Politics & Policy

Trump Syndromes

President Trump sits at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office in January. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Trump creates hysteria, both rabid antipathies and fervent support.

General chaos surrounds President Trump. Few dispute that. All argue over the origins, causes, and nature of these wild reactions to our president.

 

The Left’s Hatred

Take the Left’s loathing of Trump that arises from three sources.

First, Trump supposedly has no shame. The traditional leftist use of invectives such as “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobe,” and “nativist” appears to have had little effect on Trump — as it seems to have done on McCain (who in 2008 ruled out attacks on Obama’s personal pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright) and Romney (who passed on standing down debate moderator and rank partisan Candy Crowley).

More likely, smearing Trump only energizes him to become even more combative and uncouth. In the past, when a progressive tagged a Republican politician as some sort of irredeemable or deplorable bigot, he often inched left in search of penance or to preempt further attacks.

In the past, when a progressive tagged a Republican politician as some sort of irredeemable or deplorable bigot, he often inched left.

Trump seems to enjoy the tumult, on the strange principle that only fire can tamp down the bias and unprofessionalism of a mostly pampered and overrated media. Does he do so by diminishing the aura and grandeur of the presidency, at least as the office is traditionally defined? Maybe, but half the country is likely to think “How dare the media smear the president?” rather than “How dare the president of these United States stoop to reply in kind to petty CNN reporters?”

Second, of course, Trump is politically dangerous to progressivism. In military terms, he is a strategic B-52 on a deep mission. Trump targets the enemy’s homeland, even as his opponents’ far-flung and attenuated expeditionary armies bog down abroad.

The Obama era gave us the conventional banality that “demography is destiny.” A supposedly 67 percent so-called white population would inevitably shrink into electoral insignificance, gnashing its teeth in its “white privilege” irrelevance.

All who declared themselves nonwhite (to the extent that is still possible in a racially mixed, intermarried, often assimilated and integrated America) would grow in number. And they would purportedly vote in accordance with their perceived appearances and tribal affiliations. That calculus would inevitably mean that states such as Georgia and Arizona would soon follow the paradigm of California, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico: They’d flip blue.

Democrats accordingly pushed open borders and identity politics to ensure such an electoral utopia. But Trump overflew them and start bombing Democratic strongholds to the rear in more important swing states: Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

By emphasizing class more than race, Trumpism itself was a potentially more dynamic idea than proportional representation on the basis of superficial appearance. When a Latino landscaper, poor white machinist, or inner-city African-American clerk considers voting for Trump (if as much for cultural or protest reasons as from empathy for his person or approval of his message), he subverts some of the basis of the present progressive party — a pyramid of enlightened elites at the top adjudicating what is necessary for a broad foundation at the bottom, made up of nonwhites and the supposedly dependent poor. It does not take much of a defection of minority and poor voters to weaken the progressive project, when the percentages of white and working-class voters alienated from it are so large.

Equally explosive is the syndrome in which middle-class moderates and independents are tired of being damned as privileged and biased, on the basis of their appearance — often by those who enjoy far more privilege and exhibit far more bias. For all the hype that the stereotypical Trump voter was uneducated and without a degree, Trump appealed as much to the college educated and professionals for what he at least was not, rather than for what he was.

Third, Trump earns leftist disdain for being the anti-Obama, much as conservatives feared Obama for being the anti-Reagan. In other words, just as a charismatic Obama sought to overturn the entire Reagan revolution of low taxes, deregulation, smaller government, and strong defense by the sheer force of his person, so too Trump really does threaten to undo Obama’s foreign policy, and energy, tax, regulatory, and education agendas.

But whereas Obama rammed down an unpopular Obamacare and lost the House in the 2010 midterms, it may be that Trump rammed down a popular tax cut that will not result in a 2010-like backlash. Under Obama, the Democratic party has become the progressive resistance. While heading hard left, it has left the center free to be reclaimed by opportunistic Republicans, as evidenced by substantial gains at the local, state, and congressional levels. Trump could make Obamism irrelevant — a historical footnote by the end of his first term. That would be especially ironic, given that Obama’s “pen and phone” executive-order mode of governance proved so toxic for progressives in the tit-for-tat hands of Trump.

 

Trump Voters

Never Trumpers often feel that Trump’s latest escapades are embarrassingly excused as sophisticated “three-dimensional chess” by Trump supporters. I have rarely found many Trump voters who believed that. More often, they shrug, saying they wish Trump would curb his tweets, rallies, and ad hominem outbursts.

To the extent that they do not object enough to Trump’s behavior, it is not because they believe he is a chess master of political strategy. Rather, they assume that, for strange reasons, no one can quite predict the effects of Trump’s weirdness, in a stifling politically correct society. More than half the nation has lost confidence in progressivism, the administrative state, and the Republican hierarchy and establishment. In the past, experts erred in thinking that Trump had so debased the candidacy, or the office, of the presidency that he was sure to implode. In that climate, his supporters are not about to believe that anyone can accurately fathom the ultimate effect of his so-called unpresidential behavior.

Where critics see chaos, some voters are likely to see clarity and comeuppance.

Other Trump voters no doubt enjoy the ensuing blood sport. They feel that most of his targets have it coming and that the resulting chaos, within limits, is much-needed purging. Out of the daily conundrum, Trump nevertheless has managed so far to achieve greater prosperity at home and stability abroad than did Obama, while the reputation of a habitually prejudiced media is plummeting fast. Where critics see chaos, some voters are likely to see clarity and comeuppance.

What would lose Trump his strategically located, and thereby winning, 46 percent of the voting public?

First, Trump cannot abandon signature issues that separated him from his 16 primary rivals and helped him defeat Hillary Clinton in key swing states that Democrats had mostly taken for granted since 2008 and in many cases since 1992. For example, Trump cannot embrace amnesty and open borders masquerading as “comprehensive immigration reform,” or optional overseas interventions, or major new restrictions on the Second Amendment, or new expansions of pro-abortion laws. If he became a so-called globalist open-borders centrist, Trump could still win 46 percent of the 2020 vote but lose the purple belt from Ohio to North Carolina and with it the Electoral College.

Second, if Trump keeps boomeranging his own side, at some point his invective could become suicidal. His supporters don’t mind if he descends to spar even with Alec Baldwin or the NFL. They will eventually tire of him if he cruelly continues to dog Jeff Sessions or H. R. McMaster. If his own messengers are the enemy, then at some point he’ll lose the resonance of his message as well.

 

Never Trump

Forget for a moment the ethical and moral dimensions of the Never Trump conservative argument, and concentrate on its practical effect. Why did the conservative establishment that loathed Trump — much of it influential as measured by print and television exposure and by state and federal political offices — have so few consequences in 2016?

About the same percentages of Republican voters chose Trump when the Republican elite was fragmented as went for McCain and Romney, when it was united. That raises unpleasant scenarios.

Were Never Trumpers simply fewer in number and far less influential than they had supposed? Or was the small number of voters swayed by their antipathy more than offset by the greater number of voters energized to oppose Never Trumpism? Did those Tea Party or Reagan Democrat conservatives who did not turn out for a much-praised Romney cost Romney the election, while their enthusiasm in 2016 ensured victory for the much-attacked Trump?

Did Trump’s ascendance snap Never Trumpers into self-realization that they were not of the same ilk as even his reluctant supporters? Or did their frenzied loathing spark Trump’s voters into seeing that his Republican haters were more interested in the style and class of conservativism than in its message and pragmatic ramifications for the American public?

There are other questions not fully addressed.

One: Is Trump’s crudity really without precedent in the past? We know that prior presidents on occasion were as gross or grosser than Trump: JFK’s callous seduction of teenage staffers in officio, LBJ’s genitalia exposure, Clinton’s Oval Office bathroom-sex antics, Obama’s crude jokes about “tea-baggers” and the Special Olympics. Then there are the many scandals, from lying about Vietnam, to Watergate, to the recent weaponizing of the IRS, DOJ, and FBI.

So is the writ that even if Trump’s buffooneries are no more crude than those of past presidents, they are uniquely daily events, rather than infrequent episodes? And is that frequency, rather than the degree of controversy, the reason that conservatives who once pushed Trump’s agendas now condemn those policies as tainted — because of Trump’s fingerprints on them? Were Clinton’s agendas less of a danger than Trump’s person, as if a hard progressive’s Ivy League background and administrative-state comportment mattered more than the populist conservatism of a combed-over rabble-rouser?

The media from 2008 to the end of 2016 simply would have thought it racist to report that Obama as a senator did a smiling photo-op in 2005 with anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.

Second is the matter of media emphases. We’ve never had a president whose media coverage was 90 percent negative. In the past, it would have been unthinkable for a Walter Cronkite to report that LBJ had used the n-word in a private White House conversation or dictated to aides while defecating. The media from 2008 to the end of 2016 simply would have thought it racist to report in detail that Obama as a senator did a smiling photo-op in 2005 with anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan in the basement of the Capitol or that he had damned Israel in a long-suppressed speech in praise of pro-Palestinian advocate Rashid Khalidi.

It may be the case that Trump is deemed unpresidential and unfit because his bad behavior is more frequent and extreme than that of past presidents, and that this assessment is not a result of virulently anti-Trump media bias. (If an Obama scandalous tree fell loudly in a forest devoid of media, did it really make a sound — or fall at all?) But so far, the Never Trump movement has not made such an argument convincingly. Trump voters now still believe that the mostly positive message matters more than the flawed messenger.

Third, there are understandably legitimate differences in conservative attitudes toward Trump, the first U.S president without prior political or military experience and service. But should such acrimony extend to the Trump voter?

In attributing moral or ethical laxity to Trump voters, Never Trumpers sidestep the argument that in a Manichean world, not voting for Trump was a de facto vote for the alternative — a likely 16-year Obama-Clinton continuum. Is condoning Trump’s antics by default the moral equivalent of its practical antithesis: ensuring a Supreme Court, economy, and foreign policy that would, in conservatives’ views, radically injure millions of Americans for a generation?

If it were really unethical or foolhardy to vote for Trump, is it by extension far more unethical to serve Trump? In other words, are H. R. McMaster, Jim Mattis, John Kelly, Betsy DeVos, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pompeo far more morally suspect for empowering such a president, in a fashion that outweighs their principled notions of serving the country?

Is it still sustainable to suggest that Trump is not a conservative but a dangerous liberal or demagogic wolf in conservative sheep’s clothing? The doctrinaire conservative Heritage Foundation now claims that two-thirds of its proverbial 334 conservative agenda items have been already met by Trump — and at a pace far faster than that achieved even by former president Reagan.

Fourth, are there Never Trump formulas for presidential candidates and issues that can translate formidable conservative local, state, and congressional successes to the White House, in a way that dozens of past Republican primary and general presidential candidates seemed unable to?

Finally, is there any serious introspection as to why so many misjudged Trump’s trajectory? After Trump’s supposedly impossible election, many doubled down and suggested that he would soon be impeached, or quit, or prove non-conservative or impotently conservative. And the critics continue in this vein today. What was continually missed, and why, and how is such acknowledgment critical in offering believable assessments to come? Finally, if 10 percent of the party might threaten to sit out or leave due to either Trump’s message or his person, would that matter to the 90 percent, given that the party has both won and lost presidential elections with a 90 percent Republican majority but not without voters in Midwest swing states?

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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