Are Trump and Trumpism a Package Deal?

US
President Donald Trump appears on a screen as he delivers his acceptance speech during the final event of the Republican National Convention on the South Lawn of the White House., August 27, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The president has had four years to remake the GOP as a populist, nationalist force. There’s no reason to think he can finally do so if given four more.




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E
ven when President Trump seems to defect from his 2016 agenda, or speak out of both sides of his mouth, everyone knows what “Trumpism” is, or what it would be in someone else’s hands: A focus on regaining manufacturing jobs, particularly those that bolster strategically important skills such as advanced engineering; the abandonment of efforts to transform the Middle East; and the acknowledgement of Americans as citizens rather than mere consumers.

A little more than four years ago, I wrote that I had been waiting for a nationalist, populist course correction in the GOP. I wanted a candidate to tell the truth about our failed wars in the Middle East. I wanted a candidate who would speak bluntly about how China was using the international system we built and maintained to rip us off — how the CCP and American elites were engaged in a relationship that degraded the American worker, de-skilled the American workforce, and empowered the Chinese Communist Party. And I wanted a candidate who would defy the elite consensus that favored mass immigration.

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Unfortunately, when that candidate arrived, it was Donald Trump. I was, as the title of the piece in question put it, “For Trumpism, against Donald Trump.” I wrote that I “simply don’t trust him.”

This produced grief. The partisans who had previously held me to be a deviationist, a heretic, or possibly a wrecker from the other side, were now all-in on my ideas, because they were all-in on Trump, and couldn’t tolerate personal opposition to the man. For the Never Trumpers, meanwhile, opposing the man wasn’t enough; I had to abominate all the ideas too, because Trump was their champion. And worst of all, there were the smart, tough, long-term friends, mentors, and peers with whom I’d diverged. Sometimes the things I thought of as Trump’s vices, they saw as virtues. Sometimes they just saw the risks of Trump as more tolerable than I did.

One of those in the latter group, Michael Anton, wrote almost exactly four years ago the unapologetically pro-Trump essay that people on the right were waiting to read. “The Flight 93 Election” became a sensation. In some ways, Anton went right for the jugular of those with precisely my tendency toward “Pollyanna-ish declinism,” as he put it — those who recognized the revolutionary mendacity of the Left but were unwilling to vote for the candidate who, alone, had identified the big issues and possessed both the confidence to offend the regnant taboos and the charismatic persona to electrify a winning coalition of voters. “The alleged buffoon is thus more prudent—more practically wise—than all of our wise-and-good who so bitterly oppose him,” he wrote. For him, it was the necessity of Trumpism that made support of Trump obligatory.

I had the chance to meet Anton later on, during his time working in the Trump White House. I saw how he served the president in what was really a lion’s den, surrounded by veterans of prior administrations of both parties. They were universally hostile to Anton and to Trump, but also, in many ways, pathetically anxious and needy, looking to the former for any scrap of usable intelligence on the latter, his thinking, and the direction of his administration. Many of these people had moved from politics into finance or consulting. Normally, they would have had connections in the White House regardless of which party controlled it. That they didn’t in this White House was hurting their market value tangibly. In many ways, the experience confirmed my worst suspicions about the state of things.

Over these four years, almost everyone has shifted somehow, bending slightly in the prevailing wind, or becoming totally radicalized. Never Trumpers who once counseled a pro-life duty to vote Romney now hold that pro-lifers have no obligation to vote for a Republican president. Traditional movement conservatives who saw Trump frustrate less of their agenda and advance more of it than they’d expected he would have warmed to him.

I sometimes think Anton and I are two of the only people standing precisely in the same position as four years ago.

Anton has a new book coming, and in a preview he makes his best possible case for Trump:

There’s little wrong with President Trump that more Trump couldn’t solve. More populism. More nationalism. More patriotism. More law and order. More full-throated advocacy for the neglected American people, for the working class, for the Rust Belt and rural America, for religious believers and law-abiding gun owners. More defense of free speech against tech and corporate censorship and suppression, more support for his voters when they or their interests are viciously attacked. In short, more adherence to the 2016 agenda.

The only way to get more Trump is, literally, to get more Trump.

Anton is for Trumpism, therefore for Trump. To him, the power imbalance between the Left, which controls so many institutions, and the Right, which occasionally fumbles toward using the lever of power it is elected to exercise, threatens the existence of the Republic, which needs some principle of unity. As he sees it, there is nobody more competent waiting in the wings to advance the Trumpist agenda. The failures of the administration he attributes to the near-unified opposition of an entrenched and corrupt bureaucracy, unremitting hostility from the Left-captured institutions, and the indifference of Trump’s own nominal co-partisans. He sees the alternative to Trump to be the destruction of our ideals, and national decline. In the 1980s, conservatives who felt that the Beltway was hindering and compromising Ronald Reagan used to say, “Let Reagan be Reagan.” I take Anton to be saying, “Let Trump be Trump.”

It is true, in many ways, that Trump does not have a party, but he does have the presidency. So I would counter Anton by attributing the failings of the Trump administration to the man himself. He said that transgender persons would not serve in the military; he was countermanded from below. He announced that the troops were coming home from Afghanistan and Syria; those orders were reversed too. If he can’t or won’t discipline the underlings who have so thwarted him time and again, that is his own fault. To be successful, a president needs not only an agenda, but the skill to bend the government into executing it which he so obviously lacks.

Anton says that we need “a party actively opposed to the program of the ruling class.” I agree. “If the Republican Party can become that,” he adds, “all to the good. If it can’t, it should go out of business.” I agree with that, too. I just apply the lesson, “If it can’t, it should go” to the man at the top as well. We should stop wasting time, political capital, and the trust of voters in the vain hope that the next four years will be different. Let someone else be Trump.

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