Home/Can the GOP Civilize Trump the Barbarian?

Can the GOP Civilize Trump the Barbarian?

My latest column at The Week begins thusly:

With his last two opponents, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, out of the race, Donald Trump is now the presumptive nominee for president of the Republican Party. As Kublai Khan conquered the ancient Song Empire of China to become its first barbarian emperor, Trump swooped down and conquered the once-mighty party of Lincoln. Now that party has to figure out how to respond.

For the people who make their living crafting policy papers and political strategy, Trump’s ascendancy presents both an opportunity and a threat. On the one hand, because he comes into the position of nominee with a much thinner infrastructure than is typical, Trump has a huge number of slots to fill — including at the highest level. Plus, Trump has shown a distinct preference, both in his brief political careerin his business career, and even in his personal life, for people with non-traditional qualifications (or few qualifications at all), and a willingness to promote quickly to very senior positions.

The opportunity is there, in other words, for bold and aggressive staffers to leapfrog over more typical choices for a host of quite senior positions. Notwithstanding the risk that, if Trump loses badly, eagerness to have welcomed our new insect overlords proves a permanent career liability, we’re probably about to see a version of “Political Apprentice” play out on a massive scale.

For the conservative movement, meanwhile, Trump poses a bleak choice. They can attempt to negotiate from a position of weakness — demanding a vice president who they consider politically reliable, for example — and risk finding themselves humiliated as Trump ignores them and does whatever he wants. They can protest by mounting a third party challenge, give Clinton an electoral landslide, and render themselves permanently radioactive in the eyes of both Trump’s own loyalists and the bulk of the party political leadership. Or they can focus their attention elsewhere — on Congress, for example — and live with the dread that, if Trump wins without any help from them, they will have neutered themselves permanently in the eyes of the party as a whole.

We’re already seeing some version of each of these responses, what with Paul Ryan demanding that Trump convert to Reaganism before receiving the Imperial purple and Trump haughtily waving Ted Cruz’s severed head in his face, while in the background Rick Perry and a variety of other former Trump opponents scramble to offer their support.

The thing about barbarian conquerors, though, is that they need the help of the conquered to run their empires. And this gives the conquered people power – the power to keep things the way they are.

[T]he GOP can still try to convince itself — with some evidence — that Trump will prove exceedingly malleable policy-wise. After all, he doesn’t think about policy much, and surely believes that his voters aren’t primarily motivated by issues but by his own personal awesomeness. And on many issues Trump is far less-heterodox than his rhetoric suggests. Consider Trump’s tax plan, or his health care plan. Trump’s efforts look like more amateurish and exaggerated versions of precisely the sorts of “plans” that GOP candidates have been proposing for the past several cycles. They involve enormous tax cuts for the top income brackets and corporations, and ripping up ObamaCare to replace it with nothing.

Trump has been emphatic enough about physically building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico that it would be difficult for him not to break ground somewhere, but apart from that particular promise it isn’t hard to see how he could be induced to jettison most of his heterodoxy during the transition, if not during the campaign. And to the extent that he doesn’t, well, most policy is made by staffers anyway. Staffers who are going to mostly be the sorts of people who are in Reince Priebus’s contacts rather than in Trump’s.

Once he was emperor, Kublai Khan famously decreed the building of a stately pleasure dome at Xanadu — just the sort of thing one can imagine Donald Trump doing. But to govern China, he relied on Han Chinese advisors, and ran his empire according to traditional Chinese models. Trump the barbarian may wind up being “civilized” by his conquest in much the same manner.

I suspect Sheldon Adelson sees things pretty much this way.

It would be sadly ironic if a President Trump wound up coarsening American public life, trashing the Constitution, and inflaming intercommunal tensions, all for the sake of pretty much the same basket of failed policies that the GOP have enacted whenever they get into power. But it’s not at all a farfetched outcome. Remember: Barack Obama won the nomination and the presidency largely on the strength of his opposition to the Iraq War and other “dumb wars.” And then in office he gave us the Libyan adventure.

Anyway, read the whole thing there.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

leave a comment

Latest Articles