This essay originally appeared in American Greatness.—Eds.
Perhaps 70% of Trumpism remains a hodgepodge of Reaganism: strong defense, realist foreign policy, deregulation, smaller government, big deficits, tax cuts, energy growth, and stars-and-stripes traditionalism.
But it is the other unorthodox 30% that excited his base, terrified conservative apostates, and won Trump the 2016 election by energizing between 4 million and 6 million voters in swing states who had either given up on Republicans, or on elections altogether. NeverTrumpers talk of Trump’s demise and their own resurrection as Phoenixes to rebirth the GOP. They have no idea that those who despise them had ensured their Beltway-preferred candidates could rarely win; nothing has changed since.
Trumpist conservatism is usually defined as not free, but fair trade, strict enforcement of immigration laws, an end to optional interventions that will not likely, in a cost-to-benefit analysis, result in U.S. interests or strategic calm for a purported troubled region, and a belief that industry and manufacturing are not brick-and-mortar anachronisms, but the creators of what we cook on, sit on, live in, drive, and work in; our non-virtual world that everyone relies on and yet takes for granted as so passé.
If Trump left his agenda at that, NeverTrumpers likely would be disgruntled but mostly quiet. The Left, as is its wont with Republican presidents, would have remained serially hysterical as in the Reagan and Bush years, but not completely unhinged as it has been since 2017.
What distinguished Trump then was not just his substance, but also his style. Translated it could be envisioned as chemotherapy, toxic enough to kill the status-quo cancer, but not quite lethal enough to kill the host. Or maybe Trump derangement arose from class disdain over the orange skin, the combed over dyed hair, the mile-long ties, the Queens accent, the oddly agile bulkiness, the raucous Manhattan career—the antithesis to all that appears on the Sunday morning talk shows.
Or maybe Trump’s don’t-tread-on-me brand could be defined as a remedy, a promise no longer to lose nobly rather than to win ugly (the last Republican to do so had been George H.W. Bush in 1988).
Or maybe the rub was rather than being defensive about having neither prior military nor political experience, Trump was boastful and strutting about just such inoculation from Washington. Whereas his haters believed he was unscientific in not consulting with the beltway intelligentsia, he countered not only that they were overrated, but to most outside their bubble were themselves silly, self-important, and superfluous.
Most hated Trump not because he hated or ridiculed them, but because he found them useless, as we saw from the fixations of John Brennan and James Clapper to the dazed pundits of NeverTrump to the wise men of the retired military.
What created the hatred of Trump and his supporters, then, was not a rather heterodox political agenda (see below), but a style that took on the Left on its own terms, and shocked a Republican establishment—again not just by conjuring the specter of Lee Atwater, but by shrugging off as irrelevant his ostracism by the traditional conservative beltway insider.
We forget some Republicans could be crass and crude, albeit in their own polite way. I would prefer a supposed braggart cracking down on China, or a purported narcissist closing the border, or an alleged demagogue promising change in the Rust Belt than any more sermons from privileged gentlemen conservatives that tolerating illegal immigration “is an act of love,” or silent agreement that those manufacturing “jobs are not coming back” as Obama put it, or wonkish boy wonder Paul Ryan being drilled in a debate by the vacuous smiling Joker Joe Biden or Mitt Romney oblivious that Candy Crowley had just hijacked his debate momentum—and with it the election.
Crassness is not a requisite for needed change, but so often in a flawed world the two are shared, in the reverse fashion that gaseous pieties are frequently voiced by the sober and judicious.
But all this is irrelevant when we consider what Trump did rather than what he said.
I mean not just that action matters more than rhetoric, but rather to evaluate Trump by the general past standards of presidential comportment rather than through Platonic ideals. Trump is less randy and gross in office than were reckless and sexually cruel but now revered icons like John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton. He has not weaponized the federal government for political advantage in the manner of Barack Obama (who may go down soon as the most corrupt president since Warren G. Harding).
Trump, of “Crooked Hillary,” “lock her up,” and “Sleepy Joe” infamy, was more likely to react concretely to the plight of the inner city and the economic aspirations of minorities and the white working class, who were not just crushed by globalization but so often ignored by their supposed champions of both parties.
From early 2017, Trump pushed three general themes to reawaken an inert economy that only sluggishly had survived the 2008 financial panic.
One, was to deregulate, recalibrate tax incentives, and create an entirely new psychological climate that would encourage capitalists to invest, spend, and expand, rather than retreat, ride out, and hoard. The point was to go out, get busy, build, profit and not fear talk of “you didn’t build that” and “at some point you’ve made enough money” as warning shots across their bow. We forget that psychology is a great part of economic growth. After 2017, trillions of dollars reentered the U.S. economy that had been hoarded, protected, and sequestered since 2009.
Second, Trump hectored corporations, foreign and domestic, to relocate into the U.S. heartland, given that U.S. workers, energy costs and supplies, security, and the business climate were in truth more frequently competitive than abroad.
Third, Trump at least sought trade equilibrium with those nations, friends, foes, and neutrals—China, Japan, Germany, Mexico, South Korea, and Canada—who ran up huge trade surpluses, a fact in the past that was contextualized as either irrelevant or unalterable.
Joe Biden has claimed the recent historic establishment of diplomatic relationships between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was not of the Trump Administration’s own making, but the logical epilogue to years of hard Obama Administration foundational work.
Biden is right in a sense. For eight years, his Obama team sought to empower Iran—through the lifting of sanctions; through the flawed Iran Deal; through appeasement of Hezbollah, the Assads, and Hamas; through estrangement of the Arab Gulf States and Israel—all as a bizarre Persian/Shiite counterweight to the Sunni Arab world and the U.S.-Israeli special relationship.
Obama and Biden so succeeded that they drove Israel and Gulf States to seek an-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend realist partnership, whose fruition we witnessed last week.
We forget, however, when Trump entered office, that Israel was isolated. Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States were bewildered by U.S. neutrality in the Middle East. Iran was ascendant. The “jayvees” of ISIS had overrun much of Iraq with delusions of caliphate grandeur. The Ottomanizing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was supposedly our new trusted “bridge” between East and West.
Less than four years later, Iran is isolated, broke, and a veritable client of China. ISIS was bombed out of existence. Israel and much of the Arab world are more worried about Iran than they are about each other. The Palestinians are not the key to regional peace. Turkey is recognized as the rogue that it had become while relations with Greece have warmed.
The United States is energy independent of the Middle East, as is Israel—because of the expansion of fracking and horizontal drilling that a Biden-Harris Administration claims would cease upon assuming office.
Indeed, the fact of U.S. energy independence is often forgotten, but it is a reality that anchors almost every major breakthrough we’ve seen in the Middle East over the last four years, from cancellation of the Iran Deal to pushing the Gulf States to détente with Israel, and leaving the EU and China to worry about the security of Middle East oil exports as much or as little as we do.
Trump’s signature foreign policy achievement is a complete recalibration of policy toward China—one deeply resented by the legions of Wall Street investors, corporate interests, celebrities, athletes, foundations, universities, and media, all deeply leveraged by Chinese lucre.
Before COVID-19, Trump was written off as a crank, a protectionist, a Sinophobe, a quixotic anachronism screaming about Chinese mercantilism. After the virus, the trick for the bipartisan establishment was how to square the circle of emulating or trumping Trump’s Chinese skepticism and decoupling—but without appearing to be anyway influenced by Trump or in any manner embarrassed by their prior overt appeasement or collaboration with Beijing. After all, how could a guy like Trump be right, and the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution wrong?
For all the hoax of “Russian collusion,” Vladimir Putin is in terrible shape and has not fooled the administration as he did with “reset” in the Obama years. In the last four years, the United States upped sanctions on Russia, crashed the world export market of natural gas and oil so dear to Moscow, beefed up NATO spending, hectored Germany about its new energy dependence on Putin, increased U.S. military capability, reached out to frontline Eastern Europe, left an asymmetrical missile deal with Russia, obliterated Russian mercenaries in Syria, sold lethal weapons to Ukraine—even as the likes of James Clapper, John Brennan, James Comey, and an array of retired generals sermonized that Trump was a Russian “asset.” Translated that means the president who contained Putin they loathed, and the Obama presidency that empowered him they idolized.
Even Trump’s most controversial steps, redeploying 12,000 troops from Germany, the art of the deal brinkmanship talk with North Korea, withdrawing a few troops from the Kurdish- and NATO-allied Turkey fire zone in Syria, or jawboning NATO members to honor their reneged pledges of military investments did not cause catastrophes as predicted. Indeed, for the most part, many in the bipartisan establishment knew warnings were overdue and change was needed. They just assumed that whoever was naïve enough to bell the cat would be blamed for making the danger noisy.
For Trump’s critics he did more psychological damage by his often coarse rhetoric than the material good he achieved with undeniable breakthroughs. For that exegesis to be persuasive, however, they would have to make the argument that the mellifluous citizen-of-the-world rhetoric of the Obama Administration far outweighed in importance the serial setbacks it caused to U.S. interests and security. Or perhaps, one could explain how, prior to 2017, China had weaponized the Spratly Islands, North Korea apparently had nuclear-tipped missiles pointed at the U.S. West Coast, Iran was bragging about a new Shiite crescent, and Russia felt free to invade eastern Ukraine, absorb Crimea, and habitually since 2014 interfere in U.S. elections with impunity.
Trump sought to redefine illegal immigration, in the manner of 1960s and 1970s lunch-bucket Democrats and Cesar Chavez—as a threat to the wages and viability of U.S. workers, especially those most vulnerable entry-level laborers.
Whatever the catastrophes of the caravans and the coordinated efforts of Central American nationals and Mexico to swarm the border in 2017-2018, illegal immigration is now way down.
The wall, for all the lawsuits, the deep-state inner resistance, and the hysteria of the media, is now finally making progress. The Left no longer argues that it will never be built, that it is porous and ineffective, or that it will not discourage illegal entries from the south, but rather fears that it is suddenly advancing far too rapidly, that its construction and height are too imposing, and that in its perimeters it has stopped far too much illegal immigration.
Trump screamed about making Mexico “pay for the wall.” I’ll leave it to both his critics and supporters to argue whether Mexico’s costly deployment of some 15,000 troops to the border to discourage mass influxes, or the fortification and guarding of its own southern border to discourage Central American arrivals into the United States or rebooting of the old NAFTA on more favorable terms is proof, a token, or irrelevant to the idea that Mexico is contributing more than at any time in its recent history to discouraging illegal entry into the United States from its soil.
Pre-virus, all of the above had led to strong GDP growth, low unemployment and record low minority unemployment, and historical rises in middle class wages and family incomes. Trump’s chief weakness was a spending binge in line with those of both Bush and Obama. It is sustainable only in the short term due to de facto zero interest rates, which both has deleterious effects on the thrifty middle class and is likely to change sooner rather than later.
But then again, Trump is not running against fiscal conservatives, but a Biden-Harris socialist conglomerate that wishes to borrow far more on things like Medicare for All, reparations, and the Green New Deal that will result in more debt and even less economic growth.
Trump is neither a traditional conservative in the Ronald Reagan mode nor a centrist establishmentarian Republican like John McCain or Mitt Romney. But he has done more culturally for the conservative cause than any president since Calvin Coolidge. Like him or not, he has appointed more constructionist federal judges at all levels than any prior Republican president in a single term.
He likewise has been more opposed than any prior Republican to the current culture of abortion on demand. His education secretary is trying to enforce the Bill of Rights on what have become sometimes neo-fascistic college campuses, and to discourage race-based set asides and de facto discrimination on the basis of race.
He is a defender of the police while acknowledging the need for greater oversight, and opposed both violence in the streets, and the appeasement of it by blue state governors and mayors. In some sense, there are no conservatives, either by temperament or by political ability, eager to stop the summer madness of statue toppling, arson, spiraling crime, shakedowns, cancel culture and the vows of Antifa and BLM that all this is the beginning of a complete rewriting of American history and a radical recalibration of our shared futures.
Between the abyss and what goes on in Portland and the Magnificent Mile, there is for the moment nothing else but Trump standing in the breach.
A Final Note
No president in the history of the Republic has ever been targeted for removal by the opposition party, the permanent bureaucracy, and members of his own party, and in such an illegal and unethical manner.
There was the first impeachment effort, the Beltway punditry in early 2017 calling for his removal by coup if necessary, the voting machine suits, the Clinton-Obama-Steele subversion of the Trump campaign and transition, the Hollywood assassination chic, the effort to take out former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, the farce of the 25th Amendment that included the bathos of high federal officials contemplating wearing wires in private conservations with the president to the psychodrama of Professor Bandy Lee testifying before Congress about Trump’s mental state, the silly Emolument Clause gambit (Trump has lost over $1 billion while in office and taking no salary), the subversion of the FISA courts, the Russian hoax, Robert Mueller’s two-year long and $35 million witch hunt, the fabricated Steele dossier implanted in the bowels of the Obama government and media, the one-phone-call impeachment circus, the revolt of the retired generals, and what has rightly lately been called “coup porn,” the hysteria over Ukraine and the caricaturing of Trump in 2020 as Typhoid Mary, Herbert Hoover, and Bull Connor as the Left weaponized the contagion, quarantine, and rioting.
The Left, the media, and the NeverTrump Right rarely now any more argue all of the above was warranted or based on verifiable wrongdoing, but see the mish-mash instead as a righteous “any means necessary” tactic to achieve the noble end of destroying a president that they detest.
That Trump is still standing is an unrecognized tribute to his resilience, stamina, and willpower to fight it out to the bitter end.
His critics say 2020 is not 2016. This time the polls are right on, not rigged by the sort who trafficked in absurd Russian hoaxes or were mesmerized by Michael Avenatti. The silent Trump voters no longer exist, they add. The suburban mom, we are told, fears Trump’s temper more than Antifa. The fence-sitter is bothered more by tweeting than Biden’s ever-longer moments of confused silence. And on and on.
But Americans at some point empathize with an underdog fighter on behalf of what they fear may be a fading America, even someone they are not always fond of, but who does not give up when bullied and subjected to a level of unwarranted abuse that they themselves know they could never endure. The Left never wished to beat Trump at the polls (indeed they feared such an ordeal); they instead wanted to destroy his person, his family, and everyone who followed him.
That Trump withstood such illegal, unconstitutional, and unethical venom also says something about those who dished it out—and, in the end, did so viciously and yet so impotently.