The conundrum of the Trump phenomenon, especially for legacy conservatives, is actually pretty simple. Trump and his effects defy expectations.
That’s about it. I could pad this post with a lot of structural analysis of that point, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Here is a fellow whose personal history doesn’t fit anyone’s idea of marital fidelity, conservative values, or philosophical consistency about politics. He tends to mouth off on issues, shooting out words rather than framing sentences. He sends triggering tweets and seems to enjoy it. He communicates policy by tweet. He sometimes says mean-spirited things about people, from the office of the president. On the other hand, he talks about falling in love with a young-punk dictator and having a beautiful relationship with him.
His history as an entrepreneur includes big successes and big failures. He has detractors as well as supporters in the business world. He has hired some weird employees, alongside the excellent ones. There are a lot of court cases in his wake; maybe not more than the average billionaire entrepreneur, but certainly more than any U.S. president.
He was a reality TV star, for crying out loud. And an unrepentant one; he still moves and shakes like a reality TV star in a number of situations. Go on and on, and it all just keeps adding up. How can he possibly be a credible political figure, one who would reset politics as we have known it all our lives?
Yet somehow he is. It’s impossible that Trump, the antithesis of personal righteousness, could have an effect like finally – finally – withdrawing federal taxpayer money from Planned Parenthood. Yet he has taken action to do just that. And he is likely to win in court, when the inevitable challenges are made.
It’s impossible that Trump, whose foreign policy you can grasp if you read his tweets, but who doesn’t give classic foreign-policy speeches, could have significant, far-reaching effects on international security. (At least we have the tweets, incidentally. With Obama we didn’t have even those.)
Yet Trump’s outreach to North Korea has resulted in the actual suspension of warhead and missile testing in Pyongyang’s nuclear program, and in a continuation of dialogue and negotiation. For neither of these conditions is there a prior history.
Trump’s handling of NATO – cringeworthy for many – is resulting in greater commitments from the NATO allies on military spending and participation. Trump has in fact rendered ISIS landless in Syria and Iraq – which is not to say that ISIS is defeated (it’s not), but is to say that ISIS as a proto-caliphate and an excuse for everyone else in the Middle East to bustle into Syria has been neutralized.
See Trump’s seeming comfort over the years with the ridiculous regulatory mazes of city and state governments in New York and New Jersey. No way he would be a tiger on federal deregulation; he’s got no history of principled opposition to the regulatory-shakedown racket.
Or see his fixation on trade agreements and impatience with abstractions about “trade policy.” Stand aside Hawley-Smoot, and hand over that trophy. You’re no longer “it.” The whole land will have to lie in darkness, smothered by beggar-thy-neighbor tariffs as Americans go barefoot and rumble off in the Waltons’ ancient pickup truck to do odd jobs to keep food on the table.
Except that’s not what’s happening. The U.S. economy has surged, putting people back to work and yielding an explosion of energy production. Trump has rolled back federal regulation that has kept segments of the economy in nothing better than a deteriorating stasis for the last decade. The media and Democratic politicians try to paint a picture of misery for America’s working people, but the theme doesn’t take hold because it’s not reality.
All of these things are what I think of when I see the Never Trump folks planning their separate conclaves (Never CPAC!) and starting their own new, improved, Better Over Here Never Trump True Conservative media outlets. God bless them, every one. I’ve got no animus against them.
But what I perceive in the Never Trump club is a lack of recognition that the point isn’t how Trump deviates from the prescribed outline of the conservative leader. The point is the conundrum.
Trump hasn’t changed my mind on what’s right and wrong in terms of individual behavior or what’s good for a well-functioning society. In fact – I do grow weary of mentioning this, but so much of any audience is incapable of not jumping to conclusions these days – I didn’t vote for Trump. I wrote in Ted Cruz. I’ve never been a Trumpista.
But neither does Trump make me ill or send me into orbit. I just started out skeptical about the effects he was going to have.
What I can see now is that he has … defied expectations. The real problem for Never Trumpers is exactly that. Someone who looks and acts like Trump isn’t supposed to have the effects Trump has had on policy, and the effects he has had on actual events and conditions. He isn’t supposed to produce results that conservatives find right and proper and endorsable.
Never Trumpers, in their own way, are as bad as the monolithic left about interpreting every fresh piece of information to mean Trump is through: cooked, over, stick a fork in him, this time it’s the evidence; this time it’s the big failure we all knew was coming.
But it never is. Trump defies expectations. Trump accomplishes things conservatives have long argued for. But he’s doing it while unseemly, unpolished, unclubbable, and unrighteous. That can’t be right.
I agree that the Trump conundrum mustn’t redefine conservatism, as Never Trumpers insist. For me, Trump hasn’t redefined conservatism. I see no need for his presidency to do that.
But I also don’t think that line of thought even has the right focus. Redefining conservatism shouldn’t be our priority. Conservatism has good principles for life, which need not be wirebrushed for light or transient reasons.
But as we’ve been practicing it in politics for the last half century, conservatism hasn’t been turning the tide of collectivism and authoritarianism. Suddenly, on the other hand, some weird thing out of nowhere is having that effect.
We can’t define what’s going on. It’s not our handiwork, in a way that we can trace. It keeps leaving our expectations empty-handed.
And that’s what the focus needs to be.
We don’t know how or why Trump is having the effect he’s having. Never Trumpers look for ways to interpret events so that we don’t have to acknowledge the effects Trump is producing. But the pointlessness of that is becoming daily more apparent, as the facts keep changing on the ground.
Reality can be summed up pretty quickly. Trump, as a phenomenon, manages to do what legacy conservatism never could: expose who the progressive left really is and what the left really wants. The exposure has been truly stunning to witness. There is a healthy plurality of voters cheering Trump on.
Never Trumpers don’t know how to explain that, because Trump doesn’t fit their expectations of who and what should produce conservative-vindicating results (like the most constitutionalist slate of judicial nominees any of us can remember or think of, and repeated instances of respect for judicial rulings, even when they are manifestly bad ones. This is not a lawless effect, or a harbinger of authoritarianism. It’s the opposite).
None of the rest of us knows how to explain this either, at least within the confines of our political philosophies. And for my money, that’s the point that matters. It’s a conundrum. We don’t have the answers.
If you revere God, that could well be what you’re supposed to be focusing on. Suppose God isn’t asking you to use your existing set of expectations to concoct a plan for politics. Suppose He’s asking you to reexamine your expectations themselves.
It’s not possible that God wants us to think success lies in living our lives just like Trump, or even doing politics just like Trump. Here the MAGA Trump folks have been wiser than others, in my view, because they’ve already thought that through, if they’re believers. They know that. It’s exactly what many of them say, and in so many words. They aren’t deceived in that regard, nor do they have to be so deceived, to support Trump.
But it is possible that God wants us to know – really wants us to know – that He isn’t about being on the losing side on this earth. The key is where the emphasis in that sentence belongs: on the pronoun He. It’s time to consider that none of this is about adjusting our political ideas. It’s about getting reacquainted with who God is.