Editor’s Note: If you would like to read more pros and cons on voting for President Trump, further essays on the subject, each from a different perspective, can be found here, here, and here. These articles, and the one below, reflect the views of the individual authors, not of the National Review editorial board as a whole.
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The Case against Trump
In 2016, my friend Roger Kimball of Encounter Books commissioned a little book from me titled The Case against Trump. This was during the Republican primary election, and, at one point, Roger suggested that we might want to rethink the project, assuming that Trump would be out of the race before we were able to print the book. But that is not what happened. Trump stayed, the book came out, and we had a very fun launch party in Manhattan, with guests wearing “Make America Read Again” hats. Roger has had a change of heart about Trump since then, and I have not. But I have never lost a friend over mere politics and hope that I never will.
The case against Trump in 2020 is a lot like the case against Trump in 2016 but bolstered by the accumulation of evidence and experience. Any hope that he might mature in office and come to appreciate the gravity of his responsibility has been dissolved. He is, if anything, a less serious candidate in 2020 than he was in 2016, and even more the game-show host. He has a few good people around him who have tried to push him in the right direction, but they have, for the most part, failed.
But before I get into the case against Trump, I’d like to consider the case for Trump, which was made ably in the last issue of National Review by my friend Andrew C. McCarthy.
There are two distinct versions of the case for Trump, one of them defensible and one of them indefensible.
The qualified case for Trump — Andy’s case, basically — goes: “It’s him or the Democrats, the Democrats have declared war on capitalism and the Bill of Rights, among other things, and whatever instincts toward moderation may be ricocheting around like a terribly lonely pinball inside the vast empty interstellar expanse of Joe Biden’s doddering old noggin are sure to be overwhelmed by the relatively disciplined and organized efforts of the hard-left Democrats, bat-guano nutters such as Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who are so barking mad that Nancy Pelosi is, incredibly enough, now a figure of the party’s center rather than a meshuga San Francisco outlier. That being the case, I choose Trump.” That is not my position, but it is a reasonable position.
The unqualified — and indefensible — case for Trump goes: “Donald Trump’s presidency has been good for America — positively, on its own merits, rather than merely relative to what we might have expected from Mrs. Clinton.” That argument is partly dishonest, partly delusional.
One of the many perversities of Trump’s presidency is that Donald J. Trump’s core deficiencies as a chief administrator — his ignorance and his laziness — are the chief practical virtues of his presidency. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and doesn’t want to know, and this has created the opportunity for some of the people in his administration to get some useful things done. For this reason, the conservative advances that have accompanied the Trump presidency (and it won’t do to pretend that these do not exist) mostly have been in the fields in which the president has the least engagement and interest, whereas the catastrophes of the Trump presidency (and it won’t do to pretend that these do not exist) are strongly associated with those few areas of policy in which he takes an active interest or is personally and strongly engaged with ex officio.
For example, I would bet any sum of money that, prior to his seeking the Republican nomination, Donald Trump had no idea what the Federalist Society is or does. I would not be in the least surprised if he still didn’t know. He gives no indication of having given a second’s thought to any judicial philosophy beyond Roy Cohn’s and does not seem to have any interest in the subject. And that’s worked out . . . great. Trump’s principal success has been as a rubber stamp to the very “establishment” at which Trump and his admirers like to sneer. In the matter of judges, that establishment is instantiated by the Heritage Foundation — which simply gave Trump a list of good judicial candidates, while Trump, always happy to let someone else do his homework for him, has stuck with it. Heritage in fact took a very prominent role in staffing the administration across-the-board.
The same is true for any number of “swamp,” “insider,” or “establishment” institutions. Trump and his followers have lambasted this magazine as a “swamp” mouthpiece, but his administration nonetheless has hired a number of people associated with it for key roles, while poor scheming Steve Bannon of Breitbart was not only dismissed but disowned — “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency,” Trump wrote — and then arrested on fraud charges by Trump’s Department of Justice. (It was a scheme involving shaking down rubes for money purportedly going toward a border wall — that kind of justice is not merely poetic but Shakespearean.) Trump signed off on a tax plan that has some good elements, but the so-called Trump tax cuts were largely the work of Mr. Establishment, Paul Ryan — and they ran contrary to the personal preferences and rhetoric of the president, who spent much of the campaign bellyaching about Wall Street fat cats not paying as much in taxes as he thinks they should. Trump’s regulatory reform efforts have been designed and implemented by Bushies such as Neomi Rao (now a federal judge) and her former deputies.
Which is to say, the Trump administration has succeeded most where Trump has the least to do with it. The nat-pops may turn up their noses at “Conservative Inc.” but that is who has delivered such benefits as we have received from the Trump administration. All Peter Navarro and the rest of those crackpots has done is bankrupt a lot of farmers and drive up the expenses of beer brewers and manufacturers.
Trump has long taken an energetic personal interest in two issues: trade and immigration. You may have noticed that there is no big, beautiful wall being paid for by Mexico under construction along the southern border. No serious person ever expected that there would be, of course, but when his party controlled both houses of Congress, Trump never even attempted to put together a serious border-security plan. He didn’t even start trying to do something on immigration until Republicans had lost control of Congress, which put him into the position of trying to wheedle his way toward some symbolic victory (and even that has been blocked by the courts) or to put his vaunted skill as a “negotiator” to work and move a reform through a divided Congress. While Trump has railed against Mexico, there are more illegal immigrants from Central America and Asia in the United States today than there were ten years ago. That is a problem that isn’t going to get fixed without Congress. Where’s the Great Negotiator? In reality, Trump’s talent for negotiation is mostly fiction. Sure, you can blame it on Pelosi and Chuck Schumer for being small-minded partisans — or blame Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy for being swampy — but a negotiator who can work only with those already inclined to give him what he wants is no negotiator at all. He’s just a guy who once played a negotiator on TV.
Similarly, Trump’s trade war with China (and much of the rest of the world) has been an unqualified failure — even by the president’s own favored metric: The trade deficit for goods hit an all-time high on Trump’s watch, and the overall (goods and services) trade deficit is higher now than it was at any point during the Obama administration. The Chinese have weathered it just fine, and the Europeans are putting together new measures to protect themselves from what they regard as predatory interference from the United States.
Which brings me to the practical case against Trump: He stinks at his job.
This also brings me to a lie that needs to be addressed — and it is not a misunderstanding but a lie, circulated with malice aforethought: that the conservative objection to Trump is only a matter of style, his boorishness bumptiousness and boobishness on Twitter, his gooftastical manner of speaking, his preening, his vanity, his habitual and often dishonest boasting in matters both small and great, etc. These things matter, of course, because manners and morals matter, and they matter more in a free society than they do in an unfree one, because free men govern themselves.
Trump’s low character is not only an abstract ethical concern but a public menace that has introduced elements of chaos and unpredictability in U.S. government activity ranging from national defense to managing the coronavirus epidemic. Trump’s character problems are practical concerns, not metaphysical ones. Trump is frequently wrong on important policy questions (including trade, foreign policy, entitlements, health care, and many others) and frequently incompetent even when trying to advance a good policy. His vanity and paranoia have made it very difficult for him to keep good people in top positions, and this imposes real costs both politically and as a matter of practical governance. Trump’s problem is not etiquette: It is dishonesty, stupidity, and incompetence, magnified by the self-dealing and cowardice of the cabal of enablers and sycophants who have a stake in pretending that this unsalted s*** sandwich is filet mignon.
At this point, the magic word “binary” can be expected to make an appearance. I think of an exchange in Watchmen between Dan Dreiberg and his mentor, Hollis Mason.
Mason: Nixon. To think I voted for that prick five times.
Dreiberg: Hey, it was him or the commies, right?
Living in Texas, I’ve never had much reason to think about the possibility of a Democrat’s winning my state in a presidential election — the last time that happened, I was four years old, and Jimmy Carter had successfully hung the disgraced Richard Nixon around the neck of the underappreciated Gerald Ford. Part of the case for Trump was the belief that he “knows how to win,” but as of Monday morning, he was behind Joe Biden in one recent poll, and tied in another, in Texas. That’s a funny kind of winning.
If you’ll forgive the rank punditry: Taking into account the reasonable margin of error we might expect of today’s polls, the realm of possible outcomes is pretty broad, from a tight but not nail-bitingly close Trump win to a Biden blowout that includes Texas’s 38 electoral votes. I would be surprised to see Biden win Texas, but it is not an impossibility. In 2016, I argued that the nomination of Donald Trump would mean the practical end of the Republican Party as we had known it, even if the name and much of the machinery survived in zombie form for a few more decades. Losing Texas would not cause that to come to pass — it would only be more evidence that it already has come to pass. The very fact that Texas is in play at all is evidence that the Republican Party is not what it once was (and goodness knows it had its shortcomings before Trump — I quit the GOP over Arlen Specter, which seems kind of quaint in retrospect) and that what it is now does not appear obviously well-positioned to deliver “so much winning, you’re going to be sick and tired of winning.”
So, now that I am a swing-state conservative, am I going to hold my nose and pull the “R” lever if only to put up a roadblock in front of the Democrats?
There’s more to citizenship than voting, and partisanship is not patriotism. If casting a vote is all you have in you, then, fine — by all means, do what you believe to be best. But consider the possibility that the duty of the patriot in these times is not to choose one pack of jackals because it looks a little less hungry and vicious than the other pack of jackals but to oppose these jackals — these demagogues, profiteers, and hangers-on, these greasy little salesmen trying to sell you something that is already yours — and to insist that the free and self-governing men and women of this struggling republic deserve better than what is on offer. We can have better than what we have had because we can be better than what we have been.
What is called for right now is not more idolatry of the presidency or a rousing chorus of “Happy Days Are Here Again!” but prayer and penance, intelligence and application.
Words About Words
Goodness, gracious, this foolishness. Writing at The Atlantic, Angus King Jr. and Heather Cox Richardson believe they have poked a hole in originalism.
In some cases, interpreting the Constitution with an originalist lens is pretty easy; for example, the Constitution says that the president must be at least 35 years old (“35” means, well, 35), that each state has two senators (not three and not one), and that Congress is authorized to establish and support an Army and a Navy. But wait a minute. What about the Air Force? Is it mentioned in the text? Nope. Is there any ambiguity in the text? Again, no. It doesn’t say “armed forces”; it explicitly says “Army” and “Navy.” Did the Framers have in mind the Air Force 115 years before the Wright brothers? Not likely.
So is the Air Force unconstitutional, even though it clearly fails both prongs of the “originalist” test? No, a more reasonable and obvious interpretation is that the Framers intended that the country be protected and that the Air Force is a logical extension of that concept, even though it wasn’t contemplated in 1787. This isn’t judicial lawmaking; it’s judges doing what they’re hired to do.
This is the rhetorical style of people who are clever but not quite as clever as they think they are.
The U.S. Air Force was, in its early days, a part of the U.S. Army: the Army Air Corps. In the same way, the U.S. Marine Corps is, formally, a department of the U.S. Navy: “The men’s department!” the old joke goes.
Army and navy are generic nouns — Hannibal and Genghis Khan had armies that were nothing like the U.S. Army — and also part of proper nouns: The Army Air Corps, the Army Corps of Engineers, etc. The bureaucratic separation of the U.S. Air Force from the U.S. Army is a matter of departmental organization, not a question of constitutional powers. The Air Force and the Marines are part of the “armies” referred to in the Constitution, even if they are not, as a matter of the DoD org chart, administrative divisions of the U.S. Army.
Formally, there isn’t one U.S. Army but nine of them: First Army headquartered at Rock Island Arsenal, Fifth Army at San Antonio, Seventh Army at Heidelberg, Ninth Army at Vicenza, etc. The Constitution does not authorize the creation of the Airborne Command Control Logistics Wing of the Navy, but no one seriously believes that an originalist understanding of the Constitution forbids such organizational arrangements. There’s no mention of the Marine Corps in the Constitution, but the Continental Marines were established in 1775.
The authors lean heavily on passages such as this:
Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and paid close attention to the drafting of the Constitution from his official post in France, understood this danger explicitly: “I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions,” he wrote in an 1816 letter addressing what he perceived to be weaknesses in the new government, “but . . . laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
But the position of originalism is not that the law or the Constitution must never change — it is that the law and the Constitution say what they say unless and until the legislature — the lawmakers — change it. It is the place of legislators to write the law, not the place of judges. This is The Atlantic’s answer to those dumb celebrities sneering at Amy Coney Barrett: “Oh, you call yourself an originalist — but you vote, right?” As though the 19th Amendment were anathema to originalists rather than a textbook example of precisely how they think constitutional change should be implemented. Of course there is wisdom in Jefferson’s insistence that “institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times” — that is precisely why there is a constitutional process for amending the Constitution and why Congress has such broad discretion over that which falls within its proper sphere of influence.
I feel like I’ve probably reached the point at which I can write about things in The Atlantic without a personal disclaimer. That is some pretty half-assed thinking and writing, based in a common error: the overestimate of verbal cleverness, the magical thinking that rearranging words rearranges reality and that social progress is just a matter of clever phrasing.
A friend — one not particularly given to getting flustered about P.C. pieties — recently told me that he’d been enjoying the book John Brown, Abolitionist, but had cringed at the author’s attempts to replicate 19th-century dialect when putting words into the mouths of black characters, an effort my friend described as being on par with the worst bits of Gone with the Wind.
Writers have to be careful with dialect, and doubly careful with dialect that is not native to them. (We should always be gentle with other people’s property.) Slate recently headlined an article: “Outta That Holler: The rural poverty that created Dolly Parton.” The word denoting the space between hills in Appalachian speech is usually spelled hollow, being a local application of the familiar English word, though it is indeed pronounced holler or, less often, holla. The headline comes from a line in Sarah Smarsh’s She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, a pretty dialect-y title. But if somebody says, “She come by it natural,” what are you going to do? In that case, the accurate transcription is also the more evocative one, and it makes both journalistic and literary sense to use it.
But if you look at maps of Tennessee or Kentucky, you’ll see a lot of hollows and relatively few hollers, and it makes more sense to spell the word the way the locals do — most readers of American English know that hollow is pronounced holler by locals in certain contexts.
Too narrow a subject? A lot of people are going to be writing reviews of Hillbilly Elegy very soon — take note!
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Home and Away
One of the problems with the grievously misnamed Affordable Care Act is that big, complex problems such as health care do not usually lend themselves to one-time fixes implemented through ambitious, landmark legislative packages. The ACA regime is a failure by its own authors’ criteria — millions remain uninsured, premiums have skyrocketed, etc. — but when Republicans talk about repealing it, Democrats demand: “What’s your plan?” And Republicans retreat in shame — or they do what Donald Trump did during the debate and lie about having a big, bold plan of their own. The health-care plan that is just about to be released is the Republicans’ supermodel girlfriend in Canada.
But maybe the answer isn’t big, bold plans — maybe big, bold plans are part of the problem. In the New York Post, I argue for a one-piece-at-a-time approach to health-care reform.
You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. Think of it as Hillbilly Elegy with less memoir and more judginess.
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My first vote in a presidential election was for Andre Marrou, who was running on the Libertarian ticket. Even though I became a more conventional conservative over the years, I do not regret that vote. In other elections, I have declined to vote at all, abstaining in protest. I do not regret that, either. “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain!” they say. I don’t buy that. Sometimes, I think, “If you do vote, and thereby tacitly concede the legitimacy of what is happening in both parties right now, then you can’t complain.” William F. Buckley Jr. wasn’t much of a complainer, and I’ll end with his declaration: “I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power, as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.”
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