Donald Trump and the Intellectuals and The Promise of America


October 2, 2016

by Ross Douthat@www.nytimes.com

“…we have seen enough from his campaign — up to and including his wretchedly stupid conduct since the first debate — to answer confidently, “No.” Trump’s zest for self-sabotage, his wild swings, his inability to delegate or take advice, are not mere flaws; they are defining characteristics. The burdens of the presidency will leave him permanently maddened, perpetually undone.”–Ross Douthat

THE Republican Party’s politicians have mostly surrendered to Donald Trump. The Republican Party’s entertainers have mostly been enthusiastic about his candidacy. But the conservative intelligentsia — journalists, think-tankers and academics — has been conspicuous in its resistance.

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The Macho Trump loves them. Can you Blame him?

Now, though, we have “Writers and Scholars for America” — a collection of prominent signatories to the proposition that given the available options, “Donald J. Trump is the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America.”

The list of names is an interesting mix: There are hacks of the sort who inevitably flutter toward Trump’s flame, but there are also writers I’ve admired for many years. And while there is no unifying manifesto, it’s possible to piece together the arguments that attract these thinkers to Trump’s candidacy.

Those arguments seem at first blush to be in tension. On the one hand, many of the pro-Trump thinkers seem to believe that for all his distinctive vices, Trump would probably end up governing largely as a conventional Republican. Believing as they do that liberal ideas are dangerous or destructive, these conservatives see the 2016 election as a straightforward lesser of two evils situation, in which the Republican nominee’s indecency is preferable to the damage that a Hillary Clinton presidency would all but guarantee.

But then you also have others who are attracted to Trump precisely because he isn’t a conventional Republican. Reagan-era conservatism had its time and failed, these Trump-supporting intellectuals suggest, and the time has come to roll the dice, to embrace a change agent even if he seems gross and seedy and bigoted, because the alternative is staying on a fatal course.

Some of these writers feel that the American republic has already gone under, we’re just choosing between elected emperors, and you might as well gamble on a Caesar who’s willing to flay the empire’s ruling class. Others take the more modest view that Trump is correct on particular issues (immigration, foreign policy, the importance of the nation-state) where the bipartisan consensus is often wrong, and his candidacy is a chance to vote against an elite worldview that desperately needs to be chastened and rebuked.

I said that these two perspectives seem to be in tension, but it’s actually pretty easy to combine them. If Trump gets restrained by his advisers, he’ll be a typical Republican, this combination would go, and if he stays true to his own essential Trumpiness, he’ll be the scourge our rotten system needs.

If ideas were all, this would be a plausible argument. Trump is too mercurial to be fully trusted on judicial appointments or any other issue that matters to the right. But it’s reasonable to think that the way he’s campaigned — on a mix of standard-issue Republican ideas and populist-nationalist heresies — is the way that he will try to govern.But the problem comes in with that one word, “try.”

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Set aside for a moment Trump’s low character, his penchant for inflaming racial tensions, his personal corruptions. Assume for the sake of argument that all that can be folded into a “lesser of two evils” case.

What remains is this question: Can Donald Trump actually execute the basic duties of the Presidency? Is there any way that his administration won’t be a flaming train wreck from the start? Is there any possibility that he’ll be level-headed in a crisis — be it another 9/11 or financial meltdown, or any of the lesser-but-still-severe challenges that presidents reliably face?

I think we have seen enough from his campaign — up to and including his wretchedly stupid conduct since the first debate — to answer confidently, “No.” Trump’s zest for self-sabotage, his wild swings, his inability to delegate or take advice, are not mere flaws; they are defining characteristics. The burdens of the presidency will leave him permanently maddened, perpetually undone.

Even if that undoing doesn’t lead to economic or geopolitical calamity (yes, Virginia, there are worse things than the Iraq War), which cause or idea associated with Trumpism is likely to emerge stronger after a four-year train wreck? Not populism or immigration restrictionism. Not evangelical Christianity. Not economic conservatism. They’ll all be lashed to the mast of a burning ship whose captain is angrily tweeting from the poop deck.

Months ago, I worried that Trump was too authoritarian to be entrusted with the Presidency. That worry has receded a bit, because authoritarianism requires a ruthless sort of competence that Trump cannot attain.

But fecklessness in thePpresidency can be as destructive as malice, and not just to the country: A disastrous chief executive can do devastating damage to his own political ideas.

In this sense the intellectuals’ case for Donald Trump fails because it cannot shake free of those ideas and see the personal element here clearly.

What Trump believes, what he intends to do in office — those questions are ultimately secondary to the problem of the man himself, and the near-certainty that he will fail, and in failing, betray anyone who has lent him their support.

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Ross Douthat@nytimes

A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 2, 2016, on page SR11 of the New York edition with the headline: Trump and the Intellectuals.

3 thoughts on “Donald Trump and the Intellectuals and The Promise of America

  1. But Trump is not a true original Republican and the conventional one has been wrong for decades, the flawed Reagan revival, wasted over very unRepublican ideology of tea- partism. Small govt, protection of private properties, personal liberties and Trump do not truly believes in these things, he is as Republican as a socialist who says he is a true liberal.

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