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A Donald Trump Survival Strategy

No matter what one thinks about the rise of Donald Trump, it does make one think—or rage, in the case of our cultural and intellectual elite.

Take Washington Post regular Richard Cohen [1]:

Donald Trump has taught me to fear my fellow American. I don’t mean the occasional yahoo who turns a Trump rally into a hate fest. I mean the ones who do nothing. Who are silent. Who look the other way. If you had told me a year ago that a hateful brat would be the presidential nominee of a major political party, I would have scoffed. Someone who denigrated women? Not possible. Someone who insulted Mexicans? No way. Someone who mocked the physically disabled? Not in America. Not in my America.

After years of dictating what constitutes “my America,” of deciding what is allowed as free speech and free exercise, the U.S. elite is having a hissy fit. Cohen is a bit more fervent than his fellows among mainstream-media progressives and neoconservative TV stars, but he expresses their torment perfectly. They can hardly come up with enough epithets.


Commenting on new polling showing that large numbers of Republicans and independents believe men and women should play different societal roles, even a thoughtful progressive like William Galston [2] can write this about himself and his fellow liberals:

We had assumed that some beliefs had moved so far beyond the pale that those who continued to hold them would not dare to say so publicly. Mr. Trump has proved us wrong. His critique of political correctness has destroyed many taboos and has given his followers license to say what they really think.

Imagine, having the nerve to say what one really thinks in the good old USA!

The new candor in Trump’s wake has even reached progressives. Some of them told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof [3] what they really thought when he suggested that the lack of conservative voices on campus was leading to intellectual stagnation on the left:

I wondered aloud whether universities stigmatize conservatives and undermine intellectual diversity. The scornful reaction from my fellow liberals proved the point. “Much of the ‘conservative’ worldview consists of ideas that are known empirically to be false,” said Carmi. “The truth has a liberal slant,” wrote Michelle. “Why stop there?” asked Steven. “How about we make faculties more diverse by hiring idiots?”

It is all almost enough for a conservative to welcome Trump as the Republican nominee for president—almost. He is driving the right people crazy, and in the unlikely case he is actually elected, he might even crack their cultural monopoly over speech.

The dilemma on the conservative side is that if one does not support the comic he is stuck with the crook, or, as even Dana Milbank calls her, Hunkered Hillary. She just cannot tell the truth. She might deep down even be more conservative than Trump, but she will be pushed to the far left by the base and the cultural elite, especially if Democrats take Congress. So she will certainly move the country further down into the social and economic void, while The Donald could do anything.

So, on balance, support for the TV comedian is inevitable, even if it leads to an historic defeat. That is, if he is actually nominated at the convention, which in this crazy year is no sure thing [4].

But there should be no illusions. He promises not to touch insolvent Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlements. He will enhance protectionism and encourage fellow crony capitalists at the expense of markets. Given his mixed record, social conservatives would gain only by chance, having proven themselves politically powerless. Originalist judges? That is not quite what he promised. On foreign policy, he might put America first, but he also keeps threatening big guys like China and neighbors like Mexico. After Barack Obama’s use of his phone and executive-order pen, it is improbable Trump would not continue the tradition, especially with a likely Democratic Senate, becoming the Americas’ northernmost caudillo.

Well, no one is perfect.

In another sense, it makes little difference in the long run. Both candidates have promised to protect entitlements and open the spending spigots. As the indispensable Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest [5] makes clear, debt has brought down as many civilizations as has war, indeed more in recent years.

I am the last to deny Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II credit for undermining the Soviet Union, but (with reservations on many of his other points) Robert Skidelsky’s Road from Serfdom [6] makes a convincing case that the proximate cause was bankruptcy. Debt also had an underappreciated role in the other cultural collapses of the modern era: war reconstruction and open welfare-state spigots prepared the way for the fall of the English and French empires after World War II, and German debt and inflation prepared the way for Hitler. The same can be said for Italy on the way to Mussolini, and even for ancient Rome and Ming China.

Ferguson is most perceptive in demonstrating that the end can come quickly. In disputing Edward Gibbon’s claim of a long decline for the Roman Empire, he argues that the presumed causes—barbarian invasions, epidemics, economic crises, rival empires, and the rest—were pretty much historical norms. Ferguson puts the beginning of the end in AD 406, with the advance of the Germanic tribes across the Rhine and into Italy—which was followed by Rome’s sacking by the Goths in 410, Genseric’s conquest of North Africa’s breadbasket between 429 and 439, and the loss of Britain and most of Spain and Gaul. By 476, Rome was gone, a fiefdom of the Scirii, accomplished in a mere 70 years.

In the modern era, England and France ended World War I as victors with a large slice of the world as colonies. Thirty-eight years later, President Dwight Eisenhower blithely dismissed them as inconsequential and waved them out of Suez. The Soviet Union ended even quicker: From March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed general secretary of the Politburo over a USSR the CIA thought richer than the U.S., to 1991, when Boris Yeltsin ended the attempted Communist Party coup, required a mere six years.

What is the situation for the U.S.? Based on Congressional Budget Office data, Ferguson estimated that U.S. debt could reach 90 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2021, 150 percent by 2031, and 300 percent in 2047. This compares with 175 percent in bankrupt Greece, and it does not include state debt or the unfunded liabilities of Medicare, Social Security, and other government (or government-insured) pensions.

In my last book, I raised a comparison between America and Weimar Germany with great trepidation, fearing to appear overly melodramatic. Now, with one U.S. political party dreaming of recreating an already-failed European democratic socialism and the other explicitly repudiating its traditional limited-government policies, that prognosis seems prophetic. As Ferguson noted, all it takes is one wild circumstance to start a run, even on the world’s only true financial power.

It could take years, but “one day a seemingly random piece of bad news, perhaps a negative report by a rating agency,” could reach beyond the experts to panic the public at large or spook investors abroad, where half of U.S. public debt resides. One-fifth is owned by a fearful China alone, which already has referred to the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing” as “financial protectionism.” A worldwide panic over U.S. debt would have no backstop.

In the U.S., sufficient liabilities are already on the books, and both major parties are determined not to disturb public or ideological blindness. Hillary Clinton promises more, and should the Democrats win control of Congress as well, she could easily plunge the country joyfully into bankruptcy. In the less likely case of Trump’s election, policy becomes totally subject to the leader’s whims, which almost certainly do not include austerity—so even with good appointees (he is the boss), the best one could expect would be some rearguard blocking from the House.

Traditional, limited-government conservatives would be left with the small consolations that their understanding of the fundamental weakness of human nature had proven correct, that no battle is forever won or lost, and that their ultimate goal is in another world anyway.

Trump dominates the moment, but Konrad Adenauer may be the better long-term guide for the right. The Christian Democratic legislator survived the Weimer economic crash and endured a decade in and out of jail under Hitler, after which he was still able, at age 73, to become the conservative chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany—and to serve for the next 14 years re-institutionalizing markets, sound financial policies, moral traditions, democracy, a fair and restrained judiciary, meaningful federalism, and economic prosperity.

Not a bad survival vantage point.

Donald Devine is a senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, is the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution [7], and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.

29 Comments (Open | Close)

29 Comments To "A Donald Trump Survival Strategy"

#1 Comment By libertarian jerry On June 15, 2016 @ 8:21 am

The problem in America is that the Welfare State has set up such a system of dependency that work ethics,self responsibility and self reliance for vast numbers of the American voting population has become a thing of the past. The real challenge is to,over time,dismantle the past decisions of politicians to create a system that penalizes and vilifies productive people and at the same time rewards people who are too lazy to get up in the morning and go to work are irresponsible and are used to getting something for nothing as a matter of a “right.” History has taught us over and over again that welfare states always collapse into bankruptcy and eventually morph into police states. Whether a Donald Trump Administration with the help of a Republican Congress can end this destructive path America is on is difficult to judge. We can only hope so.

#2 Comment By Johann On June 15, 2016 @ 9:44 am

The desperation has already set in. The Federal Reserve is stuck in a corner. The only way the Federal debt can be serviced is to keep bond yields near zero or below zero. But keeping rates down continues to hollow out the economy, thus exacerbating the tragedy of default, once it comes. No one is willing to face it. Its mass denial.

#3 Comment By Nelson On June 15, 2016 @ 10:39 am

The author thinks only “elite” Americans hate racism? And we’d be better off with more racism because that is just people speaking their mind freely? What the hell?

#4 Comment By tzx4 On June 15, 2016 @ 10:52 am

Mr Devine,
Since you are so concerned about the debt, may I inquire what your thoughts are on continuing the current tax breaks for the upper class and corporations, and you thought on military spending?

#5 Comment By Geo On June 15, 2016 @ 11:04 am

Your guy Niall is the leading elite voice against brexit….calling it “horrendous”. The great scholar wore out his welcome in the UK, so as a plan B crossed the pond to wow the wogs of the new world….setting up shop at Harvard. Americans hear a pommie accent and are immediately impressed and subservient…….so the great man should have a long run here.

#6 Comment By Ray On June 15, 2016 @ 1:13 pm

The United States cannot really go bankrupt because almost all of its debt is in its own currency. If it came to that, the US Govt could simply print as much money as it wanted to cover all its debts.
It would hurt. There would be all kinds of serious economic and diplomatic consequences. But for the US, to a degree unique among states, it is a viable course of action.

#7 Comment By KXB On June 15, 2016 @ 1:22 pm

Adding to trzx4 – you cannot complain about the solvency of Social Security without discussing that the SS tax is levied only on the first $118,500 of income. This of course benefits those who earn far more.

#8 Comment By Liam On June 15, 2016 @ 1:22 pm

Right now, the GOP is bereft of anyone like Konrad Adenauer, and, given Trumpism, is less likely than ever to produce one. (If one imagines Paul Ryan fits the bill, one would be very sorely mistaken.)

#9 Comment By Boris On June 15, 2016 @ 1:48 pm

The mask has been torn off, the one thing that I will give Trump credit for. America is being exposed for what it has always been under the surface. A hateful, angry place that kills at the drop of a hat. More people are seeing this truth, that the country they live at its core is actually a terrible, mean place with no room for them.

#10 Comment By Student On June 15, 2016 @ 3:11 pm

Of course the author distorts Trump’s position: for example attempting to obtain more favorable trade deals is labelled as “protectionist.” It is time the blabbering punditry recognize that the theory of free trade is no longer unopposed economic dogma. Gomory and Baumol have put the torch to this. Quite simply, in an industrial society we are no longer trading the likes of wheat for wine a la Ricardo. Economies of scale mean that comparative advantage is fluid and a function of economic policy.

#11 Comment By Tony D. On June 15, 2016 @ 3:49 pm

1(a): Which recent President left office with federal budget surpluses as far as the eye could see?
1(b): Which successor to that recent President squandered those surpluses on two tax cuts, two unfunded wars, and an expansion of benefits for the elderly?

#12 Comment By todd On June 15, 2016 @ 4:32 pm

“Imagine, having the nerve to say what one really thinks in the good old USA!”

You are confusing freedom of speech with blurting, childish name-calling and just plain rudeness.

By the same token political correctness is not the same as filtering what comes out of your mouth.

As a parent sets the example for his children, a leader sets the example for those that support him.

What kind of adult uses childish nicknames like “Little Marco”, demeaning and mocking behavior, and talks lustily (or even jokingly) about the sexuality of their own child?

It’s plain disgusting. I’ll go with the professional liar.

#13 Comment By William Springer On June 15, 2016 @ 4:36 pm

Re: Student

Trump stated that he will have Apple make all their phones in the US and will bring back factory jobs. These jobs were lost because they were done at a lower cost in other countries. Bringing them back to the US is done through trade sanctions, tariffs and other measures that can only be described as protectionism.

Trump states he will renegotiate everything and seemingly his supporters believe that he will get a better deal. He has never negotiated (or likely seen) a trade deal. He certainly has never negotiated an arms deal (but mocks not only Obama, but also implicitly the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China, for the Iran deal). He never has been involved in any government negotiation. To assume all we needed was his Trump and some new powerpoint presentations to get better deals is fantasy.

His supporters claim that his business acumen is evidence of his negotiating ability. This is belied by four bankruptcies, multiple terrible deals and a general average to above average performance for someone with a large inheritance. Would everyone be able to have done as well? Certainly not. Does this mean he will negotiate better deals in spheres he has no experience (or even those he does)? Absolutely not. Is it possible…of course. But assuming something is true without any evidence other than their word is just voting for a big ego.

You can decide not to call his plans protectionism because you like him, but they are actually, by definition, protectionist policies. And you can assume he will negotiate things better than people who spend their lives training to do so, but you likely are wrong. Believing without any evidence, plan or proof appears generally the MO for Trump supporters; it is becoming evident that if Trump told them he could do heart surgery better than their doctor, they would gladly lose their lives at the hands of the Donald.

The tragedy of Donald isn’t, as the author claims, that we are bothered by someone who expresses free speech. The real tragedy is that a significant portion of America is being wooed through unsubstantiated attacks, blatant lies and divisive mockery of Americans despite the fact that Trump has neither a plan to help them nor interest in helping anyone other than himself.

#14 Comment By steveb On June 15, 2016 @ 5:48 pm

The choice fro a comic or a crook is a false one. Trump is both. Trumps rating of 8% correct for true or mostly true statements at Politifact compares to Clinton’s 50% is statistically significant. When you add in all the corrupt business deals, there is really no comparison.

You can take heart that by voting for Trump, you are getting someone who is clearly a major crook and a major clown. This is a once in a generation chance to make America great again.

#15 Comment By Mark Christensen On June 15, 2016 @ 6:41 pm

Yes, the ultimate goal is another world away. It always was and always will be. Hence the inevitable failure of worldly politics. It’s just hard for people to see it as a positive!

#16 Comment By Max Charles On June 15, 2016 @ 7:04 pm

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both claim to speak for the American worker and yet they betray the American worker every day by continuing to advocate for open immigration. They know perfectly well that legal and illegal immigration are undercutting wages and prospects for American workers in every occupation category but unlike Donald Trump, they pretend the problem does not exist. Why? How much of this silence is due to contributions from foreign governments, e.g. China, India, Mexico, that are anxious to get their citizens onto American soil in order to build a strong support base?

Americans need only look north to Canada where this process is already in overdrive under the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau. The once quite neighbor is turning into a 3rd world hell-hole that will compromise North American security for generations and bribes from foreign governments have everything to do with this.

#17 Comment By Ragnvaldr On June 15, 2016 @ 7:40 pm

Now I see why Trump booted the Washington Post.

#18 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 16, 2016 @ 2:25 am

” The real tragedy is that a significant portion of America is being wooed through unsubstantiated attacks, blatant lies and divisive mockery of Americans despite the fact that Trump has neither a plan to help them nor interest in helping anyone other than himself.”

So vote for the Clintons, who promise more of the same that’s ruining us while profiting elites. Last week, one of the Clintons told us to get over it, to accept we’re just going to have to accept less and less, unlike his billionaire Davos crowd. He said that white males should not try to reclaim their former positions. I can think of one white male to whom that should apply first, as he lusts for another power partnership sojourn in the West Wing.

#19 Comment By William Burns On June 16, 2016 @ 5:23 am

You don’t help your credibility by starting with the assumption that Richard Cohen is a member of the “cultural and intellectual elite.”

#20 Comment By DavidE On June 16, 2016 @ 9:21 am

Isn’t Mr. Trump both comic and crook?

#21 Comment By Student On June 16, 2016 @ 10:24 am

Interesting. You say:

“The real tragedy is that a significant portion of America is being wooed through unsubstantiated attacks, blatant lies and divisive mockery of Americans despite the fact that Trump has neither a plan to help them nor interest in helping anyone other than himself.”

This is just nonsense. Not worth refuting. Trump is merely a very successful if often uncouth businessman.

Consider the alternative if he is defeated. We get
real serial liar, whose corruption is exemplified by her acceptance of some $25M from Saudi, who are getting tangible returns on their investment in the form of massive Muslim immigration. She also shares responsibility for our disastrous Mid-East
foreign policy, and who by all rights should be indicted and tried for violation of our espionage laws. That is just a start.

Of course, if she is elected, many will continue to profit from business as usual. Patriotism be damned.

#22 Comment By Clint On June 16, 2016 @ 10:33 am

Pat Buchanan,
The economic nationalism and protectionism of Hamilton, Madison, Jackson, and Henry Clay, and the Party of Lincoln, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Coolidge, of all four presidents on Mount Rushmore, made America the greatest and most self-sufficient republic in history.

And the free-trade, one-worldism of Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama enabled Communist China to shoulder us aside us and become the world’s No. 1 manufacturing power.

#23 Comment By SDS On June 16, 2016 @ 11:37 am

“The real tragedy is that a significant portion of America is being wooed through unsubstantiated attacks, blatant lies and divisive mockery of Americans despite the fact that Trump has neither a plan to help them nor interest in helping anyone other than himself.-
Because the people we were told for generations were “trained professionals and would do what was best for us” proved to be doing the worst….
I’d say your “people who spend their lives training to do so”(negotiating things) have shown themselves to be pretty miserable at it…

“Assuming” it was the “average citizen’s benefit” they were working for to begin with….

#24 Comment By Montana Marvin On June 16, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

“Ferguson is most perceptive in demonstrating that the end can come quickly.”

You mean Ferguson the author or Ferguson, Missouri?

#25 Comment By Trand On June 16, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

And yet no comment on our unaffordable and global military spending. Isn’t this the root cause of our decline? Let us start their before we metion “entitlements”.

#26 Comment By the the On June 16, 2016 @ 3:04 pm

The comments are nuts. You people need to travel if you think the US is especially bad. Lots of “hate America First” types in the comments today.

#27 Comment By Danny K. On June 16, 2016 @ 3:07 pm

Trump said he wasn’t going to touch Social Security and Medicare benefits. He said nothing about not increasing taxes, which are capped at only the first $118,500 of earned (not investment) income. And if that’s what it takes to give me back my 15.3% of income that I have had confiscated from my pay during my working years plus interest, then so be it.

#28 Comment By Clint On June 17, 2016 @ 11:02 am

1(a): Which recent President left office with federal budget surpluses as far as the eye could see?

Answer:The Clinton Surplus Myth


#29 Comment By J.R. Hochstedt On June 18, 2016 @ 9:31 pm

Social Security is not an entitlement.