The Risky Wager of Betting on Trump

Then-president Donald Trump waves before boarding Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Md., December 12, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

It was always a dice-roll. But in this moment, the case for having supported the president’s reelection bid is harder to make.

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It was always a dice-roll. But in this moment, the case for having supported the president’s reelection bid is harder to make.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE {W} ere the anti-Trumpers right all along?

They point to the president’s performance over the last two months, ranging from the bizarre to the shameful, and point out that this Trump is the only Trump there has ever been. There is no denying that. Indeed, it is why many conservatives who supported him for reelection, and who were generally supportive of the policies if not the person, opposed him in the 2016 GOP primary, coming around to The Donald only through gritted teeth (if you can call Hillary Clinton “gritted teeth”).

In this moment, two tumultuous months after Election Day, the case for having supported the president’s reelection bid is harder to make. The backdrop for it will be more propitious in the coming months — when Joe Biden’s aping of Obama-style pen-and-phone government crashes into a strikingly more constitutionalist federal bench; when a return to appeasement of China and Iran has us fondly remembering Mike Pompeo; when the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division’s reset to its preferred racialized anti-police crusade has us recalling the good old days of Bill Barr, who carried on as if defending speech, economic, and conscience rights were actually a Justice Department mission; when reregulation suffocates an economy ignited by deregulation; and when “climate” returns to its lofty place as the caprice by which progressives pick the economy’s winners and losers while empowering America’s adversaries.

The Trump fanatics notwithstanding, the case for Trump, in 2020 as in 2016, was never based on the comparative merits and demerits of the man. It was Trump as opposed to whom? That’s still the most sensible way to look at it. It is, of course, why few anti-Trump conservatives framed their opposition as positive support for the Democrats, even if that was its de facto effect.

The hard part in this family squabble is not diagnosing the weakness of the other side’s argument. It is grappling with the weakness of my own. The problem with “Trump as opposed to whom?” is that we who’ve supported the president on that basis are less the bottom-line realists we see ourselves as, and more like riverboat gamblers. And what we’re gambling with is the country.

You may still conclude that, in the dilemmas on offer, gambling on Trump was better than resigning ourselves to a Hillary Clinton presidency or, now, a President Biden. Even the damage now being done, the trail being blazed for the next Democratic administration to subvert future Republican electoral victories, has to be weighed against, say, what the Supreme Court would look like for the next 30 years if Mrs. Clinton had been president for the last four, and what that would portend for our constitutional republic.

Still, let’s not pretend this was anything but a gamble.

Some conservatives have moored themselves to Trump, persuaded that our “transactional” president is magnificent — that even his recent hop aboard the Bernie/Pelosi/Schumer free-money train, after doing nothing about runaway spending and unsustainable entitlements for four years, is somehow a brilliant play. If their man says the election was #RIGGED!, then there must have been pervasive fraud, notwithstanding the lack of evidence and the president’s propensity to fold his tent when federal judges — some of whom he himself appointed — invite him to prove his case in court.

For the reluctant supporter, however, Trump has always been a roll of the dice: Avoid the certain nightmare of Democrats in power, and hope potential catastrophes won’t overwhelm the capacity of the president’s capable aides to compensate for his glaring flaws.

Thus my contention in support of the Trump reelection bid: You don’t so much vote for a president as for an administration. But it has been easier for me to see the weakness of this contention over the last two months. There is no separating the president from the presidency, in competence or character, and this is never truer than in times of crisis.

Crisis, after all, is really why we have the presidency. In normal times, the quotidian details of governance are handled by an administration, now grown to thousands of bureaucrats. The real genius of the Framers was to plan for the inevitability of crises. They are best met with not only energy but decisiveness, the kind a chief executive is better positioned to provide than a council, committee, or parliament. That is the awesome power of the presidency and, for better or worse, of the president alone.

Presidents are thus defined by their crises. That goes not just for the ones that happen due to circumstances beyond presidents’ control, but also for the ones their own shortcomings blunder us into.

The cartoon version of President Trump is that he is a power-craving would-be despot, who may have to be forcibly pried from the Resolute desk. In reality, his lust is more for pomp than power. There has always been a chasm — sometimes hilarious, sometimes not so much — between the Twitter thunder and the modest actions, or often the lack of any action at all. The brawler who threatens to start World War III (when not grousing about “forever wars”) reliably melts into Trump the meek, acceding to the guidance of seasoned advisers — many of whom depart before long, exhausted from the effort and vilified by their fickle principal for making it. President Trump is not obsessed with the reins of power (which he willingly let aides hold these last four years); he is incensed by losing an election, and with it the illusion that he has always been wildly popular.

For all his bluster, the president has acted within the bounds of the Constitution and the laws. He has resisted usurpations and aggression that he could easily have gotten away with — eschewing invocations of the Defense Production Act in response to the pandemic, for example; drawing down forces where other presidents might have escalated and become more adventurous. His fatal flaws have little to do with coveting power and everything to do with vanity, self-absorption, and a manic inability to admit error, say the patently obvious right thing, or apologize even when he is patently in the wrong.

We don’t want our presidents merely to wear the office. We want them to strive to be worthy of the presidency. We overdo the vision of America as an idea. America is a nation, albeit a historically unique one, a constitutional republic driven by ideals bound up with liberty, equality, agency, and sacrifice. The presidency has a critical role in that construct. The constitutional qualifications for the presidency are minimal, and winning an election entitles the victor to assume power. But winning alone does not make the victor worthy of the office’s majesty. For that, a president needs to wake up every morning, recognize the job as something greater than himself, and commit to rise to its immense obligations.

President Obama infuriated his opposition by acting as if the presidency were too small for his titanic ego. That was not indifference. Quite the opposite: It was an aloofness suited to taking America and its heritage down a few pegs (though Obama would look at it as refining our society to meet his advanced sensibilities). Trump, by contrast, is maddeningly indifferent to what makes the presidency the presidency. He seems to think it is indistinguishable from the elected person — particularly when that person is Donald Trump. He just does not see the presidency as a national treasure, independent of any incumbent’s personal and political interests; as something to which every incumbent owes study, decorum, and honesty; as the office of Washington and Lincoln that every president is honor-bound to preserve.

For most of Trump’s term, this character flaw was constantly irritating and occasionally gross, but supporters could overlook it: Trump was a well-known quantity when the people chose to elect him; and even if he hadn’t been, allowances would be made for anyone subjected to the unhinged and sinister lengths to which Trump’s opponents went to delegitimize him. Plus, the policies over which he presided were a dramatic improvement. Though not a committed conservative, he enabled conservative subordinates to implement sound agendas. The economy roared, for a change benefiting even those in its lower rungs.

Normally, that kind of president gets reelected by a mile. Trump’s prospects were always hostage to his persona, though, so the whole of his administration’s policy package would always be more popular than he is. Obama in reverse.

Although not of his own making, the pandemic was a true crisis that brought out the worst in Trump rhetorically. He spoke without thinking things through, and indifferent to whether what he said was true. He spoke, with thousands dying, as if COVID-19 were an unfair thing done to him rather than a tragic blow to the nation. In point of fact, the president’s actions were often commendable. The ramp-up in protective gear, ventilators, and testing capacity was impressive, and done with deference to state sovereignty. The push to develop vaccines in less than a year is nothing short of astonishing. He’ll never get the credit he deserves for it.

Trump being Trump, he could never grasp that with the presidency comes the responsibility to give the bad news to us straight, and credibly. In a real crisis, Americans don’t want a reality-TV presidency. They don’t want to hear the leader of the free world’s take on the ratings of cable news shows and the NFL. They want a president who studiously tunes out the partisan sniping while projecting selfless strength and confidence that Americans are up to any challenge — which, as President Bush demonstrated after 9/11, tends to silence the sniping, at least for a while.

This is the biggest point the Trump diehards miss. How is it possible that a zilch like Biden could garner 12 million more votes than the charismatic Obama got in 2008? They emote this question as if the very asking proved the gargantuan but somehow elusive election fraud. As if the nation’s population had not grown by 25 million since 2008. As if Biden’s haul is inherently fishy but Trump’s 12 million-vote improvement over his total from just four years ago is perfectly natural.

Biden may be a trademark hack, but that’s not why he stayed in his basement. He did that because he and the president had the same idea: Make the election all about Trump. The president started out in 2017 as one whom 54 percent of the country had voted against. He remained personally unpopular with over half the country throughout his term, especially when the pandemic erased his surging economy while highlighting his incorrigible foibles. It is not at all hard to see how Biden could collect a record-setting 81 million popular votes. In the main, they were votes against Trump, not for Biden.

Since the election, we’ve had two months of a president publicly insisting the election was rigged while hoping no one noticed that his campaign expressly declined the invitation to prove massive fraud and illegality in Wisconsin. In Pennsylvania, Trump’s team did not just formally drop fraud charges, they explicitly represented to federal courts that they were not alleging fraud. Yet Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) now vows to join Trump’s House allies in objecting to the counting of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. And other states’ votes, too. Even Hawley does not claim that the election was stolen or that any known departures from Pennsylvania’s election laws would have changed the outcome. He just wants to “raise these critical issues.”

Don’t faint when the Democrats start to “raise critical issues” too. If the election was rigged, for example, is that why Republicans did so much better than expected in the down-ballot contests? If Republicans are going to press the president’s claims, why wouldn’t Democrats target all those congressional seats and state houses won by the GOP?

Four years from now, what’s to stop Democrats from delegitimizing an election some Republican has won by mimicking Trump’s own lines of argument? Conservatives can scream bloody murder while Democrats, relying on today’s House Republicans, insist that Vice President Kamala Harris has the unilateral authority to decide which states’ electoral votes to count, and which to invalidate as too suspect. Try to keep a stiff upper lip, too, when Democrats cite Trump arguments in support of their quest to dispense with the Electoral College altogether — reasoning that a state’s popular election is irrelevant if enough elected Democrats decide the winner should be the Democrat who, the media will dutifully point out, has won the popular vote nationally.

Anti-Trump conservatives always maintained that, despite its policy successes, the Trump presidency would prove to be a boon for Democrats. I bet that they were wrong. On November 3, that wager looked better than it does at the moment. The last two months have been bad. It may take a few years to quantify how bad.

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