As we enter the Era of Trump
, many Americans find themselves feeling tentative
about the future of the country. Trump’s incoming approval ratings are historically
low, but Americans are optimistic about 2017. The economy seems to be on
firm footing, but economists suspect a recession will occur sometime in
the next four years. On foreign Policy
, President Obama leaves a globe in
shambles, with our enemies empowered and our allies frightened; President
Trump is a cipher, with a cozy view of Russia and isolationist tendencies, but
a willingness to build up the military for deterrence purposes. And socially,
we’re more divided than we’ve been in decades.
President Obama leaves with high approval ratings despite his shoddy
record. History won’t judge him kindly.
But now he’s gone. So, what can we expect from President Trump?
The honest answer: nobody really knows.
Here’s what we do know: Donald Trump will continue to be Donald Trump.
It means speaking some politically incorrect truths that enrage the media,
attacking the media directly, and targeting political enemies with joy and
alacrity. It means nasty and silly statements masquerading as political
incorrectness, and Kellyanne Conway walking those statements back
while claiming they never happened. It means slamming particular
companies to earn headlines, bouncing around the stock market and
our allies through foolish tweets, and epic photo ops and press
conferences. It means policy heresies no decent conservative would
have accepted just four years ago being mainstreamed as “populist Trumpism.”
Trump will remain Trump. His character is a constant.
But here’s what we don’t know: what Trump’s policy will look like.
It could be great. We could get a conservative Supreme Court justice
or more, cuts to regulation, repeal and replacement of Obamacare,
tax reductions, and a military rebuild.
But all of that depends on how Trump governs. Will he delegate to his
cabinet – largely excellent picks – to make policy? Or will he insert himself
in policy discussions with his typically cursory issue knowledge, demanding
that he shape the law? Will he shift his views as often during his presidency
as he did in the years preceding it? Will he treat the White House as a
family business, or will he treat presidential power as a set of celebrity
perks, while delegating the actual power to those he’s appointed?
Where will he place his focus: on public fights, or on policymaking? There’s
a good case to be made that Conservatives
Trump sticks to
Twitter fights with Saturday Night Live rather than interfering in the
vagaries of policy. That, after all, was one of the strongest appeals to
conservatives in the waning days of the election: elect Trump, but get Mike
Pence and Paul Ryan.
But what if Trump decides he’s the man in charge – since, after all, he’s
the man in charge? Then we have no idea what’s coming, since as his allies
frequently state, he has no consistent philosophy of government. His allies
treat truth as a sort of comfort blanket – he won’t be extreme! – but it’s
actually disquieting. Policymaking by political convenience rarely ends well.
Trump isn’t a small government advocate; he believes in big government
doing big things, which in practice would mean blowing out the budget, for
example. He believes that American allies are burdens on us rather than
benefits to us, which in practice means pulling back from the world stage.
His knowledge of the Constitution is scant, and he's been handed a
mandate to break things, to overthrow the system, to blow things up.
All of this ignores another problem: while conservatives can hope for
excellent policy in spite of Trump’s public persona, the public persona matters.
Trump is now the face of the Republican Party, and the Republican hierarchy
are bowing before that political reality. That means that the things he says
have impact on how people think and feel, even if they mean little in terms
of policy. Conservatives have a right to fear Trump alienating broad swaths
of Americans, Trump undermining the perception of free markets among
the public, Trump treating the most powerful office on earth frivolously.
Barack Obama’s most negative legacy will be undermining race relations,
dividing us along religious and gender lines. He did that less with policy
than with rhetoric. Trump now has the bully pulpit. How will that impact
conservatism – and will conservatives go right along with anything, so
long as they get a bit of decent policy along the way?
So, with all of this confusion and chaos, what should conservatives do?
We should allow ourselves to be optimistic: this is the greatest chance for
conservative policymaking in a generation. But we should remain skeptical.
It’s not our job to prop up Trump – it’s our job to tell the truth. When he’s
right, we ought to praise him; when he’s wrong, we ought to call him out. It’s
not our job to assuage his feelings, or try to flatter him into good policy. He
is a public servant. He serves the citizens, not the other way around. And he
serves the Constitution, not the other way around. Trump may not have a
governing philosophy, but we must, and we must hold him accountable to
that vision. Otherwise, we face the gravest danger: the destruction of a true
and valuable political philosophy on the shoals of pure partisan hackery.