The Post-Trumpism Presidency Begins

by Jonah Goldberg
The last best hope for a successful Trump presidency is for conservatives in Congress to define what counts as a win in the realm of the possible and then nudge, coax, flatter, or trick Trump in that direction.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (and the re-accommodated everywhere),

Because National Review is a God-fearing publication, the offices are closed for Good Friday. (As a friendly outsider to the Christian faith, I have to say: I always thought that was a strange name for a date commemorating such a grim event.)

That means I’m writing this yesterday. So . . . greetings, people of the future! I envy you, what with your flying cars, jetpacks — who gets the right of way at the cross“walks” by the way? — and genetically modified dogs that poop smokable hemp.

The problem with writing this in the past, however, is that I usually use the ridiculous time constraints imposed by starting the G-File Friday morning as a steroidal impetus to get past writer’s block. It’s sort of like when you’re cornered by a CHUD or one of those break-dancing gangs from the 1980s, there’s no time to think too much (“And it shows!” — The Couch).

Fortunately, I’m still under some time constraints so maybe this will work.

The Post-Trumpism Presidency Begins

Since I literally just finished my column for today, also written in the past, I suppose I should start with what’s on my mind.

In the wake of Trump’s dizzying array of reversals on various policy stances, I wrote about how the phrase “Let Reagan be Reagan” has essentially the opposite meaning of “Let Trump be Trump.” I conclude (Spoiler alert):

When conservatives said “Let Reagan be Reagan,” they were referring to a core philosophy that Reagan had developed over decades of study and political combat. When people said “Let Trump be Trump,” they meant let Trump’s id run free. The former was about staying true to an ideology, the latter about giving free rein to a glandular style that refused to be locked into a doctrine or even notions of consistency.

That’s why saying “Let Trump be Trump” is almost literally the opposite of saying “Let Reagan be Reagan.”

I was inspired by a conversation I had with Ramesh about this excellent column, which deals with the same topic.

“In 2016,” Ramesh begins, “we found out that conservative elites didn’t speak for Republican voters.” The think-tank crowd wanted entitlement reform and likes free trade. The rank and file, not so much.

Trump’s elite supporters in talk radio, TV news, and elsewhere convinced themselves that just because the “people” rejected one coherent ideological program that meant they embraced another coherent ideological program called “Trumpism,” “America First,” or “nationalism.” Ramesh writes:

Intellectuals, whether they are for or against Trump, want to construct an “ism into which they can fit his politics: an “ism” that includes opposition to free trade, mass immigration, foreign interventions that aren’t necessitated by attacks on us, and entitlement reform. But Trumpism doesn’t exist. The president has tendencies and impulses, some of which conflict with one another, rather than a political philosophy.

But here’s the key point — “the people” don’t have a coherent “ism” either. This is especially true on foreign policy. Again, Ramesh:

An adviser to President George W. Bush once remarked to me that a lot of people thought Republicans backed Bush because of the Iraq war, when in reality Republicans backed the Iraq war because of Bush. In the absence of detailed and deep convictions on a foreign-policy issue, voters will side with the politicians whose side they usually take.

Trump’s strike on Syria was breathtakingly hypocritical. It was also the right thing to do (I think). But the relevant point is that it was popular.

Suddenly, true believers in a Trumpism-that-doesn’t-exist are in a similar predicament many of us were in during the election. They’re condemning Trump for breaking their (hastily minted) orthodoxy of True Trumpism. More vexing, they’re discovering that Trump’s popularity isn’t all that connected to his program. This is partly because of his cult of personality and partly because a lot of people are simply invested in his presidencyfor a slew of patriotic, partisan, and personal reasons.

The Oxygen-Sucking Stupidity of Trump Derangement Syndrome

I should also say that the persistence of liberal Trump Derangement Syndrome is a big part of the defend-Trump-no-matter-what dynamic. Because the mainstream media and the Democrats are so unhinged in their criticisms of Trump, they give no room for thoughtful criticism. Lots of normal Trump voters are frustrated with his presidency so far. But the partisan inanity of Trump’s left-wing critics makes it difficult not to run to his defense.

Take, for example, Sean Spicer’s “Not even Hitler” gaffe. I made fun of the guy, because the statement was so painfully dumb. (I like to imagine a homunculus Spicer in the control room in his head completely freaking out as he loses control of Spicer’s speech center. “I’ve got no brakes! I got no brakes!!”) But liberals had to take it straight to eleven, by calling Spicer a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite. C’mon. Some even claimed the statement was a deliberate attempt to signal . . . something.

This reminds me of one of my biggest gripes about Bush Derangement Syndrome. His critics would simultaneously argue that Bush was a blithering idiot, but also an evil mastermind who orchestrated all manner of devilishly clever conspiracies. Pick one. You can’t say Sean Spicer is a buffoon, but that he’s also a brilliantly cynical dog-whistler who went in to the pressroom with a plan to throw rhetorical bones to the alt-right.

The Dilemma

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, I’m not saying Trump could have gotten away with nominating a liberal to the Supreme Court or that if he came out overnight as a pro-choicer that the base would have gone with him. But Trump fulfilled his core mandate the day he was sworn-in: He promised not to be Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. He could have hung a “Mission Accomplished” banner over the inaugural balcony.

The conservative ideologues and intellectuals on both sides of the Trump question face the very same dilemma. Trump is no more bound to the fantasy of True Trumpism than he is to Goldwaterite conservatism. He’s a free agent who literally brags about the fact that he’s comfortable making it up as he goes.

In the first G-File after the election, I predicted: “If Trump is going to be a successful president — and I hope he is one — he will have to start disappointing his biggest fans.” In the case of Coulter & Co. I was right. But for a lot of his rank-and-file supporters, it’s more complicated. They’re invested in Trump first and Trumpism second, if at all. Or, they simply define Trumpism as whatever makes Trump look like a winner. The danger, as I’ve been writing for two years now, is that Trump could end up redefining conservatism, not necessarily as some version of Buchanan-Bannon nationalism (though that was always a concern), but as “whatever Trump does.”

The first empirical data is already coming in. Rank-and-file Republicans tend to think that conservatism is correlated to support for Trump. But the anecdotal data has been all over the place for years now. For instance, when it was announced Wednesday that Bret Stephens was leaving the Wall Street Journal for the New York Times, Twitter lit up with people saying, in effect, “good riddance, you liberal.” Of course, this assessment wasn’t based on anything other than the fact that Stephens — a fairly solid conservative — is one of the most ardent critics of Donald Trump.

Trump isn’t an ideological or philosophical conservative. He has no ideology or philosophy, rightly understood. This was obvious from the beginning and, contra Mike Allen, some of us saw it from day one. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a good president or have a politically successful presidency. But it will be difficult for an array of reasons both psychological and political. There’s lots of talk in Washington about how to fix the White House staff in order to properly constrain, channel, or direct Trump to victory. Good luck with that. I have zero confidence that Trump will reliably and consistently trade opportunities for political success — “wins” — for conservative victories over time. I also never bought that he was a particularly good manager. His presidency so far gives me no reason to rethink that.

I do have hope though.

And that hope rests, as I said last week, on conservatives restricting his range of possible political options solely to conservative policies. The last best hope for a successful Trump presidency rests not in Trump’s alleged brilliance and gift for “winning” and “deals” but in conservatives in Congress defining what counts as a win in the realm of the possible and then nudging, coaxing, flattering, or tricking him in that direction.

Various & Sundry

I know what you’re thinking: Stop with the shameless sucking up to the president. Okay, maybe not you. But that’s the upshot of Rick Perlstein’s typically snide and dishonest essay in The New York Times Magazine. Perlstein deliberately distorted my view to frame his entire argument. He insinuates that, once Trump was elected, I embraced Trump and Trumpism, jettisoning my commitment to Buckleyite conservatism. Worse, my supposed surrender is the only example he offers for this conservative capitulation. I’m pretty furious about it. I couldn’t care less about being criticized, but I take great exception to being lied about, particularly by a partisan like Perlstein hiding behind some imagined intellectual authority. I’d go on, but I ranted about it here. And, to their true credit, I convinced the New York Times to add a correction to the piece. I just found out and I’m still a little stunned.

In a more amusing mainstream media vs. Goldberg moment, the Ombudsman at NPR is apparently concerned by the fact that I have been on NPR a whopping five times in 70 days. Worse, though, is that it seems listeners are very dismayed by this lavish exposure. The Ombudsman writes, “I appreciate Goldberg’s commentary and rarely find it following predictable talking points.” And, apparently, that’s the problem. Since I don’t spout typical talking points, listeners are left to wonder whether they can trust me or if I’m a conservative. You see, “Goldberg is not always identified by his political views, leaving listeners to guess.” The horror! Never mind that I am always identified as a National Review senior editor, it seems that having to listen to the actual substance of my comments — a whole five times — without being tipped off in advance (“Warning: He may sound reasonable, but he’s a conservative!”) is too much to ask. For the record, I like doing the NPR hits and I am appreciative of them. I kind of feel like a house goy. So, for the benefit of the audience I’ll try to drop a few more hints if they ever have me back.

Canine Update: Yesterday morning, I was taking the beasts for a sortie in the park. When we came around the bend, there was a deer standing in the middle of the path. Zoë and Pippa froze. And there was a long enough stare-down moment for me to actually take out my phone and videotape it.

I was worried the deer was close enough for Zoë to actually catch it, which wouldn’t be good for anybody. But before I could get to Zoë and put a leash on her, she took off. I yelled “go!” at the deer — not the Dingo — for the record. Anyway, the deer took off and Zoë didn’t catch it. But the deer kept reappearing. I realized what she was doing. Deer protect their young by hiding them (baby deer literally have no scent). She was trying to lure the Dingo away, to save us all from the horrible cliché of hearing a deer yell “the dingo ate my baby!” I put Zoë on a leash until we were clear of the area. She has yet to fully forgive me.

You see, Zoë is a big believer in obeying the forms. I got a great text from our indispensable dogwalker Kirsten the other day. She walks Zoë and Pippa with a bunch of other dogs that Zoë emphatically considers to be her pack. “Zoë is so dang funny, she has impeccable dog manners,” Kristen texted. “Like if someone is sniffing a bone or something, you wait patiently until the dog in front is finished before you sniff it. Or if I have treats in her pocket, woe be unto the doggy that tries to sneak one. She really takes it all very seriously and I get such a kick out of it. Never known a dog like her. The only time she lashes out is if someone Dares to act out of order.”

ICYMIBYAFEAWIBTFC (In Case You Missed It Because You Ate Fifty Eggs And Were Incapacitated By The Food Coma)

What do Trump’s Syria airstrikes really mean?

Rob Long, John Podhoretz, and I mock United, Sean Spicer, Sonny Bunch, and more in the latest Ricochet GLoP podcast.

Sorry, Hillary, but Democrats aren’t the party of science.

If you’re looking for Easter links and weekly William F. Buckley wisdom on faith, culture, and civil society, subscribe to Kathryn Jean Lopez’s free newsletter.

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Thursday links

Urban wildlife

Did Medieval villagers zombie-proof corpses?

Would you have wanted to be the king’s toilet attendant?

A caloric guide to cannibalism

Listening to the sea

Workers accidentally discover Rome’s oldest aqueduct

Dog dislikes sour candy

The beauty of Cincinnati’s old library

What would movie monsters actually sound like?

Why is the Pentagon a pentagon?

Shelley Duvall’s real-life horrors filming The Shining

Dog escapes animal hospital by opening doors

Japanese cherry blossoms

NSFW: Scientists capture beautiful, explosive collision of young stars

Squirrel eats tiny ice-cream cones

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg