It is hard for Trump’s strongest supporters not to feel demoralized at the moment. Democrats took over the House of Representatives. President Trump tried and failed in a game of chicken with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over funding of the wall. His State of the Union was well received, but marked a clear departure from his earlier themes, including worrisome language about increasing the number of legal guest workers. And, more recently, Trump signed a bill that provides partial funding for a mere border fence, but includes numerous restrictions that likely hinder any future application of emergency powers.
How did we get here? Trump took office as a controversial and unorthodox “change” candidate. He reflected the frustrations and inchoate nationalist views of many Americans, whose concerns have been ignored by both parties for many years. In addition to consolidating the large cohort of ordinary Republicans radicalized by the presidency of Barack Obama, he brought in many disillusioned and alienated blue-collars voters, whose jobs and communities had been stressed by outsourcing, immigration, and a more general malaise. From the beginning, he faced an uphill struggle to implement an ambitious agenda.
Bad Hiring Has Weakened the Administration
Trump made his first unforced error in the earliest days of his administration. Personnel is policy, and his nominees for various cabinet and senior positions often did not share his vision, may have voted for his opponent, and otherwise were creatures of the very swamp he set out to drain.
James Mattis, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Nikki Haley, while all impressive people, do not come from the dissident wing of the Republican Party. In some cases, they have openly expressed opposition to Trump’s policies. John Bolton, while apparently a born-again Trump supporter, was the face of neoconservative interventionism during George W. Bush years, which gave us the failed regime-change wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the use of traditional Republican appointees may have been unavoidable, at least in part, the Trump Administration seemed to make little effort to ensure fidelity between the expressed goals of his campaign and his appointment of top officials.
In addition to these top cabinet picks, his daughter Ivanka and her mediocre husband, Jared Kushner, have been behind useless policy measures such as criminal justice reform and knee-jerk decisions like the 2017 Syria airstrikes. These two standard-issue New York liberals do not have the talent or the views to justify their portfolio, and their undue influence continues to be apparent in Trump’s occasional leftward lurches in rhetoric and policy.
Finally, in the transition, Trump set up a website—www.greatagain.gov—seeking talent from across this great country among his supporters. As far as we know, this database was destroyed, and any serious attempt to recreate it has never been undertaken. I know many talented people whose résumés went into this black hole. Government should again become the province of talented individuals from the private sector and the nation’s interior, and not a revolving door of Washington insiders bouncing back-and-forth between government and lobbying positions, as it has been for decades. You cannot drain the swamp by elevating people attached to its perquisites and devoted to its pieties.
The Window of Opportunity During the Republican Congress Is Gone
A second source of failure has been the wasted opportunity during the two years the Republicans controlled Congress. The Obamacare repeal failed and, instead of building a wall, Trump and Congress focused on traditional GOP agenda items such as tax reform, funding the military’s various expenses, and dubious goals that do not appeal to his base, like releasing drug dealers from prison.
Granted, he faced passive-aggressive resistance from now-departed Republican leaders like Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and active resistance from senators such as John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Nonetheless, he willingly signed a a spending bill in 2017 that provided no money for the wall, and he did not hazard a shutdown at that time, when his leverage against the Republican Congress would have been significantly higher than it is now against the Democrats, who uniformly want to see him fail.
As we saw in the shutdown fight, accomplishing anything of note with a Democratic-led Congress will be difficult, and Trump’s continuing failure to wrest control of the executive branch’s administrative agencies from the deep state through strategic appointments has dampened the presidency’s traditional means of influencing results through coordinated executive branch action.
Enemies Within the Gates
A third problem is not one of Trump’s making, but he has not yet found a politically palatable solution: the meddlesome, never-ending machinations of special prosecutor, Robert Mueller.
While acting under the pretense of investigating “Russian collusion,” Mueller’s office is a sham designed to dig up dirt and otherwise harass the president and his associates. Combined with a hostile media, the investigation has created a cloud over Trump’s presidency, encouraged him to confront Russia rather than employ diplomacy, and undermined his power by fueling Democrats’ and various deep state bureaucrats’ belief that his rightful authority will soon flow back into the hands of the permanent administrative state.
In addition to the problem of the special prosecutor, official conservatism has made a fetish of being honorable losers. They have resisted Trump especially when he is on the verge of advancing a conservative agenda. Of course, it is good to be honorable and have principles. But, in matters of high-stakes politics, principles are not worth much without victory. Victors get to write history, after all. If you read the blogs and journals of Conservatism Inc., you would think the stakes are pretty high. But as soon as some unorthodox, irregular, or simply strong action is taken to push back against some leftist monstrosity, all of a sudden legalism and decorum reign supreme.
Lincoln did not falter either in suspending habeas corpus or killing several hundred thousand of his countrymen during the Civil War, nor did Americans hesitate to incinerate two Japanese cities with nuclear bombs in order to win World War II. America was a different and more confident place in those days, and romantic pragmatism used to be a core part of our national character.
Today, Conservatism Inc. is preoccupied with tone and process. This group pretends that the past was more genteel than it was in practice, while ignoring that we are now a divided country at each other’s throats regarding the most basic questions of what it means to be an American and whom should its government serve. Instead of rallying the troops to support sensible measures necessary to win, we instead get a lot of hand-wringing by professional conservatives, which seems satisfied with being the loyal opposition and enjoying their sinecure gigs.
Trump Promised a Wall, But We Are Not Getting One
Trump made building the wall the centerpiece of his campaign. He even said Mexico would pay for it, though I always considered that to be merely an aspirational goal. It now appears he will not get the wall in any normal sense of the term, and the spending bill he signed explicitly limits his ability to build it. Indeed, his use of emergency powers would have proceeded more effectively without the limits contained in the recent spending bill, and his best chance to use them was in 2017.
If Trump declared an emergency in 2017, the Republicans would have put up less resistance than the impassioned Democrats of 2019 and, until Friday, one could point to congressional legislation mandating the construction of a wall as legislative support. Even with the many legitimate successes of Trump’s presidency—deregulation, economic growth, two excellent Supreme Court justices, rapprochement with North Korea, and pro-worker tariff policies—Trump himself has always emphasized the importance of the wall. It is not unreasonable for his supporters to consider it the sine qua non of success.
Consider an analogy involving the Iraq War. We were told in the run-up to the war that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. These active programs supposedly threatened peace in the region and violated earlier United Nations resolutions. It turns out, Iraq did not have them. Our vaunted intelligence agencies were wrong. In the process, many supporters of the Iraq War were completely disillusioned, and this disillusionment deepened after the Bush Administration’s campaign of misinformation during the chaos of the post-invasion period. Bush’s presidency was inseparable from the Iraq War and irredeemably tarnished by its origins in mistaken intelligence.
The success of Trump’s presidency is similarly inseparable from the construction of a wall. In addition to its practical effects, the wall has important symbolic value as a rejection of globalism and an assertion of American sovereignty. Without control of the border and immigration reform broadly, his presidency will be a failure on its own terms. While some held their nose in voting for Trump and others, like me, had a real affection for him and his style, both recognize that Trump’s chief appeal is that he is a fighter. He fought when most Republicans backed down whether against the media, North Korea, or the Deep State. During the campaign, he consistently affirmed the right of ordinary Americans to have a government responsive to them.
It now appears Trump painted himself into a corner and got played by the Machiavellian Nancy Pelosi. He tried a shutdown without much of a plan in December, but eventually relented and allowed a temporary funding measure. During the interregnum, he telegraphed his intention to use emergency powers—deviating from his own wisdom that one needs to keep such plans quiet—and, in the process, the Democrats littered the spending bill with various provisions that will defang what might have been a plausible plan to use emergency powers to fund the wall.
Trump undoubtedly faced a Hobson’s Choice having lost the first shutdown. But if a business must be judged by its profits and a general by his victories, a president elected to produce results cannot be let off the hook completely for such failures of strategy and execution.
It is not clear if Trump can make any significant progress with his agenda in light of recent events. Nevertheless, Trump has accomplished something useful. He has revealed Americans’ deep resentment of our elites and their policies, but also exposed the deep contempt those elites have for the American people. He has shown a way forward for a revamped political party focused on the rights of legacy America, the interests of its workers and families, and a commitment to the integrity of the nation.
Most important, “Make America Great Again” has legitimized our history and our right to exist. If Trump cannot take the baton across the finish line and build a wall, some other enterprising statesman should realize this approach remains fertile ground to accomplish something that is significant and historical . . . and absolutely necessary.
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