Donald Trump likes to talk about being tough, though I have argued — and Trump has shown — that his “toughness” is a fiction based in another fiction. He uses the word “nice” with contempt, as when he advised a group of police officers in Long Island “don’t be too nice” to suspects in custody.
Abusing a suspect in handcuffs isn’t tough, of course: It is sadism, but this tendency informs Trump’s policy thinking, to the extent that he engages in such a thing: being “rough” with terrorism suspects’ families, “get tough” with China on trade, etc. He even had a book published under his name titled “Time to Get Tough.”
That’s a lot of toughness for a man with Trump’s debilitating medical condition. You know, the one that kept him out of Vietnam, where real-life tough guy John McCain endured nearly six years’ worth of torture for the sake of a point of honor.
The fact that McCain has been something of a disappointment as a senator and a presidential candidate invites reflection upon the actual political value of personal toughness. George H. W. Bush finished flying a World War II combat mission while bleeding from a head wound in an airplane that was on fire before parachuting into the Pacific, where he evaded vengeful Japanese soldiers who were just then engaged in torturing and eating their prisoners. He was somehow lampooned as a “wimp” by the same media that had earlier accused him of being a bloodthirsty killer (it was alleged that he had strafed a Japanese lifeboat), and some conservatives joined in that, Pat Buchanan among them. The wimp flew 58 combat missions, whereas tough-guy Trump might play 58 holes of golf in an unusually active fortnight. But George H. W. Bush’s genuine toughness and courage was nearly irrelevant to his performance in office.
That is because what is missing in Washington isn’t toughness. In the postwar era — the era in which the modern American welfare state as we know it was created — Washington was full of men who had seen combat, who had done hard things and had exhibited real valor. Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon not only served in wartime but all took more dangerous assignments than they had to. (Military service has not always been a norm for American presidents: There was a long run of them, from Woodrow Wilson through Franklin Roosevelt, who had no military experience.) The men who built the welfare state did not lack courage, conviction, or toughness: What they lacked was good ideas.
The cult of “toughness” is partly connected with the ritualistic aspect of the presidency, the superstitious belief that if the priest-king has the right personal attributes and propitiates the gods in the prescribed fashion, then the rains will come and the crops will thrive. “Does the president care about people like us? Is he the sort of man I’d like to have a beer with? Does he seem at home in small-town New Hampshire pretending to be the sort of man who frequents diners, asking the patrons about their dreams and ailments? Is he”– the magic word — “presidential?” That’s all a lot of hocus-pocus, but it’s ordinary hocus-pocus and to be expected.
The fixation on “toughness” also speaks to a misunderstanding about the nature of the presidency and the nature of government in general. Trump is not alone in his belief that if we would only “get tough” with whomever needs it, then solving our national problems would be a relatively straightforward proposition: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren make essentially the same argument in favor of raising taxes and regulating businesses more heavily, as though government’s having been too soft on billionaires in Malibu is why people are poor in the Bronx. Politicians of this stripe talk as if there were a shoebox marked “solutions” sitting in a cupboard somewhere in Washington, and that these solutions have not been implemented simply because no one was willing to “get tough” enough to do the needful things. But there’s one big problem with that way of looking at things.
There aren’t any solutions.
The United States of America is a big, diverse, complex modern country with big, diverse, complex modern problems. The most significant of those problems are never going to be “solved” because they are not subject to final resolution. The fundamental problem with health care, for example, is that Americans’ expectations about the level of care they ought to be receiving are misaligned with their willingness to pay for that care. This misalignment is made worse by the legacy of nearly a century’s worth of prior attempts at imposing “solutions” to this problem on the nation, its government, and the economy. You don’t “solve” a problem like that. You try to manage it intelligently. There is no “solution” to the problems of Islamic terrorism, the social disruption associated with new modes of economic production at home and abroad, Chinese nationalism, global warming, crime, drug abuse, or HIV. To the extent that there is something approaching a solution to some social problems, those solutions do not look very much like a man in a suit signing a bill in the Rose Garden: They look a lot more like the worldwide campaign against polio which, the admirable efforts of the Rotarians notwithstanding, remains incomplete decades into the effort and after billions of dollars spent on it.
“Get tough on polio”? Grow up.
There is no man on a horse coming to solve our problems, no matter how “tough” he is — or pretends to be. I do not necessarily blame the politicians for presenting our problems — and themselves — in these crude and primitive terms, for the same reason that I do not necessarily blame a used-car salesman for trying to sell me a used car. But if we continue to fall for the same sales pitch — if we continue to believe that This Very Special Man can save us, because he is so tough, so smart, so good, so pure, because he cares about people like us — we have no one to blame but ourselves.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.