For many Republicans, Friday was a momentous and eerie day. Boasting a who's who of conservative opinion leaders, National Review published an entire magazine devoted to dismantling Donald Trump. It was a thrown gauntlet: Either you're with us or you're against us.
To be sure, conservative intellectuals are doing their job by making a frank and public assessment of how their agenda would fare in Trump's shadow. But there is more than one way to take a stand, and there is something additional that needs to be said.
In my bedroom is a framed reproduction of Jacques-Louis David's famous painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps. Although I'm neither a monarchist nor a neo-reactionary, I'm moved and inspired by Bonaparte's near-mythical power to stand firmly, think clearly, and act independently, even as the rest of the world boiled in enmity and confusion. It's a sensation undiminished by Napoleon's ultimate failure to escape the trappings of the world he sought first to upend and then to master — marrying into the Austrian royal family, bogging down against Wellington in Spain, squandering his genius and might in the Russian snow.
Donald Trump is no Napoleon. He's not even an Andrew Jackson — the roughshod populist president compared, in a time of establishment terror, to his contemporary the Emperor. But as established Republican elites fracture over whether to panic in the face of Trump or throw themselves at his feet, what I love about Bonaparte has inspired what strikes me as an urgently needed corrective.
The most important thing I can say about Donald Trump is that I am not afraid of him. I'm not afraid he'll be president. I'm not afraid he'll be the nominee. For the sake of my own sanity and strength, I decline to be. I won't confer on him the power to annihilate constitutional government, conservative philosophy, or the Republican brand. Trump could ruin America? Give me a break.
Begin with the idea that, if elected, Donald Trump's power would not be all that great. If elected, he would likely be one of the most constrained presidents with the greatest of incentives to strike popular bargains. If nominated, he would likely try to win, working to placate as much of the electorate as he thinks he needs. Remember: He's a narcissist and narcissists want to be universally loved.
Could Trump unleash hell on earth? Perhaps — but in our age, in our country, I believe it takes a force more diabolical than an opinionated businessman. Trump is far more likely than Napoleon was to be constrained by the deep cultural and historical fabric that truly holds the so-called status quo in place. Our national institutions may be weakened and corrupted. But our habits, customs, and memories are not so poorly off. They will exert the same power, at every level of life, as those that pulled society back into the regular orbits once so seemingly threatened by Bonaparte, Jackson, and other western revolutionaries.
The most superficially scary thing about Trump is the thing we ought to emulate most: his freedom from elective tribalism. If he can't win the nomination his way, he'll lose, and he's okay with that. If he can't win the election, he'll go back to private life, and he's okay with that. He isn't thrown into a crisis when the power of his political team is imperiled because he doesn't have one, no matter how many fanatical supporters flock to his rallies.
In politics today, too many of us fear whoever might marginalize our chosen team. We blow our adversaries' power way out of proportion. That's one thing Trump refuses to do. So should we all.