Thinking About the Unthinkable

It now seems fairly likely that Donald Trump will win the Republican presidential nomination. His success remains, to me, a puzzle. Watching him in the debate last night–I only caught the last portion–and in a post-debate interview, I thought he was a buffoon. His knowledge of the issues is almost non-existent, and I can’t tell whether he actually wants to be president, or is just campaigning as a lark.

But the bigger problem with Trump, in my mind, isn’t that he is unqualified, it is that he isn’t a conservative. Rather, he is a populist. Trump almost glories in his inability to answer questions with any insight or specificity, a classic populist characteristic. I will do a great job as president! Why? Because I’m me!

On the world stage, the politician who reminds me most of Trump is Vladimir Putin. Putin’s campaign slogan was, in effect, “Make Russia great again!” Has he done so? One would think not; Russia’s economy is a mess and the country is run by what in essence is a criminal gang. Yet Putin is very popular. His supporters think he has made Russia “great,” because Russia’s assertiveness in international affairs has discomfited the U.S. and other powers. And, much like Trump supporters, they love his macho shtick. This does not mean, of course, that a President Trump would govern anything like a Putin. He would not. But his appeal to American voters is similar to Putin’s appeal to Russian voters, and in each case, public policy has little to do with it.

Trump does not pretend to be a conservative. He was a registered Democrat for much of his adult life. He has said that he agrees with the Democrats on most issues, especially on the economy, and to my knowledge has never recanted. He has donated to numerous Democrats’ campaigns, including Hillary Clinton’s, and has praised Hillary effusively. On the other hand, his attitude toward the George W. Bush administration, the last Republican presidency, is viciously antagonistic, to the point where he blames Bush for the 2008 financial collapse.

If you check the positions he sets forth on his web site, you will find little of substance and little that is conservative. He offers a good tax plan, rather typical for a Republican candidate. He also defends Second Amendment rights, which is almost mandatory for a Republican. But there is nothing on how to shrink the federal government, and there is little reason to think that Trump, a developer who makes his living in bed with government, has any desire to do so. There is nothing on the burden of federal regulations, and nothing on energy policy. The social issues never come up. There is nothing on health care (except for veterans) and, remarkably, nothing on foreign policy other than U.S.-China trade. Compare Trump’s position statements with Marco Rubio’s and ask yourself who is the conservative in the race.

Even on immigration, the issue that, more than anything, has fueled Trump’s rise, he is a squish. Trump’s focus has been almost entirely on illegal immigration, while he has said next to nothing about our legal immigration system, a much bigger problem. On illegal immigration, he wants to deport millions of illegal immigrants, but then turn around and let them back in through the “big door” in his fence. As best I can tell, anyone who is not a convicted felon would get back in. The point of this is hard to see.

As for his popular call to suspend all travel or immigration of Muslim aliens into the U.S., his general idea is defensible, but as set forth by him his proposal is unworkable. There is no feasible way to find out whether one of the millions of aliens who enter the U.S. is a Muslim except by asking him. All a would-be terrorist has to do is say “No.” Trump doesn’t care enough to at least offer a workable proposal, such as suspending all immigration and issuance of visas to residents of Muslim-majority countries, perhaps with specified exceptions.

If Trump gets the nomination, this will be the first presidential race in quite a while in which neither party nominates a conservative. One could argue that was the case in 1988 and 1992, when George H.W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. I would say that Bush was a conservative, although a very moderate one, and certainly in 1992 Republicans had every reason to consider Bush a conservative who would continue the Reagan legacy.

Before that, you probably have to go back to 1968 and 1972, when Richard Nixon ran against Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern. That, too, is questionable, as Nixon was undoubtedly conservative on some issues and was regarded by most of his contemporaries as a conservative, even though his presidential record is moderate at best, and liberal in some key areas.

In any event, what should principled conservatives do if neither party nominates a candidate of the right? I would certainly vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, but I think the most reasonable response is to provide no support to the non-conservative presidential candidate beyond the ballot, and focus instead on other races where true conservatives are running.

Apart from the fact that I don’t think he would make much of a chief executive, a Trump presidency could have the unfortunate effect of further disillusioning many on the right. Voters on the right often say that politicians lie, and sometimes, of course, they do. But usually the “lie” is a case of over-promising. When they are campaigning, conservatives, like liberals, often overstate what they will be able to accomplish in office. This engenders disappointment. But imagine if conservatives were to elect Trump under the misguided belief that he is one of them. He presumably won’t govern as a conservative; he hasn’t even promised to. More likely, he will govern in accordance with his belief that the Democrats are right on most issues, particularly the economy, and consistent with his acceptance of big government. I am afraid that conservatives who vote for Trump expecting something different will be in for a rude awakening, should he win.