Politics & Policy

Is Donald Trump a Pragmatist?

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Trump comes to the presidency with no coherent ideology.

What will Donald Trump be?

It’s too early to tell. For now, Trump’s a Rorschach test, an ink blot — he has multiple positions on the same issues, advisers with conflicting worldviews, and no practical experience in government upon which to rely. That means that his supporters will call him conservative, his detractors will call him leftist, and those trying to honestly characterize his administration have been relegated to doing play-by-play commentary on the unfolding chaos.

In reality, though, Trump has no thoroughgoing ideology. He is not, as Newt Gingrich says, a “mainstream conservative.” In fact, Trump has explicitly rejected such an idea; months ago, he explained, “This is the Republican party, it’s not called the Conservative party.” Trump’s own philosophy, if he can be said to hold one, most closely mirrors that of the European populist far-right: Western civilization can only be protected by erecting walls and closing borders, and those within the walls and borders can be protected by a large, intrusive government providing vast social services. Trump rarely speaks of liberty or freedom, and never speaks about the Constitution unless prodded to do so by others.

The most accurate appraisal of Trump actually came courtesy of President Barack Obama this week: “I also think that he is coming to this office with fewer set hard-and-fast policy prescriptions than a lot of other presidents might be arriving with. I don’t think he is ideological. I think ultimately, he’s pragmatic in that way. And that can serve him well.”

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This should be troubling for conservatives. Philosophy matters. It’s long been a leftist trope that the president who governs best simply “does what works.” That sentiment goes back to Woodrow Wilson, who stated in his first inaugural address in 1913 that he wouldn’t govern based on a set philosophy, but rather based on “the facts as they are. . . . Step by step we shall make [our economic system] what it should be in the spirit of those who question their own wisdom and seek counsel and knowledge.” Decisions would be made based on “our time and the need of our people.”

Wilson, of course, was no pragmatist. He was a progressive.

Pragmatism is a progressive philosophy. There is no clear consensus on ‘what works.’

That’s because pragmatism is a progressive philosophy. There is no clear consensus on “what works.” This is why elections matter, and why political ideology matters. It’s an empty conceit of arrogant politicians that they alone can determine, based on expert reading of facts, the best solution; they can’t. How we view facts — our worldview — determines our action. There is no dispassionate problem-solver. There are only people who believe certain things about the world and masquerade as dispassionate problem-solvers.

Those people are almost invariably leftists. They believe that virtually all problems can be solved at the governmental level by a team of geniuses who can gaze into a crystal ball and determine the proper solution to America’s ills. They don’t need any coherent set of principles, or any root beliefs about human nature. The answers will appear to them if they simply look at the facts hard enough.

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Barack Obama governed under such a theory. Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, one of Obama’s boosters, cast Obama as a man who preferred “solutions that can be accepted by people with a wide variety of theoretical inclinations.” Why, then, did Obama have to ram Obamacare through Congress without a single Republican vote? Because pragmatism isn’t ideology-free — it’s an approach to government that suggests governmental expertise rules the roost.

Trump appears to be cut from the same cloth. “Donald is a pragmatist,” said Businessman Carl Icahn months ago. “He’s going to do what’s needed for this economy.” Trump supporter and hedge-fund manager Anthony Scaramucci said something similar at the Wall Street Journal: “Mr. Trump would be the greatest pragmatist and deal maker Washington has ever seen.” As Christopher Scalia, Justice Antonin Scalia’s son, wrote at the Washington Post, “‘Whatever works’ is the unofficial slogan of pragmatists. It also sounds a lot like Trump, who has promised to fix everything from health care to trade with China by making ‘great deals for this country.’” Trump’s most ardent followers praise him for freeing himself from ideological constraints. In a piece predicting Trump’s victory, UC–Berkeley professor George Lakoff explained:

Trump is a pragmatic conservative, par excellence. And he knows that there are a lot of Republican voters who are like him in their pragmatism. There is a reason that he likes Planned Parenthood. There are plenty of young, unmarried (or even married) pragmatic conservatives, who may need what Planned Parenthood has to offer — cheaply and confidentially. Similarly, young or middle-aged pragmatic conservatives want to maximize their own wealth. They don’t want to be saddled with the financial burden of caring for their parents. Social Security and Medicare relieve them of most of those responsibilities. That is why Trump wants to keep Social Security and Medicare.

Ad hoc policymaking is not the mark of a conservative — nor should conservatives expect Trump to mirror conservatism. Most important, conservatives, while honestly assessing the merits and demerits of President Trump’s policies, should not fall into the trap of trying to fit them all within the conservative rubric. Trump is largely ideology-free. That means he’ll do some good things and some bad things. But conservatives should feel under no obligation to promote Trumpism as conservatism.

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