The American political discourse is promiscuous with its superlatives: Barack Obama is, we are assured, the most radical president ever, unless that’s Donald Trump; these Republicans or these Democrats are the worst they’ve ever been; this is the most divided we’ve ever been; etc. I don’t think much of that is probably true, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, 100 years from now, the only thing people remember about Barack Obama is that he was the first black man elected president, and that he is otherwise remembered as vaguely as James K. Polk.
Trump is an unusual figure, one whose qualifications for the presidency are not obvious and whose biography thus far suggests that he is a genuinely terrible human being. But will he prove radically different from what came before?
The signs are against it.
Trump and Mike Pence have been lobbying the Carrier air-conditioner company not to move a share of its production — and, more to the point, the related jobs — to Mexico. And the president-elect has some leverage here: Carrier is a division of United Technologies, a firm that derives a quarter of its revenue from federal contracts and that cannot afford to have an enemy in the White House or at the Pentagon. But even with that upper hand, the deal to keep those Carrier jobs in Indiana is indistinguishable from old-fashioned Republican corporate welfare: Carrier is being promised tax breaks and regulatory concessions, a package of special-interest political favors that is in practical terms nothing more than a shipping container full of money.
If that’s “economic nationalism,” it is more or less exactly what we had before. One way of looking at it is that Trump is a deal-maker who is saving jobs; another way is that every company that can threaten to offshore a few thousand positions is now in a position to extort favors from the Trump administration. But that is not radically different from the status quo ante.
Neither is the cast of characters.
Trump made “Drain the Swamp” one of his slogans, and his first hire was Reince Priebus, a.k.a. Swamp Thing. Priebus is a fine guy, but, whatever his merits, the idea that his role in the new administration represents a radical break — or any kind of break — with the status quo is absurd. The Republican party and the United States have had a Romney as a prominent figure in their affairs since before the invention of the transistor. And who was Trump dining with at Jean Georges? Irrespective of what formal role if any Mitt Romney will have in the Trump administration, Trump-ism, whatever it shapes up to be, will be filtered either through Romney or through men like him.
The Democrats, for their part, have had a member of Nancy Pelosi’s family prominent in their affairs since the Spanish Civil War was raging. They have just reelected Pelosi their leader in the House of Representatives.
Americans like to bitch and moan about “partisanship” and “gridlock” and the like, but these really point to the virtues of our political order rather than its defects.
Americans like to bitch and moan about “partisanship” and “gridlock” and the like, but these really point to the virtues of our political order rather than its defects. While geographic sorting and clever redistricting (the main contemporary complaint from Democrats about “gerrymandering” is that Republicans are just too good at it) has made the parties more polarized, the parties themselves are moderating influences. The fact that, e.g., anti-abortion radicals and anti-tax zealots and defense hawks all have to work together within the framework of the Republican party takes the edge off of the extremist elements within those groups. Elements of our political system might encourage radicalism, at least in rhetoric, but as a whole, it is remarkably efficient at incorporating would-be extremists into the main stream.
We do not yet know what Trump will do in office, but we do know that any far-reaching political project of his will require the cooperation of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, that he will be obliged to take into account the views of Republican legislators and Republican governors, and that when he gives marching orders, he’ll be giving them to . . . well, let’s call the roll: Mike Pence, Reince Priebus, Jeff Sessions, Tom Price, Elaine Chao, Betsy DeVos, Steven Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross. Those people are connected to institutions ranging from Goldman Sachs to the National Review Institute to News Corp. If things had gone differently, if the Democrats had nominated and elected Bernie Sanders, you’d have seen a similar situation: a purported outsider at the top (though, really, how much of an outsider can a United States senator be?) and familiar faces, including many career politicians, filling up the positions of power.
And that is fine. Conservatives should be cautious and patient, even when what we really want is radically different from what we have.
#related#I myself wish that the Trump administration had some great economic idea to substitute for traditional Republican corporate-welfare thinking, and that it had some new ideas about dealing with Islamic radicalism, crime, the chaos in American family life, etc. But if a Trump administration ends up governing in a way that is substantively similar to what we might have expected from a Romney administration or a Rubio administration (it is difficult to imagine its being stylistically similar), then that is not the worst possible outcome, either.
Business as usual, more or less, is not the best-case scenario, but conservatives who spent 2016 telling themselves that they might as well roll the dice because things could not possibly be worse have missed one of the most important of all conservative insights. We are blessed with a political and social order that has done a remarkable job of keeping us from learning firsthand how much worse things could easily be.