The Age of Trump: View from a supporter

Never Trumpers’ myopia keeps them from seeing the greater danger that a Clinton presidency would have created

By BRUCE S. THORNTON | Oct. 18, 2017

The Never Trump Republicans have been adamantly opposed to Donald Trump since the day in June 2015 that he announced his candidacy.

They argue that the New York mogul is singularly unfit for the presidency, that he has no experience in government, coming from the somewhat unseemly world of N.Y. construction, casino development and reality TV. They say his character and temperament are decidedly unpresidential –– vulgar, bombastic, prone to outbursts and loose with the truth. And, they argue, he besmirches the dignity of the office, tweeting promiscuously over trivial slights and announcing policy changes not discussed with his cabinet.

Most important, the Never Trumpers claim, he is not a true conservative — seemingly indifferent to the problems caused by the federal leviathan, especially runaway entitlement spending, debt and deficits. Rather, they say, he is a populist chameleon, championing those positions and policies that please his disgruntled base of working- and middle-class whites left behind by globalization and the tech revolution. More darkly, they claim, he shows authoritarian and nativist inclinations that could tar legitimate conservatism with a sinister brush.

To them, last November’s election was not a binary choice between a bad Donald Trump and a worse Hillary Clinton. It was opportunistic populism and exclusionary nationalism vs. traditional conservatism and its defining principles of small government and free markets; personal responsibility, character and virtue; and public dignity, decorum and decency. If true conservatism is to survive, they believe, conservatives must resist Trumpism and all its works.

These arguments, however, rest on questionable assumptions: that Trump is a politician unprecedented in his lack of experience, ignorance of policy and bad character and that, for all her flaws, Clinton would not have done as much damage to the conservative cause as Trump is likely to do as president.

This contrast is tendentious and blind both to the historical reality of a democratic polity that empowers the masses and to the greater dangers that eight more years of progressive policies a Clinton presidency would have created.

Presidential dignity

The complaints about Trump’s vulgarity and character flaws raise the question: compared to whom?

Presidential dignity left the White House during the presidency of Bill Clinton. HIs sordid affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, with its stained blue dress and abused cigars, marked a radical decline in what the American people expected of their presidents. Clinton’s bold lie under oath that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” led to articles of impeachment and disbarment. That lie was more consequential for the debasement of presidential dignity than all of Trump’s exaggerations and casual relationships with the truth put together.

As for vulgarity, how about when President Barack Obama called tea party activists “tea baggers,” a vulgar reference to a sexual act? And how much more undignified can the nation’s leader get than hanging out at the White House with rappers whose songs are filled with misogynistic sexual vulgarity and casual violence?

For many Trump supporters, the Never Trumpers’ talk of decorum smells of the anti-democratic elitism that politicians of both parties have always indulged in about the masses. Thus, the Never Trumpers don’t realize that their criticisms of Trump are criticisms of his supporters and that they reinforce the perception of a snooty elite looking down their noses at the common man.

Trump’s appeal rests in large part on the perception that the Republican establishment has more in common with Democrats than with the people — sharing the same ZIP codes, the same top 20 university educations, the same tastes in consumption and entertainment, the same amenities of celebrity and wealth, the same obeisance to political correctness and, ultimately, the same interests: keeping themselves in charge of a bloated federal government from which both sides get their power and wealth.

It’s no wonder that enough voters picked Trump, a vulgar, plain-talking outsider who gave voice to their discontent with Republicans.

Moreover, Trump supporters see the gross discrepancy between the vehement attacks on Trump’s style and the more restrained criticisms of Hillary Clinton’s substantial misdeeds. Trump’s sins are mostly those against decorum and manners, a rejection of the establishment’s agreed upon protocols of political conduct. Clinton’s sins were those against our political order and the responsibilities of a public servant.

Trump’s critics seemingly could not distinguish between the flaws and mistakes of a private citizen and the likely crimes and corruption of a public servant sworn to defend the Constitution. The average Republican voter saw this failure of discernment as further evidence of a bipartisan D.C. elite.

Accusations of nativism

Another example of this appearance of collusion is the Never Trumpers’ eagerness to smear the president and his supporters as exclusionary nativists, redefining conservatism as authoritarian and even proto-fascist. But this irrational fear of fascism, a staple of the progressive lexicon of smears, is preposterous and depends on a historically shallow understanding of fascism. It also ignores the genius of our divided government and balance of powers.

No matter how expansionary executive power has become over the years, Trump’s struggle to get his policy preferences into law so far shows that our constitutional order remains resilient and continues, as James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, to pit ambition against ambition.

As for nativism, it is stunning to hear so-called conservatives branding the desire to reform our out-of-control immigration policies or calls to put “America first” as nativist. The fiscal and social costs of 11 million illegal aliens and feckless family reunification and visa policies are real, though seldom experienced firsthand by well-heeled champions of amnesty or continued unregulated immigration. Nor is it nativist or exclusionary to express pride in our country and its goodness or to desire to protect the integrity of its exceptional character.

For Trump supporters, smearing such feelings as “racist” or “xenophobic” is once again evidence that, no matter what it says, the Republican establishment reinforces the progressives’ animus against a unique American identity and way of life superior to others.

A Clinton presidency

Finally, there is no calculus whereby our country would be better off with Hillary Clinton as president.

Her long record of shady, self-serving money-grubbing from Whitewater to the scandal-ridden Clinton Foundation raises questions of ethics and character much more serious than Trump’s vulgarity.

Her record in the Senate was inconsequential. Her conduct as secretary of state was a disaster: her despicable lying to the parents of the four Americans killed in the Benghazi attack, something far beyond Trump’s petty exaggerations; her private email server that endangered national security; her pay-to-play State Department; the botched Russian “reset”; the dangerous Iran deal; the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi that turned Libya into a jihadist arms depot; the dithering over Syria; and the general retreat of American power. All of this happened on her watch.

Finally, Clinton’s contempt for the ordinary Americans whom she said could be placed in a basket of deplorables” and whom she labeled as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” bespeaks an elitist disdain for the millions of citizens who have been hurt by her party’s policies.

A Clinton presidency would have meant a continuation of the radical progressive policies of Obama’s two terms. It is unlikely that the policies that have stymied economic growth –– particularly overregulation and punitive taxes –– would have been changed. The expansion of entitlement and welfare spending under Obama also would have continued.

Despite the dreams of some Never Trump conservatives that she would be more hawkish than Obama, a President Clinton would not alienate her hard-core antiwar base, nor stop America’s disastrous retreat from global affairs that has emboldened our rivals and enemies. A divisive identity politics and political correctness would continue to weaken our national solidarity and to perpetuate the injustices that follow from privileging some identities over others.

Unrestrained immigration, both legal and illegal, would have continued. The threat of Islamic jihad still would be downplayed and misunderstood, as porous immigration controls increased the probability of more terror attacks. Loretta Lynch would still likely be attorney general, the Department of Justice would still violate the rights of the states for partisan purposes, the Environmental Protection Agency would still be issuing outrageous regulations that weaken private property rights and hinder economic growth, and the Paris Climate Accord would damage our economy for the benefit of our economic rivals and the green-energy lobby.

Most critically, Neil Gorsuch, a constitutional originalist, would not be sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court to slow the deconstruction of our constitutional order and to stop the overweening usurpation of congressional powers by the judicial branch.

Only the blind cannot see that the election was indeed a stark binary choice: between a crass, vulgar businessman whose sins so far are all ones of style and decorum and a longtime entrenched pol whose sins of substance were committed while entrusted with offices that were supposed to serve the sovereign people and the Constitution to which she swore an oath.

Conservatism and its principles will survive Trump, just as they survived their years in the wilderness before Ronald Reagan. But they might not have survived another eight years of emboldened progressivism.

Bruce S. Thornton is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is “Democracy’s Dangers and Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama.”

► Read an opposing viewpoint by Charles J. Sykes here.

► Read the entire issue of Diggings Fall 2017 here.

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