White House

Time to Retire the 2016 Trump Clichés

President Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, May 9, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
He’s not a one-man show, and he is mostly adhering to tried-and-true GOP priorities.

Author Camille Paglia has been functioning for about a decade as one of those self-proclaimed lefties whom conservatives are supposed to like, given her noisy alienation from her own tribe. In an interview with The Spectator last week, Paglia did what has now become her routine, blasting Democrats between gripes about the “sludgy tide of political correctness.” The piece was widely shared by many conservatives gleeful at the validation of this progressive Judas.

Beyond trendy ideological treason, however, the Paglia interview embodied another tiresome phenomenon of the moment: our low standards for what constitutes an interesting or insightful take on the president of the United States. Because Trump is hysterically loathed by so many, it’s becoming far too easy to interpret even mildly thoughtful observations about the man as deep and powerful — particularly when coming from progressives, from who we expect less.

But moderate liberal concession isn’t necessarily more correct than fanatic hatred. Paglia did not out herself as a Trump fan, but her analysis of him was nevertheless optimistic (“if the economy continues strong, Trump will be reelected”), amused, and sympathetic. It also consisted entirely of shopworn clichés that have an overdue date with the rubbish bin.

“Has Trump governed erratically?” the interviewer asks. Paglia replies:

Yes, that’s a fair description. It’s partly because as a non-politician he arrived in Washington without the battalion of allies, advisors, and party flacks that a senator or governor would normally accumulate on the long road to the White House. Trump’s administration is basically a one-man operation, with him relying on gut instinct and sometimes madcap improvisation.

Near the end, she adds, “He is basically a pragmatic deal-maker, indifferent to ideology.”

Regardless of how refreshingly fair this may sound coming from a progressive, it is simply not an accurate assessment of the president, his agenda, or administration. It’s a collection of 2016-era assumptions and theories that have been largely discredited by subsequent evidence. It’s time to stop pretending this sort of thing is insightful.

To start, Trump, did arrive in Washington with “a battalion of allies, advisors, and party flacks.” We may recall that one of the country’s top party flacks, RNC chairman Reince Preibus, was even installed as White House chief of staff. Trump’s inaugural cabinet featured a four-term Republican senator as attorney general, sitting Republican congressmen as budget director, health secretary, and interior secretary, plus two former Republican governors as secretaries of agriculture and energy and a third as U.N. ambassador. Mitch McConnell’s wife, longtime GOP apparatchik Elaine Chao, serves as secretary of transportation.

During his rise as GOP leader, Trump amassed a similar assortment of mainstream Republicans in his “kitchen cabinet” of hangers-on, including Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee — whose daughter would become Trump’s second press secretary (following Sean Spicer, former RNC spokesman).

One can easily argue that this cast of characters was not the best the 2016-era Republican party had to offer, but evidence does not support the claim that Donald Trump came to the White House unconnected from his party’s establishment. Whatever mutual apprehensions initially reigned between Trump and many GOP leaders, it was far briefer than our current age of symbiosis.

The sheer size of Trump’s extended cast similarly undermines the notion that his administration can be honestly called a “one-man operation.” On the contrary, as I’ve written about previously, Trump’s government is one of the most “courtly” in modern history, in terms of how broadly diffused and confused its decision-making hierarchy seems to be. As the anecdotes in Bob Woodward’s Fear and corroborating “Resistance” editorial in the New York Times attest, the Trump White House appears to feature an awful lot of people either making decisions entirely independent of the president or brazenly acting as his puppet master.

Nor is another Paglia saw, about Trump’s being “indifferent to ideology” in favor of pragmatic “deals,” persuasive. This one was first popularized during the primaries among the Ted Cruzes of the world, who unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Republican voters that Trump was a big-city liberal at best, a man rushing to cut “deals with Democrats” at worst.

In the years since, as we’ve gotten to know Trump’s politics a bit more intimately, it has to be conceded that the man is, in fact, unambiguously some flavor of conservative — at least in the dictionary sense of the term. He’s an old man who seems to have made up his mind about the way the world works several decades ago, and he doesn’t appear particularly receptive to novel ideas. A standard observation about Trump’s decision-making may be that he holds the opinion of the last person who spoke to him, but it’s worth remembering that most of the people speaking to him these days are conservative Republicans. In many cases, their ability to persuade him seems hardly more challenging than pushing an open door.

There were those who once believed that Trump was destined to create a new hybrid ideology mixing elements of the Right and the Left — “America’s first independent president” and so on. Judged by his actual deeds and statements, however, what we find is a Republican president who, for good or ill, mostly adheres to stereotypical Republican preoccupations — tax cuts, robust defense spending, Federalist Society judges, LGBT skepticism, strong support for Israel, stable relations with Saudi Arabia, resource extraction, raising the national debt, and so on. To decry Trump’s style of governance as more clumsy and ignorant than an imagined Republican alternative is different from saying it’s defined by unique themes.

Trump’s only notable deviations are on trade, where he does seem to have several . . . unique theories that defy conservative scholarship, and to a lesser extent immigration, where he’s mostly just a more literal-minded version of John McCain circa 2010: “Build the dang fence!” And even on the latter front, it’s often unclear to what degree our “one-man show” president, who used to brag about his wall’s “big beautiful door,” is being led like a marionette into harder-line positions by advisers such as longtime Republican staffer Stephen Miller.

When Trump first rode his gold escalator into town, ignorance of his politics was widespread, particularly among those who had never followed his C-list celebritydom with any interest. As we pass the halfway point of his presidency’s first term, however, we now have more than enough evidence to compile an accurate picture of the sort of government this man intends to lead. It’s time to retire the clichés of 2016 and stop praising every Camille Paglia who has belatedly learned to recite them.


J. J. McCullough is a columnist for National Review Online and the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post.

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