Trump is the wrong man for the right job
On the dashed hopes of the Trump intellectuals
President Trump's administration isn't even fully staffed yet, but after seven bizarre and (mostly) forgettable months it's already finished.
This is not a snarky premature conclusion courtesy of a paid-up member of the lamestream media like yours truly. It is the assessment of Trump's own erstwhile chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, who recently told The Weekly Standard that "the Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over." It is also the conclusion of Julius Krein, the founder and editor-in-chief of American Affairs, a quarterly magazine dedicated to promulgating an intellectual version of post-liberal Trumpian conservatism.
In an op-ed for The New York Times last week, Krein announced that he regrets having voted for Trump — and having defended him at length in person, in print, on television, and on the radio. In his piece, Krein cited the administration's fumbling of health care and taxes and lack of interest in trade and immigration as well as Trump's moronic response to the terrorist attack in Charlottesville among his reasons for disavowing the president.
Not making the list was foreign policy, where Krein argued that "nothing disastrous has occurred … yet." This was, strictly speaking, true insofar as bombing our would-be "natural ally" Bashar al-Assad and making lurid threats of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula are not disasters. But I think it's safe to say that for those who hoped that a smarter, less bellicose, and more humane foreign policy would emerge out of Trump's hazy rhetoric about abandoning nation-building, that fearsome floating conjunction has arrived. When the president announced on Monday night that after months of consultation with his generals and what he seemed to regard as a period of private study (the mind reels) he had arrived at … exactly the same position as his two predecessors on the subject of Afghanistan — namely, interminable, aimless war.
It is worth asking, I think, why Krein had such high hopes for the Trump administration. He was not alone. F.H. Buckley, a professor of law at George Mason University who has argued in favor of single-payer health care in the pages of the New York Post, was an early backer of Trump. The essayist Helen Andrews, whose personal brand of illiberal reactionary politics is unclassifiable, defended Trump against the charge that he would govern as a tyrant, contrasting him favorably with FDR. Michael Anton, a former speechwriter for Condoleezza Rice and contributor to the Journal of American Greatness blog, a forerunner of American Affairs, wrote an essay for the Claremont of Review of Books in support of Trump's candidacy that eventually secured him a position in the Trump White House.
What did Krein and others see in Trump that made them think that he would not only be preferable to Hillary Clinton — not exactly a difficult position for any opponent of abortion capable of arithmetic to arrive at — but a better president than any of his numerous opponents during the GOP primary?
For his supporters, Trump's candidacy represented a marked and necessary shift away from many things the Republican Party has long stood for both in the popular imagination and in Washington. Instead of boring audiences to death with summaries of his 60-point Heritage Foundation-approved plans for unleashing the dynamic genius of entrepreneurship upon the nation's unemployed and drug addicted and otherwise immiserated, he promised infrastructure spending and an end to multilateral trade deals. Rather than empty gestures about health-savings accounts he insisted that he would replace the Affordable Care Act with something better. In lieu of the usual verbal acrobatics that ultimately amount to a brief for cutting taxes for the wealthy, he straightforwardly suggested that it might be a good idea to raise them. He demanded the shoring up of entitlement programs rather than a scaling back of benefits or a rise in the minimum retirement age. On social issues he suggested compromise rather than pretend, as so many of his blue-blazered predecessors have done, that he is a pious family man. He gave the impression, in other words, that he was going to govern as a very different kind of Republican.
All of this existed only at the level of a fantasy. It was never going to be possible for Trump to govern as a socially quasi-conservative but economically moderate or progressive president when the two major political parties in Congress are committed to barely distinguishable blends of neoliberalism. Some members of Congress care genuinely about abortion one way or another; a few more are permitted to agitate on behalf of other boutique causes. Nearly all of them want to fight more wars and increase GDP at the expense of solidarity and the livelihood of the marginalized.
But far from being a silver-tongued diplomat who could reach a bipartisan consensus and pass useful legislation that would be welcomed by a majority of Americans, Trump is an intemperate boor who gets along with almost no one — not members of either party in Congress, not even important figures in his administration. He is the wrong man for the right job, one that shows no sign of ever being done.
The dream, as one English writer put it, is over. Now we have to carry on.