Charles R. Kesler is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and editor of the Claremont Review of Books.
To Trump or not to Trump — that is the question. Conservatives divide over it, though many conservative intellectuals inside the Beltway have decided against Donald Trump in no uncertain terms, and by opposing him hope to end his candidacy.
But this is still a democracy, not a punditocracy. I acknowledge that H.L. Mencken defined democracy as “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Nonetheless, Trump won the Republican nomination fair and square, against 16 contenders, and the arguments for ignoring or rejecting those results need to be carefully examined.
The “Never Trump” critics have two main arguments. The first is that he is a buffoon, a clown, an overactive third-grader who has gone off his Ritalin, a tawdry egomaniac whose policies are no better than “barstool eruptions” and who by temperament and experience is unworthy of the presidency.
The second is that Trump is a monster, a racist, a wily demagogue, a proto-fascist or full-fledged fascist, a tyrant-in-waiting. I don’t exaggerate these charges. For example, Robert Kagan wrote in The Post, “This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes . . . but with a television huckster . . . ‘tapping into’ popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party . . . falling into line behind him.”
The two arguments are in some tension, insofar as the first implies that Trump doesn’t know what he is doing or is not serious about it, and the second that he knows precisely what he is doing and is deadly serious about it.
The second contention is, to my mind, unpersuasive. I don’t see many similarities between “Mein Kampf” and “The Art of the Deal.” Where is that hallmark of fascism, the fanatical political party organization, with its secret or higher wisdom? Where is the glorification of the nation, the collectivity?
Trump does speak sometimes in unfortunate ethnic and other generalizations, and he admires toughness, in a sort of boxer’s way, more highly than it should be admired, just as his praise of winning doesn’t distinguish, as it should, between those who deserve to win and those who don’t. He is overly fond of Vladimir Putin’s toughness, but that does not lead him to want to emulate Putin’s methods or his aversion to democracy. Here Trump’s populism, or what Walter Russell Mead calls his Jacksonianism, comes to bear: He trusts the American people, not the special interests or the governing elite.
Trump thinks America is losing its greatness because we are governed by “stupid people,” not by Jews or backstabbers. Otherwise intelligent people like Hillary Clinton and President Obama have been turned into idiots, he believes, by a steady diet of political correctness. If Trump promises anything, it is an end to the reign of PC.
Will a tough, politically incorrect president still be a constitutional one? Unlike Clinton, he does not propose to amend the First Amendment, he defends the Second Amendment vigorously and he promises “to bring the executive branch back inside the Constitution.”
Nevertheless, liberalism’s century-old effort to turn the president into a “leader” who can rise above constitutional constraints such as federalism and the separation of powers might, under certain circumstances, be music to Trump’s populist ears. But what he might be tempted into is what Clinton is committed to on principle, as a self-described progressive. How could a vote for Clinton be defended as a vote for greater constitutional safety, much less integrity?
Which brings me back to the critics’ first argument. Trump is worrisome not because he is an incipient Caesar but because he is an amateur, with no experience in elected or high civil or military office, and because he has played The Donald for so long that one wonders if he can be The President. His critics give these legitimate doubts an exaggerated spin, and if we were electing the first Sunday school teacher (a job for which Jimmy Carter would have been superbly qualified), their revulsion at Trump’s messy, vainglorious life might settle the matter.
But we’re electing the chief executive. It’s a political choice we’re making, which is necessarily comparative or prudential. Between two flawed candidates, who is better? Reasonable people can disagree, of course, but millions of Republican (and other) voters have already weighed Trump’s talents, virtues and vices against 16 other contenders and concluded that he is the best guardian of their interests in 2016. There should be a high burden of proof on the conservative critics who seek to set aside the common people’s judgment or override it at the GOP convention. So far, his critics have not met that burden.