La Repubblica, Immerso in Una Scaramuccia

Tweets are often impulsive, especially when they emanate from presidential thumbs. Their meaning should not be overburdened. But impulses can expose genuine thoughts, so the particular modifier President Trump deployed to twist the shiv in Attorney General Jeff Sessions was at least suggestive: His chief law-enforcement officer had assumed a “weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!”

Note that Sessions is being upbraided not for taking an unjust position but for taking a “weak” one. Weakness was said to be Reince Priebus’ sin, too. Some reports had the President unimpressed with the dignified, which is to say silent, position Priebus took under foul-mouthed fire from the White House Director of Communications, Anthony Scaramucci (he whose name is a lot like the Italian word for “skirmish,” and who, as of yesterday, is no longer the White House Director of Communications).

Weakness is the ultimate putdown, the unpardonable sin in Trump’s world, for what is it but the first slip toward “loser.” Such bravado constitutes no small part of his appeal. “America will start winning again,” Trump pledged in his inaugural, “winning like never before.”

Winning what?

This is the serious question that Trump must answer if he is to right—by all means, please do read into that verb—his presidency. To pose the question another way: Is Trumpism method or is it substance? Is it about winning simply, or winning something specific?

It would be a mistake to dismiss Trumpism as merely method, or for that matter to dismiss method as merely unimportant—just as it has been a relentless error to consign Trump to the political ashes from which he consistently rises. As David Azerrad has noted, the President returns repeatedly to a set of substantive commitments: restricting trade and immigration, repealing Obamacare, and pursuing a nationalistic foreign policy among them.

To what extent these are substantively conservative or otherwise recommend themselves is a separate debate. The question here is whether the method of Trumpism is compatible with its substantive ends. Trumpism consists of an uneasy balance of the two that the President will have to figure out how to reconcile. As of now, as Sessions (not to mention Priebus and Scaramucci) can attest, the method is endangering the substance.

Not everyone has a problem with that. For many of Trump’s supporters, the method is the point. They are drawn to his “strong” and “disruptive” style as it is measured in his willingness to be “anti-PC” and to “speak his mind.”

Some of those who are drawn to the method seem strikingly ambivalent about the substance—see, for example, Trump voters’ divisions on Obamacare. What the mainstream press has not yet figured out about Trump is that the same scandalous behavior they keep expecting to sink him reinforces, by virtue of its very outrageousness, what these voters most admire.

To be sure, substance and method are not wholly separable. To the extent excessive deference to traditional political norms impedes the needs of the average American—or has so consistently impeded them that one could reasonably draw a causal connection—disruption may itself yield inherently substantive results. The calculation appears to be a gamble among a variety of constituencies for a variety of reasons—economically and socially distressed voters in the Rust Belt and Appalachia, cultural conservatives, constitutionalists—that nothing conventional has worked, so a Hail Mary pass might.

But the method of Trumpism raises serious questions for conservatism. Conservatism should resist the sudden disruption of norms, especially when it is pitched as a desperation move with suicidal stakes. Informal norms are at least as important as laws are to the conservation of political tradition and of liberty, which is why Edmund Burke wrote that a social revolution seeks to destroy customs first, leaving only raw power—read: “strength”—intact amid the rubble.

“Power, of some kind or other,” wrote Burke, “will survive the shock in which manners and opinions perish; and will find other and worse means for its support.”

This is lost on Scaramucci, who, notwithstanding his swift departure, nonetheless exemplifies the method of Trumpism. During his hasty interval in the West Wing, Scaramucci offered this phenomenology of the American Founding:

You know what this nation is? It’s a disruptive startup. It was a group of rich guys who got together and said, ‘You know what, we are going to break away from the other countries and start our own country.’ This is a disruptive startup. You know what the President is doing? He is bringing it back to its roots of disruption.

Setting aside the “rich guys” part, it seems safe to say the former communications chief is unfamiliar with his Willmoore Kendall and George W. Carey. What is striking about the long arc of the American Founding is the extraordinary political continuity traceable from the Mayflower through Philadelphia.

A Manichean obsession with winning and losing is the weltanschauung of a President who cannot sustain macroeconomic growth because he sees everything as zero-sum rather than value-added. Perhaps it is the real estate background, a business notorious for the greasing of palms. Only one person can occupy a given plot of land. But two people can trade a good and both come out ahead. Adam Smith wrote a pretty good book on this.

More disturbingly, winners and losers is the outlook of someone who values only strength, not decency, and only will, not reflection. Jay Nordlinger was among the first to see where this was headed, this single-minded focus on winning and losing, weakness and strength. It may explain the utter fungibility of policy commitments over the course of Trump’s  life even over the last few months. Conversely, the insistence on a “strong leader” is the posture of a people losing its political maturity.

We might say of disruption as method what George H.W. Bush said of competence as a philosophy—that it keeps the trains running on time but doesn’t know where they’re going. Disruption switches the tracks without knowing where they lead—unless it derails the locomotives altogether, which is the eventuality Trumpism may soon face.

The rejection of norms—according to one report, White House aides know the best way to get Trump to do something is to tell him it violates custom—has been derailing this presidency from the beginning. Norms are useful hedgerows and the areas in which he has been most erring have been precisely where the traditions of the office would most have protected him.

Consider his lashing out at the Washington Post, which ill becomes a man of Trump’s station and is, besides, almost certainly good for subscriptions. Trump has taken to calling the paper the “Amazon Washington Post,” an unsubtle attempt to needle Jeff Bezos, who runs Amazon and owns the Post. In the course of a Twitter tirade, Trump offered the ominous suggestion that the Post was being used to cover for “Amazon’s no tax monopoly.”

This was classic Trumpist method: Take a punch, punch back. He’s a fighter who wins. Adverse news is fake news. Yet the punch, probably unreflectively, entailed implicit support for sales taxes on all online purchases. Such a policy, besides being incompatible with his professed economic philosophy, would bring in major new tax revenues but would hit his base the hardest—to say nothing of the extraordinary governmental power inherent in a head of state’s threatening the tax status of a private enterprise whose CEO has criticized him. The tweet, and the policy intention that one could tease out from it, only make sense in a world where there are not principles and disagreements but rather winners and losers. In this world, the Post, opposing Trump, is by definition a loser.

The method of Trumpism, the obsessive focus on wins, right now, and regardless of what they contain—witness the President’s marching House Republicans off a plank on healthcare in pursuit of any victory within his first hundred days, then calling the waters into which he plunged them “mean” when the sharks emerged—is systematically, or rather unsystematically, sabotaging the substance. Members of his own party on Capitol Hill cannot sustain any momentum or focus on legislative matters because they do not know what tweet, distraction, upbraiding, or reversal is coming next.

Trump’s premature political burial has been proclaimed before, and it is well to recall that President Clinton’s party was secretly wondering, at a comparable point in his presidency, how long they had to put up with his seeming incompetence. The steadying hand of General John Kelly as Trump’s chief of staff may yet impose order. Americans who cherish the preservation of republican norms should hope it does. Of course, since Kelly is not the first professional hand to be brought in to force discipline on Trumpism, there are reasons for doubt. One cannot force order on a phenomenon whose essence is disorder.

The question thus boils down to which Trumpism aspires to be: the method or the substance. It cannot forever be both. One can wonder whether either is conservative. The method certainly is not. Distinguishing between them would at least enable a clearer conversation on the nature of the substance.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on August 01, 2017 at 11:19:06 am

Good article. To the point to understand a person that fights back,, that is not PC, and looks for a brighter future for our nation. What he may or not understand is that the two Houses of Congress are polluted with corrupt politicians, and they are the ones that don't want any changes. Example: Six months and nothing got done? Now the taxpayer knows that they do not have any representation in either chamber. Next move is voting these " Charlatan's " out. The democrats have DC slowed to snail pace. Who suffers? They are calling Us, the unwashed, deplorables, rednecks, hillbillies, drop outs, they claimed that we don't deserve representation because we live in the rural areas of the country. One thing I do see here, more common sense that DC will ever have. Let's see how much damage we can inflict in the 2018 elections and see who has the last laugh?

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Abelardo Aguilu
on August 01, 2017 at 16:19:41 pm

"Members of his own party on Capitol Hill cannot sustain any momentum or focus on legislative matters because they do not know" - by self-attrition and atrophy, how to lead legislatively, or how to exercise political power, beyond the election process. For too long, a Congressman's time between elections is no spent, "doing the Peoples work", but instead best characterized the exercising of a dereliction of reelection. They have become effective and masterful winners of elections, but ineffective and incompetent rulers and legislative practitioners.

A Professional Campaigner, of course, entails a mastery of a science and of an art unto itself, however, this not the science and art the American People send their members of Congress to Washington to exercise, but the science and art of Statesmanship.

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Paul Binotto
on August 01, 2017 at 16:21:56 pm

Please pardon the excessive type-o's; typing on the fly today...

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Paul Binotto
on August 01, 2017 at 20:38:20 pm


And what specifically are the *norms* that The Trumpster should respect.

Self-serving, misleading statements by a Professional class of politicians interested in electoral success as opposed to the peoples welfare?

Hurling obscene comments / invective and false stories of rather unique "bedroom practices" at the newly elected President.

Or the Republican norm of "turning the other cheek" when vilifies and excoriated by the "highly civil" mouthpieces of the Left?

Are these the norms he should respect?

Yes, he surely could do a better job of communicating but I think many among us have actually been waiting for someone to "bite back."

After all, has it not been argued (correctly, I think) that it was those very (un-civil) Leftist norms and weak GOP response that actually contributed to The Trumpster's electoral success.
The Trumpster is the end result, not the cause, of our "un-civil" politics.

As for his flip-flopping, someone should have told him "Never hire he (or she) who cannot be fired" (Kushner, Ivanka, etc).

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on August 02, 2017 at 11:21:21 am

We as tax payers did not send this bunch of " Buffons " to DC to be " Professional Campaigners ", we sent them to do the work of the people of the US. They again have turn their back to us. They have their own agenda directed by their lobbyist group. So being that they do not pay attention is time to go to and vote them out of office. Dc is full of mules and jack asses that think they are invencible. 2018 they will see what we mean.

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Abelardo Aguilu
on August 02, 2017 at 17:18:53 pm

Ok. But specifically, what do you mean?

If you're disappointed with a politician from your political party, are you willing to vote for a rival politician from a different party to punish your politician? Because most voters won't. And politicians know this. So threats of "throw the bums out" rarely have much effect.

Or maybe you're thinking of the primary election? I recall the election of Senator Claire McCaskill (D). She had no primary challenger, but spent $2 million urging Missourians to vote against the weakest Republican in the primary race, Todd Akin, because he was "too conservative for Missouri." You guessed it: Republican voters fell for that like catnip, picking Akin as their candidate. McCaskill was then able to beat him, even in a red state like Missouri, because Republican voters had insisted on picking the most doctrinaire candidate rather than the most electable one.

In short, frustration is not the same as strategy. What specific strategy do you propose to address your frustration?

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on August 02, 2017 at 18:33:26 pm


You are quite correct - what is absent, indeed always absent, is a strategy to deal with these "un-faithful" representatives. Your suggestion that the "cuckolded" ought to go out and cheat is also a non-starter.
Yet, one can always work, and work diligently, to find a new partner.

However, unlike more personal relations, success cannot be found unless millions of others also engage in a search for a new partner.

Thus, one is left with frustration.
CAUTION: should this frustration not be eliminated, the levels of political incivility shall reach alarming heights.

I second your suggestion that a strategy be developed lest the entire nation vacillate between "unquietude" and violence.

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on August 03, 2017 at 09:11:40 am

There's always another candidate from the same party waiting in the wings. It is up to us to organize and let that candidate know that we will back him up. Newspapers, emails, fliers go a long way in small districts. I can see you guys saying that is very difficult, that the other party will benefit. We are not getting anything in return after we got him elected, Soooo!!!! I rather take that chance than being represented by a traitor in DC. It may sound crazy, but I will stand my ground. Communicate w/the party, if they won't hear just " Act ". We cannot stay silent anymore, politicians are a dime a dozen. Let's put their feet t the fire.

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Abelardo Aguilu
on August 03, 2017 at 09:22:17 am

It does not sound crazy. And how you feel is quite reasonable and understandable.

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Paul Binotto

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.