The silver lining of Trump
For the longest time, I have been looking for a silver lining in the rise of Donald Trump.
You could be forgiven for wondering what good could possibly come from a boorish, megalomaniacal ignoramus sporting the worst bouffant in the Western hemisphere becoming the presidential nominee of a major party of the most powerful country in the world. Well, you're in luck, because finally, I thought of something.
Trump is offering America a rare thing: truth in advertising. It isn't often that ugly ideas come packaged in an ugly wrapping. But when it happens, it's easier to repel them.
Imagine what might have happened if Trump had been a more attractive and sophisticated spokesman for his witch's brew of nativism, protectionism, authoritarianism, and bare-knuckles foreign policy. Instead of driving varied conservative factions to band together in a #NeverTrump movement against him, he might well have led them in a #ForeverTrump movement for him.
Democracies are not immune to demagogues and, in recent years, the world has witnessed its share of them. India has elected Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi and Turkey Islam-booster Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The difference between them and Trump is not that they had less extreme views than him, but that they communicated them with more civility, decorum, and command of the issues. Modi, in particular, argued his positions with such rigor and wit that people up and down the social strata from peasant to pundit forgot that thousands of Muslims were slaughtered on his watch when he was chief minister of a state. India handed him a landslide victory.
Trump, by contrast, clearly embodies the ugliness of his ideas — making it exceedingly hard for sophisticated conservatives to embrace him. Scan their anti-Trump objections and it becomes clear that they are appalled not as much by his substance but his style and personal vices — the very thing about Trump that attracts many working-class conservative voters.
What if Trump were less of a vulgarian and buffoon? What if he presented his terrifying plans to kill innocent children of terrorists with the appropriate-level of chin stroking about how the constitution or international law is not a suicide pact? What if he prefaced his plans to revive Operation Wetback to eject millions of undocumented immigrants not with a gleeful smirk but a troubled furrow noting that sometimes restoring order means relaxing one's dogmatic commitment to cherished values? Would conservative elites then not be more open to him, especially since there is no fundamental conflict between much of what he's proposing and their key issues? Maybe. But maybe not.
Consider, for example, National Review's lead editorial for its "Against Trump" issue, which lambasted Trump — correctly — as a "philosophically unmoored political opportunist" who is an affront to "the preservation on limits on government power." But if that's the case, then surely National Review would have deep qualms about the virtually limitless state power that Trump would need to build his wall, tear apart mixed-status families, and separate willing American employers from willing foreign workers, and ban Muslim travel, right? Wrong.
National Review's main problem with Trump is that his restrictionism doesn't go far enough. The magazine criticized Trump for even suggesting that maybe — just maybe — he'd consider letting some undocumented immigrants return with proper papers to their American families after they'd been ejected. It also expressed "dismay" that Trump wasn't questioning the "conventional view" that the current levels of immigration are fine instead of rethinking the H-1B program for skilled foreign workers — the one program that no conservative outside ultra-restrictionist circles had to date questioned. Trump, as it turned out, was only too happy to oblige, pledging in the last debate to scrap even this program.
But just as Trump's restrictionism is not fundamentally out-of-sync with National Review's paleo-conservatism, his foreign policy is also completely not out-of-line with neoconservatism. To the contrary, in fact.
Contemporary neo-conservatism as developed by its flagship publication Weekly Standard is characterized by a hawkish foreign policy that wants America to flex its military muscles to maintain world order and advance democracy. Nothing upset neo-conservatives more than President Obama's apology tour to the Middle East and elsewhere after assuming office. But the word "apology" is not even in Trump's vocabulary, something that should warm their heart. Indeed, he might believe that Bush lied America into the Iraq war, but that doesn't mean he will apologize. Marco Rubio might be the neocons' favorite son, but Trump is even more hardline about spending what it takes — sequesters be damned — to rebuild America's military, which, like them, he believes has gone to the crapper even though America spends more than the next seven countries combined.
Among his foreign policy heterodoxies as far as neocons are concerned, apart from his praise for Vladimir Putin, is his (Andrew) Jacksonian isolationism. But it is unclear how much daylight that really puts between Trump and them. He has criticized NATO and America's other international military alliances in Asia as bad deals. But that doesn't mean he'll pull America out — only that he'll negotiate reimbursement, hardly something that should be a deal breaker for neocons. In theory, he doesn't want America playing hegemon in the Middle East. But he's no pacifist. And with his hair-trigger temperament and bellicose saber rattling against ISIS and Islamic extremism, it's unlikely that he'll stick to his isolationist resolve. As columnist Virginia Postrel has noted, he isn't averse to starting wars, only losing them.
And then there are Iran and Israel, issues on which Trump is 100 percent in agreement with neocons. He has promised to shred the Iran nuclear deal on Day One, just as neocons want. And on Israel, after an initial misstep when he said he'll stay "neutral" while brokering a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, he's struck a note so friendly that he had much of AIPAC cheering on its feet for much of his 17-minute address last week.
Apart from his style and temperament, then, it is hard see any issue on which Trump is in substantial disagreement with neocon foreign policy, including, by the way, downgrading trade relations with China, which the Weekly Standard was never in favor of normalizing in the first place.
And speaking of trade, every Republican president in living memory has engaged in protectionism while paying lip service to free trade. Mitt Romney jettisoned even that pretense when he made beating up on China for currency manipulation a central plank of his campaign — a plank Trump has been only too happy to pick up. Nor is Trump acting in an intellectual vacuum. After the last election, a populist right emerged, defined less by a commitment to principled limited government and more by a new kind of white identity politics that rails against crony capitalism, trade, immigration, and cuts in entitlement programs — the sum total of Trump's economic program.
No doubt, Trump has said heretical things in praise of single-payer health care, an assault weapons ban, and other issues. But those departures seem minor compared to the major resonance every item on his bucket list has for every major conservative faction. What's more, notwithstanding conservative wailing against executive overreach, much of what they — and he — are proposing would require a strongman approach to government, not respect for the delicate system of checks and balances that the Founders put in place.
So why has Trump failed to bring conservatives together in a new, anti-Reagan coalition-of-the-dour? It is not because he's a strongman, I submit, but because he's an ugly strongman.
In that, America may have lucked out (at least for now). The only thing worse than an ill-read, repulsive, sleazy Trump becoming the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination may have been a well-read, likable, upright Trump becoming the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination.
If history was going to hand America a demagogue, Trump might be the best kind.