In Federalist 10, James Madison observes:
As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.
Indeed. The ordinary business of life provides a good illustration of what Madison was talking about. And when we come to politics, it’s not just human fallibility that is at issue. There is also the operation of what Madison calls “self-love,” and “the diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate.” It may be that “[t]he protection of these faculties is the first object of government,” as Madison argued, but the diversity of interests means that there will always be a diversity of opinions — i.e., conflict.
These are truisms, I know, and I utter them as a preliminary to mentioning something that puzzles me. Granted, people disagree about many things. Granted, too, that in the realm of politics our own interests propel us to applaud certain courses of action and deprecate others. Still, I have been amazed by the discrepancy of opinions about Donald Trump’s presidency.
It’s not, I hasten to add, the fact of the discrepancy that puzzles me, but its global, all-encompassing quality.
I think I first became fully conscious of this phenomenon in the aftermath of Trump’s inauguration speech. The speech that I heard seemed to be toto genere different from the speech that NeverTrumpers, on the Right as well as on the Left, heard. Writing for the Financial Times, I described the speech as “gracious but plain-speaking.” That did not go down well among the readers of FT.
Writing here at PJM, I listed some of the negative reactions to the speech. Typical was a column in the Chicago Tribune, which described it as “raw, angry and aggrieved,” “pugnacious in tone, pitch black in its color.”
Had we been listening to the same speech? Possibly, but the speech that we heard was different. I quoted a famous bit from The Tempest to illustrate the phenomenon. A few of the shipwrecked men are taking stock of their situation on Prospero’s enchanted island, and it soon becomes clear that the island appears very different to different characters:
ADRIAN: The air breathes upon us here most sweetly.
SEBASTIAN: As if it had lungs and rotten ones.
ANTONIO: Or as ’twere perfumed by a fen.
GONZALO: Here is everything advantageous to life.
ANTONIO: True; save means to live.
SEBASTIAN: Of that there’s none, or little.
GONZALO: How lush and lusty the grass looks! how green!
ANTONIO: The ground indeed is tawny.
SEBASTIAN: With an eye of green in’t.
ANTONIO: He misses not much.
SEBASTIAN: No; he doth but mistake the truth totally.
The question is, of course, who is right, the cheery Gonzalo or his shipmates?
Having once been an active and paid-up member of the anti-Trump brigade, I understand that there are many things to criticize about Donald Trump. I have on several occasions explained why I changed my mind. It boils down to two things: Hillary Clinton on the negative side of the equation, and Trump’s agenda on the positive side.
I think that Clinton would have been a disaster for the country. I would have voted for the Cairn terrier who lives across the street before voting for her. But the more I heard about what Trump wanted to do — about taxes, about immigration, about the U.S. military, about regulation, and about many other things — the more I liked it.
Would he actually attempt to enact the agenda he outlined? That was a question. Another question, one that I pondered but did not give sufficient weight to, was whether he would be allowed by Congress to enact his agenda.
To my mind, the answer to the first question is “Yes.” The answer to the second question is still forthcoming.
But there is a larger question lurking behind those two and it is this: What could Donald Trump do to win the plaudits of the NeverTrumpers? In the case of the hysterical Left — reporters for CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC, etc. — the answer, I am confident, is nothing. Trump is like Dr. Fell in the clever schoolboy translation of Martial:
I do not like thee Dr. Fell.
Exactly why I cannot tell.
But this I know, and know full well:
I do not like thee Dr. Fell.
We can write off the left-wing contingent of NeverTrumpers. But how about the so-called right-wing contingent, populated by folks like Max Boot, Jonah Goldberg, and poor Gabe Schoenfeld?
I do not know the answer. But when it comes to judging most sublunary phenomena, it is useful to approach them with some criteria for success: “If this, this, and this happen, I will count this a failure. But if these other things happen, I will count it a success.”
Because circumstances change and unexpected things happen, such criteria are by nature somewhat amorphous. But I have several criteria for judging the success or failure of Donald Trump. Here are a few:
- His judicial appointments. Is he keeping his promise to nominate judges and justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia?
- Regulation. Is he keeping his promise to roll back burdensome and counterproductive regulation?
- Immigration. Is he keeping his promise to get a handle on illegal immigration?
- The military. Is he keeping his promise to upgrade the U.S. military and give it greater flexibility in responding to threats to our national security?
- Energy. Is he reversing the Obama administration’s various strictures on America’s ability to harvest its own energy resources?
- Jobs. Is he working to create an environment that is job-friendly for American workers?
- Obamacare. Is he working to repeal and replace Obamacare?
- Taxes. Is he working to cut taxes?
- Making American Great Again. This is more amorphous but not therefore indiscernible. What has Trump done about the virus of political correctness and the ideology of identity politics? What’s the mood of the country?
There are nine items. There are others. If Trump fails to deliver on a majority of them he will, I will sadly conclude, have failed.
But what if he succeeds in delivering on most of them? What then?
To my mind, some of the most percipient commentary on the whole Trump phenomenon has come not from the punditocracy, but from the cartoonist Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. Adams long ago charted the roadmap of anti-Trump animus. First stop, Trump is Hitler. Literally. It happened. Next down the line was the meme that Trump was out of his depth, horribly incompetent. That happened too. Google “chaos in the White House.”
But now, as Adams put it in a recent post, we come to “the fun part.” “I predicted,” Adams wrote, “that the end of this three-part story would involve President Trump’s critics complaining that indeed he was ‘effective, but we don’t like it.’” How does that happen? John Kelly:
Watch in awe as the anti-Trump coverage grudgingly admits things are starting to look more professional and “disciplined” at the White House. And as the president’s accomplishments start to mount up, you will see his critics’ grudging acceptance of his effectiveness, but not his policy choices. We’re entering that phase now with the help of a new Chief of Staff that even the mainstream media can’t hate. Generals command respect from both sides of the government because they have fought for both sides. No one forgets that.
Expect to see lots of stories about General Kelly bringing efficiency and effectiveness to the White House. Reporters and pundits don’t want to criticize a four-star general who fought for them. At best, expect the anti-Trumpers to say the Chief of Staff is calling the shots, not the President. That’s the predictable fake news attack. But I don’t think it will stick through the end of the year.
So my concluding question is this: Is there anything that Trump could do that would sway the NeverTrumpers? To the extent that the answer is “No,” then you may safely conclude that they are blinded by a sclerotic partisanship that is underwritten by the intolerable fact of having been wrong.