Trump and the Habits of the Conservative Heart

The question for conservatism is whether 2019 will be a tougher year for James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville than it is for Donald Trump. The President can take care of himself. His never-apologize philosophy combined with the loyalty of his base insure him against the hardest turns. But Madison and Tocqueville may need help from a revival of the conservative ethic that process and norms, not just outcomes, matter.

The greatest challenge facing conservatism is thus neither Robert Mueller nor House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The kryptonite to which Mueller’s investigation is vulnerable is that he is out of surprises and that Trump seems invulnerable to them anyway. Who did what may remain unsettled or at least undisclosed. But Trump is Trump, his virtues and flaws on relentless display. Mueller has no capacity left to shock anyone.

Pelosi, meanwhile, has the ability to block or force moderation of parts of Trump’s agenda. That is what it is. Driven by the increasingly far-left caucus in her party, which has managed the considerable feat of turning Pelosi into The Man, she may overreach. Barring that, the president will have to deal. He is alleged to have mastered that art. Even where he does not parley, he has certainly demonstrated the ability to quarantine and deflect blame.

The most serious challenge to conservatism does not, for that matter, come from Trump either. It comes from conservatives. It is the rising if not now established belief that as long as Trump is delivering substantive results, how he does so is either irrelevant or positively virtuous. This is a notion of conservatism that cannot see beyond Trump’s personality to its own values—of conservatism as an agent of Trumpism rather than the other way around.

With the economy teetering and Trump’s tariffs poised to raise consumer prices in 2019, even his greatest claim to substantive results is on the brink. He has given voice to the forgotten communities struggling to survive in the middle class, which is to his credit, but it is hard to identify what exactly he has done for them. He will have to get acquainted with the idea, alien to the New York City real estate sector, that economic strength comes not from wheeling and dealing but rather from creating wealth that did not exist before.

There are other areas of substantial achievement, especially his judges. He has kept this promise, recognizes its centrality to his base, and deserves credit for understanding these facts. But the base’s emphasis on the judiciary suggests either that conservatives have accepted an inflated role for judges in the constitutional scheme or that the judges’ most significant contribution will be what they do not do. Of course, as Learned Hand said, one of the most important things judges do is not doing, so a revival of judicial modesty would be an enduring achievement.

But here is the thing, and there is no getting around it: If the judges matter, even in an inflated capacity, it is because constitutional philosophy matters. And Trump’s is about to be put to the test.

Christopher DeMuth and Josh Blackman have both demonstrated persuasively that in his first two years, Trump has launched a comprehensive and admirable offensive against the administrative state, including deferring to Congress in areas properly within the legislative realm. That is no mean achievement, but neither is it a hard one when controlling a Congress gripped by thrall.

The real question now is whether Trump, in his frustration, will adapt the anti-constitutional executive unilateralism of his predecessor and whether, if he does, conservatives will stand for it.  Even a continuing undoing of administrative governance, such as Trump’s commendable withdrawal of the guidance letters the Obama Administration used to mug private institutions, implies deference to the institution that ought to be making policy, which is Congress.

There have already been hints—such as Trump’s threat to use money appropriated for the military to build a border wall if Congress does not pony up—that his commitment to Madison is subordinate to his commitment to Trump. Is it for conservatives? A tribalism according to which Trump can do this because he wears the conservative team’s uniform while Pelosi wears the opposing colors—or because Obama did it first so all is fair game—ill becomes conservatives who should value the long game of constitutionalism, not to mention the constant ethic of personal responsibility—over the immediate desire for policy results.

That brings us to the Tocquevillian danger. Tocqueville’s emphasis on the mores of democratic life—both the “habits of the heart” and the “ensemble of ideas from which the habits of the mind are formed”—belies the idea that Trump’s tweeting, falsifying, vulgarity and the mercurial impulses are irrelevant as long as he continues to allow the Federalist Society to advise him on judicial nominees.

What Tocqueville grasped was the key role of mores in maintaining democratic life. It is true, as Charles Kesler has persuasively argued, that there are good mores and bad mores. But unless Publius was wrong about the presidency, a proper constitutional distance from the people, a basic devotion to truth-telling within the reasonable confines of electoral politics, and dignity in manner are good mores. None of these entails polite deference to the establishment or to the administrative state. Nor do they require the President not to respond when he is attacked, even if he could do so more parsimoniously.

They require the basic elements of civility, a conserving virtue. They involve telling the truth rather than being a serial fabulist. They probably mean not spending hours in the living quarters of the White House with tweeting thumbs. And it would be nice if they entailed the dignity of presidential addresses rather than demagogic, campaign-style rallies.

Trump’s apologists have contorted conservatism to get him off the hook for systematically undercutting such norms. But his incivility—the unchivalrous (on which topic, see Burke) emphasis on women’s looks or opponents’ intelligence—is unnecessary to dismantling the administrative state or getting conservative judges through 53 Republican senators when it only takes 50 plus the Vice President to confirm them. It is not enough to dismiss Trump’s demeanor as inflected with the Queens of his roots any more than it would get Barack Obama off the hook to say he speaks in the argot of a constitutional law professor from Hyde Park. No conservative would say Nancy Pelosi’s flights of fancy should be disregarded as the dialect of a San Francisco liberal.

As to the lying, Aristotle observed that speech is the unique human capacity. If words are systematically drained of meaning, we are making noises, not using logos. Trump is hardly the first president to lie, but he may be the first to do it openly and habitually while conservatives deliberately look the other way.

All these are not challenges for Trump. He is who he is, which is no small part of his attraction. There comes a point in a presidency—halfway in seems easily past it—when not having been the other candidate is an insufficient justification for one’s behavior. A philosophy that emphasizes individual responsibility should not be in the business of reflexively excusing Trump from it.

To be sure, this counsel to take Trump on his genuine constitutional merits applies to the Never Trump caucus too. It is no more admirable to be blinded by opposition than to be blinded by admiration. The point is that both need to step back from momentary electoral or policy concerns—which are always evanescent—and look to the long-term health of the Constitution. This will not be restored by judges alone, it can be seriously damaged by undercutting the norms that are the glue of republican political life, and it cannot long withstand—on any conservative principle that preceded Trump—the immediacy of his tweeting connection to the public.

These things matter. If conservatives no longer believe they do, they had best prepare for a partisan not of their choosing to behave similarly. That means the greatest threat to a Madisonian and Tocquevillian regime is not Trump’s behavior but rather the excuses conservatives are willing to make for it.

Reader Discussion

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on January 02, 2019 at 10:30:59 am


It appears that you tried to present a "fair" picture of The Trumpster - and you succeeded - but not "bigly." -Ha!

Now here is something from way out in "left field"

For decades now we have been stressing the dangers inherent in an "imperial" or unilateral Executive - and rightly so.

Perhaps, unbeknownst to The Trumpster, he is doing us a service BY making plain to all that those who the citizenry elects to such exalted status, contrary to their public persona, are just as likely to possess, and in the case of The Trumpster, DEMONSTRATE the same flaws, shortcomings and pettiness that is to be found in the citizenry itself.
All too frequently, political supporters / advocates approach elections with a near messianic fervor with concomitant expectations for their chosen leader.

Clearly, The Trumpster has proven such hopes to be false.
Would it not be better in the long run for the citizenry to abandon these unrealistic hopes / expectations regarding their political masters. In so doing, we may also reduce our expectations of what we may PROPERLY expect from government.

Yes, this may appear strained, and it is clearly so BUT:

Would you not agree that both Left and Right invest far too much in their electoral choices.
Could it be that is the direct result of what we have come to expect, no, what we demand from government. A Big government mandates a BIG[ly] LEADER, does it not?

Perhaps, there is a silver lining in The Trumpster's diminishment of the Office. Perhaps, we shall once again recognize that the Office is occupied, now and always, by a frail human being - not an Olympian - think Harry S. Truman - with all the shortcomings, character defects and values common to us all.

Then again, as evidenced by the link below, there is nothing especially laudatory about the "proper" and civil behavior of "elite" politicians:


Indeed, in the above instance, it may be well argued that the "civility" of the British political class is far more destructive to national character and sovereignty than the tweeting tantrums of a construction man from the Borough of Queens, NYC.

In short, perhaps, the Office itself is in need of some diminishment!

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on January 02, 2019 at 10:46:05 am

And now for something more:

The Theater of the presidency:

It would appear that so much of what passes for effective criticism of The Trumpster is little more than the catcalls of an unsatisfied theater patron at the manners and accents of the actors upon the stage.

See the link to another LLB essay"


How civil were these dupes?
How proper was Ms Holmes?
How *promising* were her offers.

Theater, gentlemen / ladies, theater.

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Image of gabe
on January 02, 2019 at 10:46:43 am

Empirically, Weiner's statements on the possibility of effective conservative political practice by a philosophically exemplary conservative chief executive has thus far been falsified by history. Wishing for something doesn't make it so, and postponing real action while awaiting a conservative philosopher-king (or messiah) has allowed the progressive left over half a century in which to change all of the facts on the ground, facts far more threatening to classical liberalism and Tocquevillean mores than Trump can ever be.

The current dilapidation of our Tocquevillean mores was on full display during the Kavanaugh hearings, e.g. That, and not Trump, who will in any case be gone in 2 or 6 years, should be the context in which conservatives judge what is necessary now in thought, speech and action. The Left has already long since gone full Carl Schmitt: one is simply not civil to one's enemies. "By any means necessary" is hardly liberal. How are conservatives to respond who desire effective action in the face of the progressive onslaught?

To every thing there is a season. In response to the Reformation the Catholic Church established the Jesuits and the Inquisition, neither of which could be called a model of New Testament, turn-the-other-cheek civility. Perhaps if conservatives had earlier reformed and actually taken effective political action when they had the power to do so, Torquemada Trump would never have happened. Or perhaps the Reconquista is a more apt comparison. Say what you will about the methods of the Spanish kings, but the Moors were ejected from Spain. Trump's heavy hand, hard heart and dysphonia may yet prove instrumental in preserving just enough of our classical-liberal institutions that conservative scholars may continue to reflect on Tocquevillean mores from the comfort of their endowed chairs rather than from the jail cells into which they might otherwise be thrown for engaging in hate speech and promoting white supremacy.

In any case, had establishment conservatives not shamelessly and disparagingly abandoned Trump even before he was sworn in, they might have been able over time to influence his demeanor in a direction more to their liking. We'll never know. Michael Anton tried and resigned, so perhaps he saw that such a task was too Herculean for mere scribblers and scholars.

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on January 02, 2019 at 11:40:45 am


A perceptive reading of what Trump undermines by his persona and by his inveterate ignorance of constitutionalism. I find everything you say accurate and fair. Your own tone is a refreshing corrective to the anti-Trumpian tone of most of his critics. Good criticism remains rational, despite the spiritedness that the critic himself might possess.

As ever,


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Virginia Arbery
on January 02, 2019 at 16:40:32 pm

And now for some perspective (if the example of the *civil* Brit elite political class was insufficient):

From Powerline:


" It is not that all of the president’s policies have been misguided. He was right to align U.S. corporate taxes with those of global competitors, to strip out excessive regulations, to crack down on China’s unfair trade practices, to reform criminal justice and to appoint conservative judges. These are policies mainstream Republicans have promoted for years.

I boldfaced “promoted” because Romney has unwittingly provided the devastating argument against his style of Republicanism. Yes, it is quite true that nearly all Republican presidential candidates—and presidents—have promoted tax reform, lower regulation, getting tough with China, and appointing better judges (and add in moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem), if by “promoted” you mean giving lip service to the ideas.

None of them have delivered on these “promoted” ideas (Reagan excepted, of course). The two presidents Bush botched judicial appointments, extended regulation, delivered little in the way of serious tax or spending reform, and did nothing serious with regard to China. I wish Romney had defeated Obama in 2012, but does anyone think this Massachusetts technocrat, who gave us the state-level version of Obamacare in the Bay State, signed up for a regional climate change cap-and-trade scheme, who appointed the egregious Gina McCarthy (Obama’s second EPA administrator) to be his environmental adviser, and appointed state judges who struck the first judicial blows for same-sex marriage, would have governed as a serious conservative had he won?

The point is, Trump has proved that “mainstream Republicanism” was a colossal failure. Whereas Bush-Romney Republicans “promoted” good ideas, Trump has delivered on them."

what do we observe in the cases provided in the two links?
Both the Brit Elite Political class and the Elite Mainstrean Republican class may extol the virtues of their policy prescriptions AND Themslves and associated "manners", civililty and adherence to norms (such as they are) - YET neither group of elites has demonstrated either competence or a constancy of belief in their professed policy objectives.
In short, for all their fine breeding and manners, THEY ACCOMPLISH NOTHING. Or do they? Perhaps, their objective is to provide merely "lip service" to the hopes of their electoral supporters, all the while enjoying the perquisites of political power and the consequent economic power, shared, of course, with their opposite numbers in the Democrat Party.

Did Speaker Ryan REALLY support the GOP base's desire for limiting immigration?
Did McConnell really support the confirmation of originalist judges prior to the election of The Trumpster?

In my early years in the electronics industry, I learned that the origin / development of some of the most effective avionics safety equipment was due to the work of a "foul-mouthed" NON-degreed electronic technician - NOT one of the highly paid, smooth talking, politically adept electrical engineers on staff.

Sometimes, a "saint" either does wrong or is incapable of doing right; at times, a "bad" or flawed man is both capable and desirous of doing well / right.
We all too often are susceptible to the muse of 'good governance" as embodied in a Jimmy Stewart type character - good, noble, sensible and quite civil when in fact those whom we elect are quite frequently not in possession of those traits - except as proffered on the campaign trail.

Perhaps, it is time to remove the veil from our eyes and accept that the common and at times the coarse may also be sufficient to the task at hand.

Ever read Gen George S Patton's *actual* speech to the troops prior to D-Day. Coarse does not begin to describe it.
Which would you prefer - a false sense of civility or a hearty response to critical threats?

Does one remember that one of the greatest writers / statesmen of the 20th century Sir Winston Churchill was not above leveling insults upon troublesome interlopers. (I have always loved this: "My dear you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be ugly'").

Is Churchill to be measured for this rather witty *tweet*?

Nuff said!

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Image of gabe
on January 02, 2019 at 16:47:09 pm

Reading this article is like watching someone play a game against himself. The legal system is used as a weapon, and the author insists Trump put away any weapons he might have to hand with which to defend himself. The Media ignores any information that reflects the President's actions favorably, and Trump insists on replying via the internet to reach his "deplorables", I. e. his base. The Congress provides itself with a slush fund to prevent their sexual exploits from reaching the voting public, but Trump pays his own way in such cases and that must obviously be positively shocking.

I could go on, but I will spare a patient reader his valuable time. This argument reminds me of much of the NFL punditry to be heard on Television. When a team scores a TD, it must be the sensational performance of the offense. Perhaps, just maybe, someone on the defense missed his assignment. The defense makes a fantastic interception. Could it be that the football was poorly thrown? In either case, the commentator at least recognizes the game cannot be played without opposition, and opposition has something to do with the behavior on the field of play on both sides of the ball.

Clearly, Trump beat his opposition by first acquiring the Republican nomination for the office of the presidency and, then, winning election according to the rules of the game. If you were voting for the opposition, I can understand your frustration. Complaining about the refs and the results is just poor sportsmanship.


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James P McGlone
on January 02, 2019 at 20:50:00 pm

We needn't worry about Madison and de Tocqueville the word "Conservatism" has been purposely misinterpreted for self serving needs over the past 50 years to a point that Kirk, Hayek, Buckley and Friedman would no longer recognize it. The left of course has been the original culprit attempting to define conservatism negatively while being willingly aided and abetted by opportunist Republican politicians and right wing media talking heads looking to cash in on the golden goose.

The problem is "Conservatism" is only an ideology and it has no power . It has no party structure, no headquarters, no nominating convention. Alone it can accomplish nothing. It therefore can be defined in the classical liberalism sense or extremely loosely as is being done today. While once Conservatism had the intellectual rigors of Buckley, Hayek, Kirk, Freidman and others for guidance today it has been discredited and misunderstood to a point that the fundamentals of ideas, principles and character mean nothing. If Conservatism was a failure the blame lies on the inept, corrupt, incompetent politicians who claimed the conservative mantle NOT in the ideology itself.

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Bob Manderville
on January 03, 2019 at 12:36:28 pm


Actually agree, re: conservatism being nothing more than an ideology.
It is however even worse than you assert.
Consider that within the group of powerful / reasoned minds you list, there is also some rather distinct differences.
Hayek, for example was all for 'open borders" and decried *nationalism* as atavistic and inhuman.
Contrast the *conservative* Hayek with Burke, whose praise of "national" culture and tradition is quite explicit.
Which of the two is conservative?

Oddly, enough when Conservatives have actually engaged as a PARTY in the electoral process, the results have been somewhat disappointing which James Buckley being the lone exception under the Conservative banner, having garnered only 39 percent of the vote in a six candidate race. In this he was more successful than his better known brother, William F, Buckley whose candidacy for Mayor of NYC (and for whom I campaigned as a youngster) was noteworthy more for his self deprecating humor than for his vote getting.

And yes again, it is not the ideology, as varied as it may be BUT rather on those who arrogate to themselves the mantle of conservative.

One thing about The Trumpster, he makes no such claim (and properly so, I would add).

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Image of gabe
on January 03, 2019 at 23:08:37 pm

"There have already been hints—such as Trump’s threat to use money appropriated for the military to build a border wall if Congress does not pony up—that his commitment to Madison is subordinate to his commitment to Trump."

As they said on the West Wing, "Ya think?!"

I doubt Donald Trump even knows who Madison was. If Trump had a pop quiz that had, "James Madison is known as 'The Father of The _____________'" I doubt he could come up with the answer.

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Mark Bahner
on January 04, 2019 at 10:36:50 am

"I doubt Donald Trump even knows who Madison was. If Trump had a pop quiz that had, “James Madison is known as ‘The Father of The _____________'”

Apparently that defect is not uncommon among our current crop of politicos, as in "Nancy "The Constitution, are you kidding me?" Pelosi.

From Powerline and the NYTimes:

Posted on January 3, 2019 by Paul Mirengoff in Constitution, Nancy Pelosi
Pelosi: The Constitution considers me equal to the president

The New York Times reports that when Nancy Pelosi was asked whether she considers herself President Trump’s equal, she replied, “The Constitution does.” It’s difficult to say which is more staggering, the ignorance or the arrogance of that boast.

The legislative branch is co-equal with the executive branch. But the president heads the executive branch. The House Speaker does not head the legislative branch.

At least now we can better understand why Pelosi thought it was fine to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad. Readers may recall that during the Bush presidency she defied the State Department and visited Assad, declaring that “the road to peace is through Damascus.”

That was half a million Syrian deaths and five million Syrian refugees ago.

I once thought that Newt Gingrich would retire the trophy for most arrogant House Speaker. But Gingrich was only arrogant, not ignorant. Thus, even he never pronounced himself the equal of the U.S. president. "

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Image of gabe
on January 04, 2019 at 10:52:55 am

For those who profess "concern" about political decorum and established mores should you not also consider this?:


It seems as if only President Trumps actions / speech is to be scrutinized. Here we have a newly elected Congresswoman expressing the Democrat Party's hope of "We're gonna impeach the Motherf***er."

Some mores are more mores than others.

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gargamel rules smurfs
on January 06, 2019 at 12:39:48 pm

The fact that the presidential choice in 2016 was between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is not the fault of Trump. Fault the two parties or, more broadly, "we, the American people." Thus, much of the problem antedates Trump and is unlikely to be mitigated by him.
With regard to: "With the economy teetering and Trump’s tariffs poised to raise consumer prices in 2019, even his greatest claim to substantive results is on the brink. He has given voice to the forgotten communities struggling to survive in the middle class, which is to his credit, but it is hard to identify what exactly he has done for them."
One might think that unemployment below four percent and an increase in the labor participation rate is a remarkable and important step toward "survival" of the middle class. And just how is the "economy teetering"?
Trump has his flaws, most of which are obvious and on public display. Many of his policies do promote the public good. No one should expect any president to solve our cultural disarray.

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Robert A. Schadler
on March 02, 2019 at 18:12:03 pm

See page 10....immigration a problem for way too long. Finally we have a President who cares about Americans FIRST.

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