Trying to take Trump seriously, Michael’s Barone’s column in the Washington Examiner on Thursday, is significant for at least two reasons. One is that anything Barone writes is certain to be thoughtful, authoritatively researched, and grounded in reality. His columns, like his work in general, are not fired mainly by ideology but by a desire to understand. What Cardinal Newman said of Aristotle could, mutatis mutandis, be said of Barone: about most things, to think like him is to think correctly.
But there is another sense in which this particular column is significant. Given Barone’s stature as a conservative but non-ideological commentator, his judicious and fair-minded assessment may mark a turning point in the broader public reception of President Trump’s initiatives.
Remember: the moment that Donald Trump achieved the impossible, defeating the anointed candidate Hillary Clinton, a vast coalition formed like a toxic mold to blight his presidency and deny him the legitimacy that he had won at the ballot box and the Electoral College.
Irony-free females in pink “pussy hats” marched in their thousands to protest against Trump’s “vulgarity”; B-list Hollywood narcissists made embarrassing videos in which they pleaded with members of the Electoral College to renege on their responsibility to vote for their party’s candidate; frenzied commentators at CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other outposts of woke hysteria regurgitated rumors, fantasies, innuendos, and gossip on the basis of “sources” indistinguishable from their personal political animus; black-masked members of Antifa and kindred covens of criminal disgruntlement rampaged on college campuses, destroying property and injuring people with whom they disagreed in order to protest the violence and intolerance of Donald Trump; the entire academic establishment, that sprawling congeries of preening though unearned smugness and moral self-infatuation, contracted in one brow of hate-spewing woe to demonstrate its unwavering commitment to sclerotic ideological conformity.
“The Embarrassing Ravings of a Mad Uncle”
All across the fruited plain, pampered members of the entitled class shouted at others to “check their privilege” while signaling their approval of a “resistance” movement whose only reality was a resistance to the results of a free, open, and democratic election. On the one hand, it was a perfect illustration of what Charles Mackay called “the madness of crowds”; on the other, it was a vivid embodiment of something Sigmund Freud might have congregated under the heading of “infantile neurosis.”
Speaking of neurosis, poor Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described the tax-reform plan that Trump just signed as “the end of the world,” “the worst bill in the history of the United States Congress.” Back on planet earth, businesses and markets disagreed. A couple of weeks ago, Trump’s major speech on national security, backed up by a detailed white paper on the subject, put the world on notice about the lineaments of an America First foreign policy.
These and other developments—from symbolic initiatives like Trump’s decision to move our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem to game-changing actions like his robust support for America’s energy industry—have made the skirlings of anti-Trump hysterics seem more and more like the embarrassing ravings of a mad uncle.
Why Seriously, Why Now
Michael Barone’s column, taking its cue from Salena Zito’s observation that, during the 2016 presidential election campaign, anti-Trump pundits tended to take candidate Trump “literally but not seriously,” opens a new chapter in the evolution, and the rehabilitation, of Trump’s reputation.
“As 2017 is on the point of vanishing,” Barone writes, “it’s worth asking whether it’s time to take Trump seriously, if not literally, as a public policy maker.”
That’s a question that Latinists would describe as a nonne question, i.e., one expecting the answer “Yes.” Barone focuses on two areas, economics, and national security, and two columnists, the free-marketeer (and therefore Trump skeptic) Tyler Cowen and the Trump-friendly commentator David Goldman, to make the point.
Cowen, although skeptical of Trump’s protectionist rhetoric, “sees a pattern where others see only mayhem.” Barone quotes Cowen in a recent Bloomberg column: “The real significance of the Trump economic revolution is a focus on investment.” If this challenges the post-World-War II consensus, so be it. That system was devised some 70 years ago to deal with the reality of a war-savaged Europe and Japan. Times have changed, but not the stale, conventional wisdom. As Barone notes, “A revived Europe has turned sluggish, while low-wage nations in Asia, Latin America, and even Africa are open for investment. First Japan, then China, now others will be moving up as competitors.” In order to meet those new competitors, the United States must compete on a level playing field, a field that favors the Trumpian slogan “fair trade” over yesterday’s mantra “free trade,” whereby “free” was meant a policy that systematically disfavored American workers.
“America,” Barone observes, “has proved competitive at the top levels. But a country whose labor force is always going to include many low-skill workers may have some continuing interest in incentivizing low-skill employment. That’s not Cowen’s view or mine,” he allows, “but it’s apparently President Trump’s. Maybe it’s not just dismissible as crazy ranting.”
Can you hear the tide turning? Listen: drawing on a brilliant column by David Goldman in Asia Times, Barone acknowledges the tension between Trump’s sober national security proclamations and his sometimes incendiary tweets. But he goes on to outline the advantages of Trump’s aspirations:
The national security strategy has a tough enough approach to Russia to disabuse all but the most dogmatic believers of the notion that Trump is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Manchurian candidate. It is sharply critical of some actions by President Xi Jinping’s China. It drops former President George W. Bush’s earnest promotion of democracy in the Middle East and former President Barack Obama’s gauzy faith that Iran will abandon its nuclear weapons program and become a normal constructive power in the region.
The point is not that Barone agrees with Trump. About many things, I suspect, he does not. The point is rather that one of our most thoughtful commentators understands that Trump’s perspective is not necessarily jejune, crazy, or counterproductive.
Rational Re-Thinking of the Postwar Consensus
For example, although Trump’s national security platform reaffirms America’s commitment to NATO (while at the same time calling on our European allies to do more to support their defense) it also relocates the center of gravity of U.S. concern from Europe to Asia. “Europe,” Barone observes, “seems almost a footnote.”
For the last seven decades, of course, Europe was at the center of America’s foreign policy concerns. In the aftermath of World War II, “policymakers believed it was in America’s interest to revive and subsidize Europe.” That was then. “Trump believes that time is over.” Again, the issue is not whether one agrees with Trump’s assessment, only whether his is a justifiable perspective. And it is precisely this that Barone grants him: “That’s one rational response, though you and I may not agree, to how things have changed over 70 years.”
The revelatory novelty, and the admirable maturity, of Barone’s column suggests just how caught up in yesterday’s presuppositions is the conventional thinking—let’s not call it “wisdom”—that undergirds the policy establishment that has set itself tooth-and-claw against Trump.
Barone’s calm, dispassionate description of alternatives suggests two things. One, that the dreaded “normalization” of Donald Trump is proceeding apace, just as it did with Ronald Reagan, who also had been dismissed as an evil, warmongering moron before he was declared a statesman of rare genius. Two, that the vaunted policy establishment in Washington and the media, to say nothing of its support groups in academia and the world of celebrity, are just about to suffer a disestablishment that will rival in vividness, if not in carnage, what Henry VIII visited upon the monasteries of Tudor England.
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