Politics & Policy

Burning Down His House

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
President Trump’s self-inflicted wounds have rendered the cognitive dissonance of his defenders untenable.

Editor’s Note: The following piece originally appeared at Law and Liberty. It is reprinted here with permission.

No man enters the presidency prepared for the office, yet few chief magistrates have managed a stage entry as startlingly rife with incompetence and impropriety as Donald Trump. The reason is that the inherent, inertial conservatism of the office disciplines most of its occupants. And this, above all, is why it matters, and why it matters now, that Donald Trump lacks all manner of prudence, restraint, and humility — the disposition of a conservative.

To say he is not conservative does not mean he will not choose judicial nominees from the list the Federalist Society prepared for him. He has and probably will. It does not mean he will not try to repeal Obamacare. He has, if ham-handedly. It means his disposition — his approach to governing and life — is un-conservative at its marrow-deep core. And conservatives who are willing to put up with it all to get the tax cuts or the Supreme Court seats or whatever other important yet transient end — a court seat, a court seat, my constitutional regime for a court seat — are just about out of the rope with which they have avoided the reckoning.

Any one of a basic array of conservative virtues — intellectual humility, deference to custom, acceptance of time-honored norms — would have spared Trump the last week’s news. Yet his insistence on substituting his personal instincts for nearly 23 decades of accumulated mores encumbering — slowing down, hedging in — the American presidency is, on any conservative account, a habit of spectacular personal arrogance and public recklessness.

All the norms of the presidency were conspiring to prevent him from sharing with Russia information obtained from an intelligence partner, from trying to pressure the FBI director to stop an investigation of which his own staff and, ultimately, his own campaign were targets, even from tweeting explanations of these that openly contradicted those he’d harangued his staff into peddling twelve hours before.

It is entirely believable that the president did not know he was violating these norms because, being new to governing, he does not know what they are. That is the point. The issue is not that he is malign, but that he has made a self-conscious choice to reject the accumulated wisdom these norms, and the accumulated expertise with which he is surrounded, reflect.

The consequences of this choice are potentially immense. The combination of this ad hoc approach to policy and the immense power of the American nation could be catastrophic in a crisis. The political effect of Trump’s impetuosity on American conservatism may well be that the long-term levers of governing will have been exchanged for the ephemeral allure of the presidency. Congressional leaders are in an increasingly impossible position as they debase themselves by reacting (as in Mitch McConnell’s case) to substantive abuses or misuses of power merely by ruing the distractions they cause.

This is why, ultimately, it is no longer tenable to maintain the cognitively dissonant bifurcation between the supposed conservatism of Trump’s policies — a dispute for another time — and the un-conservatism of his disposition.

Trump has inaugurated the age of Kardashians in the White House, and it will be far harder to roll that back than to undo Obamacare.

In his essay “On Being Conservative,” Michael Oakeshott described conservatism first and foremost in terms of disposition. This included an inclination to regard change, even when change is needed, with a certain melancholy and reluctance. Likewise for Edmund Burke, the sober English were “afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.” This was Burke’s “moral rather than . . . complexional timidity.”

Yet Trump does not even resort to reason. He is famous for following instinct instead. It is one thing for a leader to follow his judgment rather than his reason if that judgment is tethered to prudence, and that prudence to experience. It may even be better to follow a prudence so anchored than to pursue un-rooted reason. But there comes a point when instinct and will are difficult to distinguish. And students of Bertrand de Jouvenel recognize will as an instrument of that which conservatism seeks, politically, to channel and contain: power.

Trump’s apologists, too, are jettisoning the conservatism in whose name they have boarded his train. The relentless litany of excuses — “But Hillary Clinton’s e-mail”; “But Barack Obama and the IRS”; “But the liberal media”; “But the leaks” — ill become their disposition. The only “but” that matters is the one preceding the statement that Donald J. Trump, not Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or the liberal media, is the 45th president of the United States and currently occupies that office. The same theory of law, order, and personal responsibility without excuses that his attorney general has decided is good for petty drug offenses ought to be good for the conduct of the Oval Office, too.

The other “buts” — “But the Court,” “But the legislative agenda,” and so forth — disregard another element of conservatism, which is its disposition to take the long view. The wreckage of constitutional norms is more important than policy disputes or even a court seat, all of which are correctable with time. The practice of presidential tweeting is almost certainly now permanent. The precedent of presidential outrageousness being not only excusable but encouraged, precisely because it shatters norms, is hard to restore once broken. Trump has inaugurated the age of Kardashians in the White House, and it will be far harder to roll that back than to undo Obamacare. There is a particular perversity in obtaining a handful of Supreme Court justices at the cost of undermining the norms of the Constitution that it will be their job to defend.

All this also goes equally for the president’s minions. Granted, they live in a bubble; but it is not an impenetrable one. By now they ought to recognize the pattern of being ordered to tell what they must know are lies, only for their chief to un-tell them. There is a point at which honorable people refuse dishonorable orders. This includes the apparently honorable Mike Pence. If the vice president lacks the judgment to see his credibility is being prostituted, he lacks the judgment to serve as a constitutional officer.

It is true, to be sure, that politics requires the suppression of particular preferences for the good of the group. So does patriotism. If the argument was that Never Trumpers should forgo their opposition to Trump for the good of the party, surely there is a point at which the supposed good of the party must be considered in light of the good of the country. The latter cannot be served by a president this reckless. Trump’s escapades — from the intelligence-leaking to what was all but, and perhaps was, obstruction of justice — have run out the clock on the dualism between the supposedly conservative agenda and the obviously unconservative disposition. It is time to reckon.

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