A Progressive Republican’s Case for Donald Trump?
I’m confused. Politically confused.
I issued my kinda-sorta endorsement of Hillary Clinton a few weeks ago, but as I’ve watched Donald Trump more and more in the ensuing weeks, a question has gripped me.
Is he becoming moderate?
Is he becoming electable?
Is he becoming… Presidential?
Most people’s answers would be no, no, and hell no.
He hasn’t shown up on the news much in recent weeks. You know why? He hasn’t said anything stupid or politically incorrect recently. More and more people tell me they think he’s looking more and more like a President and proposing more and more reasonable policy solutions. Is he doing this consciously? Is this indicative of what is to come? The “proto-fascist,” a dignified statesman?
The fallback that David Brooks, Bruce Bartlett, and myself have retreated to goes something like this: “Well, yes he’s radical populist right, but AT LEAST he’s destroyed the GOP Establishment and will open up room for a new, moderate ideology and a new, diverse coalition better suited for governing to form!” Indeed, I still think this officially. But… What if something crazy happens, and Trump does change his tone and substance?
More compelling, I think, is Conrad Black’s note that Trump must run to the center and start looking presidential if- when- he gets the Republican nomination and goes up against Hillary Clinton. And truth be told, that would make sense- it would look like just about every other successful Republican’s presidential strategy in the last fifty years, since the conservative movement started taking over the party. Win over the right-wing populist base first to get the nomination, then fight over the moderates with the Democrat. In today’s world, when the neoliberal plutocrats in the GOP Establishment have been especially silent to working-class concerns, it’s been easier for someone like Trump to build a coalition of the working class, so long as he said what they wanted to hear (perhaps without necessarily believing it.)
Here’s Black’s full quote–
“If Donald is cheated of the nomination, the Republicans will lose badly in November. If he makes no gestures of civility and does nothing to refine his message to the strata of the electorate who like a little more nuance and syntactical orthodoxy than Archie Bunker provides, it will be an unnecessarily disturbing election. If he follows the advice of his wife, Karl Rove, and many others (including this columnist), and banishes the contention that he is a crude and nasty know-nothing, he will win. The country wants to turn the page on the Bushes and the Clintons, but the voters have to have a believable and reasonably attractive sequel. It isn’t Sanders or Cruz, but it still could be Trump.”
For whatever reason, it seems to me that “banishing that contention” that he is a right-wing political troglodyte won’t be too hard for Mr. Trump.
Because he was moderate for most of his career before 2015. He supported the Clintons, he opposed the neoliberal tax plan of 1986, he’s constantly criticized conservative Republican decisions up to and including the war in Iraq, has praised Planned Parenthood, and has generally committed a million other acts that conservatives and indeed GOP Establishmentarians would view as heresies. He’s been no loyal Democrat either, supporting any number of pro-business and nationalist initiatives over the course of his career.
Even nowadays, after months and months of right-wing populist pandering, he still manages to hit the political center in text analyses and other studies. Granted, that’s more due to extreme right-wing views on immigration and extreme left-wing views on trade balancing each other out, but it still testifies to the fact that he is not bound by the ideological shackles tethering, say, Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders.
In fact, Trump’s general policy platform- working-class populism in trade, infrastructure, immigration, entitlements and social services, and other economic areas- makes up a reasonably centrist-populist platform. Michael Lind, great bard and dutiful custodian of the old “one-nation conservative” tradition in the United States, has suggested that a centrist Republican Party might jettison neoliberal supply-side economics in favor of “a kinder and gentler Trumpism.” Who’s to say that Trump himself will not be the one to provide such a platform? Especially given that he’s a New Yorker, with all the cosmopolitan capitalist instincts of any New Yorker?
It seems that Donald Trump is running a brilliant campaign strategy- to win over the disenfranchised white working class with economic populism and all the social ugliness that entails, snatch up the presidential nomination from the cold, dead hands of the GOP Establishment, and position himself as a moderate in the general election, a moderate statesman who has a record of truly being concerned about the working class (as opposed to the faux care for the working class of Hillary Clinton.) There is no other way to win a presidential election as a Republican, and indeed, the history of the United States since the fall of the Southern slave lords and the rise of Lincoln has proved that the party that wins over Jacksonian Americans into a coalition with some of the commanding heights of the economy is the party that will dominate politics moving forward. Jacksonian America has since the 1990s been alienated from the Republican Party, and Trump aims to bring them back- much to the agonizing despair of the bipartisan Establishment.
But I will make a more radical contention- Donald Trump is not only very likely serious about becoming the next President of the United States, and knowledgeable about how to get there. Donald Trump is also quite possibly the next legendary President, quite far from David Brooks’s contention that he’ll be “the worst president in American history,” going down “in devastating defeat.”
Two legendary Presidents- Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt- were relative outsiders who dramatically shook up the orthodoxies of their times. Lots of people thought Lincoln would destroy the Republic, and just as many people thought Roosevelt would preside over a tyrannical increase in federal power. (As the slave lords and the industrialists found out, in some ways they did.) They both came from outside the political establishment and were actively hostile to the old establishments. Their unorthodox- but surprisingly moderate- views would thenceforth define the political debates over the next several decades. See any parallels?
But it goes deeper than that. I’m working on a long essay with the working title of “The Lawgivers: Cycles of Development in the History of the Republic.” The basic thesis of Lawgivers, which has been heavily influenced by Michael Lind’s “Three Republics” idea, boils down to three stages. First, after a great “revolution” and re-forging of the Republic’s institutions, developmentalist and populist leaders squabble over the legacy of the Revolution and propose alternate policy solutions. Second, great statesmen during those reformations fuse the developmentalist and populist policy philosophies into a new platform. And third, after the institutions of the Republic further decay, a new statesman, heavily influenced by the “fusionist” statesmen of the previous generation, rises and puts in place a new set of institutions based on the fusionists’ blueprint, becoming a “lawgiver.”
Under this thesis, Henry Clay adopted the nation-building and democratic expansionism of Whiggery and Jacksonianism, and was the primary inspiration for Abraham Lincoln’s policies. Woodrow Wilson mixed the Populists’ demand for pro-worker/pro-farmer policies and the Progressives’ imperative for industrial regulation and collaboration, and provided the blueprint for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. And Richard Nixon synthesized Liberalism’s federal activism with Conservatism’s penchant for decentralization, providing what is in my opinion an excellent blueprint for the next great re-forging of our Republic’s institutional structure.
So Nixonian policy as the inspiration for what Lind calls the “Fourth Republic” waiting in the wings, just around the corner. Who better exemplifies, in the present day, Nixon’s defense and expansion of entitlements, his willingness to use federal activism, his working-class populism, and his general nationalism, than Donald Trump? Indeed, Trump has been compared to Nixon more than once, in various ways.
Moreover, Conrad Black- again, Trump’s biggest intellectual backer- wrote what is sometimes regarded as the best biography of Richard Nixon yet written. (He also wrote a biography of Franklin Roosevelt, the most recent lawgiver.) Black knows the Nixon legacy well- could he see the consummation of it in a Trump Presidency?
I don’t know the answer to that. And I don’t mean to endorse Donald Trump, nor do I seek to excuse his truly despicable comments about Muslims, women, Mexicans, and so many other groups. I don’t particularly like Trump voters, and the prospect of Trump as he has presented himself as President does indeed terrify me.
But IF he moderates his rhetoric and IF he adopts a more respectful tone and IF he runs to the political center and IF he brings back the old Donald Trump from before June 2015….
Why, if all that happens, I might have to rescind my endorsement of Hillary Clinton, vote for Trump, campaign for him, even write in favor of him. I might even decide to apply to work in the Trump White House (it’s not like that’ll be a very in-demand position early on.)
Yes, I am a Progressive Republican, and Trump is certainly not, and Trump’s supporters certainly are not.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a Progressive Republican hiding in there somewhere, deep beneath Donald’s bouffant hair, ready to govern in the great tradition of Lincoln and Roosevelt with the blueprint of Nixon, prepared to guide America through the present crisis and any on the near horizon… Will Donald Trump win the Presidency? Will Donald Trump reform our institutions and clear out the rot? Will Donald Trump steer our country through its darkest crisis in decades? Will Donald Trump go down as a legendary President? Will Donald Trump make America great again?
To be perfectly honest- with the qualifications I mentioned above- I hope so.