For Trumpism, Skeptical of Trump
If he loses in November it’s because he strayed from the policies that got him elected, not because he discredited them.
Anyone who grew up in the 1990s recognizes the essentially fake quality of our politics between then and the rise of Donald Trump.
Our elections were dreary exercises choosing between a Republican who would promise to spend less then actually spend more, and Democrats who would make noise about spending more then actually spend less, while both agreed with more or less permanently involving ourselves in the affairs of nations on the other side of the world. Everybody with a 401k got wealthier, and it was easy to assume that America would continue rocking itself to sleep in this way more or less indefinitely. The people who thought President Obama broke from this pattern were, I think it has now been shown, mistaken.
President Trump did well with the people who were bearish about this state of affairs, and people who were optimistic about it hated him. I am in the former category, and therefore have been optimistic about him since he was on the campaign trail. I would like to see an end to foreign wars and a strengthening of the middle class, through a combination of immigration reduction to allow wages to rise, and a restoration of American production through fiscal and trade policy, and no other politician in my lifetime has run on them as effectively as Donald Trump.
Trump’s character does not really bother me. If Hillary Clinton were president now, friends of Jeffrey Epstein like Bill Gates and Larry Summers would be handling the epidemic, and her husband, the Lolita Express passenger, would be in the White House. There’s every reason to think these people will be back in the saddle if Biden is elected. Most of the people who talk about how character counts never spoke out against the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents in the Middle East caused by American interventions, so one suspects they think words matter more than deeds. There’s also a sense in which the conservative civility-heads, people like David French, Pete Wehner, Michael Gerson, and the rest, are basically kept men. They value civility because they are the ones trotted out by left-wing institutions to present the illusion of political choice, and do not have to bear any of the costs of a bipartisan consensus that destroyed the American middle class. Their opposition is cheap.
From the beginning of his presidency there were warning signs that what he promised might not be in the cards, starting with the number of Never Trumpers who ended up joining his administration. There are three excuses made for this, and only one is remotely convincing: it was said that he needed to reconcile with the party to be able to work with a Republican Congress (it only makes sense to do this to the extent your White House remains functional, and these people were responsible for all kinds of leaks and sabotage); to “keep his enemies closer” (ditto); and finally, because there wasn’t anyone else to hire that actually agreed with him. That might actually be true, most people credentialed enough to be diplomats are not noninterventionists. But there might be enough out there to fill the chairs occupied by John Bolton or Mike Pompeo, who both have extensive records supporting policies that Trump explicitly ran against.
There is also a sense in which the pro-Trump “meme magic” has become a smokescreen for smuggling GOP boilerplate into what was supposed to be a populist administration. Exhibit A in this is Turning Point USA, whose founder Charlie Kirk, an old person’s idea of a young person, does not seem to understand what the 2016 election was all about. He was forced to backpedal from his comments about stapling a green card to the diploma of every foreign student in the U.S. The way he talks abouttrade is as if he’s trying to defend the libertarian view but also make excuses for Trump, which I presume is what his donors want him to do, but if you’re looking for a defense of trade policy being set in the national interest, you’ll have to look elsewhere. As he put it in a 2018 op-ed, “A truly free market with China — and Europe — would be a huge accomplishment. Is it surprising that “protectionist” Trump, always trouncing the expectations of his critics, might be the one to get us there?”
I certainly hope not, Charlie.
In addition, the way in which Trump’s most fervent defenders have also taken to trashing Jeff Sessions, his first congressional endorsement, without which the president probably wouldn’t be where he is, is as disgraceful as the president’s own treatment of him. The cult of personality around Trump seems to have increased the more he gets away from his populist instincts.
For that reason, I hope Alabama’s voters send Sessions back to the senate, and it’s why we had him on the podcast last week. Disregarding Trump’s endorsement of Sessions’ opponent would send a strong signal that Trumpism is more about the message than the man, and might, to put hope before experience, make the White House reconsider some of its recent actions. Three and a half years into his presidency, we have had a bare quarter of the wall built, saber-rattling against Iran, a carve-out for guest workers in coronavirus executive orders, and a corporate tax cut. It’s not a bad third Bush term, but it’s a long way from what some of his supporters hoped.
Both coronavirus and the recent civil unrest are an excellent populist opportunity, if Trump and his campaign have the foresight to lean into them. Both crises will lead to the consolidation of wealth at the top and deepen inequality in America. Small businesses can’t endure the quarantine closures while Jeff Bezos gets tens of billions of dollars richer. Big chains like Target are more afraid of backlash to being unwoke than a handful of stores being looted, while for small businesses the stakes are much higher. Despite having been in power for three and a half years, Trump again has the opportunity to run against the oligarchs. We’ll see if he seizes it.
The policies Trump ran on were popular. If he loses in November it’s because he strayed from them, not because he discredited them.