Principled Conservatives Can’t Support Donald Trump

Businessman Donald Trump makes a speech in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19
Businessman Donald Trump makes a speech in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19 (Michael Vadon)

Sometimes it seems America’s Republicans only like limited government when they’re not in charge. Certainly supporters of Donald Trump, a businessman and candidate for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, fall into this category.

In his latest column for The Washington Post, George Will wonders why conservatives should back a man who until recently wasn’t even a Republican and is at best indifferent to conservative tenets.

Trump supported Barack Obama’s stimulus and advocates higher taxes. He changed his mind on abortion rights and marriage equality but still supports legalizing drugs (a few years ago anyway, he might have reversed his position on that as well). Trump’s appeal derives primarily from his anti-immigration rhetoric — which, as Will points out, may drive even more Asian American and Hispanic voters away from the party.

There is also a dispiriting irony in Trump’s instance that all it takes to “make America great again” is good leadership.

The administrative state’s intrusiveness (e.g., its regulatory burdens), irrationalities (e.g., the tax code’s toll on economic growth), incompetence (Amtrak, ethanol, etc.) and illegality (we see you, IRS) may benefit the principal architect of this state, the Democratic Party. This is because the other party’s talented critics of the administrative state are being drowned out by Trump’s recent discovery that Americans understandably disgusted by government can be beguiled by a summons to Caesarism.

The Atlantic Sentinel has argued that such desires for strongmen are unhealthy.

A society in which citizens are informed and willing to take responsibility for their own lives doesn’t need “strong leadership.” It needs a leadership that respects personal autonomy and privacy. Strongmen never do. They impose their values on others, mistrust citizens, including businessmen, to make wise decisions and snoop into people’s personal lives to see if they aren’t secretly insubordinate.

Big-government Democrats may be more likely to mistrust their citizens than Republicans but they too can overlook political safeguards against administrative overreach in their quest for other conservative priorities.

Will laments that while conservatives “properly execrate Obama’s executive highhandedness that expresses progressivism’s traditional disdain for the separation of powers,” those some critics despise Republican leaders in Congress for failing to impose conservatives’ unimpeded will from Capitol Hill, whatever the president’s constitutional prerogatives.

This is not principled opposition. If Republican voters are comfortable with big government as long as their party is in power, they can’t be surprised when voters in the middle don’t take seriously their complaints when Democrats are.

Nor can they expect their argument that big government is inherently unworkable to be taken seriously when they nominate for the presidency a man who believes he is uniquely qualified to make government work. Irrespective of whether he is (he isn’t), Republicans should not be looking for someone like Trump. If they mean what they say, they should be looking for a candidate who is willing to admit the limits of presidential power and commit to making government better by making it smaller.

Trump Latest in Line of “Superhero” Candidates

Businessman Donald Trump makes a speech in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19
Businessman Donald Trump makes a speech in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19 (Michael Vadon)

The rise of property tycoon Donald Trump in the Republican Party’s presidential primaries may be emblematic of an American trend to seek “superheroes” for the nation’s highest office.

Megan McArdle, a Bloomberg View columnist, argues that Trump’s supporters — who, if the polls are to be believed, account for roughly a quarter of the conservative electorate — seem to think that he will escape the political constraints that have bedeviled previous Republican leaders with sheer will and imagination.

End birthright citizenship! Get Mexico to pay to build a wall! Force companies to build more stuff here! How? By being really tough. Don’t ask for details.

Trump is unlikely to win the Republican presidential nomination, let alone the 2016 election. But his candidacy is the extreme manifestation of an American inclination to vote for “change” every time politicians disappoint.

Voters rally to get a candidate elected, then call on the politician to stop technological change from tanking the local economy, to give them much more generous health care at half the cost of whatever they’ve currently got, to cut their taxes without touching Social Security or Medicare because they earned those benefits, to provide large new entitlements paid for entirely by taxing hedge fund managers, to reform the education system so that all the students will be above average, to defuse conflict in the Middle East and maybe leap some tall buildings in a single bound. You know, the usual.

No president can ever meet such high expectations. Rather than conclude they might be expecting too much from their leaders, though, at least some voters convince themselves they have simply elected the “wrong superhero”.

It is time to stop messing around with Squirrel Girl and Jack of Hearts and elect Superman, already. So the story starts all over again.

The reality is that getting things done is difficult, especially in the United States where, as McArdle puts it, the political system “is set up precisely to frustrate a powerful guy with a big idea.”

Governing is not like building a building; it’s not like running a business. It’s like, well, trying to herd three branches of government in roughly the same direction. These branches are composed of thousands of people, each of whom has their own agenda, and represents millions more, each of whom has their own agenda and will hound out of office anyone who strays too far from it.

It might be a wildly ponderous and inefficient way to do anything, McArdle writes, but it is the price Americans pay for representative democracy.

McArdle’s colleague Jonathan Bernstein argues that conservatives are particularly susceptible to the delusion that a strong-willed outsider can shake up the system and effect radical change.

Bernstein admits that the 2008 election of Barack Obama, a Democrat, was partially fueled by the same delusion. But at least he was a politician with some governing experience.

It’s another thing entirely to believe in Donald Trump — or Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina. (Or Herman Cain or Steve Forbes.) Republican voters really are distinct in this way. They’re repeatedly easier marks for people who have no business getting anywhere near the Oval Office.

Bernstein volunteers several reason for why this is the case.

One is that voters who favor limited government may care less about governing experience. But if that’s the assumption, it’s mistaken, he argues. Politicians who shrank government — like Republican stalwart Ronald Reagan — were able to do so because they had experience in government. If they didn’t understand how government worked, they might never have been able to restrain it.

Secondly, Republicans may have been conditioned by their leaders to think simple solutions are worth pursuing, according to Bernstein.

Defeat the Soviet Union by exposing traitors in government! Cut taxes to raise revenues! Build a wall to solve immigration!

Democrats sometimes do the same. (Tax the 1 percent! Raise the minimum wage!) And simple-sounding solutions sometimes contain something sensible. But on the whole, Republicans do seem more prone to advocating simplistic policies than Democrats.

Finally, they are more prone to demagoguery. From Joseph McCarthy to Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, conservative leaders have told voters to trust in easy answers and believe that the normal frustrations of politics and international relations are the product of villains, collaborators and fellow travelers.

And, of course, they succeeded in convincing many Republican voters that any conservative politician who engages in the norms of democratic compromise is a traitor to the cause.

Do that for a few decades and what you get is Donald Trump.

Don’t Pay Too Much Attention to Donald Trump

Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27
Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27 (Gage Skidmore)

Remember when Michele Bachmann was almost president of the United States?

It was July 2011, half a year before Iowa and New Hampshire would vote in the Republican Party’s presidential primaries. Two surveys, one by Public Policy Polling, another by Zogby, put the hard-right congresswoman from Minnesota ahead of the presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney.

As the early voting contests got closers, the polls became more volatile. At some point, Rick Perry, the Texas governor, was beating Romney 30 to 8 percent. In October, businessman Herman Cain had jumped ahead with 45 percent support in one poll. The next two months, it was Newt Gingrich’s turn. The former House speaker got as high as 40 percent.

Even when the primaries got underway, Republican voters weren’t ready to settle. Rick Santorum, a staunch social conservative from Pennsylvania, had a moment in the sun in February, rivaling Romney with the support of around a third of primary voters.

By March, it was over. Not a single poll didn’t give Romney a plurality. Most candidates withdrew the following month and Romney crossed the nominating threshold virtually unopposed in May. Read more “Don’t Pay Too Much Attention to Donald Trump”