enforced conformism in the conservative movement.

Of the four Republican Presidents of the last 40 years, Reagan and Trump have pursued what might be seen as radical approaches to a conservative agenda in Washington, while the two Bushes tried to soften conservatism with concessions to liberalism. (The difference here is not free-market orthodoxy versus big government, it must be said. Trump, the Bushes, and even Reagan have all frustrated libertarians.) And it’s worth noting that the biggest names among Never Trumpers are Republicans who worked for or strongly supported the second Bush. David Frum, Michael Gerson, and Peter Wehner, for example, were all Bush speechwriters.

Two very different tendencies lay claim to the name of “conservatism.” They lay competing claims to its genealogy as well. Greg Weiner is an independent thinker, but his understanding of Edmund Burke, James Madison, and Aristotle seems to derive entirely from one side of this dispute. Let me suggest how the other side sees it. Burke was not against all change— “A state without the means of some change,” he said, “is without the means of its own conservation”—and certainly he was no stranger to impassioned language. Burke was and still is tarred as an extremist by those who think that he overreacted to the French Revolution and even earlier to the system of “double cabinet” in George III’s government. Burke was not for maintaining the “norms” of King George’s court; he wanted to “drain the swamp.”

James Madison was also no enemy to salutary change. He twice took part in the substitution of one constitutional order for another, first during the American Revolution and afterwards as father of a new charter of government. Madison overturned plenty of “norms” in both respects. Aristotle, meanwhile, was hardly unaccustomed to arrogant or abnormal behavior on the part of figures like Philip II of Macedon or that king’s son, Alexander the Great, who was the Stagirite’s pupil.

Burke did not aspire to be moderate in his criticisms of the Jacobin assault on church and property. What would he think of Trump? He might very well think him uncouth, perhaps characteristically democratic and demagogic. But he would, I suspect, find much more fault with those Americans who, like the Jacobins, aim to revolutionize our country’s rights of property and religion.

Would Madison find Trump’s agenda too radical? Madison himself was radical enough to have supported “interposition” as a response to what he perceived as the dangerous statism of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Would he be less concerned about today’s administrative state and deep state?

And how about Aristotle, would he be so appalled by Trump’s intemperance as to prefer the slow suicide of Western civilization (his own offspring, in a real sense) orchestrated by leftist ideologues and conservatives too diffident to resist them?

All three men would dislike Trump’s manner; but all three, I am confident, would find the very philosophical foundations of Trump’s enemies, Republican as well as Democratic, absolutely unacceptable.