Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will introduced me to conservatism. As an energetic journalism major in the post-Watergate ’70s intent on changing the world, I subscribed to Mother Jones, The Progressive, and Newsweek magazines for guidance and soaked up everything those proud left-leaning journals dispensed. And then, on the inside back page of Newsweek, I’d come across Will’s biweekly counter to virtually everything else I had read.
What a wordsmith! What a brilliant, encyclopedic mind. How could someone advocating for those awful non-progressive things he championed make so much sense? In the tug-o-war for hearts and minds, I was the tape on the rope. Mother Jones fought spiritedly. But Will, in time, pulled me across the line. Which makes it doubly hard to watch him repeat the errors so many others make when considering Donald Trump.
Those errors include—let’s use some worn but applicable clichés—emphasizing style over substance, missing the forest for the trees, getting caught up in the times (something you wouldn’t expect a history buff like Will to do) and indulging a detestable Beltway culture.
The errors were on display earlier this summer when Will appeared at the 2019 Aspen Ideas Festival to promote his new book, The Conservative Sensibility.
Will told his interviewer, PBS’s Judy Woodruff, that Trump’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in its pages “because it’s a book about ideas.” (Audience gets the joke and chuckles knowingly.) He said Trump isn’t a conservative, a charge he also levied against the Republican Party he quit four years ago. (Actually, Trump governs more conservatively than most Republicans in Congress.)
America’s ruling class focuses on Trump unceremoniously hacking down some perennial social, political, or economic timber. It doesn’t occur to the establishment that he’s pruning an overgrown, unproductive grove.
But his principle objection to Trump was this: “What he brings is the manner, the lying, the name calling, all of this,” Will sniffed, “which I think will do more lasting damage to the country—you can’t unring these bells—than Nixon’s surreptitious burglaries did.”
Well. Criminal acts matter, but apparently not as much as brutish talk. Trump’s presidency probably will mar our political landscape in a way similar to how Bill Clinton’s did, by making previously unimaginable behavior tolerable if not acceptable. But more consequential than that, Trump is, as someone put it, “a man necessary for the moment.”
This is where forests versus trees and the other clichés come in. America’s ruling class focuses on Trump unceremoniously hacking down some perennial social, political, or economic timber. It doesn’t occur to the establishment that he’s pruning an overgrown, unproductive grove. That he’s taking one step back to take two steps forward. That we didn’t get into our big messes overnight, and we’re not getting out of them in a news cycle.
So Trump churns the racial waters by defying civil-rights orthodoxies. It’s a raucous, disruptive, sometimes cringe-worthy process. But then black unemployment falls dramatically, criminal justice reforms long sought by blacks deliver more equitable treatment, and conditions in black neighborhoods enjoy renewed attention. Recent polls suggest that more blacks ask, “What do I have to lose?” by changing political horses.
Prune the trees; invigorate the forest.
Trump also fire-bombs global trade. He jettisons agreements and applies tariffs that, initially, hurt segments of our economy, but they hurt our opportunistic “partners” more. Some American companies move production out of China to places like Vietnam. The World Trade Organization readies a new arbitration regimen that closely reflects the U.S. position. Some “partners” blink, and new, equitable trade agreements are either signed or on the horizon.
One step back; two steps forward.
The president dove into our regulatory quagmire and emerged with a more vibrant manufacturing sector, while Establishment experts insisted this wasn’t possible. He roughed up our NATO allies and they responded with higher defense spending. Establishment experts insisted we shouldn’t press our friends. He pulled the United States (and U.S. dollars) out of the Paris Climate Accord and . . . well . . . nothing—even though establishment experts insisted it would make us an international pariah. Surely we can endure some beastly etiquette to gain all this.
Whatever impact Trump’s iconoclastic manner has on our republic, his most substantive contribution might be that he’s slapped it awake. He’s encouraged long-frustrated Americans, in and out of government, with his push-back on the administrative state. Trump calls bluffs and cards wins with much potential upside and little downside beyond the sniping of establishment regulars.
It’s not only the nation’s economy that’s being reshaped—it’s the nation’s frame of mind. With Robert Mueller in the rearview mirror, momentum is shifting. You can’t unring this bell, either.
President Trump is a necessary response to careerists in Washington and elsewhere, who serve themselves and aren’t accountable for their indiscretions. This is the greater, longer-term danger—far greater than Trump’s mawkish tweets du jour—and it’s why opposition to his presidency is so virulent. People don’t easily relinquish their influence, their favorable circumstances, or their dogmas. Trump came to town promising to upend all of that.
Which brings us back to George Will. Despite his acuity regarding the federal government’s traditional branches (also discussed in Aspen), he seems not to analyze its “fourth branch” with the same discerning eye. Why? Even as a reliable critic of modern governance, Will nonetheless is defined by and relies on this establishment world—he’d like to sell some books—the same as most other Beltway figures. But their dilemma becomes more apparent with every new encounter with this White House.
The “trees” posturing against Trump know his pruning threatens to call their credibility—even their raison d’être—into question. We all realize that government, as a public-spirited force for good, largely has lost its way. But the beneficiaries of the status quo won’t endanger it—they’ll tweak, but they’ll never seriously disrupt. They can’t prevail on substance. So they’re reduced to disqualifying Trump on style.
Our new political landscape is exposing the limitations and biases of those whose well-being is dependent upon our old political landscape. It’s best to consider Trump-the-phenomenon in its entirety, not by its most glaring flaw. When these vested interests imply that judging Trump as a package isn’t required and the flaw tells us enough, that’s not proficiency. It’s self-preservation.