From one day to the next, President Donald Trump bulldozes his way through the American political scene, seemingly oblivious to or perhaps taking satisfaction from the resulting chaos. Were he alive, H.L. Mencken would no doubt find the entire spectacle vastly entertaining. The rest of us, conservatives especially, must view the ongoing demolition with dismay.
Indeed, Mencken, ribald observer of American democracy, saw it all coming. Writing just shy of a century ago, the Sage of Baltimore took delight in deriding the dully submissive average American as “a pliant slave of capitalism, and ever ready to help it put down fellow-slaves who venture to revolt.” Yet as Mencken went on to explain, “this very weakness, this very credulity and poverty of spirit, on some easily conceivable tomorrow, may convert him into a rebel of a peculiarly insane kind.” Mencken foresaw the likelihood of people expected to do what they are told one day deciding that they’d had enough.
Simmering popular discontent, he continued, would pave the way for “the professional mob-master, the merchant of delusions, the pumper-up of popular fears and rages” to offer himself as champion of the great unwashed. Other demagogues had already illuminated the pathway for such a “corsair of democracy,” according to Mencken. “There were lightnings along that horizon in the days of [Theodore] Roosevelt; there were thunder growls when [William Jennings] Bryan emerged from the Nebraska steppes.” These, however, were mere preliminaries. “On some great day of fate, as yet unrevealed by the gods,” Mencken predicted, “such a professor of the central democratic science may throw off his employers and set up a business for himself. When that day comes there will be plenty of excuse for black type on the front pages of the newspapers.” That day has now seemingly arrived, as even a glance at the agitated headlines featured on the New York Times or the Washington Post will confirm.
If ever “a master corsair” were “thoroughly adept at pulling the mob nose,” it’s our nation’s 45th president, who has indeed “set up a business for himself.” Mencken had Trump pegged even before Trump himself existed.
Yet an aptitude for inciting the hoi polloi does not necessarily translate into a capacity to govern. Resistance to the Trump regime, coming largely but not exclusively from the left, has gathered with impressive speed. No longer obliged to profess allegiance to the uninspiring Hillary Clinton, liberals have shed their ennui.
If during the longue duree of the 2016 presidential campaign progressives had expended even half the energy they have demonstrated since last November 8, a Jewish socialist from Vermont would today occupy the White House and Donald Trump would have resumed his duties as host of Celebrity Apprentice. Given the ways things are turning out, I’d have preferred Bernie.
Conservatives should applaud the way that Trump’s ascent has reenergized left-liberals. After all, in character and temperament, Trump himself represents the antithesis of all that conservatives putatively cherish. For the gaudy Trump, nothing is sacred or fixed or permanent. Everything is for sale. Let’s make a deal.
Furthermore, Trump’s success in hijacking the GOP has exposed the emptiness of that party’s claim to uphold conservative principles or any principles whatsoever. There too, Mencken got it right decades ago. The hypocrites who today preside over the Republican Party are direct descendants of the pols who in Mencken’s day cast their vote for Prohibition “with flasks in their pockets.”
So if an establishment press that has long leaned left has now abandoned any pretense of evenhandedness, good. If the proponents of multiculturalism, diversity, and other hallmarks of ostensibly enlightened thinking fill the streets to denounce Trump as a proto-fascist, better. If opposition to Trump’s clownish presidency ultimately succeeds in bringing it down, that will be best of all.
Conservatives can expect to play at best a minor role in the drama that is unfolding. Two considerations should inform our efforts, however modest our numbers. Both considerations should look to the post-Trump era, which cannot come soon enough and might possibly be upon us sooner than expected.
The first of those considerations is to minimize damage to the Constitution, whether inflicted by Trump himself or by his opponents. In that regard, conservatives should side with their brethren on the left in standing foursquare against actions by Trump or members of his lunatic inner circle that jeopardize any aspect of the Bill of Rights, whether relating to speech, assembly, privacy, the free exercise of religion, or limits on the police power of the state.
On the other hand, conservatives should insist that Trump’s opponents also adhere to terms set out in the Constitution. Among more radical members of the left, eagerness to remove Trump from office, using any available pretext, is palpable. I myself will not shed a tear should Trump be involuntarily and permanently returned to the eponymous tower from which he descended to complete the corruption of American politics. Let it be done, however, in strict compliance with either Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution or alternatively in accordance with Section 4 of the 25th Amendment.
For too long, political leaders have played fast and loose with constitutional requirements, the abrogation of the role assigned to the Congress in authorizing war offering but one important example—one that Trump himself may give us further cause to regret. Yet to remove a president from office by taking similar shortcuts will open the door to all manner of further abuses. Conservatives should warn against such a prospect.
Anyway, given sufficient rope, Trump—perhaps with the unwitting assistance of bullying associates like Steve Bannon—will likely hang himself.
The second consideration will find principled conservatives in direct opposition to those on the left who through ignorance or ill will cite Trump as reason enough to declare conservatism itself invalid and impermissible. As is already evident, through words and actions President Trump is already doing untold damage to core conservative convictions.
Foreign policy offers one example. Long the domain of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives—the yin and yang of American militarism—the ranks of the foreign-policy elite have rejected approaches based on prudence, pragmatism, self-restraint, or even an appreciation of history’s complexities. They have, in short, succeeded in freezing conservatives out.
Consumed by the need always and everywhere to demonstrate “global leadership” by the planet’s one and only “indispensable nation,” members of the foreign-policy establishment have in recent decades pursued a course radically at odds with actually existing U.S. interests. Pursuing a de facto policy of permanent war, they have squandered American lives and treasure on a prodigious scale while accomplishing next to nothing. Need proof? Assess U.S. achievements over the past decade-and-a-half in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a candidate, Trump seemed to get this. If elected, he promised to pursue a course that put “America First.” You might think that any president, appointed official, or elected office holder ought by reason of their oath of office subscribe to that proposition. Yet President Trump and those on whose advice he apparently relies seem determined to gut the concept of “America First.” They have made the phrase synonymous with impulsiveness and narrow parochialism, with hurling insults and instigating needless squabbles.
Commentators who don’t know their history claim that the very phrase is redolent with anti-Semitism and even Nazism—an argument akin to describing FDR as a tool of Stalin because his administration included a number of communists. Put simply, Trump is enabling a smear, which will make it all the harder for advocates of policies based on prudence and pragmatism when he sooner or later departs from office.
It’s incumbent upon conservatives to push back against that smear. “America First” can be and should be an honorable sentiment. Even Mencken would approve.
Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large. His most recent book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, is just out in paperback.