If Candidate Trump Can’t Be Managed, What Makes You Think President Trump Could Be?

(Reuters photo: Mike Segar)
Leading conservatives are engaging in wishful thinking.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (including the disgusting ones who made that G-File reader sex tape, check it out),

In my most selfish moments, I want Donald Trump to win the election.

But before I explain that, let me just say he could win. I talked to Hugh Hewitt this morning and he said he was stealing my line, so I figured I’d better get it down on “paper” fast.

Trump got to where he is for a lot of reasons, starting with a 17-candidate collective-action problem, myriad failures of both the GOP’s establishment and anti-establishment wings, and, of course, the cold, indifferent cruelty of this meaningless, empty universe where nothing matters and the living envy the dead. But giving Trump his due, he also got to where he is because he was great at punching-up. When he took on Jeb Bush, Reince Priebus, the media, Washington, etc., he was punching up. He wasn’t just the outsider coming into town to blow things up, he was Godzilla smashing all before him. In the standard Godzilla movie there’s always that scene where the hapless Japanese army tries to lure the beast toward some electric power lines. Godzilla takes the bait and bites the power lines. But the shock doesn’t kill him, it makes him stronger! That was Trump in the primaries. Mangling metaphors somewhat, people told him “You can’t chomp those power lines! Those are the third rails of American politics!” Trumpzilla cared not, bit them, and got stronger.

But here’s the problem: Everyone thinks Godzilla is cool when he’s fighting Monster Zero or swatting away fighter jets. But when they have that close up shot of Godzilla’s clawed foot coming down on a child or a screaming woman, all of a sudden, you can’t cheer the King of Monsters. So it is with Trump: He wins when he punches up. He loses when he punches down.

And that’s Trump’s Achilles’ heel: He can’t resist punching down. He can no more stop himself from “counter-punching” the little guy than my dog can agree not to chase rabbits. (“It’s just so hoppy! I must kill it!”)

Everyone knows this. Hillary Clinton knew it and she baited him. She almost literally could have said, “Donald, I’m going to bait you. You would be a fool to take the bait. But I know you will.” And he still would take the bait. In fact, I think he would be more likely to take the bait if she said she were baiting him, because he would want to prove that he could take the bait and win.

I thought Trump lost the debate, but not overwhelmingly. He was clearly the winner of the first 30 minutes or so, and if he’d stayed that guy for the full 90 it would have been a hugely consequential rout. But then, Hillary implemented “Bait Trump Protocol Alpha-1,” when she brought up how he got his start with a $14 million loan from his father. (She got the details wrong, but it doesn’t matter. When you’re baiting fish or Trumpzilla, the lure doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be shiny. In fact, getting the bait just slightly wrong makes it even more irresistible, because we all have a natural instinct to correct falsehoods aimed at us, and Trump more than most.)

So Trump bit the shiny thing, and for the rest of the night, plodding, dull Hillary Clinton led Trump around the stage like a matador with a red cape. And, four days later, Trump is still charging around like an enraged bull. At first I thought Clinton’s use of Alicia Machado was odd. There are so many Trump victims out there, why use one with such a weird past? But that’s what was so brilliant about it. If Machado were a nun, it’d be harder for Trump to attack. But Trump thinks he can win this one on the merits and so he won’t let go of it. He didn’t learn the lesson of his feud with the Khan family: The only way to win such fights is to not engage in them at all. The debate wasn’t a disaster but how he handled the post-debate spin was, and continues to be.

If Trump could stay on message, if he could be a disciplined candidate, I think he’d be ten points ahead by now. But realistically, this is no different from saying if he could control anything metal with his mind, he would be Magneto.

Why I (Sometimes) Want Trump to Win

Okay, so why in my selfish heart of hearts do I want Trump to win? Because that’s the only surefire way my opposition to Trump can be vindicated. If he loses, every time Hillary Clinton does something awful — which will be a lot — people will say, “If Trump were president this wouldn’t be happening,” or, “This is all the fault of the ‘Jonah Goldberg class,’” or, “If we had Mr. Trump’s broad-shouldered leadership, the grain harvests would be historic.”

Now, I think such claims would be a variant of “Parmenides’s Fallacy,” in which people always assume the road not taken would have avoided any problems. But that won’t matter.

And that’s why I say that in my selfish moments, I want him to win. Contrary to all of this incessant blather that I want Hillary Clinton to win because it will be good for my bottom line, the truth is the best thing that could happen for me personally is for Trump to win and then prove to be the spectacularly awful president I am quite confident he would be. The I-told-you-sos would be delightful, the tears of some of his supporters, delicious.

Trump the Destroyer, First of His Name

I say “some” of his supporters for a reason. Because I think many of his supporters would continue to defend Trump no matter what he did or said as president. And that’s probably the main reason I’m so opposed to him: A Trump presidency would destroy conservatism in this country.

I’ve written a lot about the corrupting effect Trump’s candidacy has had on conservatism. But let me try to put it a different way. Trump is an unintentional master of the art of rectal ventriloquism. No, I don’t mean he’s a champion farter. I mean he talks out of his ass, and the words magically start coming out of other peoples’ mouths. He says eminent domain is wonderful and suddenly conservatives start saying, “Yeah, it’s wonderful!” He floats a new entitlement for child care and almost instantaneously people once opposed to it start bragging about how sensitive they are to the plight of working moms. He says Social Security needs to be more generous and days later once proud tea partiers are saying the same thing, and the rest of us are left to marvel how we didn’t even see Trump’s lips, or cheeks, move.

This is a perfect example of the corrupting effect of populism and personality cults. I keep mentioning my favorite line from William Jennings Bryan: “The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later.” For many Trump supporters, the rule of the day is, “Donald Trump is for X and I am for X. I will look up the arguments later (if ever).”

Your Weapons Are Useless Against Him

I’ve spoken to countless leading conservatives, including prominent politicians, who tell me that once Trump is in the White House, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, and all of Trump’s wonderful appointees will be able to manage him. Trump’s talk-radio and TV supporters will keep him honest and make sure he keeps his promises.

I think this is in-frick’n-sane.

Candidate Trump can’t be managed. Everyone with any contacts in or around Trump world has heard the stories about how his staff tries to impose discipline on him. The jokes about Kellyanne Conway desperately trying to hide his phone from him to keep him off Twitter are funny because they’re true.

And yet, you’re telling me that when Trump wins despite rejecting all of this advice and actually takes possession of Air Force One, and when the Marine guards start saluting him as the band plays “Hail to the Chief,” I’m supposed to believe this staggering narcissist will suddenly become manageable? Seriously?

Moreover, throughout his entire career in business, he’s made a name for himself as a promise-breaker, welcher, and snake-oil salesman, willing to say whatever he needs to in order to close the deal. “Sure this car gets 200 miles to the gallon. Sign the check and you’ll see.” That is what the art of the deal really means for him. He’ll get the White House and he’ll say to the rest of us looking to cash in his political promises, “Try and collect.”

Trump is not a conservative. He has some instincts that overlap with conservatism — the importance of law and order, the value of military strength etc. — but these instincts are not derived from any serious attachment to ideas or arguments. They stem from his lizard-brain machismo and his authoritarian streak. He never talks about liberty or limited government unless someone shoves it into his teleprompter. His ideas about economics and public policy are shot-through with dirigisme. He’s learned to talk the talk about free-market solutions, but in his heart he’s still the guy who believes single-payer health care works “incredibly well.” The one adviser we know he listens to is his daughter, and she is certainly no conservative. Does anyone believe he will side with Mike Pence and against her in a fight over, say, Planned Parenthood?

Donald Milhous Trump

Hadley Arkes, one of the many “Scholars for Trump” I respect a great deal, has an interesting argument for why he supports him. He writes:

In 1964 the Republicans, with Goldwater, were blown away, and yet four years later the Republicans came back strongly with Richard Nixon. But in those intervening four years the regime itself was changed: The Great Society extended and confirmed the reach of the federal authority until it covered hiring and firing in corporations and even small, private colleges. And it extended federal controls over local education. We are faced now with a comparable threat to change the regime yet again. Obama has already sought to govern wide sections of the economy with regulations that bear little connection to any statute that can give the standing of law to these executive orders. He has made a nullity of Congress and the separation of powers.

Note that Arkes says Republicans came back strongly with Richard Nixon. That’s true. But this was not a conservative comeback. The Goldwaterites were marginalized. Nixon didn’t roll back the Great Society; he made it bipartisan.

Save for his anti-Communism, Nixon wasn’t a conservative. He came from the progressive, Rockefeller, wing of the GOP. He told reporters that the “Buckleyites” were a “threat more menacing” to the GOP than was the John Birch Society. He believed Ronald Reagan was a “know-nothing.” He told his aide John C. Whitaker, “There is only one thing as bad as a far-left liberal and that’s a damn right-wing conservative.” Nixon created the EPA, implemented wage and price controls, launched the first affirmative-action programs, and proposed a health-care program that was downright Obamacare-esque.

From everything we know, Trump’s a Nixonian liberal without a fraction of Nixon’s policy chops.

From everything we know, Trump’s a Nixonian liberal without a fraction of Nixon’s policy chops. He’s surrounded himself with Nixon-retreads like Manafort and Stone, and ripped off Nixon’s entire rhetorical playbook from “the silent majority” on down.

In my heart, I truly believe he would trade Supreme Court appointments for a massive infrastructure program. The one thing we know about the guy is he likes to build stuff and put his name on it. If Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi — who already want a massive infrastructure program — told him, “Hey, meet us half way on the judges and we’ll deliver the votes you’ll need,” he’d do it in a heartbeat, throwing the conservatives under the bus while — here’s the important point — taking an enormous number of Republicans with him.

Just look at the issues of trade, entitlements, child care, and gun rights (in the form of his capitulation on the terror watch list). Look at all the formerly “true conservative” types who’ve gamely gone along with Trump so far. Do you honestly think they’ll break with a president Trump? Trump won’t crush the administrative state, he will be rolled by the bureaucrats. That’s what the heads of bureaucracies do in our system. They don’t run the agencies, they spin-up and co-opt politicians. That’s why you need a conservative president who knows things.

The Perfidious Binary

I’m not one to over-indulge in self-pity, but I do sometimes feel like a therapist should be asking me, “Show me on the doll where 2016 touched you.” But among the most annoying and asinine “arguments” — accusations really — hurled at me 100 times a day is that if I’m against Trump, I’m for Hillary. This is nonsense on stilts atop a cloud. I can’t stand Hillary Clinton. Back when Trump was writing her checks and inviting her to his wedding, I was opposing her and her familial tong with everything I had. I wrote Liberal Fascism with her in mind. The hardcover’s subtitle reference to “the politics of meaning” was a direct shot at her New Age–y soft-totalitarian nanny-statism. I will give the first person who can find a single pro-Hillary column — or paragraph! — I’ve ever written a lifetime subscription to National Review.

I think she will make a terrible president and be bad for America. If any of the other 16 candidates had won the nomination, many of whom I cannot stand, I would be out there screaming expletives at any Republican who thought Hillary was a better choice.

And even with my adamantine opposition to Trump, I still cannot imagine endorsing Hillary Clinton (even though liberals are now insisting I must almost as much as conservatives claim I have), because I know she will be horrible and she stands for things I reject with every fiber of my political soul (“Do souls have fibers?” — The Couch).

But here’s the thing: Conservatives know how to oppose Clinton, who will come into office the most damaged and unpopular president in American history, having fulfilled her mandate to not be Trump on Day One.

#related#But it’s already very clear they do not know how to oppose Trump. His hostile takeover of the Republican party demonstrates that. So do the otherworldly descriptions of Trump that his more intellectual supporters conjure from thin air. If he becomes president, the Republican party will no longer be even notionally conservative. America can survive four years of Hillary Clinton, though those four years will be bad. Very bad. But America cannot survive if both parties reject the principles of limited government and constitutionalism, which would be the result of a “successful” Trump presidency or even most scenarios in which he’s a failed president. The demise won’t be instantaneous, but gradual, as a new bipartisan consensus forms between a right-wing statist party and a left-wing statist party. The body-snatched Republicans will become ever more serviceable dummies for the master of rectal ventriloquism. Principled conservatives won’t vanish — though some trolls keep telling me we’ll all be hung, gassed, or killed by the coming mobs. Rather, we will become increasingly irrelevant, cast into the same peanut gallery as our libertarian cousins.

But, we will be able to say, “I told you so.” Which, in my selfish moments, is a great temptation.

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I will be on Brit Hume’s On the Record tonight.

The new GLoP is out. It’s my most sophomoric contribution to that normally dignified colloquium to date.

DVR reminder: I will be on TCM on October 5.

Canine Update: Alas, I was travelling for most of the last two weeks so I don’t have much to report. The Dingo is Dingoey. The Spaniel is Spanielly. And while they’re getting along fine these days, the aftershocks of Pippa’s unprecedented decision to fight back against Zoe are still being felt. Zoe still growls to protect her bones and bullysticks but she does so with a glint of appreciation in her eye that any attacks may invite a vicious reprisal. Just another great example of Peace through Strength.

Debby’s Friday links

Manatee-riding Florida man talks smack to cops, arrested

USC hires its first dog professor

Cat rides motorcycle

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Who are the drunkest NFL fans?

Dog welcomes U.S. Air Force Captain home from Afghanistan

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How Arnold Palmer invented the Arnold Palmer

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