White House

Sometimes Trump: Now More Than Ever

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., July 26, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
An honest assessment of the president is what the Right needs most.

Few things have occupied more of my energy and frankly my anxiety over the last two and a half years than trying to see conservatism hold itself together through the Trump era. This transcends any impact of Trumpism on the ideology or movement of conservatism, and actually speaks to the personalities involved: the thought leaders, the people. It is inadequate to merely state that divisions have formed around the response of conservatism to Donald J. Trump. In some tragic cases friendships have been destroyed. Nastiness has frequently ruled the day. My dream a couple years ago of everyone taking a breath and finding it in themselves to understand where the other side was coming from was revealed to be naïve gibberish. And as we prepare for President Trump’s reelection effort, I suspect we are about to discover that these intra-squad disputes have only been in the early innings.

I hold out no hope for persuading other leading advocates of a particular school of thought on Trump how they ought to think, how they ought to behave, or how they ought to be. I can only affirmatively suggest what my modus operandi will be for the next year and three months, and if it strikes a chord within any of you, so be it. My objectives at this point are not to be a grand mediator of divided forces, but rather to be a faithful witness and effective movement conservative in a time where it is desperately needed.

One of the most misused and unhelpful phrases that has taken hold since the 2016 election is “Never Trump.” When the term debuted as a hashtag on Twitter during the primary, it meant that some candidate other than Trump should receive the GOP nomination. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz proponents used it. Once the primary was over, its utility within the right was mostly dead. Of course, there existed a small number of people on the right who still hoped he would lose in his contest against Hillary Clinton, and more obviously, there were plenty of people on the left who remained “Never Trump” in that they were pro-Hillary Democrats. Nevertheless, he did win the primary and he did win the election. I have commented many times that someone saying he is Never Trump after the election is equivalent to a Falcons fan saying he is Never Patriots after the 2017 Super Bowl. Some wanted Trump defeated in the primary (I was one of them). Some wanted Trump defeated in the general. But once he won, Never Trump was no longer a thing, and this was frequently said by people often labeled as Never Trump themselves.

The expression now is used mostly by people who can best be described as “Always Trump” as a substitute for making a real argument against those who find something in Trump worthy of criticism. It is a dangerous pejorative to throw around, because it heavily implies one of the most corrosive and destructive ideas in our constitutional order — that it is somehow disloyal or out of bounds to criticize an elected leader from one’s own party. This idea undermines the entire point of a free republic, of thoughtful exchange of ideas, and of principled government, and such a statist and sycophantic set of expectations was notably absent pre-Trump. Bill Buckley, for instance, was totally unaware that this was his partisan duty not only during the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford administrations, but even during the Reagan administration.

To this day, no one actually believes that dissent from the president is treasonous to the cause. What is different is that intense polarization has accelerated a heavy tribalistic impulse that is tearing apart the fabric of American political life, dividing left from right and stirring up toxic feuds within the right as well. For the Always Trump camp, either the president does nothing wrong, or the wrong he does becomes right once he does it, or — most often — even if he is wrong, how dare we say so when there are progressives trying to ruin America.

There is a group, no doubt, who do the exact opposite. If President Trump stated he was for oxygen, they would find reason to decry air. This camp is hardly, though, the source of the present division.

The most important question is whether there can be a fair-minded assessment of Trump’s work: a sincere concern for the long-term potential negatives from Trumpism, and also a place to condone (and promote) the good work that can still be done in the remainder of the administration. My view is not merely that there can be such an intellectually honest and morally clear effort, but in fact that there must be. The expression that has been used by Erick Ericson and Ben Shapiro and myself is Sometimes Trump. And I will humbly suggest that it represents the best bridge remaining between the reasonable elements of the two divided sides.

The Trump presidency often deserves less criticism than President Trump himself does. From a pure policy standpoint, a movement conservative ought to be grateful for the judges who have been appointed (and artfully seen through by the aggressive work of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell). The corporate-tax reform was overdue for decades in this country and has done a great deal to extend an economic cycle that may have been long in the tooth and reassert the global competitiveness of American businesses.

Both of these achievements, by the way, have lasting impact. When Trump defenders also bring up the Paris Accord or the Iran deal or any number of dozens of executive actions the president has taken, it is crucial that we remember they can be undone by a pen stroke by the next president. I understand the symbolic benefit of some of President Trump’s executive actions here, but I do miss the times that conservatives knew that most executive actions were (a) imperialistic and outside the bounds of constitutional protocol, and (b) cosmetic and un-lasting. I reserve my strongest praise for the president for those few items that are paradigmatic, durable, and truly meaningful in advancing the cause of better government, better jurisprudence, and better liberty. Thus far, the strongest examples have been with judges and corporate-tax reform.

His desire to build a wall, meanwhile, was obstructed by Congress — and of course he never ran on a platform of “I will build the wall, and get Mexico to pay for it, as long as Nancy Pelosi lets me!” Now, I do not blame President Trump for the realities of divided government; I just blame some of his supporters for actually believing that he could just snap his fingers and get a wall built. “He is a real-estate guy — he knows what to do!” These aspirations built some of the divide that exists between the two camps.

Perhaps no category has been as mixed as the president’s stewardship of the economy. I have defended the strength of the economy countless times on Fox Business and CNBC myself, because pretty much every objective measure has improved in the last two and half years: unemployment, wage growth, business investment, labor-force participation, food-stamp receipt. (And yes, this has happened during a time in which the Fed has increased interest rates seven times and removed some portion of the excess balance-sheet reserves from the nation’s monetary base.) I believe the president deserves credit for a very significant share of these developments. Indeed, the sweeping efforts at deregulation early in his presidency, the confidence the business sector took from a more pro-market group of regulators (particularly in the financial and energy sector), and the three-pronged benefits of corporate-tax reform (repatriation, supply-side rate reduction, and immediate expensing of capital expenditures) all warrant credit for the economic improvement we have seen.

However, the president’s trade war has undermined much of his own success, evident in the collapse of business expenditures in recent quarters. Manufacturing has been collapsing, and GDP growth has seen its non-residential fixed-investment component disappear. (This is the business-investment category that had so vastly improved under Trump vs. Obama earlier in the Trump presidency.) The negotiations with China remain unresolved, and even if a deal is struck, the use of high taxes on American importers and consumers will have undermined growth and deflated much of the economic story.

And then there is spending. Again, I am completely aware of the political realities we face, but with $1 trillion deficits that are growing, not shrinking, and government spending absolutely ballooning under President Trump, I keep worrying that the Tea Party is about to find its second wind. I’m being sarcastic, because the party of the president has changed, but the idea that Trump deserves a pass because he has to deal with a difficult Congress, whereas John Boehner did not deserve a pass despite having to deal with Barack Obama, strikes me as a little unfair. Every president and every Congress has to deal with some opposition. Negotiating, bargaining, and working within the political realities of the day are difficult. I offer no pass to the Bush administration of last decade or the Obama administration of earlier this decade. In fact, the only effort to control spending whatsoever came about because of a sequestration movement pushed through by Mitch McConnell’s GOP Senate in 2011. President Trump has not used his bully pulpit at all to advocate fiscal restraint, and there are plenty of reasons to believe he does not particularly care much about fiscal responsibility. This was always a significant issue for conservatives until about two years ago.

I am not sure what to say about President Trump’s handling of foreign affairs. I have never seen such a bizarre mix of views in a single candidate as “bomb the sh** out of ISIS” and “no more foreign wars.” President Trump’s most ardent supporters swore that his selection of General Mattis to run the Defense Department was all we needed to know to see how serious he was about a credible national defense, but when General Mattis resigned, the universal response was “he clearly wasn’t one of us anyways.” I offer no verdict yet on President Trump’s handling of Iran, as it clearly is a work in progress. I have unwavering confidence in Secretary Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, and I give the president credit for selecting both men. On the other hand, he has said things publicly that call into question what his true north is philosophically regarding foreign policy. His frequent condemnation of internationalist organizations such as NATO are good politics for his base, even if he is not always serious.

But there can be no defense, politically or morally, of the presidents’ embrace of dictatorial tyrants and thugs such as Kim Jung-un and Vladimir Putin. I think about what the Right would do if President Obama had done or said half of what President Trump has regarding these two, and I cannot believe how far we have come. No matter what one believes about the nuances of the global order and America’s place within it, there is never an excuse for legitimizing thuggish and putrid foreign powers. Back-channel negotiations and the necessary pursuit of some working dynamic are one thing, but the unacceptable public embrace the president has offered these two brutes makes the Obama dynamic with Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro look benign by comparison.

Why have I undertaken the effort to offer a pedestrian overview of the president’s performance in various categories? Because I believe each silo offers the legitimate and objective opportunity to do what must be done — sometimes praise Trump, and sometimes criticize him. This is not a weak middle-ground position, and it is not a contrived “on one hand this and on the other hand that.” It is an objective and accurate assessment of the first 30 months of this presidency.

I also mentioned that this presidency has been less deserving of criticism than the president himself. Yes, I do here refer to the demeanor, temperament, maturity, and stature of the president personally, and not just on Twitter. I am shocked that he has not taken the strong economy as an opportunity to shore up his seriousness and credibility. His Twitter outbursts’ fundamental flaw is that they are never about anything other than him. His skin has gotten thinner since becoming president, something I didn’t know was even possible. It has made the most passionate of Always Trumpers cringe in private moments they don’t talk about on Fox News, and frankly, it has left his reelection prospects iffy when he otherwise would be running with 60 percent approval ratings. And yet I am told this is the Trump skeptics’ fault — that if we would just get in line and accept his “punching down” on Twitter, everything would be all right.

Might I suggest everyone has it backwards? That there is nothing, and I mean nothing, this president craves more than the acceptance of people — and that if his most ardent supporters would make it clear they want to see him govern, lead, and act like a president, he might, just might, do so? I believe those who have enabled this kind of behavior cost the Republicans dearly in the 2018 midterms. And I believe they will cost us the president’s reelection in 2020 (or at least put it at huge, huge risk) if something does not change.

President Trump is not going to win over the so-called “Never Trump” crowd in the 2020 election. And he obviously is not going to win over the Left. But we are witnessing a Democratic primary where each candidate is vying for a crazier position than the candidate standing next to him. I am told on a daily basis, with plenty of prima facie validity to the argument, that the extremism we are seeing from the Left is why Republicans must keep the White House in 2020. But the radicalization of the Democratic Left does not only carry greater consequences for what happens out of the 2020 election; it also leaves the president with a higher responsibility. Why should the burden of defeating Elizabeth Warren be only on David French, and not at all on Donald J. Trump? Does that not seem somewhat ridiculous? If avoiding the progressive takeover of the White House is the need of the hour, should not the Always Trump movement and Trump himself take the task as seriously as we are being asked to?

The “Sometimes Trump” movement needs to double down on its commitments. This is both a political and an ideological comment. Ideologically, the world will have no interest in listening to movement people who don’t care about their own movement. If you believe that foreign policy requires American strength in the global order, responsibly used, then you have an obligation to condone actions that drive that outcome and condemn actions that undermine it. If you believe that a debt-to-GDP ratio of 106 percent is unsustainable, then you have an obligation to fight against the fiscal apathy that has now become accepted in this administration. Whether it is the 2020 election, or the inevitable fights of 2021, or the economic mediations coming in, let’s say, 2029, there will be a need for credible leadership and voice, and I want that voice to be from true conservative vanguards. Ideologically, the vessel of conservatism must be maintained. It transcends Trump, Hillary, and Bernie Sanders, and it will be the need of the hour in 2020, and 2040.

But I also mean that the “Sometimes Trump” movement is necessary politically, and in this I am probably giving President Trump a bigger compliment than most of his critics would be willing to give him. I believe that somewhere deep down inside of him, he responds to criticism. I believe that the constant chorus of folks who refuse to tell him he is ever wrong grows old, and that he intuitively knows it is absurd. An objective approach to his presidency will be rewarded in the end, because truth is always rewarded in the end, and because, pragmatically, it keeps the center of gravity from shifting to a place where there can be no coalition big enough to win elections.

I have friends on the right who will not vote for President Trump in 2020. I understand their views, and I wish President Trump had done more to secure their votes in his first term. I also have friends on the right who wouldn’t turn their back on President Trump if he did shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. I do not have the moral authority to ask everyone to hit a reset button (though I wish I did). I offer no “voting guide” on what one ought to do at this time. It is early, and we will know a lot more about this race, his opponent, his path to victory or loss, and his readiness for the challenges ahead one year from now. The fact of the matter is that no one is going to have a greater impact on whether or not Trump is reelected (and a progressive Democrat defeated) than Donald Trump will.

I don’t know if the Right will heal. But I do know this: Criticism of a president when he is wrong, done out of love for country and the cause that stirs us, is not undermining the president — it may very well be what saves this president. And if it doesn’t, it may certainly be what saves the movement many of us have devoted our lives to.

David L. Bahnsen is the managing partner of a wealth-management firm, a trustee of the National Review Institute, and author of the book, Crisis of Responsibility: Our Cultural Addiction to Blame and How You Can Cure It.

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