Politics & Policy

Donald Trump Can’t Say ‘No’ — Is That What We Want in a President?

Trump campaigns in Fort Dodge, Iowa, November 12, 2015. (Scott Olson/Getty)

As has been made abundantly clear by his incessant mewling and pathetically thin skin, Donald J. Trump is not in fact an unwaveringly resolute tough guy of the type you would hope to find standing next to you in the trenches, but an insecure attention seeker who cannot help but pander to his audiences’ prejudices. In the past few days, Trump has been asked variously whether, if elected, he would use his power to close mosques; whether he believes that Muslims should be registered in a special government database; and whether or not it would be a good idea to suspend the Fourth Amendment for anybody who prays to Allah. In all cases he has either demurred completely or eschewed the more traditional “yes” and “no” categories in favor of some choice hedging. “That may have to be done,” Trump says. “There’s no doubt.” “We’ll look at that.” “We’ll consider all the options.” “We’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely.”

So painful has this tendency become that I have begun to hope his interviewers will get a little surreal, just to see what he says:

“Will you replace your hair with spaghetti and your fingers with soup spoons?”

“Sure. We’re going to look at everything.”

“As president would you consider taking suspected burglars and parachuting them naked into lava?”

“That’s something we’ll consider. You can’t have all this crime. Terrible.”

“Do you think it’s fair to say that you are the egg man, that you are the egg man, that you are the Walrus?”

“We’re going to examine a range of possibilities.”

“GooGooGooJoob?”

“I’ll be looking into that.”

Perhaps the only thing that is worse than Trump’s silence is what he does say.

The most common defense of Trump’s perpetual acquiescence has been that he did not explicitly say “yes” to the more controversial among the questions, and that he cannot therefore be accused of endorsement. In truth, this isn’t quite right; speaking to NBC last night, he did seem to suggest affirmatively that Muslims would be required to sign into his hypothetical database or face consequences. Either way, I’m struggling to see how this defense can be acceptable to his admirers. Trump, recall, is supposed to be courageous. He’s supposed to be steadfast. He’s supposed to be a no-holds-barred badass who will make great deals and stare down enemies and Make America Great Again. How, one wonders, does a chronic inability to say “no” fit into that mien?

#share#If there is one quality we need in a president, it is the ability decisively to say “no” — especially, I would venture, if that president hopes to advance conservative goals. When a sane person is asked whether he would institute a tracking database for Muslims or force one religious group to carry special ID cards, he says, “Of course I wouldn’t.” If Trump is unable to manage even this, how would he rein in spending or limit illegal immigration? More to the point, as Trump might ask sneeringly of others, how would he deal with Vladimir Putin?

#related#Perhaps the only thing that is worse than Trump’s silence is what he does say. Even if we are generous and assume that the man does not actually believe any of the specific proposals to which he has given his tacit consent, the attitude he is exhibiting is positively Wilsonian in character. In Trump’s world, America will be restored to glory when his handpicked team of experts is permitted to experiment upon the public outside of the usual constitutional limits. Nowhere in his rhetoric will you find any reference to America’s pre-existing cultural and legal traditions, or to the necessary bounds that free men insist be imposed upon the state. There is no talk of “freedom”; no reflexive grounding of ideas in the Declaration and the Federalist Papers; no conceptual explanation or underlying philosophy. There is nothing, except will to power. By his own admission, Trump’s are the politics of doing enthusiastically what works in the moment; of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt; of the administrative state and of bureaucratic expertise; of the Prussians and the French and the Singaporeans. Whatever he might claim before his adoring crowds, Trump is not in fact an antidote to Barack Obama. He is his parallel.

Calvin Coolidge said “no” over and over and over again because he understood that the federal government existed for a handful of specific reasons, and that any action it took outside of its carefully delineated tramlines was inherently suspect. Donald Trump’s only visible constitutional opinion is that someone strong ought to make sure the trams run on time. There’s a word for men like that, and it sure as heck isn’t “conservative.”

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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