The Endless Enigma of Donald Trump

Trump is likely to be puzzling us long after he finishes his second term in the White House (heh). Is he a would-be fascist, a mere authoritarian, a savvy “deal-maker,” or just an imperious narcissist? Or something else?

Paul has already drawn our attention to Robert Kagan’s Washington Post article making the case that Trump is essentially a fascist. Fascism is a word that is hard to define with agreeable precision, and gets thrown around all too loosely in American political discourse. Kagan creditably offers a working description:

Successful fascism was not about policies but about the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Führer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation. Whatever the problem, he could fix it. Whatever the threat, internal or external, he could vanquish it, and it was unnecessary for him to explain how.

So far so good, but from here Kagan warns that Trump, having successfully used the Republican Party as his vehicle to power, will cast it aside once elected and become dangerous to everyone and everything on a foundation of pure populism:

In addition to all that comes from being the leader of a mass following, he would also have the immense powers of the American presidency at his command: the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence services, the military. Who would dare to oppose him then? Certainly not a Republican Party that lay down before him even when he was comparatively weak. And is a man like Trump, with infinitely greater power in his hands, likely to become more humble, more judicious, more generous, less vengeful than he is today, than he has been his whole life? Does vast power un-corrupt?

This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.

Now, I’m a huge Bob Kagan fan, but I think he’s overwrought here. He may be absolutely correct about Trump’s character and his mere instrumental use of the Republican Party, but I doubt that the American people will long support a crazy populist leader. In a future post, I may talk about the prospects of Trump being impeached if he tries to govern anything like Kagan imagines. (Also, why Hillary will be impeached if she contrives to win.)

But what if Trump turned out not to be a crazy populist leader? That’s the case that Frank Buckley of George Mason University School of Law Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University (there—that’s better) makes in The American Spectator:

Deals are what the Founders intended. But now they don’t happen. Not only is Obama bad at deal-making, he doesn’t even try. Gridlock is his friend. He points to it and says I have to act on my own. That’s arrogant. Self-centered. Egotistical. And Hillary is no better. She feels entitled to rule. She calls Republicans her enemy. If you thought that Obama wears a crown, wait till you see Queen Hillary.

Hillary doesn’t have a legislative agenda. She has an executive action agenda. By contrast, Trump wants to change our laws, not by executive actions, but by legislative reform. He’s promised to rip up every single one of Obama’s unconstitutional executive orders and decrees, but after that you can expect him to bargain with Congress over a broken statute book.

Think of the things he’s said need fixing. He wants to repeal and replace Obamacare with a health care system that serves ordinary Americans, not the trial lawyers, not the insurance companies. He wants a new immigration system that opens the door to immigrants who can help make America great again, and shuts the door to everyone else. He wants a new Tax Code that reduces marginal rates for most Americans and closes off the crony loopholes that permit billionaires to pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries. None of that is going to happen except in the old-fashioned way, when the president, Senate, and House of Representatives agree on a bill.

I’m not quite convinced of this either, but it’s a serious perspective. I can easily imagine Trump resorting to his public insult game the first time Sen. Chuck Schumer says something disagreeable about Trump’s ideas. The business world is not the political world. You don’t make your deals in the public eye, and if you don’t make a deal, neither side makes any money, so the incentive to reach a deal is always strong. In politics, sometimes the best rewards come from not making a deal. Democrats may well calculate that blocking any Trump deals will be their path back to a majority in off-year elections. Or if they do make a deal, it will demoralize the Republican voters in the next mid-term elections. It could be a win-win either way for Democrats unless Trump proved to be extremely savvy. How likely is that? There’s no way to tell.

I do fully agree with one point Frank makes here: that Obama actually welcomes gridlock because it inversely empowers his executive gigantism. This is a very astute point that not many people have grasped.

The main point is: the Kagan-Buckley contrast shows how Trump is confusing everyone and everything in a way we’ve simply never seen before in American politics. Buckle up.

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