Politics & Policy

Learning from Trump

(Illustration: Roman Genn)
Though his candidacy looks increasingly damaging for Republicans, conservatives can still find value in it.

Even conservatives who oppose Donald Trump — perhaps especially those conservatives — could learn a few things from him. That’s true even if he ends up losing the election in November.

Immigration. Before Trump entered the race, the only Republican presidential candidate who questioned the need for much higher levels of immigration was former senator Rick Santorum. Almost all of the candidates favored offering legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, generally without making sure that new illegal immigration had been effectively cut off beforehand. A 2013 bill that passed the Senate with 68 votes had both features: a large increase in immigration and a path to legal status that did not require proof that enforcement was working.

Trump’s position on these issues has been neither sensible nor stable. Deporting all illegal immigrants, as he says he wants to do, would be an enormous effort for little benefit — especially since Trump has often said that they would be allowed to come back to the U.S. But voters are right to worry that uncontrolled immigration is bad for both low-wage workers and national cohesion, and Trump was the only major candidate who shared this concern. Conservatives should follow the cue by opposing major increases in low-skilled immigration and insisting that laws against illegal immigration be enforced at the workplace. They should offer legal status to illegal immigrants who have been here for years only after making sure the offer does not act as a magnet for more illegal immigration.

Instead some Republicans are saying that if Hillary Clinton wins, they might try again to pass something like that 2013 bill.

Foreign policy. Trump’s proposed foreign policy generally ranges from the disastrous (abandoning NATO and the World Trade Organization) to the sinister (allying with Vladimir Putin). He says, with no evidence, that George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to go to war there. Conservatives should reject all of this.

But it is not necessary to embrace a conspiracy theory to see that the Iraq War was a mistake, and one reason Trump was able to get away with his remarks is that too many other Republicans were unwilling to acknowledge that mistake forthrightly. More than most Republicans, too, Trump advertises his reluctance to spend blood and treasure on overseas conflicts where America does not have vital interests at stake. The public wants that reassurance from Republicans, and it is right to want it; conservatives should give it.


Nationalism. Trump is running a nationalist campaign. His nationalism has two components: He means to recover the nation’s strength, and to see to it that it is governed in the interests of its citizens. He may exaggerate the nation’s weakness, but that first component is fairly standard conservative fare. The second component may seem banal: What politician advocates a policy on the ground that it would hurt our citizens?

But the link between a policy and the interests of Americans is sometimes attenuated and sometimes forgotten. Immigration provides a stark example. Take, again, that 2013 Senate bill raising immigration levels. Many of the newcomers would be low-skilled. Why this would be good for people who are already here was not a major subject of the senators’ debate.

When Trump says he wants a country that works for us, Americans who have Mexican ancestry or practice Islam can reasonably ask whether they are being included in that “us.” Conservatives should advance a more inclusive nationalism — but one that always remembers to put Americans’ interests first.

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Fun. Jeb Bush said he would campaign as a “happy warrior,” by which he primarily meant not an angry one. Trump has shown, though, that you can have fun campaigning even if you are an angry candidate. Very few of his rivals ever seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as Trump was. More often they seemed nervous or calculating or, in Scott Walker’s case, both.

In one of his early appearances with his running mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, Trump said that the crowd should blame any defeat on him. It is impossible to imagine Hillary Clinton saying the same thing about her running mate, Virginia senator Tim Kaine, because they’re both too uptight.

Trump was able to enjoy himself more than most candidates because he was winning, and because he has little sense of responsibility; and his idea of fun fairly often turns into gleeful malice. (That’s the only way I can make sense of his crazed insinuations about Rafael Cruz’s involvement in the JFK assassination.) But Trump can also be an entertaining candidate. Other conservatives might want to think about loosening up.

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The importance of competent management. Conservatives have generally rejected the idea that the key function of the president is to manage the federal bureaucracy. The important thing, they say, is to get the federal government to do fewer things rather than to run it with maximum efficiency.

Trump takes a different view. He rarely talks about shrinking the federal government but very frequently promises to make it better at everything it is doing. He says he will take the waste, fraud, and abuse out of Social Security, make the best trade deals, hire the best people.

These are mostly empty promises. When interviewers ask Trump just how he would change NAFTA, he babbles in response. He has no plan to reduce waste in Social Security — and even if he did, the program has a structural mismatch between its taxes and its benefits that cannot be solved that way.

#related#Conservatives, though, often go too far in the other direction. They don’t talk much or think much about running the government better, even though voters want them to. In The Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater wrote, “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size.” He wasn’t wrong about which goal is more important, but he did get the balance wrong.

Trump does, too. He doesn’t have Goldwaterite convictions about the proper limits of governmental authority, thinks that what’s most important is to run the government well, and seems to believe that the strength of his own ego is sufficient qualification for that task. That’s the mix of beliefs that gets a person to say of his nation, “I alone can fix it.” (The meaning would have been very different if he had said, “I have the solutions,” or “We Republicans have the solutions.”) Conservatives understand that’s an alarming slogan for a chief executive — and whatever they learn from Trump, they shouldn’t forget it.

— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review. This article is adapted from one that originally appeared in the August 15, 2016, issue of National Review.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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