by Bruce Thornton
Why NeverTrumpers should reflect on what makes Trump attractive to voters.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Mitt Romney launched a gratuitous attack on Donald Trump. Like his earlier criticisms, there’s not much of substance in this latest complaint, just recycled bromides typical of NeverTrumpRepublicans’ (NTR) obsession with style, optics, and “character.” As such, however, Romney’s screed is useful for analyzing the disgruntled elitism that explains not just Trumpophobia, but also the reasons for establishment Republicans’ alienation of millions of voters whose natural political home should be the Republican Party.
Romney begins with the by now stale assessment that Trump, despite his numerous achievements, “has not risen to the mantle of the office,” implying some recognized standard of “acting presidential” that Trump has failed to meet. But throughout our history, the definitions of such standards depend on what cohort of America’s electorate you talk to. Andrew Jackson certainly wasn’t “presidential” according to his predecessor John Quincy Adams. He skedaddled from DC to avoid Jackson’s inaugural festivities, when the White House was thrown open to ordinary citizens, including Jackson’s frontier and backwoods constituencies––“KING MOB,” according to Chief Justice Joseph Story–– who made “disgraceful scenes in the parlors,” as one journalist reported.
Second, these appeals to more recent ideas of presidential decorum imply that compared to previous presidents, Trump’s behavior is singularly reprehensible. But is Trump’s vulgar and braggadocios rhetoric more disqualifying than JFK’s or Bill Clinton’s sordid sexual escapades in the White House? Or LBJ’s barnyard epithets, racial slurs, duets with his dog Yuki, or penchant for rubbing himself against women? What’s “presidential” about Barack Obama fêting foul-mouthed, misogynist rappers at the White House? Or taking an interview with an internet carnival act who sat in a bath tub full of milk and Fruit Loops? Or using a sexual vulgarity to describe the Tea Party? Where were the NTRs and their lofty standards back then?
All such standards contain a good deal of subjectivity and hypocrisy, and they shift according to circumstance. They also reflect social class as well as regional variations. So too with Romney’s next specious claim, which occurs in the paragraph that summarizes the NTR’s indictment of the president’s character:
To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.
Again, given our diversity, it’s hard to say what is the “national character” of 330 million people. But “character” has been a favorite weapon in the anti-Trump arsenal, typically used simplistically, as in this catalogue of fine-sounding vacuities. For example, the distinction between private and political behavior, or words and deeds, is seldom acknowledged. Like virtue, character is recognized in meaningful action, not transient words–– as Aristotle said of virtue, if it were otherwise, we’d all be virtuous when we are asleep.
After two years, you’d think the NTR would notice the pattern: for all Trump’s heinous tweets and petty exaggerations, he has deregulated the economy, created conditions for its growth, withdrawn from two disastrous multinational treaties, and reshaped the Supreme Court for decades to come. Would the NTR prefer to have had a progressive President Clinton making policy instead of the bumptious President Trump?
For ordinary citizens, it’s hard to see what use to them Romney’s no-doubt superior “character” and preppy deportment were after he ran a cringing campaign that gave the country to a progressive president whose aim was the “fundamental transformation” of our political order. And what was it in Romney’s “character” that made him freeze and go speechless when moderator Candy Crowley shamelessly interrupted the debate to support Barack Obama during their second presidential debate? Was that chivalry or a failure of nerve, the first of which irrelevant for presidential decisions, the second potentially disastrous.
Remember how JFK’s similar deer-in-the-headlights moment with Khrushchev in Vienna emboldened the Premier to think he could get away with putting nuclear missiles on Cuba? (By the way, the missiles were removed not because of Kennedy’s new-found spine, but because he cut a deal to remove our missiles from Turkey, and promised to lay off Cuba, in effect abandoning Cubans to Castro’s tender mercies.) Moral cowardice is a more dangerous character flaw than a penchant for hyperbole and cheap insults.
More important, many great politicians and leaders have had sketchy characters or bad manners. Even old-fashioned liberals who recognized Richard Nixon’s flawed character admitted that he was a good president, certainly light-years ahead of the pious mediocrity Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton has displayed throughout his career in public office a deeply flawed character, but he was a shrewd politician and governed much more wisely than Carter and Barack Obama, even if Clinton did so for selfish political gain.
Then there’s the bathetic “inspire us and unite us to follow our ‘better angels,’” as if a president is a life-coach instead of the Chief Executive of the most powerful nation in history. Sure, inspiring and uniting are great, but outside of war-time, they yield precedence to getting the right policies put in place, which requires navigating in a mixed government that hems the executive in with checks and balances. And the disagreements over what are the “right” policies are fierce, for they usually involve passionate beliefs that tend to the absolute and nonnegotiable, and usually make “comity and mutual respect” impossible. Are our debates today more “divided, resentful, and angry” than the battle over slavery was?
That’s the price we pay for our system, which is designed to protect political freedom from the concentrated and expansive power that often follows from “unity” preached by charismatic and “inspiring” great leaders. After all, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were great at “uniting” and “inspiring” their peoples.
The appeal to decorum and unity, another NeverTrump trope, ignores the great diversity of American identity, with corresponding differences in standards of behavior. So where does Romney find a “national character” that reflects the great diversity and variety of American identities? Apparently not among the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump – the majority of whom live in fly-over country and lack college credentials.
And speaking of character, what does it say about Romney’s that he kept his principled critique of Trump to himself when he was presenting himself at the White House as a candidate for Secretary of State, and when he accepted Trump’s endorsement when he ran for the Senate? Ingratitude for the president’s endorsement that helped him win his seat–– voters in Utah went for Trump by 18 points–– likewise doesn’t demonstrate much “integrity.” And isn’t it the opposite of integrity to refuse three times during a debate in the Senate race to say whether he stood by his earlier trashing Trump as a “fraud” and a “phony” who was “playing members of the American public for suckers”?
And now, with the House returned to the Democrats and impeachment a possibility, is it a coincidence that Romney is emboldened to launch harsh criticisms in a progressive, anti-Trump outlet like the Post? Is Romney pleased or shamed by the praise now being heaped on him by the same progressives who demonized him when he ran in 2012, and will do so again if he doesn’t oppose the president at every opportunity? Speaking of 2012, where were these criticisms back then when he sought Trump’s endorsement? Isn’t there an odor of opportunism and trimming about his current salvo against the president?
Nor does it show much integrity or professional ethics for the newly elected Senator to alienate the president with whom he must work in order to serve his constituents, and to advance the principles and beliefs that make them Republicans, and that Trump’s policy achievements embody. As the president recognized in a tweet, Romney will likely become another Jeff Flake, a sometimes mole for the Democrats whose drift to the left suggests political principles diametrically opposed to those of Republicans.
As for the president’s penchant for exaggeration, has Trump told one lie as consequential in the real world as Barack Obama’s “if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor”? Or his administration’s concerted, premeditated lies about the Benghazi fiasco, in which four Americans were murdered because of reelection politics and rank incompetence? Or when has Trump demonstrated a slavish deference to Vladimir Putin more dangerous than Obama’s sotto voce promise of “flexibility” to Putin via the Russian boss’s flunky?
This straining out the Trump gnat while swallowing the Obama camel amounts to the NTR functioning as an occasional fifth column for the opposition, and puts in doubt the NTR’s claim to moral superiority and purity. And if policies that demonstrate “conservative principles” Trump supposedly is besmirching are so cherished by the NTR, what’s so “principled” about hysterically attacking and weakening the president who has instituted some of the policies inherent in these principles? Don’t such attacks in effect support and hearten the enemies of these policies?
Finally, Romney fires a parting shot at the president’s alleged foreign policy sins. He decries “the abandonment of allies who fight beside us, and the president’s thoughtless claim that America has long been a ‘sucker’ in world affairs.” We assume Romney means by “allies” the Kurds,” but he should wait for the details of the withdrawal. If, as appears likely air assets and troops remain in Iraq, we will have the means to support the Kurds if necessary. But our strategic goals that justify our continued presence in Syria has yet to be explained clearly to American voters, who are impatient with over a decade of squandered lives for no apparent gain. That’s why Trump promised during the campaign to pull out our troops.
Otherwise, Romney sings the old globalist tune about Trump being mean to our allies, as though alliances are based on politeness and protocol rather than interests. All our relations with other sovereign nations are based on treaties whose terms spell out each side’s obligations. We have allies in order to serve our interests and protect our security, and when allies stop doing that, a president should criticize them.
Trump’s scolding of NATO deadbeats, for example, who can’t spend a measly 2.0% of GDP on their military preparedness, is just and necessary. It is shameless that NATO ally Germany, the world’s fifth richest nation, spends a bit more than 1% of GDP on defense. And it’s an insult to promise to reach that goal by 2025. Germany gets away with this fecklessness because US taxpayers subsidize its security. Ordinary voters would agree that we are being played for suckers by the Germans, who among Europeans poll the highest dislike of Americans.
And we can’t let go unmentioned Romney’s typical NTR use of progressive question-begging epithets: “But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.” How does it demonstrate “conservative principles” to use these meaningless smear-terms, the left’s favorite Orwellian verbal clubs? And exactly which “democratic institutions” is Trump destroying? His appointment of two Constitutionalist Supreme Court justices has done more for our “democratic institutions” than the NTR’s endless carping. And we just had a midterm election that gave power to the Democrats, a sign that our democratic machinery is functioning as it should. I’d say a never-ending inquisition by a special prosecutor in order to reverse the results of a legal election is a much greater threat to democracy than Trump’s tweets and rhetoric.
Instead of obsessing over Trump, NeverTrump Republicans should practice some self-reflection and figure out what made Trump attractive to Republican voters, 89% of whom approve of him. They can start with their smug self-righteousness, the way they assume that their superior intelligence and finer characters entitle them to rule.
They may think the masses are dumb or simple-minded, but ordinary people know when they’re being talked down to by entitled elites. They can spot a double standard or one applied selectively from a mile away. They know politicians lie all the time, usually when they make campaign promises they don’t keep, or sacrifice principle for political expediency or personal pique. They get that criticizing Trump for keeping campaign promises is also a criticism of his supporters to whom he made the promises.
Trump, on the other hand, is trying to fulfill his campaign promises, and says plainly what a lot of voters think about our culture of politically correct tyranny and RINO preemptive cringing. Among our clubby establishment political elite, that’s a rare example of political honesty and integrity manifested in actions, not words. Romney should try it.
Photo by Gage Skidmore.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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