Can political philosophy help us think about Trump and contemporary America?
Well, I agree with Donald Trump that the President’s big speech was boring and lethargic. That’s partly because there’s nothing more pathetic than a lame-duck President whose party doesn’t control Congress. He may talk big about executive orders and such, but he can’t help but project weakness and irrelevance. It’s true that the President is reduced to acting unconstitutionally, because the Constitution is no longer any President’s friend as his second term nears its end. Let me put forward the heretical thought that it would be better if he could run for reelection, and that constitutionally mandated term limits are counterproductive especially for Presidents. Now that I’ve made you angry, we can talk some about anger.
Governor Haley came out against anger in her rather boring, or—to not coin a phrase—low-energy response to the President. Rather deftly, Trump then accepted the mantle of anger from her during Thursday night’s presidential debate in her home state of South Carolina. Her attack on him was counterproductive for the GOP establishment, productive for him. Certainly he has enjoyed himself in the aftermath. At his rallies, he keeps saying we’re governed by losers who get us one bad deal after another, but he and his fans are just having too good a time for anyone to think anger has run amok in our land.
He relishes playing “Born in the USA” to highlight the fact that Cruz wasn’t. And just when Cruz attacks him for having “New York values,” we learn that Mrs. Cruz worked for Goldman Sachs and actually borrowed big (and allegedly a bit stealthily, if not illegally) from those guys to fund one of her husband’s campaigns. If having “New York values” means hanging with the hedge-fund guys whom Trump wants to punitively tax for their irresponsibility, then it is in fact Trump’s anger that encompasses the Cruz family’s New York (Wall Street) values. In the showdown between Cruz and Trump (in the eyes of some, the only viable Republican candidates), I’m just not sure who has the edge. In the debate in South Carolina, Cruz prevailed on the “birther issue” by being funnier, but Trump left Cruz speechless on New York values by being uncharacteristically sober and serious.
Wow, David Brooks is really angry at Cruz, accusing him of “pagan brutalism.” First off, I’m confused, because I thought that was supposed to be Trump’s specialty—and the Trump supporters are okay with that. Second, Brooks’s attack was so reckless that even Mr. Taranto of the Wall Street Journal had to accuse him of “borking” Cruz.
We can recall that borking Bork actually worked to take the judge out, whereas Brooks’s attack is sure to help Cruz among angry Republicans. Another to add to this list is George Will’s angry diatribes against Trump for not being a real conservative. More establishment goosing of the GOP base, more help for Trump. George, at least, writes as a consistently libertarian conservative, which is a real kind of Republican. David now stands for the kind of thoughtful moderation that produces contempt for both parties. Will and Brooks are equally tone deaf to the anti-establishment anger animating these campaigns (and for that matter, the surging Sanders campaign).
Brooks’s serious case against Cruz is the junior Senator from Texas’ shameless exaggeration about how bad things are in America now. Obama and the Supreme Court and the regulatory state haven’t ruined everything. And reform conservative Yuval Levin agrees in a much more moderate and nuanced way. Cruz appeals to a kind of unselective nostalgia for purer points in the past, and he pledges, through more than a few constitutional amendments, to roll us back to a time when there was no welfare state, when we didn’t tax productivity, when gold was the standard, when our values were Christian, and when our foreign policy was tough but undeformed by mindless interventionism.
When Obama said he was the hope and change we should believe in, we didn’t really know what he was talking about in specific detail, but we knew we were moving forward to a bigger and more benevolent government in some ways and uninhibited personal autonomy in others. Cruz is just as much about being the change people should believe in, it’s just that in every respect he would move us in a different direction.
Now, it seems to me our libertarians—from professors of law and economists to most of the Republican donor class—don’t know what to do about Cruz. They advocate an “originalism” that regards most or all of the welfare state as unconstitutional usurpation. But at the same time, they regard change on the social and cultural front—when it comes to abortion, marriage, the place of women, more permissive immigration, and sexual orientation—as genuine progress. So their selective nostalgia is for a time when government was smaller, the economy more free, and the Supreme Court more assertive in protecting the rights of contract and property.
It would be hard to see them as all that angry, given that they believe that the disruptive innovation of the 21st century global competitive techno-marketplace is basically moving in their direction. Well, let me qualify that. They, with Brooks and Will, are angry that Republican voters, despite the wishes of the party’s big donors, have rallied around Trump and Cruz and nobody else. Democracy, as libertarian Ilya Somin explains, so often means rule by the politically ignorant.
The GOP donors, in fact, are looking for Cruz to reassure them that all his Christian, pro-life, pro-marriage, anti-immigrant stuff is mere rhetoric to rouse up rubes. Behind closed doors, he has apparently spoken some evasive words that have left that kind of impression. But we do Cruz a disservice if we think he doesn’t mean everything he says. If he were the nominee, his pivot to the center would be pretty minimal. His hope right now is to mobilize millions of alienated voters hungering for his uncompromising conservatism.
I do think Brooks is right, though, that Cruz just isn’t where most of our Evangelicals are right now. The candidates they previously favored, Huckabee and Santorum, aren’t all that hostile to the welfare state. Santorum’s working-class conservatism attends to what government can do to help struggling families, and Huckabee would preserve the entitlements we now have. In the last presidential campaign they both were attacked—and not without reason—by the Club for Growth and similar groups for wanting to think of people as more than free individuals under the law. The pro-family reform conservative economic agenda gets some support from Rubio, though, and Huckabee and Santorum seem to be encouraging their supporters to move in his direction in Iowa and elsewhere. But the fact is they don’t have enough support this time to make much difference for Rubio.
It’s also the case, however, that Evangelicals, even conservative ones, are moving to the left, and Rubio, as the Wall Street Journal complains, is compared especially with Cruz, far from a conservative purist when it comes to tax, entitlements, and such.
Peter Wehner, the most prominent and thoughtful Evangelical in the Bush administration, angrily explains with particular eloquence in the New York Times why the Brooks case against Cruz actually applies to Trump. Trump is not only willfully ignorant of any and all policy issues. He also projects both “crudity” and “cruelty” in ways that make him the opposite of a Christian gentleman concerned with both his fellow citizens and his fellow creatures. As Levin adds, even when Trump is strong in his diagnoses of American cluelessness about what it means to say “a country is a country,” he only seems interested in stoking an angry mood directed against the current administration’s weakness in identifying and punishing enemies without even the pretense of articulating humane solutions.
Say what you will about Cruz, he’s not ignorant, and he’s cruel only if you think that the opposite of cruelty is a compassionate government. So it’s pretty clear the Evangelical Wehner (who once embraced the “compassionate conservative” label) would prefer a candidate other than Trump or Cruz, but he could vote Cruz, but not Trump, in November. Not all of our leading conservative Evangelicals agree. Matthew Lee Anderson, for example, joins the middle-of-the-roader and onetime GOP nominee Bob Dole in saying he would sit out the election rather than vote for Cruz. He thinks Cruz’s excessively angry and apocalyptic mode of campaigning is exploiting, for political gain, the alienation of observant believers.
Levin singles Rubio out as the anti-abyss or anti-apocalyptic Republican, the one who doesn’t think we’re on the eve of destruction. He’s the one who forwards reforms that can actually be implemented to secure our future. America’s position, despite all manner of missteps, remains strong, and our entitlements, for example, can be trimmed in ways that will make them sustainable through the worst of the birth dearth.
And Rubio’s nostalgia is appropriately selective, because nobody with eyes to see would want to return to any point in our past in every respect. His nostalgia-selectivity is not identical to that of the libertarians, insofar as he sees that our freedom depends on strong mediating institutions, beginning with families and churches. His stances are not merely utilitarian: our political and economic freedom are for our dignified relational lives.
Still, Levin advises Rubio to project more anger about decadence and corruption in our leading institutions, to learn something—maybe a lot—from the two leading contenders for the GOP nomination, if he wants to wrest it away from them. Jeb Bush recently admitted that he didn’t understand how angry Americans were, but it’s just too late for Jeb to get his energetic indignation up to speed. It may or may not be for Rubio. Thursday night, Florida’s junior Senator worked to display more anger than he had in previous debates. Whether this succeeded in bolstering his anti-establishment credentials, time (and the Iowa Caucus) will tell.