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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.

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 December 12, 2016 at 08:09:54 am

"............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?........"
"........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......."
AMEN AMEN and AMEN!

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DEREK SIMMONS
on December 12, 2016 at 10:12:30 am

As you continue, perhaps you can tell us WHO or WHAT comprise an "Elite" (in the sense of your references) today, whether in the overall social context or the electoral "party" context; and what characteristics identify them.

Is it possible that we are observing a "vacancy" from a "Fall" of the elite of prior periods, followed by a struggle of others to rise into those vacancies? Or, have we just accepted differentiations in the characteristics that identify "elites" for particular functions?

A plausible conjecture may be that the "intellectuals" (especially the wordsmiths) are attempting to establish new (or revived [and revised]) criteria and identifying characteristics for a successor elite - to be determined; but not by popular acclaim.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on December 12, 2016 at 12:02:04 pm

Mark:

Great piece!

1) Absotively! - the culture (high brow) of the conservative elites / wordsmiths could not (would not) fathom the emergence of a certain low-brow candidate who professed to actually understand (care about?) all of us "reasonably well-informed Everyman" low-brow types.

2) Thought had occurred to me this a.m.: All the NeverTrumpsters complaining about The Trumpster NOT being conservative enough may very well be on to something; unfortunately, they are unable to carry the thought out to its proper conclusion: The Trumpster IS NOT a conservative; instead, he may very well be an "old school Democrat", the type that we could, in the past, vote for as this type of Democrat appreciated country, defense, working Americans and recognized the importance of a somewhat less regulated economy /social structure.

3) Let NRO, WSJ and Weekly Standard remain happily ensconced in their own intellectual bubble where they may continue to preen for, to, and about each other. I am told the pay is good AND they may still receive all those coveted dinner invitations from the other preeners (of both the right and the left).

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gabe
on December 12, 2016 at 20:19:26 pm

Unlike most "intellectuals" Donald Trump is a numbers guy. He read the numbers going into the election and he understood what they said. The intellectia are generally so infatuated with their own theories and philosophies that they often ignore the simplest of facts. Academics like to argue for their favorite theory, even when their theory is not well supported otherwise. It's the argument--the discussion--the most excites many academics. That's generally a good thing because that's how good ideas get worked out over the long run. But it isn't a good way to go about solving everyday practical problems.

Trump will do many great things and maybe have a couple of missteps along the way. He understands the numbers and what they mean. The media hate him so he will be lambasted and get very little credit for good works from that quarter. As is always the case with propagandists they will emphasize and exaggerate any minor flaws, they will hide any virtues as best they can, while at the same time emphasizing any good qualities in his opponents and hiding their major flaws as best they can. We all know how the propaganda game is played.

Most numbers guys are not the most politically astute persons. Trump knows that and if he's smart he will play that for all its worth. "Here's my weakness guys. Come and get me." Strategic withdrawals are another way to move your opponent to where you want them.

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Scott Amorian
on December 13, 2016 at 16:24:58 pm

The article makes me want to scream, throw things, and do bodily harm. This resolute anti-Trump citizen is not at all marked with these Acela tatoos. Nor is any other anti-Trumpite whom he knows personally. Our rejection is of Unspeakably gross Philistinism, abuse of Religion, illiteracy, ignorance, low character, poisonous language, and mental dullness on the life and marriage issues. Who gives a thought to "globalism?" whatever the heck that is? Did you ever meet a human being, esp. of a conservative cast of mind, who was for "Open Borders?" I have not. Do I and my associates bow to PC? I should think not.

Pulliam, you and I don't live in the same universe. And if all this is true of the little piece of the universe centered on NYC ... well, I have expressed elsewhere how I barely find New York City a part of our Republic.

Bah, Humbug!

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Richard Ferrier
on December 13, 2016 at 20:57:19 pm

Richard, I believe we had a mutual friend in the late John Kurzweil? As someone who is pro-life, you are not assured by Trump's commitment to appoint justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade? If you do not believe that open borders proponents exist, consider the WSJ editorial page and Cato (both in the Acela corridor), and any organization funded by the Koch brothers. Globalism--disrespect for American sovereignty--underlies the clamor for amnesty and importation of foreign workers favored by the GOP Establishment. I get it: Trump's style grates on you. You would seriously have preferred Hillary to replace Scalia? If so, we are in different universes. Keep an open mind. I think Trump will surprise you.

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Mark Pulliam
on December 28, 2016 at 19:36:29 pm

Why didn't #NeverTrumpers support him? Because by his own admission he wasn't Conservative. He stated "This is called the Republican party not the Conservative party." We had a choice between a candidate who wasn't qualified to be president and a candidate who should have been disqualified. Most of us NeverTrumpers didn't vote for Hillary but voted for third parties or left the top of the ballot empty. But in the Trumpanzees mind a lack of a coherent ideology or principles is secondary to his adolescent rhetoric that sways between misogyny and xenophobia. You didn't have to be an "elite" to recognize that. Nor an elite to recognize his numerous other flaws as a candidate. It's easier to accuse us of supporting Hillary.

As for his promises. Even before his inauguration he his abandoning his vow of "Lock her up" and "Drain the Swamp". But like proud parents at their child's first recital his tribal followers wouldn't admit any mistake he makes. They simply use the same moral equivalent that the left uses to blindly support him. (I.E. the 2008 Obama voters) While his cabinet picks look promising he isn't draining the swamp he's simply feeding different alligators. He ran a populist campaign NOT a Conservative one. But his populist revolution LOST the popular vote. Therefore I'm perplexed why the insistence on publishing these divisive articles about Nevertrumpers. It would seem Trumps supporter would want to build the party but if you insist to continue this childish tirade against NeverTrumpers I refer you to what William Buckley said about John Lindsey during the 1966 NYC mayors race. "If the Republican party is transformed in his image I shall give you the Republican party and go elsewhere."

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Bob Manderville
on August 30, 2017 at 11:35:52 am

Whether you are in Austin now or not, our hearts are with you and all the people who are harmed by Hurricane Harvey. Of course, that’s every one of us.
Never before have I filed a post from this blog for thorough study of the references. Thank you.
I especially appreciate this thought: “The diminishing extent of their shared interaction contributes to a lack of empathy on the part of elites toward “ordinary” Americans.” Actually, to them, we’re invisible.
You expressed the reason people like me voted for Donald Trump twice and continue daily support. We voted for GOP candidate Trump, for presidential candidate Trump, and in our daily comments to assert that neither collectivist-democracy nor legislative theism can or will undo the American republic. Of course the more radical reform is on the latter front, and it does not yet seem on President Trump’s radar.
James Madison cautioned against collectivist factions in Federalist 10 but did nothing about it. Incredulously, Bush 43 labeled this the century of democracy. Perhaps he was referring to global voting, which may work for Obama-style Alinsky-Marxists organizations (AMO), Europeans, and others, but cannot win 84% of counties in the USA, as candidate Trump proved.

However, I look to this forum for a nobler cause that springs from my quote of you, above. A better future is in America’s grasp through focus on comprehensive safety and security rather than conflict for dominant opinion.

This concept has been developed in library meetings since June 21, 2014 in Baton Rouge, LA. Our next meeting, our 4th annual Constitution Day celebration, is announced at theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/entertainment_life/calendar/#/details/4th-Annual-Constitution-Day-Celebration/3911322/2017-09-20T19. Contact information is included or call me at 225-766-7365.
The presentation is an original play. For example, our James Madison player, after stating her 1785 theism respecting “Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society . . .” adds that George Washington’s four pillars, from his June 8, 1783 farewell must be accommodated, in deference to the-objective-truth. See founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-08-02-0163 and loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/amrev/peace/circular.html, respectively.

Members of this forum who can attend are invited. Anyone interested is invited to consider a play-role of their choice if there is not already a volunteer.

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Phil Beaver
on February 07, 2019 at 06:01:13 am

[…] on the cultural divide—the ruling class versus ordinary Americans—that characterizes the Age of Trump. Unlike most of his inside-the-Beltway media colleagues, Carlson is an unapologetic populist. Even […]

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Escaping Our Ship of Fools
on July 17, 2019 at 06:07:19 am

[…] Unfortunately, Bryan’s legacy as a man of faith has been besmirched by Hollywood’s willingness to distort history in the aid of promoting its agenda. The left’s disdain for religion and religious belief has only gained momentum since 1925. From simply mocking piety, the elite intelligentsia has progressed to banning prayer in public schools, forbidding aid to religious schools, removing religious symbols from public property, deeming Judeo-Christian morality to be “irrational,” and persecuting Christian bakers (and other vendors) for honoring their religious consciences.  In 2016, enough American voters—many who are arguably the heirs to the long-ridiculed citizens of Dayton—rose up and pushed back.  […]

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Image of Inheriting the Wind, or Reaping the Whirlwind?
Inheriting the Wind, or Reaping the Whirlwind?
Trackbacks
on April 10, 2020 at 08:33:19 am

[…] disputes among thought-leaders on the Right), and, ultimately, the volcanic eruption that was the election of President Trump in 2016. Like Pompeii’s destruction by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, and the […]

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