A global wave of populist nationalism (yes, I’m aware of the irony) helped Donald Trump eke out a victory last November. On Saturday, a transnational wave of protest against Trump’s vision of the world swept across America and the world.
So what happens now?
Ben Smith suggests in BuzzFeed that this is the new, fundamental cleavage of politics: “truly international, for the first time since the 1960s, and bound together by technology in a way the reactionaries and revolutionaries of that decade couldn’t have imagined.”
Maybe. As the author of a book called All Politics Is Global, let me assure you that transnational politics did not lie dormant between the 1960s and last weekend. I have to agree with newly minted White House adviser Steve Bannon, who emailed Smith to suggest that, “the beginning of all this was the anti-globalization movement.” But that beginning was 20 years ago, so this was a long time coming.
That’s not really the part of Smith’s argument I want to wrestle with today, however. If the political battle of the next few years really is between a resurgent populist nationalism and the status-quo liberal internationalism, Smith suggests that there’s a political group that doesn’t fit so neatly into either category:
Here in the U.S., perhaps the most striking consequence of this globalization is whom it leaves out: conservatives. Small-government Reaganism was always a homespun American product, its fervor viewed with curiosity even by strategic allies from London to Tokyo to Jerusalem, none of whom seriously question socialized medicine and other “big government” features. Trump’s nationalism is an obvious European import, a blood and soil ethnic politics that the Republican Party’s corporate-minded elite had kept at bay ever since importing its adherents from the Democrats in the 1960s.
Trump did not even breathe in the direction of small government conservatism Friday. No conservative was allowed on stage at the women’s march a day later. And now those small-government conservatives have no party and no country. It’s hard see what becomes of them.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts agrees with Smith that Trump’s inaugural address was not terribly conservative. But that does not mean the Trump administration is not conservative-friendly. And therein lies a conundrum.
If they look past the rhetoric (and the foreign policy), conservatives can find a lot to like in the new administration. There are the Cabinet appointments: Betsy DeVos at Education, Tom Price at HHS, and Rick Perry at Energy would have fit with a garden-variety conservative president. It sounds like Trump’s new budget director is pretty conservative. It’s true that Trump doesn’t talk a lot about deregulation and tax cuts. Nonetheless, the White House pledges to “lower rates for Americans in every tax bracket, simplify the tax code, and reduce the U.S. corporate tax rate, which is one of the highest in the world” as well as “a moratorium on new federal regulations and is ordering the heads of federal agencies and departments to identify job-killing regulations that should be repealed.” For many conservatives, that’s hot.
This leaves mainstream conservatives, who just a few years ago ruled the Republican roost, in something of a pickle. Many of them take ideas pretty seriously and are keenly aware that Trump doesn’t talk about those ideas a lot. At the same time, talking matters less than doing in politics. Quite a few conservatives seem willing to join team Trump, or at least side with him over the alternative:
Or consider this from Politico’s Josh Dawsey:
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-backed group, said he was pleased with the administration’s alignment on corporate tax reform and health care — and he expects them to make drastic changes soon. “There just isn’t much daylight between us,” he said.
That said, a fair number of conservatives are also keenly aware that there’s more to politics than policy congruence. After Sean Spicer’s dyspeptic diatribe against the press on Saturday, the Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last pointed out what many conservatives did not want to acknowledge:
Spicer wouldn’t have blown his credibility with the national press on Day 2 of the administration unless it was vitally important to Trump.
And if media reports about crowd size are so important to Trump that he’d push Spicer out there to lie for him, then it means that all the tinpot-dictator, authoritarian, characterological tics that people worried about during the campaign are still very much active.
You know who obsessed about crowd size? Fidel Castro. You know who did not? George Washington, John Adams, Andrew Jackson, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, and every other man to ever serve as president of these United States of America.
Similarly, in the New York Times, Peter Wehner explains that his issues with Trump have less to do with policy disagreements and more to do with Trump’s basic character:
Donald Trump is a transgressive personality. He thrives on creating disorder, in violating rules, in provoking outrage. He is a shock jock. This might be a tolerable (if culturally coarsening) trait in a reality television star; it is a dangerous one in a commander in chief. He is unlikely to be contained by norms and customs, or even by laws and the Constitution. For Mr. Trump, nothing is sacred. The truth is malleable, instrumental, subjective. It is all about him. It is always about him.
The easy part, the transition to power, is over. The hard part begins now. So this concern arises: When President Trump is buffeted by events — when hard times hit, when crises arise, when other politicians and world leaders do not bend to his will — pernicious things will happen. Rather than try to address the alienation and anger that exists in America, he will amplify them. He’ll create yet more conspiracy theories. He will also go in search of enemies — the press, the opposition party, other nations, even Republican leaders — in order to create diversions that inflame his most loyal supporters. And when he locates his targets, he will do what is second nature to him, which is to try to delegitimize and destroy them. What’s different now is that he will have the additional, awesome power of the presidency at his disposal.
Contra Smith, I suspect many small-government conservatives will swallow their qualms and align with Trump. And they might have good policy grounds on which to base that calculation.
But other conservatives will not. The best policies and the best cabinet officials in the world cannot disguise the fact that the commander in chief of the United States has the temperament of a chaos muppet.
The Great Conservative Sorting has begun. Let’s see who falls where.