I noted last month that conservative pundits were going to have to make some interesting choices in opining about President Trump:
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.
Well, now it is this month and it is quite possible that I underestimated the chaos muppetry on display in the West Wing. Donald Trump has managed to be so unpopular so early in his term that you can practically feel some conservatives begging for him to just read their column and listen for once.
Other conservatives, however, continue to fight the good fight and defend Trump when they see an opening to do so. And good for them! As I wrote during the transition, not everything President Trump will do will require a Category 5 Freakout. Indeed, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza opened a recent piece by saying, “When writing about President Trump, there’s a tendency toward exaggeration. This thing he did is UNPRECEDENTED! This thing he said has NEVER been said before in the history of the English language!!” And that was before he talked about an unprecedented Trump behavior!
Maybe Donald Trump’s critics are too quick to yell “unprecedented!” at times. Still, there’s a conservative, Trump-defending trope that I’m finding increasingly annoying. This is the tendency to defend Trump by pointing out that his actions do have presidential precedent — even if that precedent is not all that great.
To see what I mean, let’s talk about this Salena Zito column in the Washington Examiner, trying to add some historical perspective on Trump’s “so-called judge” attack on a federal judge. Here’s how it opens:
It’s tough to digest the outrage from reporters or politicians who claim something “never happened before in our history” when such statements lack any hint of historical perspective, any intellectual curiosity to discover if something truly is unprecedented.
It has become a common problem, this reacting in the arrogance of the moment rather than trying to understand how our system has worked for more than 200 years.
In short, we should step back and learn American history, people.
At this point, Zito takes great pains to point out that even though what Trump said about the judge was problematic, it was not unprecedented. That’s because, according to Zito, “Roosevelt, Johnson and Obama treated the U.S. Supreme Court in ways that were, arguably, a hell of a lot more disdainful — or even more potentially damaging — than Trump’s ‘so-called’ line.”
So, just to be clear, Zito is arguing that what Trump did was no big whoop because previous presidents:
- Tried to pack the Supreme Court, triggering a public outcry;
- Nominated a close friend to the Supreme Court, eventually triggering a public scandal;
- Scolded the Supreme Court in a State of the Union address, triggering a public outcry.
My point is this: Just because a previous president did something similar to what Trump is doing now does not mean that the precedent is a good one. Historians don’t look back on FDR’s court-packing scheme or LBJ’s Abe Fortas appointment and think, gosh, those were such good ideas. Those are precedents to be avoided.
Let me put it another way: Suppose, in the next month, Donald Trump decides to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, intern Muslims living in the United States, authorize a break-in of the Democratic National Committee and then have sex with a White House intern. Given how his first month has gone, that seems like a natural progression, but that’s not the point right now. The point is that Trump defenders like Zito can certainly claim that there is precedent in American history for each of these actions. But that’s a really stupid line of defense. Prior bad actions by past presidents do not exculpate Trump’s words or deeds.
So, going forward, let me suggest a pundit cease-fire. Trump’s critics should be more careful before saying that whatever Trump is doing is unprecedented. But Trump’s defenders shouldn’t blindly invoke precedent when that precedent led to disastrous consequences.