Every president has both a personality and an agenda. Sometimes they work in tandem, sometimes they don’t.
Bill Clinton’s charm enhanced his platform—until his sexual appetites nearly wrecked it. Barack Obama was both charismatic and snarky, sometimes turning off and sometimes wooing his opponents. Richard Nixon’s neuroses finally empowered his enemies and ruined his foreign policy initiatives. Ronald Reagan’s upbeat persona helped convince the public to “stay the course” with his bitter anti-inflationary medicine.
The outsider Donald Trump faces the same dilemma but in a fashion rarely seen before. For now there are two manifestations of Trump. First is Trump’s message: that of the populist counterrevolutionary determined to recalibrate the last half-century of liberal and therapeutic government and its affiliated culture. Second is Trump the messenger: the ex-reality TV star who tweets nonstop in the early morning hours often to the outrage of his enemies, to the delight of his supporters, and to the embarrassment of the undecided.
The media focuses on Trump the messenger, either because they are not interested in his message or because they see the personal destruction of Trump as essential to the implosion of his agenda.
As a result, we know all about Trump’s alleged intrigue with Russia, his defense of his daughter’s businesses, his attacks on movie stars and celebrities, his 4 a.m. tweets and loud accusations, but very little about what is otherwise going on policy-wise.
Even as Trump tweets, quietly he is also attempting—both through executive orders and anticipated congressional action—landmark deregulation, tax reform, and health care reformulations. If successful, he will remake the economy, tilt the Supreme Court rightward, and prune the deep state. He has green lighted energy production, including coal, natural gas and oil, whose consequence could prove an increasing bonanza for the United States and its allies.
His cabinet contradicts conventional opinion; Trump has brought in experts and reformers from the private sector and the military to reformulate education, environmental, energy, immigration, defense spending, and fiscal policy. Academics, think-tankers, and career bureaucrats in most cases have been passed over.
Trump may well remake the Republican Party, by bringing in many millions of the working class, at the expense of alienating hundreds of thousands of conservative elites.
The supposedly vindictive Trump is proving unusually magnanimous for a politician, welcoming in former rivals and critics including Rick Perry, Ben Carson, and Jon Huntsman. His foreign policy team of Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and H.R. McMaster is non-ideological and centrist, wedded largely to the successful traditions of bipartisan postwar policies, albeit with a realist rather than neoconservative bent.
The stock market and employers, even if prematurely so, apparently have reacted to both Trump’s reformist rhetoric, and his executive orders, as stocks soar and job growth improves. For all the talk of Trump’s impulsiveness and unsteady leadership, allies are not in fear as the media alleges.
Privately, friends in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are less worried than they were a year ago about the assurance of the American defense umbrella. Europe’s voters are moving more toward Trumpism than Obamism. It is likely that Israel and the Gulf States are more confident—and Iran more worried. China and Russia are more likely to assume the United States will be unpredictable rather than characteristically compliant as it has been over the past eight years. And that it is largely a good thing in a dangerous world.
The point is not that after two months Trump has achieved radical reform or has won over skeptics, only that he embraced a conservative correction of progressivism beyond what most past Republican presidents have envisioned or what congressional conservatives believed was possible after 2008. Because he has rhetorical gifts and personal charm, Trump could prove to be a dynamic president if his own excesses do not eventually empower his enemies.
For all of Trump’s blasts, so far he has survived the press assaults and faux-scandals. We have reached a point of progressive exasperation in which New York Times columnists compare him to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor or have asked the IRS (apparently on the theory that the agency was long ago prone to political corruption in the Obama era of Lois Lerner) to commit a felony by leaking Donald Trump’s tax returns.
The Trump-Russia story has largely boomeranged: intelligence organizations’ overreach and illegal leaks did not result in proof of Trump’s illegal behavior. But such media disclosures did reopen inquiries into felonious behavior of government bureaucracies and the press. Note how each day the media will incrementally back out of their own self-created cul-de-sac. Watch how the paradox unfolds as it becomes clear that Trump is channeling their own prior disclosures and admitted leaks to prove their original point that he was tapped, thereby confirming his own point that nothing came of these “investigations” except proof of bureaucratic illegality.
In trying to destroy Trump rhetorically, the media has instead committed veritable suicide, and it will never restore the patina that it is fair, disinterested and competent. The tumor of Obama-era obsequiousness has terminally metastasized into Trump Derangement Syndrome.
So far everything his critics have thrown at him has bounced off: the boilerplate accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, nativism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, America-Firstism, fascism, Nazism, Hitlerism, and garden-variety authoritarianism. These –isms and –phobias eventually and cumulatively may bleed him from a thousand nicks, but so far the currency of hysteria is not worth much.
Prominent opinion makers, columnists, and reporters have variously called for the president’s murder, his impeachment, his resignation, and his removal for psychological infirmity. He has been formally accused in mainstream media of suffering from neurosyphilis, sexual depravity, and urophilia with Russian prostitutes. It would take a Havelock Ellis to explain the media’s smears to the public.
Trump’s wife, Melania, was libeled in the media with everything from immigration fraud to prostitution; his daughter Ivanka has been physically confronted on planes, had her businesses boycotted, and derided as either dishonest or dumb or both. Most of the NeverTrump conservatives have doubled-down; they seem angrier than ever that Trump is pursuing and thus polluting most of their own agendas, as if his personal failure would be more redeeming to their careers and sense of selves than would his policy successes.
Yet so far in a Nietzschean sense all that has not destroyed him seems to have made him stronger.
So we are in a three-way race for the life of the Trump presidency. Will his policies take effect in time to achieve enough prosperity and security to render his opponents irrelevant? Will the media hysteria boomerang and thus discredit his unhinged critics before they wound Trump? And will Trump’s personal magnetism and persuasiveness trump his own nocturnal propensity to lash out and undermine his own agenda?
For now, only one thing remains certain: the candidate whom the Republican establishment most disliked has the greatest potential in a generation to stop the progressive project and enact the agendas that the Republican establishment most wants. And that paradox has become a source of both great wonderment—and fear.