Conservatives Still Sorting Themselves in the Trump Era

A brief recap of where the sorting among conservatives stands now, then some additional thoughts.

Tevi Troy does a fairly nice job in laying out the broad strokes.  There are the Ever Trumpers, including those who focus on criticizing Pres. Tump’s critics and those trying to build an intellectual infrastructure for Trumpism.  There are the Conservative Trump Critics, including those implacably opposed to the Trump presidency and those picking their battles over specific issues.  And there are the Safe Space Conservatives, the anti-anti-Trumpers who (for various reasons) focus on attacking or criticizing Trump’s opponents and critics, but seemingly reluctant to affirmatively defend Trump.

Jonathan V. Last proposed a largely similar framework, adding the possibility of anti-anti-anti-Trumpers.  Last argues that perhaps the media and the professional Left are not qualitatively different than they have been in the past and that “focusing on the excesses of the anti-Trump forces means focusing on a meta-issue rather than the primary issue.”

Charles C. W. Cooke took issue with JVL’s seeming limitation of anti-Trumpers to those like David Frum who are concerned about being or becoming a soft authoritarian.

Cooke’s point is well-taken, especially since — as David French, no Trump fan, has pointed out, Trump is so far less authoritarian than Pres. Obama on a number of fronts.

Yet I don’t know that Cooke is correct in describing himself as anti-Trump, either.  He has taken the position that he will criticize Trump when he’s wrong (from a conservative perspective), praise him when he’s right, and keep a tally of each.  This is why I tend to prefer Troy’s admittedly less felicitous “Conservative Trump Critics.”

Even within that category, there will be some friction, but I would reconcile Troy and Last by noting that one group is essentially implacably opposed to the Trump presidency not only because of Trump’s occasional rhetorical nods toward authoritarianism, but also out of broader concerns regarding his character, seeming indifference to corruption (or the appearance thereof), and so forth.

I understand those concerns, which is why I keep referring to the possible Clinton scenario taking hold among the GOP and the conservative movement.  The Clintons — and the norms they destroyed in our politics — opened the door for the Trump administration.  It is not irrational to recoil at the thought of which doors Trump may open for future administrations.

Yet I find myself more in the second group of critics with Cooke and John Podhoretz (Troy’s example).  Trump is the President.  I can root for him to make conservative decisions and criticize the progressive ones.  As a populist — and a narcissist — he may respond to public opinion.  The longer-term consequences of his election are largely baked into the cake now, though they may hinge somewhat on how successful he is.

That key question of success brings me to the anti-anti-Trumpers.  Although I write media criticism from time to time, I want to stay out of this camp.  Here’s why.

Trump will either succeed or fail.  If Trump is successful, the odds are that conservatism will find itself even more marginalized in the GOP and our politics generally.  If Trump fails, the odds are that he will have damaged the only political party that represents conservatives (despite not being all that conservative already), thereby marginalizing conservatism as a political force.

I’m not That Guy who thinks people should be forced to state their opinions on everything, even people who have less excuse to avoid an opinion than, say, Taylor Swift.  And I don’t expect anti-anti-Trumpers should care whether they disappoint me.

But maybe some of them have children, or nieces and nephews.  If anti-anti-Trumpers really believe conservatism will make a better future, I wonder what their explanation to those kids would be for having said little about Trump when he’s wrong.  Perhaps something about the lesser of two evils.  After all, it’s never too early for cynicism.

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Sean Connery’s Advice on Trump, Russia, and Wiretapping

No, it’s not “one ping only.”

I considered really digging in on Pres. Trump’s allegation that fmr Pres. Obama wiretapped him, based on an article at Breitbart.  Although this article was based on old news stories, it was apparently all news to Trump, who then leapt to an accusation not fully supported by it.

Nevertheless, Trump’s claim served the political purpose of getting the right to focus more on the idea that the investigation(s) of contacts between people associated with his campaign may have been politically-motivated.  After all, the Obama administration abused its administrative and investigatory powers in other cases, so why not here?

My guess is that anyone reading this is already interested enough to have an opinion and that for me to add value, I would have to get very deeply into the weeds, perhaps mind-numbingly so.  Accordingly, I will try to add value by not talking about it.

Instead, I will observe that many of the people I see raising their blood pressure over this allegation (and the larger Trump/Russia narrative) tend to be at least eight years younger than I, and frequently considerably younger.  Of course, that may just reflect that I’m down with the kids.

People of that age generally have little direct and visceral memory of the time in which many conservatives thought Clinton White House Counsel Vince Foster was murdered.  Or that Pres. Clinton had some connection to a drug-running enterprise operating from Mena, Ark., and that there were mysterious deaths connected to it.

Conservatives were inclined to believe such things not only out of partisan passions, but also because the Clintons tended to be surrounded by a cloud of scandals.  The odds that Hillary Clinton turned $10,000 into $100,000 as a novice trader of cattle futures were indeed so astronomical as to defy belief.  There was evidence to suggest Hillary was involved in the firing and smearing of White House Travel Office employees in a classic bit of cronyism, even if the independent counsel declined to prosecute.

The independent counsel, however, did convict 15 people in the Whitewater scandal, including Bill and Hillary’s business partners in the the ill-fated real estate venture.  That investigation stalled when those same business partners, even after they were convicted, refused to discuss the Clintons’ role.

And there was Bill lying under oath in a sexual harassment case, the selling of the Lincoln Bedroom, and so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby.

The point is that when people have a shady track record, whether it be Clinton, Obama or Trump, partisans may be inclined to believe even crazy things about them.  Or at least believe them enough to want them investigated.

In fact, sometimes you don’t even need the shady track record.  I’m also old enough to recall when Very Serious People investigated whether George H. W. Bush flew in an SR-71 Blackbird jet to Paris to interfere with the Iranian hostage negotiations.  They also investigated whether he was involved in drug-running with the Contras in Nicaragua.  Apparently, if you have been director of the CIA, there is no limit to your capability for evil.

I mention this not to tell so many of those excited by the allegations against Trump or Obama to get off my lawn, Eastwood-style.  It is to observe that it is far different to have lived through the events described above than to hear or read about them.

People who have not been immersed in that sort of political climate may not understand the feeling of them.  They may not understand on an emotional level how easy it is to convince yourself that that things which seem crazy now seemed so much more reasonable to consider seriously at the time.

Given the track records of Trump and Obama, it may not be crazy to consider that there may be something (even if it’s a very soft version of the hysterics now) to the allegations against either man or their associates.  But maybe we’ll look back and — with the benefit of hindsight — conclude that some or all of it was indeed crazy.

What we do know is that there are investigations that will ultimately produce findings.  Regarding those results, as Sean Connery said as Jim Malone in The Untouchables: “Don’t wait for it to happen.  Don’t even want it to happen.  Just watch what does happen.”

Not that anyone will take that advice when there is punditry to be had.

Update: If you do want to get into the weeds on this issue, Stephen Hayes lays out what we know — and what we don’t know — at TWS.

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The Sessions Sessions and the Return of Fight Club

I started this blog in part to upload (and thus mentally offload) thoughts on the news of the moment, as such pieces often aren’t amenable to the editorial process for a freelancer.  Nevertheless, the past month of news — and the public reaction to the news — has been illuminating of certain broader themes in our politics.

The latest kerfuffle over Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking to Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the campaign, specifically the accuracy of his comments to the Senate Judiciary Cmte during his confirmation as AG, further illustrates one of the underlying problems with the politics of the Trump era.

This story, largely overhyped in Big Media, is not one of Sessions perjuring himself.  Viewing his comments on his contact with the Russians in context, they seem at worst to be unintentionally misleading, distinguishing his conversations as a Senator from his lack of contact in his capacity as a Trump campaign surrogate.

Based on the known record, if he’s guilty of anything, he’s guilty of the kind of sloppiness that did in fmr national security adviser Mike Flynn, minus the element of publicly embarrassing the Vice President.

All of that said, Sessions is entirely correct to recuse himself from any investigation of people who were part of a campaign for which he served as a surrogate.  This would be true even if his own contacts with Russians were not part of an investigation.

From the standpoint of legal ethics, recusal is a no-brainer.  It should be a no-brainer as a matter of politics and policy to oppose clear conflicts of interest (as the GOP rightly did in criticizing the Justice Dept’s approach to investigating Hillary Clinton).

Yet for many supposed righties on social media, and for some in Trump-friendly media, it is somehow not a no-brainer.  The sentiment from this bloc is: “Does the GOP not understand that their failure to fight is How We Got Trump?”

We’ve seen this before in the bloc of Trump primary voters who could always be found arguing asserting, “But he FIGHTS!”  We’ve seen it in the argumentum ad masculinum that elevates Donald Trump to the position of favored strongman.  It’s just metastasizing now.

The reason it is metastasizing is because the conservative movement, let alone the GOP, has become shallow and risks becoming the mirror image of the postmodern New New Left, right down to its substitution of entertainment for education and its valuation of power above all else.

The GOP’s failure to fight unwinnable battles and its treatment of politics as an exercise in making friends and influencing people — as opposed to an opportunity to punch opponents in the face — is Not How We Got Trump.

The key to Trump’s victory was in persuading people who voted once or twice for Obama.  These are people who are concerned about their financial situations and the health of their communities, not partisan food fights.  Trump won because of fatigue with the incumbent party, sluggish economic growth, concerns over terrorism, Democrats’ lack of concern for the white working class, and an awful opponent under FBI investigation.

As I also noted yesterday (and previously), Trump was was outpolled by most conventional GOP Senate candidates and the average GOP House candidate, most of whom weren’t saying inflammatory and ridiculous things, or picking fights that would disadvantage them against their opponents (most of whom weren’t as frightening to people as Hillary Clinton).

Moreover, the history of the last eight years is of an “in your face” President destroying his own party, while the supposedly cowardly opposition got as strong as it had been in almost a century.

People who don’t like CNN or the NYT were already inclined to vote Republican.  And I doubt anyone voted for Trump because they wanted Jeff Sessions to be a conflicted AG instead of Loretta Lynch being a conflicted AG.

Certainly, there are those who gravitated to Trump because of his pugnacious style and his political incorrectness.  But if GDP had been growing at 3% or better, ISIS had been routed, or Democrats had a better bench, Trump likely would have lost the Electoral College as well as the popular vote.  The narrative then would have been about how the GOP blew a fundamentally winnable race by nominating a toxic blowhard.

BTW, where was the “But he FIGHTS!” bloc after Trump’s address to Congress?  That was a speech aimed at softening his image.  Not very fighty.  Where was the criticism from the Fight Club about that speech?

The answer is that the speech went well, which gets counted as a win.  And the Fight Club is all about winning.  They often don’t much care about what they’re winning, or are reluctant to tell you what they think they’re winning, or can’t defend what they’re winning on the merits.  But contra Trump, they won’t ever tire of all the winning.

The losses, however small or however deserved, will be blamed on others, those who haven’t joined Fight Club.  It is an exercise in the Green Lanternism that infects partisans on both sides.  For those of you who are not comics nerds, the power of a Green Lantern is a manifestation of willpower.  Outside the comics, you usually don’t want to live under a system that is governed by the force of will.

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Resist the Trump Narratives

No, this is not about Russia.  It started out as a few further thoughts on Pres. Trump’s big speech and the reactions to it.  But as I realized those reactions are mostly a function of popular narratives about Trump, it became more interesting to write about narratives — Trump’s narratives in this case.

If you’re reading a political blog, I probably don’t have to tell you what a narrative is.  But if you’re young enough, you may not know the “narrative” is a concept imported from lit crit in the early oughts by some of the old school blogosphere to describe the overall framing political actors (including the media) build around the events of our times, generally to influence our perception of these events.

You are also aware that Trump’s opponents and harshest critics already have a narrative about his ascension and presidency that serves for the baseline of their continued opposition and criticism.  Conversely, Trump’s supporters — and some of the anti-anti-Trump right — have a counter-narrative that serves as their baseline.

Those trying to judge Trump’s rise and his governance on an issue-by-issue basis will receive static from both factions.  That static often plays out in a popular genre of sub-narrative titled “This is How You Got Trump.”

These narratives — including “This is How You Got Trump” — leave out a lot of fairly recent history.

We have quickly forgotten that 2016 involved the Democrats trying to retain control of the presidency for a “third term,” a feat accomplished precisely once (in 1988) since the enactment of the 22nd Amendment.

We tend to gloss over the fact that real GDP increased 1.6 percent in 2016, far below growth in 1988 and below what will generally keep a party in control of the White House. We might note in passing our foreign policy woes, but forget they’re much worse than they were in 1988, when the Reagan administration had put into place the polices that would win the Cold War.

In short, the fundamentals pointed to a classic “change” election.  Even the New York Times figured this out before the election.  And we may remember it from time to time, but it’s not part of either of the clashing Trump narratives.

We were surprised by Trump’s strength in the Rust Belt and upper Midwest; we thought much less about Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin having unified GOP governments headed into the election.  Hillary Clinton also missed that memo, despite the fact that the Democratic Party has been conceding working-class white voters since her husband first won the presidency.

Hillary decided to run as the candidate of the Obama coalition, but she was not the nation’s first black President, and not nearly as natural a campaigner.  She should have considered she might perform more like John F. Kerry in key Midwestern battlegrounds and campaigned accordingly.

Hillary’s incompetence on that point was merely the sprinkles — albeit necessary sprinkles — on her cupcake of failure.  She carried more negative baggage than any other major-party candidate in modern history, excepting Trump on some items.  But Trump, even with his myriad flaws, wasn’t under FBI investigation.

All of this was much-discussed in the immediate aftermath of 2016’s surprise outcome.  And none of it is to discount Trump’s accomplishments, his appeal to the white working class, his dogged campaigning in key states down the stretch when even his campaign doubted his chances, and so on.

But most of it does not find its way into the competing narratives about Trump, which now imagine him to be either Gozer the Destructor who will lay waste to the countryside or the Populist Colossus remaking the GOP and forever altering the trajectory of American politics.  Either one of those scenarios could come to pass, but he’s also the guy who was outpolled by most conventional GOP Senate candidates and the average GOP House candidate.

Of course, Trump does wield a great deal of power and influence as President, so the reactions are not irrational.  But even a Pres. Trump is unlikely to prove to be the Destructor or the Colossus.  Our reactions are exaggerated and distorted by our tendency to build narratives.

People subscribing to one narrative or the other would do well to acknowledge there are some elements of truth in both, and that there is much excluded from both.

I would urge people to abandon their reliance on narratives, but this would be as silly as people urging the abandonment of religion, or nationalism, or any number of things that are part of the human experience.  It would be profoundly unconservative to ignore human nature in that way.

People love telling and hearing stories.  We love it in politics as an agent of influence.  We love it in media because we understand our attraction to drama.  We love it in life because stories help us understand and organize a complex and often chaotic world.

Indeed, the story of Trump disturbs people in no small part because it challenged or seemingly disproved the narratives that many relied upon to organize and explain their politics and their world.  Conversely, those happiest with Trump’s victory are happy their narratives were confirmed, even if our complex and chaotic world might suggest those narratives are as fragile as those supposedly disproven.

There’s no chance people will abandon their love of narratives, particularly when confronted with the story of the reality TV star who becomes President.  But we can strive to remember that even compelling narratives almost inherently leave out many messy complications in favor of confirming our priors.

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My Cold Take on Trump’s Joint Session

[Given the somewhat time-sensitive nature of the subject, I thought I’d launch this posting early.]

As advertised (and predicted by me), Pres. Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress was designed to present him as warmer and fuzzier, and thereby give his poll ratings a needed boost.  On that level, I agree with the conventional wisdom that mission was accomplished.

It was Trump’s most conventional and presidential hour by a long shot.  Clearly, he’s also been practicing with the TelePrompTer, even hitting notes outside his usual comfort zone.  That’s not a surprise.  Trump is a showman and salesman.  He is at heart the guy who cares that his hotel lobbies impress more than his financials.

Speaking of financials, Amanda Carpenter had it pegged well in advance:

Amy Walter sums it up:

And Ben Domenech (publisher of The Federalist, where you can find my more formal work):

I’m of two or three minds, all of which tend to disagree with that very last point.

As someone who is primarily a fiscal conservative, it has been painfully clear to me for some time that the GOP is not very fiscally conservative.  Carpenter’s point about “compassionate conservatism” is well-taken.  Even after the Tea Party, the GOP rank and file has not been much interested in cutting any government spending, let alone actual big ticket items like entitlement programs.

Rather, it is conservative elite opinion — the editors at National Review, House Speaker Paul Ryan, etc. — which is interested in fiscal conservatism.  Limited-government conservatives within the Beltway, or the Acela corridor, got a rude awakening about where the GOP really is on these issues in 2016.  I urged people to co-opt Trump’s issues early on precisely because I have been more of a cynic about this for decades, and more critical of the GOP’s management of its base.

From my perspective, therefore, Trump’s ascension doesn’t represent much of a realignment because, when empowered, the GOP tends to be fiscally responsible only by comparison to the Democrats.

Beyond the GOP, conservative elite opinion has not realigned.  It remains split.  The talk show hosts and West Coast Straussians will look to back him.  Others will be critics in whole or in part.  Still others — the anti-anti-Trump bloc Jonah Goldberg labelled “safe space conservatives” — will avoid criticism and support of Trump in favor of criticizing his opposition.

Moreover, I have previously argued that a heterodox president like Trump does not really change the alignment of his party.  The issue is whether Trump can make the GOP more comfortable in its lack of fiscal discipline.  If he’s an otherwise successful president like Reagan, he will for a while.  If he drives the party into a ditch, as many GOPers think George W. Bush did, he will not.

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The Most Important Part of Trump’s “Not the State of the Union” Speech

Tonight, Pres. Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress (tradition dictates that it is not a SotU because such speeches are ostensibly evaluating the past year, which newly-elected Presidents are discouraged from doing).  To understand the most important thing about this address, review the data presented by Charles Franklin, a co-developer of the HuffPo’s Pollster site and Director of the Marquette Law school poll:

I have seen folks on the right take heart from the latest WSJ/NBC News poll, which has relatively good numbers for the GOP, indicates that people are hopeful about the direction of the country, and even finds that a bare majority thinks the media has been too critical of Trump (here’s my prior posting on that last subject).  But that hopeful mood ultimately will wax or wane depending on Trump’s performance.

The WSJ/NBC poll numbers for Trump himself fall pretty much at the average of the current polling and he remains a few points underwater.  People will say those are good numbers… for Trump.  It’s not clear voters will be grading on a curve as we go forward.

Maybe I’m presenting an overly gloomy portrait of Trump’s political position.  But take a look at the “bullet points” the administration sent the media in advance of the speech (and compare them to the goals Trump counselor Stephen Bannon set forth at CPAC).

What you don’t see in those bullet points is much about Trump’s signature issues of immigration and trade. This despite Trump inviting families of victims of illegal immigrant felons to attend (perhaps to offset the immigrants and refugees Dems invited).

What you do see is an emphasis on basic GOP issues like tax reform and Obamacare.

What you also see promoted is a speech “that crosses the traditional lines of party, race and socioeconomic status.”  One that will emphasize “[m]aking the workplace better for working parents” and “[m]aking sure every child in America has access to a good education.”  Trump is also expected to “reach out to Americans living in the poorest and most vulnerable communities, and let them know that help is on the way.”

This is the sort of messaging the Trump camp brings out when it thinks it is in trouble.  For example, the childcare tax credit championed by Ivanka Trump was emphasized as The Donald was headed into the GOP convention, and again during the final week of the race.  The only other time it got attention was when Ivanka had a dust-up about it with Cosmopolitan magazine.

This speech, as advertised, is the soft Trump — the one ostensibly humanized by association with his kids, the one marketed when the Trump camp is trying to appeal to suburban white women.

Of course, the speech will be delivered by Trump, which means the advertised speech may get skipped in favor of another defense of the size of his Inaugural audience, an attack on the media, or his opinion of whatever stories appear on Fox & Friends this morning.

But the advance spin on the address tells us a bit about how the White House views its current political position.  And that’s the most important part of the speech.

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What We Didn’t Learn From Stephen Bannon at CPAC

I suggested that White House counselor Stephen Bannon visit CPAC to discuss his philosophies of politics and governance.  Instead, he did a joint appearance with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus that seemed mostly designed to suggest a united front in the face of consistent reports that the two are more like frenemies.

Bannon did make some comments about the priorities of the Trump administration.  Those comments, however, may raise more questions than provide answers.

Bannon, coming from a media background, broke the administration’s lines of work into three “verticals“: national security, economic nationalism, and “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Regarding national security, Bannon mentioned the executive orders on travel and immigration, the budget, ISIS, and possibly “what General Mattis and these guys think” (which may or may not be something discrete from the aforementioned items).

This description suggests Pres. Trump and Bannon still prioritize the threat of terrorism over threats posed by other major powers like Russia and China.  Although the threat of terrorism remains quite real, the nationalist approach Trump and Bannon may lead to the breakout of a major global conflict within what Russia or China come to see as their spheres of influence.

In the past, Bannon has suggested that Russia is a kleptocracy, but one motivated by nationalism and Judeo-Christian values of some sort.  The second part may be gravely mistaken.

The Trump administration also seems to think it may be able to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, which seems quite unlikely.

Russia is supporting nationalist and separatist movements in the West because Putin thinks it benefits Russia, not because he thinks it creates an alliance against ISIS or Iran.  Whatever Trump and Bannon think their priorities are, they will eventually be forced to deal with the fact that Putin seems to have different priorities.

Bannon’s relative silence on this point nevertheless caused me to reflect further on two points raised by the administration’s seemingly nationalist approach.

First, it is one thing to reject the last Bush administration’s occasionally Wilsonian neoconservative foreign policy, but it is quite another thing to undermine the alliances and institutions that kept us out of a nuclear war and world war since the end of WWII, just because they seem “globalist.”

Second, regarding the debate at National Review over nationalism vs. patriotism, it is one thing to ask, “Why is it a bad thing if people like their flag?” and another thing to ask, “Do we care whether Russia annexes the remainder of Ukraine?”

The Trump camp always rejects the label of isolationism; they have yet come up with a convincing argument that their rhetoric does not point in that direction.

It is true that Trump has appointed a number of people who do not share the Trump/Bannon view on Russia, NATO, etc.  The problems that arise from this are: (1) the admin’s uncertain voice breeds confusion that may raise the odds of foreign provocation; and (2) we may not truly learn which faction truly dominates until the Trump admin faces a crisis, as most admins do.

Regarding economic nationalism, one wishes Bannon recognized what hokum this is, but he seems quite committed to it.  He called Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP trade deal one of the “most pivotal moments in modern American history,” and we can only hope that’s Trumpian overstatement.

What dumping the TPP mostly means is that many of our Asian friends and and allies (incl Australia, New Zealand and India) will end up working out the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with China.  While China may not dominate that process, it will put China inside that tent and the U.S. outside it, with economic ramifications and potential influence on national security also.

This dynamic will make favorable bilateral agreements more difficult, much as the EU governs European trade policy.  Also, the EU has been increasing its trade with China, so this is already shaping up poorly.

In addition, as Jonah Goldberg noted over the weekend, economic nationalism is in tension with Bannon’s third vertical, the deconstruction of the administrative state.  As Goldberg notes: “Economic nationalism taken to its logical conclusion is socialism, with pit stops at corporatism, crony capitalism, and the like.”

Trump and Bannon may not be socialists, but neither were the Five Families, according to Coppola.  As Jay Cost has observed, protectionism historically results in political partiality, gamesmanship, and corruption.  There’s little to suggest this time would be different.

I am all for Bannon’s proposed deconstruction of the administrative state.  But if economic nationalism creates swollen bureaucracies at Treasury, Commerce, Agriculture, Transportation, Customs, the ITC, and CFIUS, is the administrative state really being deconstructed?

Moreover, Trump’s proposal to create an “American desk” at Commerce to oversee trade issues at best duplicates the cabinet-level U.S. Trade Representative and at worst weakens Trump’s influence on trade policy.

The deconstructive goal also raises questions about Trump’s appointments.  Some, like Scott Pruitt at EPA, seem more consistent with this philosophy than others.  Nevertheless, whether a cabinet comprised of people largely without cabinet experience (in domestic policy, anyway) will be able to tackle the Deep State effectively is an open question.

Moreover, the administrative state largely represents the problem of Congress abdicating much of its legislative power to the executive.  The deconstruction of these agencies is largely a matter for Congress, not the administration.  And whether any administration will ultimately embrace Congress retaking its power from the executive is yet another open question that is raised by Bannon’s CPAC appearance, but left unanswered.

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Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump, Revisited

Consider this an update or continuation of an earlier posting arguing that when considering the political prospects for a heterodox president like Donald Trump, one might consider other recent heterodox presidents like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Under the Bill Clinton scenario, the president’s party and associated movement goes along (in varying degrees of reluctance) with a more centrist president, despite losses suffered by the party and a cloud of personal craziness, mostly from an aversion to the other side winning.  Under the Jimmy Carter scenario, the president’s party supports some of the heterodox positions at first, but relations with Congress ultimately deteriorate, contributing to a failed presidency and a change in the political direction of the country.

Pres. Trump has been in office for only a month, so it’s far too early to judge which type of scenario will play out here.  Nevertheless, it may be useful to mark out a starting point.

The current political environment provides a fair amount of evidence that a substantial segment of the right cares much more about what they’re against instead of what they support.  Half of Republicans see Vladmir Putin as an ally while Russia secretly deployed a new cruise missile U.S. officials say violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.  This seems like a party and perhaps a movement that will have plenty of tolerance for Trump and his issues — for now, anyway.

The administration’s relationship to Congress, otoh, seems to remain dodgy.  Trump’s legislative agenda seems to lag that of his predecessors.  The administration gently grouses that Congress doesn’t want to be told what to do… until it does.  Those on the Hill suggest they initially welcomed Trump’s benign neglect, but are paralyzed by the lack of any White House guidance on tax reform, Obamacare and infrastructure spending (the last perhaps being kicked into 2018).

Meanwhile, Corey Robin has written a lengthy comparison of Trump and Carter for the lefty journal n+1.  There’s plenty of interest to agree and disagree with in the article.  For example, Robin notes the generally declining vote share for Republican presidents from 1972 through 2016 without addressing the gains of Republicans at virtually every other level of government.

Robin’s observation that the general lack of prior government experience in Trump’s cabinet may hinder his ability to deliver the change he promised, however, is worth considering, even if the administration’s goal is to greatly diminish the administrative state.  Apart from the Carter example, when Pres. Reagan picked George Schultz as Secretary of State, the latter had experience that equipped him to anticipate and fight bureaucratic resistance within Foggy Bottom.

More significantly, Robin highlights that part of Carter’s dilemma was sitting atop a party that was in transition between the remnants of the New Deal and the influx of the New Left.

Today, Trump sits atop a GOP split between its coastal donor class, a bloc of supposed True Conservatives, and perhaps the sort of nationalists Trump’s senior counselor, Stephen Bannon, would like to make the dominant faction.

How this schism gets resolved has a fair amount to do with how many of the supposed TruCons are are amenable to Trump’s populist nationalism.  This cannot be predicted with any certainty, but the Carter and Clinton examples may yet be instructive.

Clinton and Carter are still considered heterodox.  The Democratic Party and progressivism more generally have continued their leftward trajectory despite them.  Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in part because she went from being perceived as one of the more left-wing influences in her husband’s administration to a retrograde figure by large segment of her party today.

Why did Clinton and Carter fail to fundamentally reshape their party?  One big reason is that progressivism is supported by an expansive web of institutions, including grassroots activists, publications, think-tanks and other organizations, all devoted to advancing a broadly New Left agenda (and increasingly a New New Left agenda).

Carter essentially had no such institutions supporting his agenda.  Bill Clinton had a few – notably the Democratic Leadership Council – which has since gone the way of the Dodo.

Small-government conservatives may find themselves with less power during the Trump era, but can take some comfort in the fact that movement conservatism has institutional support similar to that progressivism had to sustain them during the Carter and Clinton years.   Trump’s victories caused Tucker Carlson and others to declare these institutions a failure; in fact, they were blamed for not achieving a purpose for which most of them were never designed to fulfill (excepting the activists).

The fact that the GOP nominated and elected a heterodox figure like Donald Trump does not necessarily signal that the party has undergone a realignment or that the conservative movement is dead.  The United States and Europe may have reached a more nationalist moment, but there has been much less of a foundation laid to sustain that mode of politics on this side of the Atlantic.

The real questions are more along the lines of whether Trump will get involved in more state party leadership fights (he won in Ohio after several rounds of deadlocked voting). Or whether Trump acolytes can succeed in down-ticket races without his celebrity.  Or whether Trump is interested in creating – or coopting – the infrastructure of institutions that supported Ronald Reagan and have extended his philosophical and political legacy for decades.

Trump is getting the big ovations at CPAC today.  Whether and how much more he’s willing to do beyond flying a few miles in Marine One remains to be seen.

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How We Got Trump, In One Chart

After a couple of longish postings, a shorter one today (which is my general intent, tbqh).

Here is your chart of How We Got Trump:

Technically, you could make a good argument that it’s really a graph, but that’s not important right now.  This graphic is not a good look for people who were supposed to be at or near their peak earning years during the Great Recession and the sluggish recovery therefrom.  Not to mention that seniors tend to vote more than the young folks.

It is a graphic that also alludes to two of the “megatrends” David Frum mentioned in a recent Federalist Radio Hour as driving nationalist populism both here and in Europe: Stagnating incomes and people realizing they may be more dependent on government retirement benefit programs than they realized.

Furthermore, it’s consistent with what I wrote about the profile of the core Trump supporter back in August 2015: they “disapprove of the welfare state, but they endorse entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.”  This dynamic played out in much of the reporting during the 2016 campaign that Trump supporters make a big distinction between what they see (correctly or not) as “earned” vs. “unearned” benefits.

If you’re enough of a political junkie to be reading this you should recall the bemused reports of Trump supporters declaring they wanted the government to keep its hands off their Medicare.  And you probably have noticed the AARP’s new ad campaign reminding Pres. Trump of his stump comments that he would keep his hands off entitlement programs because people “made a deal long ago.”

Of course, there is a cognitive dissonance among this cohort, as I have previously noted: “embrace of the welfare state generally contributes to lower fertility rates and increasing reliance on immigrants to support government programs.”  America could be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the social democracies of Europe because the desire to avoid difficult political choices doesn’t recognize borders.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that — whatever narrative people now like to spin about the white working class — there is in fact a broader economic problem driving the Trumpian mindset among a broader demographic.  It’s likely a better explanation for How We Got Trump than the theory that people were getting their vengeance against a condescending media.  And it’s right there for you in one chart.  Or graph.  Whichever.

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The Conservative Movement: What Happened?

The “Milo Yiannapolous disinvited from CPAC” story may be dead, But Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman and the Daily Beast’s Mark K. Lewis got good columns out of it by using the incident as a signpost on the road to decline the conservative movement seems to have traveled over the years.

It is in part a tale recalling Eric Hoffer’s observation: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

This is the part of the tale they tell.  Rothman blames the state of the movement on “[t]he right’s entertainment class,”  while Lewis argues that “Yiannopoulos’s invitation was, perhaps, the logical denouement for a cause that prioritizes provocateurs over polemicists and entertainment over substance.”

This is all true as far as it goes.  It is certainly true of CPAC.  But it is not the whole story and misses important pieces that will be necessary to any sort of conservative regrouping.

One of the main things Rothman gets right is that for many who consider themselves conservative, “their introduction to conservatism came not from reading the philosophy of John Locke and Edmund Burke but from a casual exposure to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.”  But the primary problem with this is not necessarily that the latter have been provocateurs (Limbaugh’s peak audience and influence occurred while he was at his least provocative).

Rather, the issue is that the understanding people get of conservatism from talk radio (or cable news as talk radio with pictures) is and almost inherently will be shallow.  There is an old adage (of uncertain origin) that “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; [and] small minds discuss people.”  Programming aimed at entertaining a mass audience will tend to reflect this dynamic, regardless of how provocative it is or how valid any particular provocation may be.

A conservative movement that is broad but shallow will be more likely to claim it embraces constitutional conservatism but ignore constitutional and prudential political constraints when they become frustrated, for example, that a GOP Congress seemed so ineffective in advancing a conservative agenda.  This is part of the reason many conservatives wrongly discount some of the achievements of the GOP to which Rothman correctly refers.

Conversely, however, the shallowness of many ostensible conservatives also partially explains why the GOP could be as politically successful as it is today.  The ascension of Pres. Trump is, if nothing else, a wake-up call to how little influence the conservative movement has had within the GOP, contra Rothman’s claim that the current “Congress is also one of the most conservative in the country’s history.”

This is a claim which is, imho, deeply ahistorical.  The postwar period has been one where the overarching trend has been to cultural and political progressivism.  What seems like stolid conservatism these days mostly represents fairly modest attempts to regain ground lost over the course of decades of cultural and political losses.

Moreover, conservatives across the spectrum disagree over what to make of this central dynamic.  Peggy Noonan, not exactly a fire-breather, was nonetheless able to recognize the frustration conservatives have over the fact that the GOP, even when controlling the government as they did for six years under George W. Bush, still seemed to negotiate and grow the government as if they were the minority party.  David Brooks looked at the same frustrated conservatives as engaged in identity politics.

Perhaps both Noonan and Brooks had a point, and the inability of the GOP establishment to successfully manage True Conservatives (both actual conservatives and shallower people who imagine themselves to be) and more intelligently address their concerns eventually boiled over into frustrated people comparing the 2016 election to Flight 93.

The other problem with a conservative movement that can be both shallow and aggressive is alluded to, but not fully explored, by Lewis.

As Lewis notes, “[t]rue conservatism has been replaced by a fetish for fighting political correctness.”  It is perhaps a coincidence that Limbaugh went national at approximately the same time that Jesse Jackson was leading college kids in chants of, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ. has got to go,” but maybe it wasn’t a total coincidence.

The confluence here is remarkable.  Political correctness is in large part about making America’s intellectual discourse more shallow and less conservative.  The revolt against political correctness — at least the mass (dare I say populist) revolt against it — often has the same characteristics.

The demands of mass media that inexorably drive the discussion more to people and events than ideas will also tend to shape the debate into one about who people are against, rather than the underlying ideological conflict.  This is particularly true of conservatism, which is a default for people seeking to protect what’s good about the status quo; the focus moves toward the attackers and the attack, not on the advancement of the virtues of what we seek to conserve.

Lastly, Rothman and Lewis largely avoid addressing that the most recent iteration of this battle is marked by an even more totalitarian Left than the spasm that played out in the late 80s and early 90s.  The New New Left, in an almost Newtonian fashion, will push more people into the camp that opposes the politicization of all aspects of American life.

What it does not ensure is that the marginal increases in the opposition to totalitarianism will be conservative, or even much care about conservatism on any philosophical questions.  Rather, they are the “Not Left,” people simply looking for a champion to repel the barbarians at the gates.  And when the GOP establishment fails at constructively addressing deep or shallow conservatives, it should be no surprise that some — certainly the latter –will look to the provocateurs raising the banner highest against the immediate threat.

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