Politics & Policy

It’s Not Just ‘Tone’ and ‘Style’

President Trump talks with reporters outside the White House, December 21, 2017. (Reuters photo: Jim Bourg)
Concerns about Trump aren’t merely aesthetic.

Is it time for conservative skeptics and opponents of Trump to stop worrying and embrace the president? Hasn’t the last year proven that our worst fears were unfounded? And, really, aren’t our remaining concerns merely trivial and possibly even elitist differences of taste and manners? Those are the questions conservative Trump skeptics face nearly every day. They’re the foundation of an argument that calls us back to our “team,” to the partisan battlefield that seems to define our time.

The argument goes something like this: A president who many feared would govern like an authoritarian nationalist–populist has instead pursued relatively conventional conservative policies. In fact, on that score he’s even exceeded expectations. He’s signed good legislation, nominated good judges, and pursued military policies that have led to the defeat of the ISIS caliphate. The primary remaining objection to Trump is a fairly minor one: his “tone” and “style” are unbecoming of his office.

Earlier this week, Power Line’s John Hinderaker described a commitment to Never Trump as requiring a “belief that the tone (or style) issue is so important that it outweighs all of the policy fronts on which the Trump administration has moved the conservative ball forward.” The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto has discussed his own “intuition” that “NeverTrump is about taste far more than policy.”

While I can’t speak for every Trump skeptic, “taste,” “tone,” and “style” are the least of my worries. Sure, I would prefer that politicians attempt to engage in civil discourse, to persuade ideological opponents, and to unite the nation rather than stoking irrational fear and anger. But I live in the real world, and understand all too well that politics ain’t beanbag. In many ways, the history of American politicians is the history of the loudmouthed, the profane, and the brash. That’s life. That’s politics.

I’d submit, however, that there is a difference between “tone” and truth, between “style” and knowledge or even intellectual coherence. Last week, Trump granted an interview to the New York Times’ Michael Schmidt that was so rambling and inarticulate it could hardly be read as a calculated campaign of deception on the president’s part. It was such a “word salad” (to borrow Yuval Levin’s description) that it gave the impression Trump simply doesn’t know what the truth is in many cases, and concocts his own reality as he goes.

Time and again, he made statements that were blatantly untrue, nonsensical, or both. He invented things that Democrats didn’t say, garbled the description of his own policies, bragged like a WWE wrestler hyping his prowess, and in many instances appeared to simply make things up to fit the rhetorical needs of the moment. It wasn’t the first time, either.

Any fair treatment of Trump’s record can’t simply stop with bills signed or judges appointed. We’ve rightly never limited our assessments of presidents to laundry lists of legislation or regulation. If we did, we’d have to reassess Bill Clinton, a man not to our “taste” who nevertheless signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act, and a crime bill so harsh and punitive that it would never have a prayer of passing today. After all, he presided over a booming economy that even a MAGA-man would envy.

One of the most difficult intellectual and moral exercises of the last two years has been resisting Trump Derangement Syndrome — in either direction. All of the things that were important before Trump took office are still important today. Of course that includes policy and personnel. But it also includes knowledge, character, and temperament. These latter things do not become unimportant or trivial simply because they represent Trump’s unquestioned weaknesses.

At the end of one year, my assessment of Trump’s presidency is simple: On policy, he’s been far better than I hoped. His temperament, however, has been worse than I feared. He’s been more malicious, more deceptive, and more destructively impulsive than I thought he’d be. These are vices that render him dangerous in a true crisis and make an already toxic political culture even more polarized and volatile. They are not mere matters of taste or tone but instead cut to the heart of what it means to be president. There is a chance that a combination of good fortune and strong support from capable advisers will insulate the nation from the worst consequences of Trump’s profound flaws. We cannot, however, minimize their impact by redefining their importance.


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