What Donald Trump Can Learn From the Clintons

By | 2017-07-12T14:37:31+00:00 May 4th, 2017|
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You have to hand it to the Clintons. They understand power. At least, Bill does. Hillary may be too much an ideologue to excel in the power sweepstakes.

Donald Trump? I think the jury is out on him.

Did you know that one of Bill Clinton’s first actions after he had been inaugurated was to install a friend of his wife’s and one of his campaign workers as commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service? The lucky lady was Margaret M. Richardson, Clinton stalwart.

Many conservatives must wonder, why is John Koskinen still head of the IRS? If you haven’t watched Koskinen’s testimony before Congress lately, take a look. Then take a look at Lois Lerner’s testimony. Really, take a look at that. Then note that you, a taxpayer, are helping to pay for this disgusting person’s pension (the amount, of course, is undisclosed).

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, I suggested that Trump take a page from Machiavelli. “The success of his administration,” I wrote,

will depend on many things: luck, skill, effective alliances. But all will be for naught if he tarries. It’s not just the first 100 days that will matter. It’s the first week, nay, the first 48 hours. His team should come to town ready to undo, right now, today, every executive order promulgated by Obama. Every appointment that can be made should be made instantly, every nomination should be put forth and, so far as is humanly possible, fast-tracked. It should be a shock-and-awe performance. The media will howl. The political establishment will squeal. But they will have been rendered irrelevant before they knew what hit them. It will be a spectacle worth watching.

As I have noted, I think that Trump’s opening chapter has been a success. The simple fact that Hillary Clinton is not president is a triumph for democracy. “The fact that Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, is president is already, just by itself, an accomplishment of the first water,” I noted recently.

And it’s not just a matter of what Hillary Clinton would have done. At issue was also who she was: a Clinton. I leave to one side the breathtaking corruption that she conspired with through her connections with the Clinton Foundation and its various pay-to-play schemes. I leave to one side also her callous and mendacious incompetence in handling the terrorist attacks on our consulate at Benghazi, her scandalous and routine mishandling of classified material and deployment of a home-brew email server. Leave that to one side and think just of the precedent she would have set had she become president: no, I am not talking about her anatomical status as female, but rather her dynastic status as a Clinton. Had she won, the presidency of the United States for the last twenty years would have shuffled between three families. That alone would have set an ominous precedent and upsetting that counts as a large bullet dodged.

I think of that, I think of the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, of Trump’s efforts to roll back counterproductive regulation, his energy policy, his efforts to enact a pro-growth agenda by cutting taxes and taming the beast that is ObamaCare: I think of all that and am glad.

But, still, I worry. Like Gulliver in Lilliput, Trump is surrounded by enemies. So far as I can see, he has done precious little to neutralize them. The day Bill Clinton was inaugurated, he asked for, and got, the resignations of 93 U.S. attorneys. Trump early on asked for 46: much wailing and gnashing of teeth greeted that initiative.

Bill Clinton moved quickly to replace an FBI director he didn’t like. In August 1993, just months after Clinton took office, Louis J. Freeh was confirmed.

I am trying to imagine what the response on the Left would be if Trump did any of these things.

What would Stephen Colbert say?

My concern is this. You often hear that the president of the United States is the most powerful person in the world.

Like Gulliver in Lilliput, Trump is surrounded by enemies. So far as I can see, he has done precious little to neutralize them.

I’d say, that depends.

Compare, for example, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Who was the more powerful president? Reagan may have been the most powerful person in the world. Was Carter?

I think the answer is obvious.

Why? Personal charisma? That was part of it.

But there was something else. Part of the answer, I feel sure, was an intuitive grasp of the physics of political power. Reagan had it. Carter did not.

One of the first things Reagan did upon coming to office was settle a strike by air traffic controllers. In 1981, he fired 11,000 striking workers. “They are in violation of the law,” said Reagan, “and if they do not report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.” Notwithstanding the fletus et stridor dentium I alluded to above worked: the union was tamed, the planes flew, freedom and prosperity moved a few inches forward.

Reagan defeated the Soviet Union without firing a shot. His tax cuts sparked the greatest economic boom in world history.

What did Jimmy Carter do? What do you remember? The “malaise” speech? “More mush from the wimp”? The Iran-hostage fiasco? The “misery-index”?

So long—but only so long—as the people who put Donald Trump in office believe he is doing his best to fulfill that promise, they will follow him to the ends of the earth.

The moment they sense he has betrayed them on this fundamental issue, the party is over.

Let me say this: The promiscuous desire to be liked is a personal character failing. In a politician, it is an existential challenge.

I have recently had occasion to quote one of my favorite mots from William Dean Howells: “The problem for a critic is not making enemies but keeping them.”

A congressman’s wife is on the board of a local dance company that gets $10,000 from the NEA. “Don’t defund the NEA, honey! What will Mildred think?” Will he keep his enemies or let them go?

Have you been to any swank parties in New York lately? Everyone, darling, is on board with the idea that “climate change” is an existential threat to mankind.

It’s errant nonsense, but no matter: it takes a politician of rare courage to buck the trend and say the truth.

Here’s something our friend Niccolò Machiavelli knew but that escapes many: power operates according to a partially occult calendar. What is possible on day one or day 100 or even on day 150 of a politician’s tenure will no longer be possible on day 366.

I am not sure anyone has ever said exactly why that should be the case.

But it is the case.

Donald Trump came to power on an extraordinary wave of hope and bitterness.

The bitterness was a response to a justified sense of existential marginalization at the hands of an anonymous technocratic elite that presumed to run people’s lives without in the least understanding their lives.

The hope arose from the trust that, finally, someone understood the score and was going to return prerogative to the people, not simply shuttle it to another party.

That is exactly what Trump said he would do on January 20, 2017. “[T]oday we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another,” he said in his brilliant inaugural, “or from one party to another—but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.”

So long—but only so long—as the people who put Donald Trump in office believe he is doing his best to fulfill that promise, they will follow him to the ends of the earth.

The moment they sense he has betrayed them on this fundamental issue, the party is over.

No politician wins every battle. Trump has already won several. He has lost some. He will lose more. There are some symbolic victories that have to happen: the Wall, for example. Somehow, that has to happen.

There is also one central promise that has to be kept: Make America Great Again. I believe that Trump has already made great strides in that battle. But at the end of the day it will be won or lost on one issue: economic growth. The magic number is somewhere between 3 percent and 4 percent. It can be done. Will it?

If Trump understands political power, the answer is Yes. Does he?

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About the Author:

Roger Kimball
Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books. Mr. Kimball lectures widely and has appeared on national radio and television programs as well as the BBC. He is represented by Writers' Representatives, who can provide details about booking him. Mr. Kimball's latest book is The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press, 2012). He is also the author of The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee). Other titles by Mr. Kimball include The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (Encounter) and Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age (Ivan R. Dee). Mr. Kimball is also the author ofTenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (HarperCollins). A new edition of Tenured Radicals, revised and expanded, was published by Ivan R. Dee in 2008. Mr. Kimball is a frequent contributor to many publications here and in England, including The New Criterion, The Times Literary Supplement, Modern Painters, Literary Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Public Interest, Commentary, The Spectator, The New York Times Book Review, The Sunday Telegraph, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, National Review, and The National Interest.