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Grading Donald Trump

In the weeks since Donald Trump’s stunning Election Day upset, I have given a lot of thought to the conundrum of how exactly it is that principled conservatives—and, in particular, those of us who were either passionately #NeverTrump (hi, everyone) or otherwise merely supremely skeptical of the mogul—should approach the business of assessing Donald Trump’s actions.  Here is how I put it the day after Election Day:

The staggeringly awesome schadenfreude of Leftist tears today will temporarily mask the difficulty of the henceforth delicate calibration project on which movement conservatives must hone in: that between the need for vigilance over Trump’s inevitable deviations from conservatism and the need for large quantities of grace, humility, and humble pie.  There isn’t an easy answer to be found there…We must be simultaneously humbled in the face of our getting this election wrong and unapologetic in our defense of our values.

To be sure, I still think that approach is the proper one.  As Leon Wolf aptly noted in May and Ben Shapiro tweeted yesterday, it is indubitably the case that timeless long-term principles and ideologically anchored short/medium-term public policy goals must always triumph over the mercurial temptations of personality cults or the demands of political partisanship—indeed, it is precisely the risk of pernicious long-term conflation of conservatism and Trumpism that helped lead many of us to the #NeverTrump conclusion, in the first place.  Now that we’ve had nearly four weeks of real-world experience with Trump as President-Elect and have seen no shortage of controversies both large/real and small/manufactured, I think it is time to revisit the overarching question of how we movement conservative Trump skeptics ought to proceed in assessing the soon-to-be 45th President of the United States.

The reality is that, far from being a Rorschach test, Trump actually is many things all at once.  He is an ideologically unmoored pragmatist with vaguely populist/mercantilist/European-style nationalist instincts. He is wildly uncouth and unpresidential in his demeanor—both in real life, such as when he defends his manhood size on national television, and on Twitter, such as when he tweets out amateurish schoolboy mockeries of political rivals’ wives.  He is both a narcissist and a marketing genius.  He is both a political novice and an accomplished veteran at manipulating the media.  And so forth.

As far as responding to everything Trump does, it is frankly difficult to know when to hold fire and when to spray proverbial bullets like Al Capone at the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.  To the extent it is cohesive and non-contradictory, I find myself in profound agreement with both those inclined to aggressively protect post-William F. Buckley movement conservatism with all their might, and also those who call for no small doses of grace and humility from us erstwhile Trump opponents/skeptics.  I have spent much of the past year writing about the intellectual imperative of guarding the conservative movement as a mother hen might guard her bar-frolicking sorority sisters from Bill Clinton and Jeffrey Epstein sundry wanton and inebriated cads, but I also humbly recognize how very wrong I was in missing the latent signs of the Trump phenomenon by consistently predicting a Hillary Clinton landslide victory.  To the extent this zealous ideological guardianship and needed humility do strike us as ostensibly self-undermining, reconciliation is needed.

I see this task unfolding in tripartite fashion.

First, we must, indeed, guard our timeless principles.  Just because the Republican Party’s President-Elect now supports a whole host of policies across the entire political spectrum that deviate from historical conservative norms does not make Trumpism any more conservative—and, indeed, it is our solemn duty to preclude American conservatism from being wholly consumed by Trumpism and/or replaced by European-style ethno-nationalism as the defining ideology of what it means to be politically right-of-center in America today.  To the extent I see Trump surrounding himself with close advisers who eschew liberalized free enterprise in favor of illiberal “economic nationalism” (i.e., dirigisme) and universalist Americanism in favor of balkanized ethnocentrism, we should emphatically call Trump out.  To the extent he corrupts capitalistic ideals, threatens the integrity of the post-World War II global order, and continually cheapens hitherto just conservative men, it is indispensable that we do our best to put the kibosh on such misguided tomfoolery.  No doubt about that whatsoever.

Second, to the extent opportunities for cooperation exist and it is cogent (i.e., not self-defeating) to do so, traditional conservatives can find a way to meaningfully work with the Trumpist populists to push the ball forward in our long-term fight to destroy Leftism.  My former boss Sen. Mike Lee calls it “principled populism“:

The rough terms of a successful partnership seem obvious.  Populism identifies the problems; conservatism develops the solutions; and President Trump oversees the process with a veto pen that keeps everyone honest.  Call it “principled populism”: an authentic conservatism focused on solving the problems that face working Americans in a fracturing society and globalizing economy.

The always-eloquent conservative intellectual Yuval Levin seems inclined to agree with Lee that such a principled fusion of conservatives and populists is not only feasible, but now inevitable:

This would still be a thoroughly conservative coalition in a familiar sense.  It would be the natural home for pro-growth, small-government capitalism, along with social traditionalism and unabashed American patriotism and constitutionalism.  But it would tend to emphasize the links between these views (which, after all, are also naturally in tension) by emphasizing their common roots in humility more than their common aspirations to boundless liberation.  It would be more sober than cheerful, more careful than confident, more Tocque­ville than Kemp.  And it would be a conservatism heavily influenced by the increasingly populist flavor of the broader Republican coalition in the age of Trump, even as it frequently needs to act as a check on the party’s populism.

The notion of forming such an alliance is not actually all that new.  The Weekly Standard ran a piece on Sen. Lee’s “labor Republicanism,” back in 2013, noting the distinctly populist elements of Lee’s then-nascent “Conservative Reform Agenda” and his concomitant “shadow party” devoted to advancing it.  Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner has literally been calling for “free-market populism” ever since Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama.  Carney’s pleas are closely associated with the ideas of the self-styled “reform conservatives” like Ross Douthat, and I wrote a bit about it for RedState over two years ago.  It is true that virtually all of these conservatives mentioned here—from Sen. Lee to Levin to Carney to Douthat to, well, heck, even myself—were either firmly #NeverTrump or deeply skeptical of Trump.  And it is true that Trump’s form of populism is much more brutish and shoot-from-the-hip than anything which someone like Lee or Levin might feel comfortable tolerating, let alone advancing.  But there are still opportunities for legitimate collaboration between the camps—and, given its campaign salience and emotional potency, border security seems like an awfully fine place for Trump to start.

Third, we must remember that Trump is a complete political novice, and that we should therefore cut him substantial slack where the issue is more a foible of decorum and statesmanship than it is a potentially ruinous substantive departure from conservative fealty.  Take the instance of the now-infamous Donald Trump flag-burning tweet—and, in particular, focus not on the merits of bans on flag burning, but on the fact that Trump proffered jail time and/or citizenship revocation as the properly prescribed penalty.  It was a mightily stupid thing for Trump to say.  Flag burning is not exactly a politically hot-button issue at the moment, Trump took a stance which, on the merits, would require either a constitutional amendment or a total rejection of judicial supremacy as it applies to the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case of Texas v. Johnson, and, perhaps most importantly, his draconian prescribed punishment of citizenship revocation is monstrously and incontrovertibly unconstitutional.  Trump should not have written the tweet, and it is true, more generally, that the President-Elect’s Twitter account right now is comically oafish and lamentably unpresidential.

But I’d aver, as it pertains to the flag burning tweet, that this is precisely where we must strive to show more grace and humility toward Trump.  Trump’s sophomoric Twitter tendencies may well metastasize into a genuine threat to national safety and security, but, for now, Trump sounding off on Twitter like an old man trying to return soup at a deli is anodyne enough.  It is surely irresponsible—regardless of whether Trump was serious about his constitutional ignorance or was merely trying to troll hapless Leftists—to tweet such a thing, but there is also no real collateral damage, and social media nuance also seems like the quintessential kind of thing that an unpolished and politically inexperienced man like Trump might acquire as time passes.  Besides, if Trump has time to use his personal Twitter as frequently during his presidency as he does now, it will necessarily mean that he is not particularly busy.  Which would mean that Mike Pence is probably directly running the free world just as much as Trump is.  Which, from a conservative perspective that gives Pence a sizable benefit of the doubt that he may or may not presently deserve, would be pretty freaking awesome.

Personal utter gaucheness does not come anywhere close to intellectual vitality-sapping on a hierarchy of the possible Trump offenses regarding which movement conservatives might be inclined to pounce.  As long as we can continue to make that distinction whilst simultaneously looking to follow the lead of Sen. Mike Lee in looking for collaborative efforts to effectuate a “principled populism,” conservatives will be doing their best to keep Trump in line whilst also not being seen as crying wolf.  Let’s all strive for that.

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