Unless Donald Trump significantly changes course, conservatives should get ready for a wild, inconsistent, and exhausting four years. With the exception of short periods of quiet caused by desperate political necessity, the president-elect’s governing philosophy seems relatively simple: He does what he wants, when he wants. We’ve seen this movie before. It starred Bill and Hillary Clinton.
This doesn’t mean that Trump will have a free hand in policy. The Clintons certainly didn’t. After all, the American system boxes in a president, imposing comprehensive checks on his power. Just ask President Obama. He came into office promising to stop the rise of the oceans; he leaves with a legacy that features one unpopular social reform (Obamacare) and a collection of regulations and executive orders that Trump can unwind with the stroke of a pen.
No, Trump’s version of “I’ll do what I want” is a function of personality and politics. And it means that honest conservatives will be constantly lurching from applause and support to critique and condemnation. Nominees such as Betsy DeVos for secretary of education and Jeff Sessions for attorney general are outstanding; placing Steve Bannon so close to the seat of power is abominable. The president can’t “moonlight” as a real-estate mogul, and Republicans rightly outraged at the pay-to-play aspects of the Clinton Foundation can’t turn a blind eye to the potential influence of large-scale foreign business at Trump properties, hard as both may try.
In his public comments, Trump similarly lurches back and forth. His statement following Fidel Castro’s death was excellent, offering truth and moral clarity on the death of a vicious tyrant. Then, days later, he went on a tweet tirade that questioned the legitimacy of the electoral results, making a completely evidence-free claim that he would have won the popular vote but for “millions” of illegal votes for Hillary Clinton.
In other words, the president-elect of the United States of America repeated conspiracy theories from the dark corners of the Internet — conspiracy theories so blatantly absurd that any reasonable person should dismiss them out of hand. It was irresponsible for Trump to cast doubt on the integrity of the election, and it was entirely unnecessary.
Trump partisans wave this all away. He’s not impulsive; he’s “disruptive.” He’s not erratic; he’s playing nine-dimensional chess. But his partisans won’t ultimately decide his fate. He won millions of votes from people who don’t like him, but like Clinton less or simply wanted change. He is starting with Republican majorities in the House and Senate but without a strong public reservoir of good will. If he thinks that he can careen through his first term kicking up controversies every week, he may be in for a rude political awakening. After all, the Democrats aren’t dumb enough to nominate Hillary again.
The GOP needs merely to look to recent history to observe how quickly political triumph can turn to tragedy. Obama began his first term with larger House and Senate majorities than Republicans have now. He lost the House in two years and the Senate in six, even as he remained personally popular. In the latter part of Bill Clinton’s second term, Democrats crowed over his victory in the impeachment battle and his high personal approval ratings. But they wouldn’t win back the White House for another eight years.
#related#The Clinton comparison is key. Democratic partisans — obsessed with winning each news cycle — focused on short-term victory, on surviving each new scandal. Eventually, they became so morally compromised that they saw each and every new revelation about Bill and Hillary as cause for fresh outrage against Clinton critics. To hear Clinton loyalists talk about the 2016 election is to enter a parallel universe where the press was biased against her and she underperformed Obama because sexism is more acceptable than racism. It is frankly sad and pathetic.
Republicans need to decide: Will they allow Trump to Clintonize the GOP, or will they use their influence to hold him accountable not just to the party’s professed principles but also to basic standards of decency and good sense? If they don’t, then we can see their political tomorrow. It looks a lot like Hillary’s today.