“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
—Sun-tzu, ca. 400 BC; or Machiavelli, 1520 AD (maybe)
—Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part II, 1974 (certainly)
Forrest McDonald, the greatest historian of the era of the American War for Independence and the making of our early governments, and who left us much poorer in this world with his death this past January, also wrote the best book on the American executive: The American Presidency: An Intellectual History (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1994). He ends with this memorable statement:
Though the powers of the office have sometimes been grossly abused, though the presidency has become almost impossible to manage, and though the caliber of the people who have served as chief executive has declined erratically but persistently from the day George Washington left office, the presidency has been responsible for less harm and more good, in the nation and in the world, than perhaps any other secular institution in history.
A remarkable claim, given the rhetoric of the coming apocalypse that has accompanied virtually every presidential campaign in my increasingly long lifetime. It is certainly true of the present presidential circus, with an interesting twist: this year the prophets of doom are loudest and most hysterical about one of the candidates from the party they supposedly support. Perhaps, even before the party nominees have been chosen, we should step back with “The McDonald” and seek some perspective.
The cosmopolitan contempt for “The Donald” from within his own party is without precedent. No candidate or chattering-class pundit on the right has yet said anything as nasty about Mrs. Clinton as comes across the airwaves and broadband about Mr. Trump every hour. To find similar hysteria over the prospect of a candidacy, one must return to the days of the hated Richard Nixon—but invective then came from Democrats (well, mostly), not his fellow Republicans. The party of Lyndon Johnson (no cosmopolitan gentleman himself) took out ads showing a little girl picking daisy petals and counting down to the nuclear holocaust should the western gunslinger Barry Goldwater win in 1964—but again, that was LBJ’s opponent, not his ally. Nelson Rockefeller sat in defeat, approving of the Democratic tactics, and one could argue that his heirs have patiently rebuilt their tentative hold on the Grand Old Party, but Rocky would not have said even about Bill Buckley the things that Buckley’s successors are saying daily about Mr. Trump. Some Republicans, it is true, voiced concerns about “that damned cowboy” when Teddy Roosevelt ascended by bullet to the White House, and eastern Republicans were quite worried about the utterly crude Mr. Lincoln in 1860. But the treatment of Mr. Trump by his own party gives the abrogation of Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment a whole new meaning.
It is interesting that the first cry against Mr. Trump by a movement that has always prided itself on rejecting ideology is that he is not ideological enough: “He is no conservative!” It is also interesting that the second cry against him is that he is a charlatan and a bully and a cutter of corners as a businessman, this being said almost exclusively by members of the Party of Business who have themselves never committed an act of business in their lives. Their preferred potential nominees were also completely innocent of business activities, and have in fact (with one honorable exception, Dr. Ben Carson) done not one thing in their lives except run for and “serve” in public office. At least Lincoln had split rails and argued for ordinary citizens in courtrooms. TR had been a rancher, soldier, author, big-game hunter, and even an art critic. Goldwater was a businessman and pilot, an Air Force Reserve Officer who had earned respect at everything he did. Nixon, as young as he was when he went to Congress, was a very competent officer in the Greatest Generation’s Great War. The Republican diminutives who opposed Mr. Trump (again, with the very notable exception of Dr. Carson) have done nothing except politics.
No Cato the Elders among them. The Donald comes closer.
As The McDonald also points out, despite all the posturing about the Commander-in-Chiefness of the supposed most powerful person in the world, “In truth, presidential power is complex and ambiguous, traits that stem from the constitutional provisions for the office.” He argues that “though the presidency has expanded beyond anything imagined by its creators, it—unlike Congress and the judiciary, remains functionally true to the original design” [my emphasis added]. That being the case, the presidency does not function as the “Ideologue-in-Chief” or the “Legislator-in-Chief,” and as long as this remains true, a good president can still be thought of as in the tradition of Washington, and not of Augustus. “For what do you stand in this election” is a fair question for Mr. Trump; “Give us a coherent political philosophy” is not a reasonable request. It is probably not even possible in this turbulent year. Lincoln once said, tongue-in-cheek about a rather sudden change of mind, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” It is probably too much to ask that Mr. Trump’s researchers come up with a similar retort.
But it so happens that, however he may have arrived at it, whenever he may have arrived at it, Mr. Trump has felt the pulse of the people and taken into account the meaning (and limits) of the Constitution and come up with the outlines of a plan that is both reasonably coherent and (dare I say?) conservative. It consists of three simple thoughts, all of them outrageous to the cosmopolitan chattering-classes, the all-too-often deracinated monopolists of power and patriotism, who have as much contempt for the rubes of New York towers as for rubes in the fly-over zones. Those thoughts resonate this year, iconic for a pent-up “America First” emotion that has been ignored for decades and trampled upon for the last seven years:
(1) “I will build a wall!” Immigration is the single issue that most commands the visceral attention of Americans from sea to shining sea. It is becoming increasingly clear that if Mr. Trump weren’t running, nobody would be talking about it, and if anybody but Mr. Trump is elected, nothing will be done about it.
(2) “I will be the greatest jobs president in our history!” The lip service paid to “job creation” by every single politician since Franklin Roosevelt has been taken seriously only by the actor Reagan, and that was because he understood that “jobs” is a code-word for “reasonable opportunity for the middle class to live a comfortable and decent life.” Every republican since Aristotle has known that decent and ordered societies do best when there is a large and happy middle-class. Since 1973 ours has gone backwards and downhill, most recently by the ill-informed consensus that seeks to break down economic borders just as completely as diversity hunters want to break down citizenship borders. Again, Mr. Trump is the only one in either party who seems to recognize that economic globalism is neither inevitable nor helpful to the middle classes.
(3) “I will not have our armies run all over the world like knights in shining armor!” (OK, I’ve taken some liberties with this one.) His point is, that just as we must stand back and take stock of who we let into our neighborhoods and our kitchens, and where we throw our jobs around at the expense of American workers, it is also time to be strong militarily—stronger than anybody has ever been—but also to be modest and careful about where we put that strength and why. The McDonald’s insight concerning George H.W. Bush’s misunderstanding of where we were in world history in the early 1990s remains fundamentally unaddressed. “The president declared at the time,” writes McDonald, “that the [first Iraq war] represented the emergence of a ‘new world order,’ but what had emerged was chaos, not order.” The “magnificent machinery for fighting a cold war” that Mr. Bush inherited has been used, abused and allowed to decay along with a “greatness” Mr. Trump wants to restore.
These are traditional American concerns, ones that put “America First.” They are being voiced by someone who knows, as The McDonald also said, that the presidency “is an expanded media event.” When it comes to understanding and dominating the media, The Donald is a man amongst pygmies, to the delight of crowds everywhere, even if they are mostly rubes. Until and unless his hysterical opponents learn all of this about him and more, Mr. Trump will continue, as he says, “Winning, winning, winning!” Meanwhile, he is making friends his party can’t seem to understand, and keeping his enemies close enough to remain confounded. They (his cosmopolitan enemies, that is) can’t seem to get it that they have been duped into attacking Mr. Trump for the wrong things. The bad news is that they cannot seem to understand that no Republican can now win the presidency without the reflexive America Firsters Mr. Trump has brought into the party. The good news for the country is that by keeping those enemies close, The Donald he has given us a chance to test out whether some form of America First is indeed the real American conservatism.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.