Can Trump Restore America?
(Originally published in January 2016)
Aristotle teaches that while we must love our friends, we must love truth more. Today, I am probably going to lose some good friends, which is painful. Nevertheless, my admiration for everything America was, everything modern civilization was, compels me to bite the bullet.
Donald Trump may win the Republican presidential nomination. He may even be elected President of the United States — stranger things have certainly happened recently. However, while his popularity is understandable, an essential question remains: Is Trump the kind of leader who might begin to restore a crumbled constitutional republic?
His appeal is obvious, and has been articulated well by others: he says the kinds of things normal, reasonable people say in their living rooms, but that politicians rarely say. He vindicates the reasonable man’s judgments by giving them public voice, after generations of that man being told, in every corner of public life, that his common sense opinions are small-minded, extreme, or unsophisticated.
Radical Islam is gaining new energy, territory, and victims with each passing day. Major European cities are under siege by masses of unintegrated, often lawless, Muslim immigrants. At this moment, the U.S. Federal Government, including the leadership of both major parties, eagerly welcomes thousands of poorly vetted young Muslim refugees. In this climate, and in response to a new Islamist attack on American soil, Trump somewhat rashly promises to freeze immigration from Muslim nations. The usual establishment voices denounce his idea as extremist, racist, and illegal. Meanwhile, the normal, reasonable person at home is exclaiming, “Wow! Trump just said the same thing I was saying last night at dinner!” (That, at least, was my personal experience, and I suspect I wasn’t alone.)
The Washington establishment is united, from the Democrat hard left to the Republican corporate cronies, in pushing forward with amnesty for illegal aliens. The reasonable person is thinking, “How can a nation already on life-support expect to survive a sudden influx of millions of new citizens (voters) with no political, moral, or educational background for living in a free republic?” Trump says, “Send them all home (and then bring the good ones back)!” A little gruff, perhaps, but mild compared to the quiet revolution the establishment is trying to force on America through mass amnesty.
The media says, “Donald, you’re saying wild things that no respectable politician can get away with saying.” Trump replies, in effect, “Up yours!” Don’t we all sometimes want to say the same to the establishment media’s agenda-definers, from The New York Times to Fox News? Aren’t reasonable people everywhere sick and tired of being trained to self-censor every off-the-cuff thought or politically incorrect idea that crosses their minds? Why should we take intellectual marching orders from people who have built successful careers as shills for the very establishment machine that is destroying modern civilization? Trump doesn’t listen to them, and people appreciate that.
Such are the good reasons for his success. (There are undoubtedly bad reasons as well: the cult of celebrity, misdirected anger, the deluded equation of business savvy with political intelligence. But that’s no knock on the candidate himself; many people probably voted for Reagan for silly reasons, too.) Against his critics, Trump’s supporters insist they know he is not perfect (name a candidate, Obama excepted, whose supporters have not said that), but that he wants to make America great again (name a candidate, Obama excepted, who has not said that). Many of them even admit that he is not a conservative — they could hardly do otherwise, given his long associations with leading Democrats and leftist policies. But his supporters claim that the plusses I have just outlined are so refreshing that they trump (sorry) normal considerations of principle and policy.
Having said that, it seems to me there is still a question that Trump’s conservative supporters are conveniently overlooking, and that even non-supporters are beginning to evade as the likelihood of his nomination increases: Does he understand what has happened to America, and what would have to be done to reverse the damage?
Put more positively, does he know what a constitutional republic is, and why it matters? For if he does not, then his supporters must explain how voting for a non-conservative who has no interest in the Constitution is substantially different from the “hold your nose and vote for the R” compromise that so sickened those same voters in past elections. That one may succumb to that compromise at the end of the primaries is one thing; buy why choose it at the beginning?
Is refreshing bluntness enough? Teddy Roosevelt was a tough-talking populist — and founded the Progressive Party to rival an incumbent Republican President in 1912, thereby helping Woodrow Wilson win. Lyndon Johnson was a tough-talking Texan who would even resort to physical intimidation in “talks” with allies — and who presided over America’s greatest lurch to the left since FDR, fostering the generation that gave rise to Obama.
The Tea Party rose up as a constitutionalist resistance movement grounded in certain beliefs: that the essence of America is housed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; that if not living by the permanent principles found in those documents, America is effectively extinct; that saving those documents from the progressive fire requires radical steps that can only be initiated by reviving public discussion of America’s founding and history; that those steps involve a short-term strategy of supplanting the methods and men of the current Washington political establishment, and a long-term project of unraveling the entire hundred-year old entitlement and administrative state in order to shrink the federal government to its constitutionally-limited functions; and that this project, the only road to salvaging a great nation in mortal peril, requires rejecting that long-standing submission to the GOP establishment that has enabled the growth of a deeply anti-American progressive-corporate ruling elite.
An “anti-establishment” candidacy that lacks a basic understanding of those goals, principles, and requirements would be unlikely to make meaningful strides against a progressive ideology deeply insinuated into all the society’s major institutions. Perhaps, then, we may gain some insight into whether a Trump presidency would serve those constitutionalist aims by considering how he engaged the Tea Party at what was probably its zenith as a unified movement, the 2011-12 GOP primary season. Here, for those caught up in the current Trump whirlwind, is a recap of Trump for President, Round 1:
Trump flirted with a presidential run in 2011 as essentially a single-issue candidate. That issue was Obama’s birth certificate. Clever enough to divine that the Tea Party was the place to be in 2011, but lacking any conservative bona fides or beliefs, he latched on to the one issue that had a fervent grassroots base, but no prominent public champion, thus becoming that champion. When the issue blew up in his face, as the White House released a document they alleged was Obama’s long form birth certificate, Trump responded the way men tend to do when publicly embarrassed: He tried to claim the defeat as a victory by declaring that he alone had forced Obama to release the document, where others had failed. Of course, what had actually failed was his campaign, based as it was on an issue that the White House had now effectively trumped (sorry again).
Trump tried to reinsert himself into the GOP primaries by playing kingmaker, first by arranging his own debate immediately before the Iowa caucuses — the event was cancelled when few candidates agreed to waste the time in a campaign already over-saturated with debates — and later, at the moment of truth, by publicly endorsing his preferred candidate.
This second effort to grab the spotlight deserves the careful attention of potential Trump supporters. Immediately after the Florida primary (February 2012), Trump arranged a formal announcement of his endorsement. Anticipation of this event was stoked with banner headlines on the Drudge Report. At the time, there were three candidates remaining in the primaries: Newt Gingrich, in many ways the candidate most similar to Trump — great for anti-establishment quotes, but often an advocate of (market-friendly) big government solutions — though with a record of real political achievement; Rick Santorum, the last of the Tea Party candidates — underfunded, ridiculed by the Washington elite, but the only remaining entry speaking convincingly about the Constitution, the entitlement behemoth, and religious freedom; and Mitt Romney, the establishment’s man from day one, the most compromised candidate on the major Tea Party issues (health care, limited government, anti-globalism), and the only one easily labelled a “RINO” or a “Rockefeller Republican.” Romney was the GOP establishment’s face in 2012, and therefore represented everything against which principled constitutionalists were fighting.
Trump endorsed Romney. And this was no mere concession to inescapable trends, for he also used his announcement to threaten a third party run if Romney were not the nominee. In other words, he threatened to undermine any other Republican and hand re-election to Barack Obama if Tea Party voters did not stand down and let the establishment have its way. He played enforcer for the Washington elite.
That was less than four years ago.
This time around, he chose his campaign’s seminal issue more intelligently. Immigration is not a minority concern or one that can be ridiculed by the mainstream. Constitutionalists almost across the board are united in objecting to the bestowal of citizenship rights on millions of people with no allegiance to American principles. Events have also thrown a national security issue into Trump’s lap by tying his immigration focus to radical Islam. The smart businessman sensed the investment opportunity of a lifetime, and grabbed it. The combined force of these related issues, which he now owns outright, may actually carry him to the presidency.
And then what? Let’s imagine he is actually able to use the bully pulpit to force Congress to water down amnesty, to build a wall along the Mexican border, to deport some illegal immigrants, and even to limit entry to the U.S. from Arab Muslim countries. Will those actions, desirable as they may be, address the fundamental problems facing a nation on the brink of implosion?
The crony capitalist alliance with big government has reached levels of paternalistic oligarchy that would have made J.D. Rockefeller blush. The modern benchmark of this oligarchy was the Bush-Obama “bailouts,” which sparked the rise of the Tea Party movement. Trump supported the bank bailout with this flippancy: “Maybe it works, and maybe it doesn’t. But certainly it is worth a shot.” And in April 2009, on Larry King Live, he went much further regarding Obama and the banks:
I do agree with what they’re doing with the banks. Whether they fund them or nationalize them, it doesn’t matter, but you have to keep the banks going. [Emphasis added]
Nationalizing the banks — a basic Marxist principle — “doesn’t matter,” as long as it “works.” If you needed evidence of America’s “fundamental transformation,” consider that the man who made that statement in the first months of Obama’s presidency is now the leading Republican presidential candidate. (In that same interview, by the way, Trump was asked about Obama himself, and answered: “Well, I really like him. I think that he’s working very hard…. Here’s a [black] man that not only got elected, I think he’s doing a really good job.”)
Government-controlled healthcare is one of the defining goals of socialists everywhere. Wherever it is achieved, it reconfigures politics by fundamentally altering the relationship between citizen and state, while gradually weakening morality with respect to personal responsibility, family obligation, and the value of individual life. Trump addresses Obamacare using the old McConnell-Boehner language of “Repeal and Replace.” When asked, in September 2015, whether he still supports a Canadian-style single-payer system as he once did, he squirmed away from his former position by saying “it works in Canada. It could have worked in a different age.” By “a different age,” does he perhaps mean the early 1960s, when Canada’s inhumane system was developed — and when Ronald Reagan was already giving speeches explaining what is morally wrong with socialized medicine? Does Trump understand that government micromanagement of citizens’ physical lives and well-being is not primarily an efficiency issue, but a freedom issue?
An unconstitutional administrative state dominates American life, making a mockery of all notions of liberty and representative government, exactly as it was designed to do by Woodrow Wilson and friends. This is not a matter of bad management; it is the intentional usurpation of the people’s right of self-government. Will Trump want to do anything about this, or have any idea what to do?
That’s the essential concern about Donald Trump. He speaks as if all political issues boil down to “what works,” rather than “what is right.” His focus, therefore, is necessarily restricted to policy pragmatism. He says he would negotiate a “better” trade deal with China. The Iran deal is a “disaster.” Obamacare is a “disaster.” His answer on virtually every issue, immigration excepted, is that he’s a professional negotiator, so he’ll make better financial deals than those chumps in Washington.
But are better deals enough? Is Washington’s problem poor negotiating skills? Does America need another President who believes he is the boss of a vast administrative state, and should just be allowed to tell everyone what they need to do, and to hurry up and get it done?
Trump supporters argue that although he lacks sound constitutionalist principles, his tough character is what America needs right now. It seems to this distant observer that what America needs right now, assuming it isn’t too late, is much more than a clever negotiator who talks tough, knows how to claim a hot issue, but ultimately defers pragmatically to business as usual, to what “works,” principles be damned. She needs a raft of men and women dedicated to the principles entrenched in her founding, supported by the philosophical heritage that gave rise to the great liberal traditions of limited, representative government, individual rights, and a civil society grounded in moral rectitude and respect for the value of the individual soul. She needs a new generation of young people educated for liberty and morality — not for corporate success, but for principled national renewal — and prepared to fight for it at all costs.
Could Donald Trump lead that fight? Would he even want to? His history and recent statements, which portray a pragmatist willing to say anything that “works” this month, would suggest otherwise.