The reaction of so-called “establishment conservatives” to President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has been one of joy, if not incredulity. The federal judiciary is extremely powerful, after all, and Trump has a mandate of unorthodoxy. If the president wanted to leave a lasting nationalist-populist legacy on the federal government, he could have easily picked a candidate whose philosophy was more broadly opposed to wealth and power — say, a lawyer with a strong bias for workers over corporations, or a politician furiously opposed to Citizens United.
Instead, Trump went with a man deeply in tune with the longstanding Republican consensus of what a judge should do and think. If Trump’s judicial finalists were the 2016 GOP primary, the Jeb Bush candidate won.
The standard explanation for this is that Trump was long ago intimidated by the passion and knowledge of Washington’s conservative legal establishment into deferring to their judgment. As a candidate he showily recruited the Federalist Society’s Leo Leonard to draft a list of acceptable high-court nominees, which he has since expanded and honored as president. For voters who respected the Federalist Society more than they respected Trump it was a canny political offer, but it also represented a concession by Trump that the specialized knowledge of certain elites deserved acquiescence. It was an attitude that would later be mirrored in his approach to military matters, and Syria in particular. There would be no radical reimagining of American warfare, just presidential deference to another mighty establishment — the Pentagon.
Even the most powerful man on earth has only so many hours in his day. Trump has clearly chosen to expend the majority of his disruptive energy and attention on a few realms of public policy that have always interested him, and about which he considers himself an expert (trade, diplomacy, and immigration). His remaining responsibilities have been outsourced to politicians, bureaucrats, and activists with more interest, even if their agendas do not align perfectly with his own.
While it’s tempting to view Trump’s varying standards of attention and inconsistently applied populism as evidence of weakness or hypocrisy, this may say less about the man than the overwhelming array of responsibilities his office holds. During the 2016 campaign, the president identified a vast array of problems and concluded “I alone can fix it.” We can debate the degree to which “it” is being addressed, but the “alone” was undeniably disingenuous. No president can — or even wants to — work without the guidance of assistants who know and care about the things he doesn’t.
Much of what was written about Trump in 2016 seems overheated today, including the commentary of many conservatives who underestimated the degree to which Trump could and would obediently defer to various elite structures of both the presidency and Republican politics. Indeed, given the Trump precedent, a strong (if not particularly inspiring) argument can be made that you could place even the most hysterical, radical lunatic in the Oval Office and they’d still likely wind up being pretty ordinary in any number of ways. The issue, then as now, would simply be whether their radicalism in one area would be sufficient to counter their ordinariness in another.
Being president has tamed some of the instincts Donald Trump displayed as a candidate and Fox News pundit.
President Alex Jones might have the Air Force working overtime looking for all the hidden alien corpses, but his tax policies might be delegated to Congress and relatively conventional. President Roseanne might invade Israel in an attempt to find the real perpetrators of 9/11, but energy policy might be happily entrusted to the Deep State. The alternative, in which a president disrupts absolutely every realm in which he has authority and heralds a completely new government built in his idiosyncratic image, would require superhuman effort. This isn’t to say presidents can’t do great damage in their chosen realms of attention, just that they can’t do as much damage, broadly spread, as our caricature of the office often imagines. The sheer spawl of the executive branch is a check on a president’s personal ambition, even as the executive branch remains an imperial force in American life.
We humans are a lot of talk. What we imagine as “moral clarity” or “leadership” is often little more than bloviating easy answers to problems we barely understand. When placed in positions of responsibility, however, most of us are likely to become deeply pragmatic and cautious, humbled by complexities and thoughtful in response to the advice of identified experts. President Trump’s stock excuse whenever he adopts a fresh position of humility — “nobody had any idea how complex this was going to be” — has been widely mocked, but it is a fairly universal reaction of a person given a job beyond his immediate mastery.
This was the point of Robert Conquest’s famous insight that “everyone is conservative about what he knows best.” In our own roles and careers, we tend to be imperious know-it-alls. We react to new ideas with skepticism and demand deference from others. Others, in turn, treat us the same way when it’s their expertise on the line. Both sides try to avoid the consequences of acting on ignorance, and a harmony of expertise is created that can be admirable in its efficiency, but also frustrating for its elitism and intellectual stagnancy. Despite an abundance of self-confidence, being president has tamed some of the instincts Donald Trump displayed as a candidate and Fox News pundit, and in doing so, reinforced truths about how humans behave when assigned tasks of intimidating complexity.
I often wonder how Trump will behave when he eventually leaves the White House and is no longer accountable for substantial decisions and no longer works alongside men and women capable of humbling him. My guess is he will regress in a wild direction, just as Jesse Ventura has since leaving the governorship of Minnesota. A job of sufficient magnitude can discipline actions, but it cannot change character. This may be one of the lasting lessons of the Trump years.