In the next week Americans will decide whether to give Donald Trump “four more years” in the White House. Actually about half of them have already decided, given that pre-poll voting has captured the American imagination as much as the Australian. The excitement of polling day just ain’t what it used to be.
One’s opinion of the forty-fifth President of the USA will depend on many things. Perhaps ideology, perhaps views of what it means to be “presidential”, perhaps an assessment of his record against his promises, perhaps his performance as a defender of American values – whatever they are taken to be – and American interests, and how his record compares with others in the world now or his own American predecessors. You may be influenced, too, by what you read about him. Having approximately ninety-five percent of the corporate media against you, at home and internationally, probably doesn’t make it easy to gain and maintain personal popularity. It doesn’t make for balanced assessments either.
Since Trump is in no way an ideologue of any sort – at least in the conventional use of that term – one’s ideology shouldn’t determine one’s views of the man-as-president. But clearly this isn’t the case. Those on the left loathe him viscerally, as we well know. This might seem odd. Trump is no right-winger, never has been, at least not in the traditional sense. He is socially liberal, he is a protectionist, he is clearly comfortable with big government – though no socialist – and he doesn’t start wars. He shares these attributes with the left. Indeed, they are each sacred to the left. Or once were.
On the last of the four, Trump has been especially outstanding, unless you are a neoconservative who likes spreading around the love, the democracy and sometimes the war. He is the first US President to have not commenced ANY new foreign military entanglements for as long as anyone can remember. The left – whose party in the USA started Vietnam, after all – should be cheering the place down on foreign policy. Naturally, in view of other things we know about the recent trajectory of the left, it isn’t.
On the other hand, Trump is a patriot and a nationalist. The left now reflexively hates these. Trump loves Israel, too, and does material things to advance its interests. The left loathes Israel. And Trump is most definitely a federalist, as seen in his referral of much of the Covid related policy-making to the States. And he is also a constitutional conservative and an originalist (one who believes in a black letter interpretation of the intent of the framers of the US Constitution), seen as recently as this week with his elevation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, his third nomination of this kind of judge in as many years.
Trump offends the new left’s (and the Pope’s) embrace of big immigration, with all his talk of “building a wall” – more talk than action to date – and calling to account the left’s much loved sanctuary cities. His pivot to law and order and to defending the citizenry against the mob post George Floyd is hated by those for whom only black lives seem to matter. The 2020 Mt Rushmore speech and the recent 1776 Commission initiative connote much that is abhorred by the woke establishment.
No, it is the NEW left that has much more reason the hate Trump and what he stands for. He is a populist above all, in the finest sense of the term. It is not that he bends to the wind. He decidedly does not. But he senses deeply what we-the-people believe in our hearts about the things that matter most to us. The new left is elitist, a woke insider ruling class that emerged from the managerial revolution, from the elevation of expertise that came with the rise of meritocracy, from postmodernism and from the new wealth of the technocracy. Angelo Codevilla, Christopher Caldwell, Joel Kotkin and Michael Anton are the four American politicos who have most described and best summed up the meaning of Trump’s emergence and victory in 2016, in what Anton described as the Flight 93 election. This was the election when the freedom fighters stormed the cockpit and fought off the terrorists in order the save the country, or what was left of it.
The ruling class used to be fought by the left. Now the left IS the ruling class. The old left used to represent the working class. Now the left finds the working class largely to be useless at best, and a chronic (racist, misogynist, homophobic) embarrassment at worst.
These elites are the new oligarchs, running the show not just out of Wall Street but now out of Silicon Valley as well. Never Main Street. Trump is super rich, to be sure, but he is no oligarch. He is “one of us”, battling the insiders as the ultimate outsider, standing up for Main Street and championing those who had almost given up believing that anyone would ever emerge who understood their values and would faithfully represent their interests. Elements of this new outsider class existed previously and attached themselves to earlier leaders – the Reagan Democrats and the Howard Battlers come to mind – but Trump’s legions of deplorables have been defined far more precisely than previous iterations. Defined by the elites, no less. And they are much more of a coherent, self-conscious class now that the elites themselves have so clearly self-defined their cultural and moral superiority, and have gone so damned far down the road of radical social libertarianism and sneering political correctness. The class divide to which Trump responds so effectively and represents so clearly, is now crystal clear, far more so than back when Reagan and Howard in turn carved off some of the working class voters. The divide was neatly captured this past week in a new study showing that having a university degree is now the best indicator of the values divide and of one’s views on the big issues. And of the likelihood that you will vote for a candidate like Trump.
No, the new left has much about which to hate Trump. What of Trump’s critics on the right?
Well, there have been many, whether motivated by pushback against his massive work-around of the Republican establishment and of the world of the conservative think tanks, or motivated by the fact that Trump simply isn’t one of theirs. Nor is he really a conservative of the (mainstream) type that has occupied the centre-right from William F Buckley and Barry Goldwater in the 1960s to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz now. Trump much more represents the new wave of “national conservatives” akin to the admired Viktor Orban in Europe and Jair Bolsonaro in South America.
This new MAGA movement built around patriotism and nationalism – making America great again – has been documented and given context by theorists like Yoram Hazony and the chronicler par excellence of the American working class dystopia, JD Vance (Hillbilly Elegy). Vance and similar thinkers like Patrick Deneen (Why Liberalism Failed) see not just the potential for a conservative embrace of the working class, but its necessity. Especially the white working class. This is new and Trump gets it. He sees that globalisation and mass immigration have dudded a generation of workers, and they realise he is in their corner.
Protectionism? You bet. He is no lover of neoliberalism. Trump doesn’t care if it is in American interests, as he and his supporters perceive them. Economic theory is for the birds.
The so-called Never Trumpers, who emerged under the masthead of National Review in 2015, have been a tedious lot, endlessly griping and never giving credit where credit has been immensely due. Even when Trump does something of which they approve, they are churlish. Some, like William Kristol, who as the offspring of intellectual giants Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb should have known much better, have sometimes appeared utterly deranged. Indeed, the well-known Trump Derangement Syndrome is an ailment that afflicts sufferers on both sides of the aisle.
Other acute observers of American politics on the right, and possessed of more independent thought, like Mark Steyn, Roger Kimball, Conrad Black and Victor Davis Hanson, have quickly seized the Trump moment by identifying his skill set, his unique opportunity and his meaning in the greater scheme of things.
They, and his many supporters outside the Beltway, also see a presidency of consequence borne of his record of achievement. And this wasn’t just about the booming economy prior to Covid, the Trump stock market surge of 2017 and the massive re-boot of the US energy sector. It also goes to the conduct of the culture wars and to foreign policy successes like the recent Middle East peace moves and the détente of sorts with feisty North Korea. Each of which has earned the plaudits of many, and in one case a nomination for the Nobel peace Prize. Standing up to China doesn’t hurt anyone now, either, post the export to the world of Wuhan flu and far clearer eyed thinking now about China’s imperialist bullying strategy and tactics.
No, it isn’t altogether obvious why anyone right-of-centre would deny Trump his achievements and continue to bang on about his (flawed) character. Speaking of which …
What of the perennial question of “character”? This was endlessly trotted out prior to his election. Trump is said to be not a very nice man, not a very upright man.
Character sometimes becomes conflated with personal morality when matters of leadership are discussed, especially in America. “Does “x” have the “character” required to be president?” is a question asked routinely when new candidates appear. Character is more than private morality, however. Character involves backbone when the chips are down, dedication to the nation, strength of mind, firmness of purpose, reliability and the like. Character is hard to define, and it is subjective. Perhaps Trump’s has not been fully tested, though his grace under extreme pressure over impeachment and the lies told about him by the deep state bespeaks quite considerable character.
Whether being nice is a necessary, even an appropriate requirement for politics is another matter. I have worked in and around politicians for many decades, and the number of unreservedly nice people I have met in politics I could count on one hand. One was the late Jim Carlton. Another, my old boss the late Warwick Parer. Tony Abbott is a nice man. As was the late John Fahey. Neville Wran, decidedly NOT a nice man, once said that nice people were “a dime a dozen” and of little use in politics. If correct, this charge against Trump is meaningless. Who cares if he is nice or not?
But what if Trump is immoral, or perhaps even worse, amoral?
I firmly believe that Obama was amoral, perhaps soulless. But that wasn’t his biggest problem. Nixon was said to be a crook. That certainly wasn’t HIS biggest problem. His crime (Watergate) was a mere trifle in the overall scheme of things. Even in terms of party political dirty tricks, it was pretty much a nothingburger, despite the almost half a century of relentless carry on by Bob Woodward. What the American deep state has achieved since Watergate, and in particular the illegal ops of the Democrats in 2016, puts the Nixon affair in the deep shade.
Back to Trump and personal morality. Is Trump alone in flawed morals? Is he even the worst around?
I don’t especially care how many times he has been married and/or bedded. Boris Johnson is a bounder – by no means his worst problem. He has procured abortions to hide affairs. He is a serial adulterer. He is a serial liar. As Lynn Barber has noted:
And lying to his wife made it easy to lie to other people. He lied to Conrad Black when he said he would not stand for parliament while he was editing The Spectator (but he already had his applications out); he lied to Michael Howard about whether he was having an affair with Petronella [Wyatt, a colleague at The Spectator] (‘an inverted pyramid of piffle’); and of course he lied to the nation about how we would save £350 million a week by leaving the EU. His lies are far too numerous to list, but it means that anyone who takes Boris’s word for anything is a fool. As Charles Moore observed, you always knew precisely where you stood with Boris because he always let you down.
Max Hastings — perhaps regretting ever having launched Boris’s early success as a Brussels journalist — describes him as ‘a man of remarkable gifts, flawed by an absence of conscience, principle or scruple’. Matthew Parris is even more scathing:
There’s a pattern to Boris’s life: it’s the casual dishonesty, the cruelty, the betrayal, and beneath the betrayal the emptiness of real ambition: the ambition to do anything useful with office once it is attained.
Way more significantly, Boris is a worse than useless prime minister and a charlatan.
Mitt Romney got a laugh in 2012 when he noted that the Mormon was the only one (among the Republican frontrunners) who had been married only once. Giuliani? Three marriages and three divorces. Consort to the Ambassador to the Holy See, Newt Gingrich? Give me a break. Newt divorced wife number one to have affair number one, then affair number one became wife number two. Then there was affair number two who became wife number three. Then Newt saw the (Catholic) light, and thence made his way across the physical Tiber as well. Newt’s philandering didn’t prevent him from being a House Leader of consequence and an essential brake on Bill Clinton’s worse political instincts, like letting his hideous wife run health reform. And we won’t even begin to contemplate Slick Willie’s after-dark activities. “Mattress Jack” Kennedy was infamous, of course, yet a statesman of infinite potential when cut down in Dallas.
Like Newt, Trump too found a Catholic eventually. He hasn’t necessarily seen the light, but he has seemingly sensed the coherence and moral groundedness of the Faith and has governed as if God existed and that this meant certain things for the polity. This has signified far more to the governance of the USA than any amount of personal piety. Trump’s instincts on life issues, and his emerging record on same, can be compared more-than-favourably to most of his predecessors.
Trump, unlike many of the Democrat Catholics who may or may not lead exemplary private lives, presents as a Public Catholic, certainly as a Public Christian. For Trump, happy holidays means Happy Christmas and for many, this is important.
Speaking of Boris’s serial lying as we were, what about Trump and honesty? Well, you always know what he thinks. Because he says what he thinks. He generally does what he says he will do. There is authenticity about Trump – almost too much authenticity. Politicians are trained to gild the lily, to twist the truth, seldom to say what they mean. Do what they say they will not do. Make stuff up. Leave stuff out. Endlessly talk “politics speak”. Trump is no ordinary politician, and hence no ordinary political liar. On this alone, he is worth bottling. This is the sheer joy of having a career non-politician as a leader.
Here is the fictional politician Jim Hacker giving advice on how to deal with questions:
If you have nothing to say, say nothing. Better still, have something to say, and say it.
Pay no attention to the question, just make your own statement. Then if they ask the question again, you answer the question you want. If they ask you again after that, you say, ‘That’s not the question. The real question is..’, and then go on to make your statement.
Remember “Bush lied, people died”? Ditto Tony Blair. No, you cannot believe Trump to be a serial liar, certainly not a political liar. Whatever lies he may or may not have told to his various wives over the years have not turned him into a liar about public matters.
We also know that Trump is surrounded in US politics by public liars. Many of his opponents are liars. Look at Comey, Hillary and the whole Russiagate scandal. If you want lying under oath, you only have to look as far as Sydney and Melbourne. “I cannot recall …” is the answer du jour in the kingdoms of Andrews and Berejiklian, where telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is a figment of the political imagination.
And two big ticks to the incumbent President. He doesn’t lie about climate change. And he doesn’t lie about Covid. Those voters for whom having a b.s. detector is an essential weapon in assessing the worth of politicians and truth-telling therefrom will be giving this President high marks, I would think.
Another, perhaps more considered charge is that Trump is seldom “presidential”. Too boorish, rude, egotistical, having little grace, and so on.
There are two things going on here. One is that the US President is that rare beast, a head of state AND head of government. The two jobs are distinct, but in practice difficult for one person attend to separately. I suppose that one could be “presidential” all the time as one solution. Trump would find it difficult to be presidential since his main job being there is to stick it to the ruling class on behalf of the ruled. And sticking it to the oligarchs and their puppets in Washington requires a certain, shall we say, gruffness. And being non-presidential is what keeps Trump deeply engaged with politics, and never simply coasting, like Obama did (probably fortunately) for eight years.
And an angry, revved up base would not like their man to be disengaged or more serene. Trump is a commander in battle, involved in prosecuting a war. Draining a swamp.
The right-of-centre base has been culturally pushed around for a generation. The story has been ably catalogued by Christopher Caldwell in his epic book, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, who argued that the woke revolution that emerged from the 1960s civil rights battles has become a rival constitution that bespeaks a civil cold war and has left those outside the privileged elites powerless in their own country. Caldwell observes Republican leaders, even Reagan, simply going along with the tide, saying the right words but not remotely pushing back against the zeitgeist. Occupying office without exercising power. Reagan, too, like Thatcher in the UK, focused almost exclusively on economic performance and military ascendancy, what with a Cold War to win and an existential communist threat to tame – at the expense of attending to the already creeping long march of the cultural marxists through the core institutions of the West. (Hindsight is a wonderful thing, I realise).
Whether and how much Trump has moved the needle on behalf of the previously excluded is a matter for conjecture. Assessing this at the end of eight years would be far more meaningful than now. But the base does know their man is engaged, and focused on achievement in the areas that matter most to them. I believe this matters far more to the people who put Trump there than his being “presidential”.
The second thing going on with the presidency is its shift over time from a very limited role in the original separation of powers, where the big guy was merely one arm (the executive) of three, along with the legislature and the judiciary, with none of the three especially meant to stand out. Now we have an “imperial presidency”, a term coined by the famed historian Arthur Schlesinger in the 1970s and oft repeated. The role of the president has become outsized, turbo-charged, and the emphasis afforded the role and the expectations that attend to it just ridiculous. Is the “leader of the free world” a job title that any mortal could live up to?
Not only that, the era of big government means that a White House of disparate jobs, factions, varied interests and power bases is all but inevitable. Trump’s suggested “chaos”, revealed breathlessly in several tell-all pot-boilers, is probably not any worse or better than any other administration, chaos-wise. It is Trump’s volatile personality, above all else, that drives the chaos narrative so embedded in the public mind. Again, he is hardly the first politician to have been volatile. To have been an ego on legs. To have been rude.
Finally, how does Trump compare to other recent successful Western leaders? This usually means – how does he compare with Reagan?
The contrasts, both of the men and of their eras, even though only forty years apart, are substantial to say the least. In some ways, Trump being an utter outlier, unique as a politician, makes comparisons with anyone a waste of time. But let us try. Reagan was a “fusionist” in terms of the conservative movement, combining anti-communism with free market economics and moderately social conservatism in a blended and sometimes uneasy mix. Trump is not a conservative at all, but rather is a populist (in the good sense) and a patriot. Reagan was an ideologue, and Trump is not. Reagan courted the intellectual right. Trump courts truckers, bikers, hardware store owners and small town folks generally.
He isn’t alt-right. He is alt-everything.
Just try keeping up, try pinning him down. And it isn’t always pretty. Reagan was a nice man – another one of those political rarities, with a sunny disposition. Trump is the perennial antagonist, feisty and fighting much of the time. With as many enemies as Trump has, this cannot be at all surprising. Reagan had conventional advisers. Trump has new advisers each week. Reagan’s work is complete. Trump is (at least till 3 November 2020) a work in progress.
Leaders face the issues before them, and not the issues of earlier or later times. Let us say that I am glad we had Reagan in the ‘80s, and Trump now. Trump at 9-11 might have been good too. We might have avoided the Iraq and Afghan wars, wrongly supported by many conservatives at the time.
Pragmatists with the nation’s real interests front and centre can be handy at the top. In Trump the Americans have the pragmatist personified, and to this critic it all seems to be working rather well. We shall see if the US electorate agrees.