Because Trump’s candidacy and Presidency have been highly unusual events, they have presented a chance to test rarely-tested hypotheses. There has been widespread agreement that the variance in possibilities is very high compared with an ordinary President. How conservative would he be? What really motivates him? Will he threaten our system or be incapable of getting anything done? What kinds of things can a President do without the usual qualifications and knowledge we require of candidates?
I’m going to try to evaluate Trump’s Presidency in light of various expectations about it. To frame the expectations, I’ll start with an imagined dialogue between a reluctant Trump supporter and a Never-Trump conservative, taking place in October 2016, but you can skip that and just go ahead to the evaluation.
1. Aren’t conservatives supposed to believe character matters in leadership? There’s a connection between ethics and doing the right thing in politics. No institutions or incentive structure can automatically produce good outcomes, without any minimal level of morality being necessary. That’s what we said when Bill Clinton was President. To endorse Trump is to abandon that view.
2. How can you possibly support Trump? He’s done things that are a priori disqualifying- the Mexican judge, the disabled reporter, calling for Hillary’s assassination, kicking black people out of his rallies, inciting violence.
3. Trump’s violation of norms is dangerous. This is true even if I can’t point to a specific likely result in a scientific, cause-and-effect sort of way, because as every conservative knows, civilization is fragile and we can’t know what might bring it down. But as an example of the sort of thing that might happen, consider Mitt Romney’s trickle-down racism theory: by bringing racism into the political mainstream, and (still more) to the White House, Trump might change the culture in such a way as to embolden people to commit violence against minority groups.
4. Either Trump or Hillary is likely to be a one-term President. In the case of Hillary, this is because she is taking over when the current progressive era is clearly on its last legs. In the case of Trump, this is because he is likely to be a disaster. If we elect Trump, it is probably 12 years before we get a decent, effective conservative President- if ever, (see point five.) If we elect Hillary, we probably get one in four years.
5. Trump could do incalculable damage to the country and (less importantly) to conservative values. Generally speaking, bad things lead to more bad things, illiberalism leads to more illiberalism, and identity politics brings more identity politics. It can’t end well. We can avoid escalating along that cycle, take the high road, allow Hillary to become President and spin her wheels for a few years, and then start recovering.
6. As a loose cannon, a President Trump is a threat to the national and world order. If he is elected, NATO will not quite be sure it can rely on us, and Russia will be tempted into aggression, which could even lead to overreaction by Trump and nuclear war. His election will escalate America’s descent into factionalism and even violence, and security dilemmas that make cooperative solutions to our problems impossible.
7. Anyway, Trump isn’t even a conservative.
1. This election is decisive.
a. Scalia’s seat is up for grabs, which if delivered to the Left would create a five-Justice bloc that would accept virtually any assertion of executive power to advance a left-wing agenda. Conservatives seem to have a structural advantage in Congress, liberals in the Presidency, and there is no longer enough common ground for bipartisan compromise, meaning liberal, Democratic Presidents have nothing to lose by going all-in on executive power. Without a Supreme Court to check them, there’s almost nothing that can be done. Additionally, things that we used to take for granted, such as religious liberty, are under threat; so the stakes are much higher than in past elections.
But it’s not just Scalia’s seat. Every election, we hear that there could be three or four Court vacancies; and every election, it becomes more likely to be true.
b. Obamacare will simply become too entrenched under Hillary Clinton to ever be repealed.
2. Voting is a binary choice. You can’t prevent one or the other of Trump and Hillary from becoming President. So why not pick the one you most want to prevent from becoming President?
3. Bad as Trump is, he’ll have liberal bureaucracy, liberalish courts, and even the ordinary checks and balances from a Republican Congress to prevent him from doing things like mass deportations and a Muslim ban or engaging in corruption. Certainly he’s weakening a set of norms and putting things up for grabs, but those norms remain powerful forces in his way; whereas a President Hillary would be working with progressive culture, media and courts at her back, with no real ability for Congress to check her.
4. Were conservatives exactly vindicated when it comes to Bill Clinton? What disaster did his character bring about for America? If the choice is between a return to the Bill Clinton years and the rule of the 2016 Democratic Party, it seems like a pretty easy choice.
5. I’m under no illusion that Trump will sacrifice himself for conservative goals. I simply want to get someone who isn’t a committed progressive; ideologically speaking, a replacement-level President.
1. Okay, perhaps Bill Clinton wasn’t the best example. But still, the kind of character flaws Trump demonstrates are in his public character. You need someone who has the country’s best interests at heart, has some idea what he’s doing, some ethic of responsibility.
2. Nothing is ever over. There’s always another fight. Even after FDR’s new deal, there were still pieces to pick up, a worthwhile country left to preserve. Even after the Warren Court, there was a fighting chance to restore Constitutional government. I accept that, for now, there is no prospect of conservative victory. To believe otherwise is to delude yourself, selling your soul to the devil. Better live to fight another day.
NNT rebuttal: And in the mean time, self-government and checks-and-balances will collapse and people will be banned from holding more and more jobs for their religious doctrines regarding marriage. You talk about the collapse of basic liberal norms, but look how suddenly norms around free speech and freedom of religion are collapsing. I don’t know what can be done if basic political norms are shifting beneath us, but if it must happen, I prefer a weak tyrant to a strong one.
NT second rebuttal: Well, suppose it’s a question of protecting racial minorities and Muslims from violence and protecting Christian bakers from losing their livelihoods? If you want to force me to pick a lesser evil, I’d say it’s the latter. It’s true that Hillary, with cultural norms on her side, can be more systematic than Trump can, but on the other side the dangers of chaos are too great to imagine.
– The never-never Trumper has proven right, to an important extent, that Trump’s lack of conservative commitments, and his lack of knowledge, haven’t prevented him from achieving conservative goals. It turns out that there was a lot of low-hanging fruit (oil pipelines; sex-segregated bathrooms; the Obama rule that would have made it harder for old people needing help managing their finances in dealing with the social security system to pass gun background checks; the Paris climate agreement.) The biggest prize so far, of course, has been the Gorsuch nomination.
The reason for this low-hanging fruit being available was that Democrats had become heavily reliant on control of the Presidency. Congressional Republicans as a group, and even the most moderate Republicans, had nothing to offer Obama, and he had nothing to offer them, so for the last six years there was no basis for the compromises that would have produced a lasting legacy. Obama’s only option was to do what he could through easily-reversed executive action. Trump didn’t have to be beholden to the Republican base to do some of the things he’s done, or spend a lot of political capital; he merely had to not be beholden to the Democratic base.
And to some extent, Trump made himself so unacceptable to Democrats that he had to deliver for the Republican base. So the Republicans who voted for Trump, even when they themselves found him repulsive, because at least the other side hated him, have seen their approach work to some extent.
Changing Obama’s environmental policy is higher fruit, but Trump seems really committed to it and has Scott Pruitt as his EPA administrator, which is likely to prove his most important cabinet pick outside of the foreign policy realm.
Obamacare repeal is much more difficult than this low-hanging fruit. The NNT argument above was that merely getting the Democrats out of the White House was enough to do a lot; there is no need for Wilsonian Presidential leadership, just sign what Congress has been chomping at the bit to pass. But it turns out Republicans weren’t all sure, or all in agreement, about what they wanted to pass, and Trump’s lack of knowledge makes him unable to tell them what to do. And such Presidential guidance turns out to be what many Republicans in Congress apparently wanted.
Congress of course is having to exercise its policy muscles for the first time since 2010, when Democrats controlled it. Congressional Republicans are having to act on their own initiative in a way that they haven’t since the Clinton years. Congressional reassertion should be a good thing in the long term. The jury is still out on whether Republicans can achieve some limited success on health care.
– Trump’s ability to deploy government power for illiberal purposes has proven quite limited. His crackdown on sanctuary cities has been pretty well constrained, as has his travel ban. There are no deportation forces, and so far no funding for the wall. Trump flip-flopped on bringing back torture. The never-never Trumper was right, in his third argument, about the kind of constraints Trump would face. (Our imaginary debaters may have favored Trump on many of these policies, but the fact that he’s been blocked on these things show how constrained he is, compared with Obama during his time with a filibuster-proof D Congress or in his late-Presidency unilateralist period, or a hypothetical President Hillary.)
Relatedly, I had assumed that once Trump took office, the government’s belated efforts to rein in Saudi Arabia in Yemen would be over. Apparently not, as Saudi Arabia still feels the need to “ease our concerns” about the toll on civilians. So we’ve gone from about a one to a three on a scale of one to ten in caring about Yemen’s civilians, and Trump hasn’t swung things back the other way.
More generally, there seems to be a consensus that the “Trump as weak President” hypothesis is coming more true than “Trump as tyrant.”
•On foreign policy, Trump’s character gives him an advantage in pursuing the madman theory of diplomacy (other countries think you might do something against your self-interest, so they can’t predict for sure that you’ll be constrained), along with all the disadvantages of actually being a loose cannon. NATO countries are increasing their defense spending. On the other hand, we have the whole Qatar situation, some bungling in South Korea, all the dangers involved in weakening commitment on NATO, and constant risk as long as Trump is in office. The odds of Trump’s causing a catastrophe in his first 160 days were never that great, but over the course of his four years in office, they’re still high.
So far in this commentary, I have ignored the views of outright pro-Trump people, and those of progressives. The pro-Trump argument was that Trump would shake up the establishment, a goal that had different meanings to different people. This isn’t so much a matter of what Trump will do, as what the shock of his election will do to the establishment; and we can better evaluate this when we see what the next Democratic or non-Trump Republican President does. So far, we have seen Paul Ryan try to translate Trumpism into policy by embracing a border tax, which nobody else, including Trump, seems to want.
As for progressives, they have been less likely than Never Trump conservatives to take the view that Trump threatens catastrophe of a kind that goes beyond the usual left-right battles (see the Never Trumper’s 3, 5 and 6.) Conservatives, being conservative, are more likely to see civilization as fragile and vulnerable to catastrophe.
Progressives, by contrast, have tended to be complacent. Progressives might get excited about a hot-button issue out of all proportion to its importance, as they did for a few days with the Paris Climate accords; and they might act in theatrical ways as they seek to enhance their cultural authority. Conservatives observe these things and conclude that progressives have embraced hysteria. This sort of thing isn’t at all the sort of Burkian catastrophizing of the kind that they can take seriously. But the seeming hysteria masks what is actually complacency.
In the first place, Trump’s rise enhances progressives’ feeling of moral superiority. Losing an election doesn’t mean losing their standing as the cultural elite; in fact, Trump’s rise enhances their ability to claim moral superiority over elite Republicans and moderate Democrats. The theatrical reactions aren’t the sort of thing people would do if they really thought collapse was imminent, but they fit this purpose perfectly.
Trump’s election didn’t dash any great hopes, anyway. Obamaism was up against a dead end, facing diminishing returns. Progressives had long since given up on “hope and change,” “New Politics,” and all that, or really on achieving anything through mainstream politics. Stopping Trump or bringing him down would be nice, but reaffirming cultural hegemony is the highest priority. (See http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/448887/how-badly-do-democrats-really-want-defeat-trump)
This is why, when moderate Democrats after the election argued that Democrats should abandon identity politics and appeal to the whole working class, including the white working class, progressives didn’t respond with their own strategic calculations to counter the idea, but with moral indignation. “Why should we sympathize with those people? Why is nobody asking them to empathize with us and listen to us! They’re tainted with toxic masculinity and white privilege!”
It would be different if progressives thought Trump really could take down the establishment, but they are reassured by his obvious incompetence, and the famous dysfunction and infighting of his White House. The dominant narrative has been that Trump lacks accomplishments rather than that he is doing horrible things. Even actions the left theoretically regards as crimes against humanity, such as the reversal of Obama’s transgender bathroom policies, have met muted response. The initial travel ban did get a heated response, but quickly fit in to the “Trump as failure” narrative rather than the “Trump as dangerous” narrative, especially after lower court defeats. Now the Supreme Court has partially reinstated it, but nobody really seems excited.