A Republic, If You Can Keep It: More on the Recent AHI Colloquium

You must find Philadelphia much changed, Mr. Jefferson.”

“More changed than I could have imagined, Mr. Hamilton. Not the city itself—all cities swallow everything … that’s no surprise to me; that’s why I abhor them. But I have been, as you know, in revolutionary France, where the streets are filled with the sounds of liberty and brotherhood and the overthrow of ancient tyrannies of Europe. And to return from there to this, our cradle of revolution, and find the dinner-table chatter is all of money and banks and authorities is — an unwelcome surprise.”

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Reflections on “College”

As the end of another semester looms, students focus so intently on term projects and grades that they can forget the big picture—their four-year college educations—at a moment when it's important not to. What matters most, in the next few weeks and in general at Hamilton, is how hard you try (including how hard you think) and what you learn. Both should be preoccupations, even obsessions. Grades should not be, and they might turn out better, on the whole, if they aren't.

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Thoughts on the Trump Divide

A year into his presidency, American conservatives remain divided about Donald Trump. Their disagreement may shrink over time, as it has begun to. But it won't, and shouldn't, disappear. Uncompromising hostility toward him on the right is justified only if conservatives, contrary to common sense, think they have no stake in his success as president. Yet the fear for the right's future among Never Trumpers, which partly underlies their anger toward him, cannot be cured by Trump enthusiasts' fantasizing about a populist revolution for which there is little evidence. The undeniably negative perceptions of the right among the nation's elites, naturally exacerbated by Trump's nomination and election in 2016, are too important to be dismissed by claiming that only “the people” ultimately count in a democracy. For one thing, this claim is simply false. For another, the people elected Barack Obama twice, and more of them voted for Hillary Clinton than for Trump. Such facts don't prove the existence of a left-of-center majority. But they're enough to disprove a conservative or coherently populist one. And Trump's persistently low poll numbers are another massive inconvenience for those who think he is the answer to the Right's accumulated shortcomings and weaknesses.

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The American Right Today

The divided quality of American conservatism is among its major features, but the exact nature of its divisions can change with the times. American conservatism may be in a new political era which began with the 2016 election cycle. Although it's too soon to know for sure, it's possible that we really are in new times—and have been since the end of 2015, when it was clear that Donald Trump's candidacy for the Republican nomination had not only survived but flourished despite both its strangeness and its seemingly formidable adversaries. Trump's capture of the nomination made clear how strongly a relatively non-ideological (albeit rancorous) candidate could appeal to many Republican voters who had been assumed to hold more ideological views.

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Evaluating Trump

For the many Americans who either hate or love Donald Trump, judging the effectiveness of his White House performance—as distinct from merely reacting to it—will be a challenge. But both opponents and supporters owe it to themselves to consider the question somewhat objectively, if only so they can better understand what's going on in the next few years.

An important guideline in evaluating any president is the distinction between the two quite different sides of the office, the “two presidencies” analysis credited to political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. The president can, of course, act more freely in foreign policy, which mostly doesn't require legislation and therefore is less limited by congressional opposition. (For this reason, Wildavsky noted, presidents tend to be drawn disproportionately toward foreign policy activity, whatever that might mean concretely to a particular president.) Furthermore, foreign policy expectations among Trump's voters, and others, are not especially high. Many Americans will consider him successful enough in foreign affairs if “the world” doesn't seem to get worse.

In domestic policy, though, President Trump faces high congressional hurdles due not only to the presence of 48 Democrats (nearly all of them, so far, essentially uncooperative with him) in the Senate, but also to House Republicans' reasonable fear of losing their majority in the 2018 election. It is hard to see how Obamacare as a whole will be repealed and replaced, because of the issue's complexity and its great personal relevance to so many Americans—a situation that makes it very difficult to satisfy all congressional Republicans, whether in policy terms or in terms of their political self-interest. It also seems doubtful that Trump will succeed in enacting major tax cuts or building a wall on the border.

It isn't even safe to assume that effectiveness in the sense of getting things out of Congress will always help him politically. Tax cuts weren't at the heart of his campaign, and they wouldn't necessarily be a net political benefit to him unless key groups of voters think they have improved the economy for average Americans—which depends on the economy's unpredictable performance and especially on more jobs, which Trump conspicuously promised. A border wall, or major steps toward one, would please most of his backers but could also spark even more anger, and thus motivation, than ever among the anti-Trump base. Repeal of Obamacare, no matter what it's replaced with, might well make the president even less popular than he is.

On the other hand, a lack of legislative results in major domestic policy would leave him vulnerable to a charge from disgruntled supporters that he “hasn't done anything.” They already see Washington, not altogether wrongly, as a place where little change is made. For Trump to be coupled in many of their minds with that situation, following an insurgent campaign in which he blasted Washington and made such grandiose promises, could be fatal.

In judging Trump's domestic effectiveness—again, his ability to reshape government policy, not whether he does things we like—the most important arena may well be the bureaucracy. How much will he change the government's relationship to our society and economy by means of direct and indirect administrative action? Sophisticated friends and foes alike will watch that at least as closely as they monitor congressional developments.

It's worth remembering that even with a polarizing figure like Donald Trump, some people are of two minds, or in the middle, or persuadable in either direction. A segment of the electorate seems to end up supporting incumbent presidents who appear adequate, or slightly preferable to their challengers, even if they previously voted for the other party's candidate and aren't enthused about the president. If only for that reason, it's conceivable that Trump could win the popular vote, not just the electoral vote, if he runs again. But he will lose re-election, or perhaps not even seek it, if his popularity tanks among his base in the next couple of years and doesn't strongly rebound. Although this hasn't begun to happen yet, Trump and people close to him should remain keenly aware that many in his base like him mainly for his enemies. Anger is a powerful force in politics, but also a double-edged sword. Trump more than most presidents will need to remain visibly and audibly an outsider, even while achieving certain things by conventional standards and, if possible, getting a few more Americans to like him. That won't be easy.

* Dr. David Frisk has been a Resident Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute (theahi.org) since 2013. The author of If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement, he will teach “Modern Conservative Politics” in the Government department this fall.

           

Trump's Presidential Debut

Whatever else one may think of it, Donald Trump’s inaugural address was relatively free of clichés. It was also short on ideology. While hitting the bipartisan Washington establishment hard, the new president voiced a largely non-ideological anger.

“Liberals” and “progressives” who don’t understand this should be prepared for an especially frustrating four, or more, years. They’re used to Republican presidents who are much less aggressive and, in the case of Ronald Reagan and to a lesser extent George W. Bush, speak more in terms of principles and ideas. Trump focused on the people, on the terribly shortchanged condition of America as he sees it. It was in this spirit, I think, that he didn’t go into detail about the failures of our ruling elite. His address was about practical results going forward, which, if achieved, will be popular among the public. Again, if the Left doesn’t perceive this aspect of President Trump because they’re so angry about his objectives or even his tactics, it will be harder for them fight him.

Many must have found it hard or impossible to watch the events of January 20, preferring to take comfort in the Women’s March the next day. Those who did see enough of Inauguration Day, however, should have noticed Trump's respectful, even friendly, interactions with President Obama and other political enemies. My own takeaway, from this and other evidence, is that Trump is quite capable of avoiding unacceptable rudeness—and also that he gets an extremely important point which many people, on both sides, would do well to accept in their own political interactions: that he is dealing with real human beings, that opponents can be “deplorable” without being always and only deplorable.

I am in no way naïve about Donald Trump, having opposed his nomination. It’s undeniable, for example, that he can be blatantly mean, crude, and heedless of facts or of things that people outside the most intense part of his political following reasonably presume to be true. If only those on the Left who hate or greatly fear him would be half as vigilant about such failings among their own leaders, which they are not. These leaders are often arrogant and nasty enough to deserve what Trump dishes out to them. Whether his own exaggerations are sloppy or cynical, however, he should drop them (except perhaps the harmless, often desirable, “America will be greater than ever” or “You'll get tired of winning” kind of thing, which sounds stupid to many of us, but was probably no small part of his appeal to voters). He should not continue to claim a landslide in the Electoral College, which just isn't true by historical standards. Nor should he keep saying that illegal immigrants are responsible for Hillary Clinton's winning the popular vote, which is unlikely and unprovable. And those are just the simplest instances.

Whether the mainstream media Trump likes to bash are, on the whole, his enemies is a difficult question, since the term “enemies” has various meanings. But certainly they are biased against him, and often unprofessional in other respects that happen to help the Left, and thus a problem for him and his agenda. Trump should speak of them as merely that: a problem. Few people among the millions of Americans whose support he wants, and doesn't yet have, would disagree if he simply characterized the media in that way. Privately, many journalists would have to agree.

In his second major speech as president, whenever that may be, Trump might be well-advised to lean toward these partial conciliations—having planted his flag effectively in a refreshing inaugural address.

 

***David Frisk is a Resident Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute. The opinions in this piece are his own, not the AHI’s.