Victor Davis Hanson
About 90 percent of Republican voters eventually supported the political novice Donald Trump by November 2016. Most conservatives saw him as the preferable alternative to the vision and agendas of Hillary Clinton. Perhaps most still do after nine months of his presidency.
Yet almost half of the elite conservative establishment remains opposed to Republican President Trump.
About a quarter of them, it seems, openly despise him. These are prominent Republican senators, think-tank writers, television pundits, op-ed columnists, and generic public intellectuals. MSNBC and CNN are now homes for disgruntled Republicans or former conservative pundits in the way that those outlets once for a time found it useful to welcome in paleo-conservatives opposed to the Bush Administration during the Iraq War.
Bret Stephens, the NeverTrump former conservative at the Wall Street Journal, now advocates the repeal of the Second Amendment in the pages of the New York Times. Did Trump turn off some of the Republican establishment, or liberate it to espouse progressive views that it always held, but found impolitic to express?
The usual conservative status quo complaint against Trump is that the deficiencies of the messenger outweigh the many positives of the message. Or Trump, the person, nullifies the policies that have accompanied Trump into power.
The anti-Trumpians cringe at Trump’s incessant Twitter and news conference spats with everyone from “fake news” reporters at CNN to the San Juan mayor. His marathon rambling speeches at rallies in red-state America remind them that they find Trump supporters on the screen far more alien than they do their liberal counterparts in their own Washington and New York neighborhoods. Never Trumpers certainly are louder in their opposition to Trump than was the Tea Party’s past criticism of McCain or Romney.
They are embarrassed that someone from their own party has a vocabulary that focuses on about four adjectives (“tremendous,” “great,” “awesome,” “wonderful,” etc.), or that he often exaggerates and errs in a manner of Barack Obama, though without the latter’s mellifluousness or Ivy League brand.
The Republican establishment used to lament that the old Reagan Democrats, Tea Party types, and working-class whites of the Midwest had stayed home in 2008 and 2012, and thus allowed good candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney to be steamrolled by Obama’s fatuous “hope and change” identity politics. Now they are either worried or shamed that these same swing voters came out in droves and left the Republican Party in a dominant position at the local, state, and federal level not seen since the 1920s.
In sum, the NeverTrump lament seems to be that whatever good Trump has done is more than outweighed by his “character is destiny” flaws. Neil Gorsuch and scores of conservative circuit court judges; Nikki Haley at the United Nations, James Mattis at Defense, H.R. McMaster at the National Security Council, Mike Pompeo at the CIA, and Rex Tillerson at the State Department, all restoring deterrence; rollbacks of Obama-era executive orders; green-lighting pipeline construction and increased fossil fuel production; protections of Second Amendment rights; restoring national borders; and genuine efforts to reform Obamacare and the tax code—all of that for them is not worth the spectacle of Trump on the national stage. Or for some, all of the above Trump efforts now are seen as disruptive and unnecessary—once the crudity of Trump enlightened the establishment to what it now sees as inherent wrongs present all along in conservative thinking.
The economy is gaining momentum. The stock market is way up. GDP growth exceeds Obama-era levels.Real unemployment (U6) is falling as labor participation improves. Business confidence is growing. Middle-class incomes and corporate profits increase. Consumer confidence is rebounding—all symptoms of an initial, implicit psychological rebuke to the overregulated and dreary business climate of the last eight years.
But again, should the economy hit an annual GDP growth rate of 4 percent, Trump’s popularity would probably not exceed 50 percent; and the NeverTrump establishment likely would not endorse his reelection, even should he appoint three conservative justices and thereby ensure a conservative Supreme Court for a generation.
The strange disconnect between a disliked person and his mostly praised policies again raises fundamental questions.
Is Trump’s occasional crudity and unapologetic animus counterproductive and turning off possible allies, as conventional wisdom suggests? Or is his rambunctiousness instead integral to reifying his message? Neither or both?
Is he hated in unprecedented fashion by the media and the Left because he can be crude in a manner unmatched by past presidents? Or because his efforts, both real and rhetorical, to overturn the progressive project, are of the street-fighting caliber never quite seen before from a party of sober and judicious Republicans but long adopted by the Left and therefore likely to be both eerily familiar to them and perhaps even efficacious?
Has the progressive cultural ascendency, media partisanship, and university identity politics reached a point at which half the country felt that the only desperate remedy was a populist pushback rather than more creased brows and throat-clearing op-eds?
Would the establishment Republicans prefer losing again with a kind and generous man figure as Mitt Romney, who grimaced but allowed Candy Crowley to hijack the second presidential debate of October 2012, or to win messily with someone who embarrasses them as much as Romney made them proud but honorable losers?
Yet did any recent past Republican nominee—forget Trump’s motivations or questions about his relative sincerity—even run on the premise that working Americans were ignored and losers in the redirects of globalization, open borders, and outsourcing and offshoring? Or that consequently they deserved empathy and a second-chance at the American dream? Was there a chance that Trump saw not just a political opening but an injustice perpetrated against political outcasts deserving of concern in a way that other more politically qualified and supposedly empathetic candidates of 2016 did not?
Was the 24/7 confrontation and incurring of hatred from the media (just 5 percent of whose coverage of Trump is positive) inevitable, once Trump sought to do the once unthinkable and backtrack on the progressive agenda? When he proposes things such as disengaging from the Paris Climate Accords, or pruning back the EPA, or closing the border—and demonstrates that he is doing so not merely because these promises serve him rhetorically and politically but because he really means to enact them—can anyone be surprised by the Left’s reaction?
If Trump never tweeted again, expanded his vocabulary, did not reply in kind to his critics, and patterned his public appearances and press conferences after those of George Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, would his approval ratings climb, his endorsements increase—and his efforts against the administrative state improve?
For all Trump’s combativeness, his insecure worries over getting proper credit and attention, and cul de sacspats, was the federal government response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria more effective compared to what we saw a decade ago after Hurricane Katrina?
Was Trump’s rudeness and constant aggressiveness in the face of criticism lamentable or long overdue in demanding a level of fair coverage lacking during the Bush Administration’s inability or unwillingness to counter unprofessional media animus?
Was Bush not criticizing New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin more thoughtful and ethical than Trump criticizing San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz? Why exactly did Katrina wreck the second-term and experienced Bush presidency in a way that Harvey, Irma, and Maria so far have not ruined the novice Trump Administration?
No one quite knows the answers to all these questions—logically so, given Trump has not even completed his first year of his presidency and he is the first president without either prior political or military experience.
But what is clear is that many liberal and conservative prognostications about his presidency have so far not happened. He did not crash the stock market. He did not stealthily introduce a liberal agenda. His appointments, both at the cabinet level and judicial, were not of the fringe and unhinged sort. He was not knee-deep in Russian collusion. In times of crises not of his own making, whether hurricanes, or mass shootings, or civil unrest, or North Korea nuclear threats, the temperamental and thin-skinned Trump did not freeze or melt-down.
His positions on most of the iconic social crises that reappeared throughout 2017 have been largely conservative and reflect majority support: do not in mob-fashion tear down statues at night, especially without democratic and lawful sanction; NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem are violating their own league rules, mock the voluntary patriotic protocols of their country, and are at odds with the fans who pay their high salaries; radically pruning back the Second Amendment will not stop gun violence, which is decreasing as gun ownership is on the rise.
No previous president has been the target of such public venom. Assassination chic is now endemic. Anti-Trump obscenity is a staple of late-night television. Words like “racist” and “Nazi” and “fascist” are now so commonplace that they have lost all currency. Celebrities vie to virtue signal their disgust for Trump. His wife, his daughter, and his sons are all the stuff of public invective that, had it been directed toward the previous president, careers of the vituperative would have ended long ago.
Yet it is likely that there is a 50/50 chance that the unpredictable and irascible Trump and policies will achieve in the not so distant future a sustainable 3 percent annual rate of GDP growth, a reform of the tax code, a systematic dismantling of onerous government regulations through executive orders, a restoration of U.S. deterrence abroad, another conservative Supreme Court justice, and a return to legal, measured, and meritocratic immigration—and thus even more hysteria and hatred of Trump, the person, from policy supporters and opponents alike.