Like many (but by no means all) conservatives, ever since Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, I have been scanning the horizon for reasons to support him.
I have found a few. But candor requires that at the end of the day, when all is said and done, I acknowledge that the most compelling reason I’ve found so far is a familiar dactyl-trochee combination: Hillary Clinton. As I argued after the first day of the convention in Cleveland, The Wall Street Journal‘s Bill McGurn is right: the best case for Donald Trump is still this: that the alternative is the dowager empress of Chappaqua.
I’ve had flickers of hope that, post-primary, Trump would turn out to be something other than what he appeared to be throughout the primary season and what, by most accounts, he has been throughout his very public, very fraught business career.
So far, alas, I’ve found those hopes dashed, one after the next. After a tentative access of reasonable behavior on Trump’s part, bang, he blows it all by (for example) telling us what a great guy Saddam Hussein was at killing terrorists.
As I said to a friend at the convention, there is something vertiginous about Donald Trump. One day he approaches reasonableness, the next he reverts to petulant incoherence. It’s a sort of reprise of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So one finds oneself — at least, I find myself — oscillating between tentative support and aghast horror.
The latest example, as most readers will know, was the discrepancy between Dr. Donald Thursday night in his acceptance speech and Mr. Trump Friday in his truly bizarre post-convention press conference. Donald Trump is not Cicero or Demosthenes, but as I wrote yesterday, his speech Thursday night presented a forceful, mature, almost circumspect character. That the mainstream media recoiled in disgust, almost universally labeling it “dark” and demagogic,” just shows how effective it was.
But then came Friday morning, when Mr. Trump took over from Dr. Donald. It was supposed to be a casual, off-the-cuff, feel-good performance to thank various people for their hard work but it soon degenerated into a very strange assault on Ted Cruz for not endorsing Trump in his speech at the convention. Mr. Trump careened around that subject, first saying that Cruz would eventually come round to endorse him, then declaring that he, Trump, wouldn’t accept it if he did.
I know that a lot of people believe that Ted Cruz committed political suicide with his “vote your conscience” line. As I wrote here a few days ago, I think the hysteria over Cruz’s talk is overblown and wrongheaded. And I have to say, his later explanation that Trump’s attacks on his wife and father made an outright endorsement impossible struck me as honorable.
Back in March, Trump had an unflattering picture of Heidi Cruz circulated and ominously threatened to “spill the beans” on her. No beans were forthcoming. He also insinuated Cruz’s father Rafael was somehow linked to JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, citing as evidence a photo in the National Enquirer that purportedly shows the two having breakfast.
You might think that Dr. Donald would want to put that embarrassing episode behind him. But the presser was overseen by Mr. Trump, not the Doctor. He offered a rambling, semi-coherent defense of his actions with respect to Mrs. Cruz and doubled down on the supposed Rafael Cruz-Oswald connection.
Quoth Mr. Trump: “All I did is point out the fact that on the cover of the National Enquirer there was a picture of him and crazy Lee Harvey Oswald having breakfast. Now, Ted never denied that it was his father.”
Let’s pause here. After the allegation, Team Cruz had this to say:
- “This is another garbage story in a tabloid full of garbage,” Communications Director Alice Stewart told McClatchy. “The story is false; that is not Rafael in the picture.”
- “It’s ludicrous, it’s ludicrous,” Rafael Cruz told ABC News on May 3. “I was never in New Orleans at that time.”
- Ted Cruz dismissed the Enquirer story as “idiotic” and called Trump a “pathological liar” who is “utterly amoral” and a “bully.”
If that’s not a denial, it will do until the real thing comes along.
But Mr. Trump wasn’t finished. The National Enquirer, he said,
was a magazine that, frankly, in many respects, should be very respected. [I note as an aside that Trump is close to National Inquirer CEO David Pecker.] They got O.J. They got [John] Edwards. I mean, if that was The New York Times, they would have gotten Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting. . . . But anyway, so they have a picture, an old picture, having breakfast with Lee Harvey Oswald. Now, nothing — I’m not saying anything. They said — and here’s how the press takes that story. So this had nothing to do with me, except I might have pointed it out, but it had nothing to do with me. I have no control over anything. I might have pointed it out. . . .
In fact, there is no evidence whatsoever that Rafael Cruz had breakfast with Oswald. The photo expert quoted by the National Enquirer called Trump’s assertion “stupid.” Furthermore, according to Factcheck.org, “Although Trump said the photo showed the two ‘having breakfast,’ the picture in question actually shows Oswald distributing pro-Castro literature in New Orleans in August 1963, a few months prior to Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. According to the Miami Herald, another man in the picture was never identified by the Warren Commission, whose investigation concluded Kennedy was assassinated by Oswald and that Oswald acted alone.”
I have a few friends who are avid Trump supporters (and many more who are simply resigned to him). Those who are part of the cheerleading contingent see in Trump the Voice of the People, someone who is a man of business, not an establishment politician. As I’ve had occasion to note before in this space, when it comes to the Donald Voice-of-the-People wheeze, I always recall P. G. Wodehouse’s Roderick Spode, the amateur dictator who wanted to ban all foreign root vegetables from the UK. “The trouble with you, Spode,” said Bertie Wooster in one gratifying passage,
is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”
But I digress. The phenomenon of Donald Trump’s rise, and in particular the curious and disturbing oscillation between Dr. Donald and Mr. Trump, offers a couple of lessons.
For Donald Trump, the lesson is that the successful exercise of power requires vigilant restraint in its deployment. The more powerful the position, the more hemmed in you are in matters of manners and decorum. A responsible candidate for the presidency ought not hold press conferences to run down his opponents and their families. I have no doubt that the National Enquirer has broken scandalous stories about the rich and powerful. But its stock-in-trade is scandal, not news. There is a difference, and it is a difference aspirants to the office of the president ought to be cognizant of.
The other lesson is for the rest of us, us conservatives. As I have pointed out ad nauseam, Trump is not a conservative. He is a big-government progressive, a long-time donor to Democratic candidates from Hillary Clinton on down. His success is due partly to his expert manipulation of the cult of celebrity, partly to the powerful current of disenchantment he has channeled. His motto “Make America Great Again” appeals to a legitimate and undernourished patriotism that is actively disparaged by the Left. But his actual policies, so far as one is able to pick them out from the ambient static, are difficult to parse. He has attracted some good people to his cause. And his selection of Mike Pence as a running mate strikes me as an important mark of maturity.
That said, we should be under no illusion that Trump’s party bears anything but a nominal resemblance to the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan. For the foreseeable future (however long that may be), the Republican Party and the Democratic Party will be distinguished on most issues chiefly by tone. Trump has already affirmed that he has no plans to intervene in the huge, unsustainable entitlement apparatus that has us teetering under a bloated mountain of debt. On “social issues,” Trump’s position is essentially indistinguishable from Hillary’s.
Does it matter? I don’t know. Absent a beneficent deus ex machina, I will probably vote for Donald Trump. Since I live one of the brain-dead, deep-blue “progressive” states of the Northeast, my vote won’t count. But it will be some small satisfaction to make a gesture, however futile, against the most corrupt person ever to run for the presidency.
As the British Labor politician Harold Wilson once said, a week is a long time in politics. A lot can change very quickly. Nevertheless, if I had to bet, I’d say Trump’s odds were pretty good for November. I think it likely that he will be the next Republican president. That’s the good news, if “good” is the mot juste. The bad news was summed up by Andrew McCarthy in his column today:
Take away the conservatism, the limited-government constitutionalism, the devotion to liberty, the fiscal discipline, the clear-eyed recognition of America’s enemies, and what are you left with? A Republican party whose only real boast is that it can do statism with more adult moderation than the hard Left that has captured the Democratic party. To the extent that, a generation ago, “Republican” was fairly thought synonymous with “conservative,” it thus became a party “Republican” in name only — a party in which all principles were negotiable.
No, it’s not pretty, but there is no point in deluding ourselves with false hopes. Like the unhappy character in Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, Donald Trump is two opposing characters. The worry, of course, is that, like Mr. Hyde, the petty, incoherent, and vindictive side of his character will come more and more to prevail over the sunny, competent one.