Seeing Trump’s Forest
July 27, 2018
Writing in the The Weekly Standard, Andy Smarick warns fellow President Trump critics against falling into the seductive trap of weighing Trump’s actions piecemeal and missing the cumulative effect of his assault on dignity, if I may paraphrase.
Smarick seems concerned that GOP Trump foes are lowering their standards, relaxing their guard, perhaps even slowly warming up to Trump because of policy successes he’s accumulating. If you weigh his good and his bad actions and statements on a ledger, you will miss the damage to civil society Trump is surely causing.
“In recent months, a consensus has emerged among the conservative dissidents of the Trump era,” writes Smarick. “We’ll continue to oppose the president when his policies and practices are counter to our principles, they say, but also be sure to publicly give credit whenever he stakes out an agreeable position on any issue that matters.”
Smarick acknowledges that this is a “coherent” and “pragmatic” approach, “but it is unsatisfying and unsettling. And with each casual lie, crude insult, attack on the media, slight of the intelligence community, and example of grotesque servility to Russia’s dictator, it increasingly appears morally misguided.”
First, note the telltale sign of the GOP Trump critic — there is always a moral judgment against conservative Trump supporters. These dwindling GOP Trump opponents are disgusted with their former colleagues who have defected to Trump, and are waving their wagging fingers of judgment at the holdouts who might be caving. Smarick doesn’t seem to allow for an honest intellectual disagreement. Flawed moral judgment, however subtle, must be driving this capitulation.
Smarick contends that “itemizing” a leader’s good and objectionable actions discretely on a ledger ignores that his actions are a direct result of his philosophy. We mustn’t, for example, be sanguine about domestic tranquility if it is brought about by an oppressive police state. We shouldn’t support programs to benefit the poor if they are accomplished at the expense of our liberties. “Even profoundly objectionable figures and the profoundly objectionable systems they created,” Smarick observes, “were often able to persist because they provided some good to some number of people — the making-the-trains-run-on-time argument.”
As far as this goes, I can’t disagree. Of course we have to weigh policies and actions in terms of their broader and lasting effects. One thing distinguishing conservatives from liberals, roughly speaking, is that the former resist policies that satisfy their emotions in the short term but do long-term damage to our liberty — and overall prosperity. But I don’t think Trump supporters are falling into any such trap.
Smarick reminds us that “time judges unkindly those who cheered the timely trains. Some of history’s most ghastly arrangements have been defended by relentless pointing to some number of benefits and turning a blind eye to their costs.” This isn’t just a matter of debasing the public debate, he notes, but it protects our consciences “exactly when our consciences shouldn’t be protected.” Apparently, like Pharaoh, we are hardening our own hearts.
What evils does Smarick associate with Trump? Well, he says, “If President Trump has a modus operandi, it is the control, manipulation, and distortion of information: hiding tax returns, meeting with Putin alone, firing the FBI director investigating him, lying habitually, undermining the media, pitting staff against each other.” And, for good measure, he throws in moral judgment again: “We are being purposely obtuse if we don’t assess his executive actions in this context.” Do you hear yourself, sir? Is your finger getting sore? Smarick especially deplores Trump’s “norm-breaking” behavior of “attacking the media” and “insulting longtime allies.” Norm-breakers? Then God bless President Trump. He’s not attacking the media but rather defending himself against propagandists. He “insulted” an allied leader who gratuitously attacked him. In the process, he stood up for America. If you want a presidential ally-basher, look no further than Barack Obama and his verbal attacks on Israel.
The perpetual Trump critic tends to view every Trump action and statement in the worst possible light — sometimes beyond mere hyperbole to unwitting distortion. As a lifelong chief executive of vast business enterprises, Trump is necessarily control-oriented, which is an essential quality, by the way, for any U.S. president. But unlike liberal presidents, such as Barack Obama, he doesn’t abuse his governmental power to “control, manipulate or distort information.” To be sure he uses his bully pulpit to fight back against the relentless assaults against him, but he doesn’t use his governmental power to suppress speech or to issue lawless orders and regulations — the kind that demolish the very liberties Smarick values. Trump’s meeting alone with Putin is hardly unique to his presidency, and his firing of the abominable James Comey was more than justified and necessary, as subsequent events have illuminated.
Smarick continues that peace with Russia shouldn’t be purchased “with sycophancy to a despot,” and questions whether “normalizing relations with North Korea” is worth it when a “brutal dictator is legitimized by appearing in a photograph alongside our head of state.”
Here, I think Smarick is guilty (not morally, mind you), of the “sin” he decries. He is the one missing the forest for the trees. He is the one ignoring the overwhelmingly positive impact of the Trump presidency and unduly magnifying (and distorting) the actions and statements of Trump that he finds objectionable.
Trump is sui generis. He is like no other president we’ve had or will ever have again. He is so refreshingly outside the box that his supporters are growing stronger rather than weaker in their support — because they’re seeing results and they’re witnessing Trump’s extraordinary fulfillment of his campaign promises — even the ones some of us feared, like tariffs.
Trump’s personality may lend itself to developing superficial, personal relationships with tyrants, but that is only troubling (for the most part) if it leads to bad policy results. Who cares if he is chummy with Putin, so long as he continues to restore our military and implements prudently hawkish policies against Russia that serve America’s interests? In the overall scheme, who cares if stroking Kim Jong Un’s ego and appealing to his greed is what entices the dictator to dismantle his nuclear program and, possibly, begin to open up his markets? And if Trump’s hard-core trade rhetoric results in significantly better deals for the United States, with only minor short-term damage, then this former skeptic may become a believer on that score as well.
I lament the schism in the conservative movement over Trump and don’t want to be disrespectful to Smarick or other Trump dislikers. But I think this split is far less severe than it appears; GOP Trump critics are far fewer in number than their media positions would indicate. Indeed, they are doing little to influence Trump supporters against Trump because unlike many of them — with all due respect — we do see the big picture. We do not see Trump as dictatorial, and we don’t see him encroaching on our liberties.
Indeed, Trump is leading the charge to restore America’s unique greatness, its prosperity, its robust liberty — from both economic and constitutional standpoints. Federalism, the separation of powers and judicial restraint are returning with a flourish. Unbridled regulations from renegade and unaccountable federal agencies are getting a daily haircut. Global warming lunacy is no longer wagging the dog.
Call me a cheerleader, if that’s how you see it. But I’m looking at the big picture, and President Trump is inspiring Americans to be even more patriotic. No, Andy Smarick, I disagree that “material and irreparable harm is being done to our nation, our institutions, and our norms, as well as to conservatism and the Republican Party.” In fact, this is the type of harm that was occurring unchecked under Obama and his leftist-destructionist predecessors, because people on the right cared more about being polite and appearing civil than fighting tooth and nail to preserve what we hold sacred about America.
I do agree that there is a moral component to this analysis, but we Trump supporters have not abandoned our standards; we are vindicating them. We have not hardened our hearts; we are not rationalizing to support a brand or “tribe.” If we are a tribe, we are Americans, for which we don’t apologize. We are united not by race, gender or color, but by a commitment to the founding principles that ensure America’s greatness. We are morally bound to preserve and defend those principles.