Looking at Trump from Outside the Bubble

Everyone seems to be sharing their reflections on the election of Donald Trump as President (for example, here, here, and here), prompting me to weigh in with some of my own. As a contributing editor to this site, I sometimes feel like an outsider. I am not, and never have been, an academic. I am just a retired lawyer who fled the “coastal urban area” where I lived for many years to return to the heartland—“fly-over country.” The practice of law—my career for 30 years—grounded me in a practical, not a theoretical, world. I regard myself not as a scholar, but as a reasonably well-informed Everyman [1].

I now reside in a “red” state, where the principal surprise on November 8 was that Donald Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton was “only” nine percentage points, compared to Mitt Romney’s 16 point cushion over President Obama in 2012. In Texas, that qualifies as a close call! Not all Texas Republicans wholeheartedly supported Trump; some felt that he was not conservative enough, or were still nursing hurt feelings over Sen. Ted Cruz’ defeat in the GOP primaries. Some were confident Trump would lose, and others—motivated by high principle—didn’t care, casting a vote for Evan McMullin or Gary Johnson. (Already, the question is “Who?”)

While I agreed with Trump on many issues, I didn’t start out as a Trump supporter. Nevertheless, I backed him without reservation when he clinched the nomination by winning Indiana’s primary. Politics is a team sport, in which unity and loyalty are essential to success (as is popularity with the grassroots). As a lifelong conservative who has never voted for a Democrat in a contested partisan election, I didn’t understand the angst over Trump (and still don’t). He was the Republican nominee. The alternative—Hillary Clinton—was unimaginable. As I explained in a post for the American Spectator in May, the Never Trump option seemed absurd to me (and still does). I cancelled my subscription to the Weekly Standard and boycotted National Review in protest of their relentless (and often hysterical) opposition to Trump.

Never Trumpers posing as purists claimed that Trump failed an ideological litmus test. (Compared to what? Calvin Coolidge? Barry Goldwater?) Republican presidents in my lifetime have been anything but monolithic or consistently principled in their policy positions.  Like it or not, we can thank GOP presidents for the EPA, OSHA, the ADA, Medicare prescription-drug benefits, the explosion of spending at the Department of Education, the morphing of affirmative action into racial quotas, the debacle of busing, “disparate impact” theory, the IRCA amnesty grant in 1986, the appointment of some terrible Supreme Court justices (such as Brennan, Warren, Blackmun, Stevens, O’Connor, Souter, and—yes—Kennedy), TARP bailouts, and countless other disappointments. But Trump was (and to some conservatives, still is) somehow beyond the pale?

I was similarly unimpressed with objections to Trump based on his prior political affiliations (Ronald Reagan was a Democrat for many years), style (LBJ was often profane and uncouth), and—shall we say—a certain fondness for attractive women (a quality shared by many respected political figures, including JFK). Given the lousy track record of the incumbent political class, Trump’s lack of prior experience didn’t bother me. If some of his initial policy prescriptions seemed a bit vague (or naive), I figured a competent staff would eventually work out the details—as they did. What we needed in a leader, I felt, was less milquetoast and more appetite for change, and Trump offered both. Bigly.

I mention this background to explain my outside-the-bubble perspective (with apologies to Peter Augustine Lawler) on the prospects for constitutionalism and the rule of law under President Trump, which I will outline in an upcoming post. George Nash has offered a very interesting analysis of “the Trump phenomenon,” but in my view the failure of the so-called conservative elites to anticipate, understand, or embrace Trump’s appeal prior to the election in November had less to do with Trump (or the voters) than with the elites themselves. In recent decades, and in particular since Ronald Reagan left the White House, the “conservative intellectual movement” has become increasingly dominated by pundits, think tanks, and publications in the “Acela corridor” between New York City and Washington, D.C. They talk mainly to each other and have become infatuated with their imagined omniscience.

During the eight long years of Barack Obama’s presidency—de facto GOP exile—the self-anointed conservative thought-leaders developed a rigid canon of ideological orthodoxy that they proclaimed to represent mainstream conservatism—the equivalent of political catechism, sometimes referred to as “checklist conservatism.” The editors of influential publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, and National Review, along with “Establishment” Republican leaders (such as House Speaker Paul Ryan) and kindred Beltway-oriented organizations, blogs, writers, and talking heads decreed that “conservatism” meant unquestioned fealty to free trade, open borders, and globalism, obeisance to the Left’s notions of political correctness, and acceptance of a hawkish foreign policy in the Middle East (the unfortunate legacy of Bush 43).

Even as federal spending spiraled out of control and the national debt approached $20 trillion, the nation’s manufacturing base was being decimated. While those same jobs were being outsourced or automated, an expansive immigration policy put even greater pressure on workers. Not to worry, the K Street Establishment assured the unwashed masses that what is good for Wall Street is good for America. Progress, we were admonished, requires Americans to be more “tolerant” and adaptable, and to abjure appeals to national interest (and certainly to national identity). No wonder that ordinary working class voters became dissatisfied, especially when no one in Washington seemed sympathetic (or even attentive) to their concerns.

To me, the mystery was why so many right-of-center intellectuals not formally affiliated with the “Establishment” commentariat resisted Trumpism, even after he vanquished a stellar field of competitors for the GOP nomination. I can understand why the “kidlets” who predominate in the various policy shops (known as “think tanks” not so long ago, when actual cogitation occurred) missed Trump’s appeal. After all, as aspiring wonks or political operatives under 30, they came of age under the current catechism, and rely on Establishment patronage for their career advancement. The disconnect among older conservatives (especially academics) is harder to fathom.  A stalwart few supported Trump, and at least one new publication emerged (American Greatness) to voice discontent with the stifling orthodoxy, but a disconcerting number of respected conservatives, some of them my friends, rejected even the possibility of Trump as President.

Part of the reason is undoubtedly cultural.  As Charles Murray explored in his insightful 2012 book, Coming Apart, the lifestyles of America’s highly-educated elites increasingly diverge from those of the working class. The elites tend to be cloistered from the masses—attending different schools, residing in exclusive enclaves, even enjoying different music, entertainment, and recreation. The diminishing extent of their shared interaction contributes to a lack of empathy on the part of elites toward “ordinary” Americans.

But more than mere cultural estrangement was at work. The grip of self-serving Establishment orthodoxy is powerful. Even Charles Murray, who in Coming Apart eloquently lamented the collapse of shared American community, was a vocal and resolute NeverTrumper. He was not alone. For inscrutable reasons, to the conservative and libertarian signers of the Originalists Against Trump manifesto, Hillary Clinton was preferable, even as the Supreme Court hung in the balance. I won’t name names (although readers can click the foregoing link), but I wager that some signers had regrets on November 9.

Whatever the cause, many conservative intellectuals were woefully out of touch with the electorate, which delivered to Trump the largest number of primary votes ever cast for a Republican presidential candidate, and then the most commanding Electoral College victory earned by a GOP candidate since 1988. Trump’s resounding election has weakened, if not destroyed, the Establishment’s grip, and as the transition progresses, more and more skeptics will get aboard the bandwagon. A successful Trump presidency could very well redefine the meaning of conservatism for a generation, as Reagan did. What are the lessons of the 2016 election? Beware of insularity. Don’t underestimate appeals to national interest. Question elite attitudes when they collide with popular opinion (or common sense). Contrary to the instincts of many intellectuals, the masses are not always wrong.

[1] I have always been amused by the self-description offered by the late Marcus Kaufman, a conservative California jurist who was appointed to the appellate bench by Governor Ronald Reagan. He referred to himself as a “redneck with a high IQ.” I have no such pretensions.