This is a very confusing time to be a moderate Republican.
For the past eight years, I have been carping about the party's need to end the culture wars and restructure its message to appeal to more moderate voters. Then Donald Trump came along. Trump spent the vast majority of his thoroughly non-political life as a moderate Democrat. When he suddenly emerged as a reactionary, brash, undisciplined gaffe machine, I was so offended by his demagoguery and sexism that I found myself attacking Trump from, of all places, the right. Given my self-professed interest in moderation, my complaints related to Trump's lack of ideology were thoroughly hypocritical. But I badly wanted to beat Hillary Clinton and I was utterly convinced that nominating Trump would subject the Republican Party to the most thorough and embarrassing beating in my lifetime.
Man, was I wrong. Not so much about his behavior — it was awful from start to finish — but certainly about his viability as a general election candidate. And so now, I find myself wondering what to make of President-elect Trump. At first, I was simply confused: How did this guy get elected? But the confusion is quickly giving way to different emotions: anxiety, curiosity, and perhaps just a slight bit of optimism.
I am anxious for the same reasons I found him so objectionable as a candidate. Trump can be rude, undisciplined, quick tempered, vulgar, and genuinely offensive. Handing a frightening and alarmingly effective bully when he feels even remotely slighted the nuclear codes is concerning, to say the least. Similarly, on the policy front, his positions on trade and NATO are legitimately scary (assuming he sticks with them), and more broadly, he showed almost no interest in learning about, much less grappling with, any complicated problem in any meaningful way.
Trump's presidency could be every bit the nightmare that so many of us feared when we listened to him speak on the campaign trail.
But this is not certain. Indeed, there are other, better, possibilities — for Trump, the GOP, and America.
What if Donald Trump can actually bring compromise back to Washington?
For my entire adult life, Republicans have been obsessed with ideological purity. Ted Cruz's entire campaign was predicated on his proposition that he was pure, while his opponents were not. RINOs were to be eliminated, and compromise was a dirty word.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Donald Trump — who is about as far from ideologically pure as one can get — is not only the leader of the Republican Party but of the country. What makes this interesting is not so much that Trump is not ideologically pure, but rather that most of his supporters know he is not ideologically pure, and sent him to Washington anyway. There is a certain truth to Trump's campaign theme that no one (or in this case, nothing) owns him. Most candidates march off to Washington knowing that to win re-election and not get run out of town, they have to mollify their most fervent supporters. For Democrats, this often means taxing rich people. For Republicans, it means lowering taxes. And so on.
Not Trump. The president-elect did not travel the traditional route to the Oval Office. He did not beg for money from people with agendas, and he made few substantive promises to his supporters other than he would "Make America Great Again," whatever that means. Trump's base called on Trump to fix the country in the same way you might call the IT guy to fix your computer — just fix it, I don't care how.
Obviously, if Trump does not know how to fix the nation's big problems — as so many suspect — then this could all go very wrong. But unlike so many other politicians, who are sent to Washington to do little other than kowtow to a specific ideological agenda — Trump made precious few specific promises as to how he would make the country great again. He has to build some kind of wall (he has already signaled it will not be as "yuge" as his rhetoric made some believe), needs to do something about illegal immigration (he promised to deport undocumented immigrants with criminal records, which seems relatively fair), he must do something about healthcare, and he needs to be tougher on trade (although it remains to be seen how much tougher).
Here lies Trump's greatest opportunity, and for those terrified, a cause for optimism. Trump's political base has given him enormous latitude to get the economy going again, and it fully expects him to "cut deals." Trump has already signaled that he is not an inside-the-box conservative thinker: The only substantive policy idea he touched on in his acceptance speech was a reference to his plan to inject $550 billion into improving and repairing the nation's infrastructure. Commentators on both sides have already leapt in to complain about the nuances of his "plan," but that's just the point. No one disputes that our nation's infrastructure needs improving. The question is simply how much to spend and who pays for it. No other Republican would be talking about that issue at this stage, if it all.
Trump's history of associating with — and indeed, supporting — Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer is further cause for optimism. President Obama and Mitch McConnell had almost no relationship. Trump already has a relationship with the most important Democrats on the Hill. How close? Trump called Schumer — who benefited from Trump's donations in past elections — on Wednesday morning to congratulate him. That relationship may quickly pay dividends, as Schumer and Lindsey Graham have already proposed legislation to crack down on China's currency manipulation. Expect Trump to pick up that ball and run with it.
This is, of course, an isolated example. And I do not wish to suggest that Trump is the next Abraham Lincoln. But Trump's base has given him an unusual amount of latitude to cut deals with whomever he pleases so long as the deals jumpstart the economy. This does not guarantee success, but the prospect of a leader worried more about outcome than process is a welcome development in modern Washington.