Conservatives have to be delighted by the administration Donald Trump is building. There is, as one would expect, a showman’s flair to the exercise. But what do I care about Trump’s meeting with Al Gore to shoot the warming breeze if two days later he gives me Scott Pruitt to make actual environmental policy — or, better, to gut EPA’s oppressive, unconstitutional policy?
And after eight years of “workplace violence” and “man-caused disasters” in which the administration’s knee-jerk response to jihadist terror was to suppress mention of jihadist terror while anguishing over phantom “blowback” against Muslims, I’ll take a president — okay, a president-elect — who prefers to console the Ohio State victims and celebrate the heroism of the cop who took out the jihadist.
I was never in the immovably #NeverTrump camp, but I’ve been a critic. Despite my reservations, I tried to help the campaign craft national-security and immigration policies. (I am, for example, the principal author of the immigration memo Josh Rogin reported on in the Washington Post this week). I voted for Trump because, unlike some colleagues whose opinions carry a lot of weight with me, I was never persuaded against the reality that the election was a binary choice between him and Hillary Clinton. Since I was immovably #NeverHillary, the choice was easier than I thought it would be once I closed the voting-booth curtain.
All that said, though, I did repeatedly argue that Trump’s history was that of a New York limousine-liberal spouting all the hidebound pieties while digging into his wallet for Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Andrew Cuomo, Harry Reid, and the rest of the gang. I was hopeful, more because of the advisers he’d surrounded himself with than because of his campaign rhetoric, that Trump would be marginally better than Clinton — a low bar he could surmount with just one good Supreme Court pick (and had arguably surmounted even before Election Day by picking Mike Pence as his running mate). But I stressed that, if he won, we’d have to be skeptical that he’d govern much differently than Hillary would have until he proved otherwise, given his gushing admiration for the Clintons over the years.
Do you think a President Clinton would have stocked her national-security team with advisers who believe we need to organize policy around the idea that the jihadist regime in Iran is an enemy of the United States — not a potential ally we should appease at all costs, but a foe whose ambitions and provocations need to be checked?
Not a chance.
Trump’s call with the president of Taiwan? I like it. After all, to pull off the “strategic ambiguity” of our dubious “One China” policy, needn’t we at least maintain some, you know, ambiguity? And in a week when we observed the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I must say Trump’s echoes of Reagan and MacArthur — declaring, “There can be no substitute for victory in the pursuit of peace” — were far more welcome than a lecture on the perils of “fake news” from, of all people, the woman who fraudulently blamed a YouTube video for the murder of four Americans by jihadists in Benghazi.
Look, Trump won’t even be president for another six weeks. The incoming administration is still a work in progress, the president-elect is still tweeting the night away, and plenty could still go wrong. But those of us who worried aloud that there might not be much daylight between Trump and Clinton are thankfully being proved wrong.
Let me preface this with something I should have been clearer on: I like Steve. He is an extraordinarily effective advocate for free-market principles, especially when it comes to jousting with the Left on television. If I had it to do over again, I would have asked him directly — rather than relying on a published report — to explain comments attributed to him about transforming the GOP from Reagan conservatism to Trump populism. As he has revised and expanded those remarks, our disagreement has narrowed. Even if it hadn’t, I would still be hoping there’s a prominent place for him on the Trump economic team.
Nevertheless, my contention was, and is, that while it’s fine to appreciate Trump’s razor-thin victory, it would be a mistake to over-interpret it.
I don’t like everything Trump has done so far, but I like an awful lot of it. And saying so is only fair.
Moore objects to my observation that other Republicans would have beaten Hillary more handily. In so opining, I was not minimizing Trump’s accomplishment, which obviously includes obliterating those other Republicans in the nomination contest. I was simply highlighting the key to victory. To my mind, it was not Trump’s success in attracting working-class voters in battleground states, though that was certainly a boon; Trump won mainly because Americans did not want Hillary Clinton to be president.
Now, I could be wrong about that — and as an old trial lawyer who values first-hand familiarity with the facts, I note that Moore was on the campaign trail and I was not. Still, if I am right, then it’s likely Clinton would have been beaten more decisively by a Republican to whom Americans found it easier to gravitate — one with higher approval ratings and less resistance from traditional Republicans than Trump.
Understand, I am not touting other candidates at Trump’s expense. To win the election, they needed to beat him first, and none of them came close. I am just saying that Trump won less because of what he was proposing than because of his wretched opponent. Thus, he must resist misconstruing his victory. If he sees it as a summons to pursue statist policies under the “populist” guise of relief for the middle class — the standard Democratic party playbook that actually hurts the middle class, as Steve Moore has made a career of demonstrating — his presidency will not be as successful as his cabinet choices suggest it could be.
On that score, I am not as glum as some of my friends over Trump’s Carrier intervention. As a matter of policy, I think our editorial has it right. Thus, I can’t praise it because I am not convinced, as Moore is, that it “puts American workers first.” When the government dabbles in this sort of thing, some American workers always benefit over others.
It succeeds as theater, however, because the visibly affected workers are the ones whose jobs have been saved. And in politics, theater has its place. Since the economic effect of the Carrier bailout is negligible, is this one of those places? That depends. Let’s say Trump did it merely to showcase his emphasis of American well-being over global concerns, before implementing economic policies that benefit American workers across the board once he takes office. If so, Carrier will be remembered as a clever gambit that won Trump some goodwill. On the other hand, if Carrier is a prelude to Obama-style crony capitalism — just substitute Trump’s manufacturing rationalization for Obama’s green one — then it will rightly be seen as the seed of a debacle.
Time will tell. As it will regarding Trump’s olive branches to the left — the praise for Obama, the let-felonies-be-bygones approach to Hillary, the audience with Gore, the bridge-building with the New York Times editorial board, the phone call to Al Sharpton, and so on. It is said that Trump is not ideological and wants to overcome our country’s deep, paralyzing divisions. That’s an appropriate thing for a president to try to do, and maybe Trump’s combative persona can make some ironic headway. The Left knows that, unlike the gentlemanly George W. Bush, the new president will punch back and then some. Maybe he’ll get better cooperation — or at least less sabotage.
We’ll see. I am pleasantly enough surprised that I am not fretting, for now, over Ivanka’s visions of Eleanor Roosevelt. There’s a long way to go, but if Donald Trump decides he has to schmooze Al Gore before giving me Scott Pruitt, I can live with that.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.