Whether Donald Trump is a good and potentially great US president is one of the rare political questions that divide my family. From his early surge in the 2016 Republican primaries, my wife has been a firm supporter of the unorthodox Republican. Call her a Trumpette. I was cautious, sceptical and—while he was fighting Republicans in primaries—opposed to his nomination. When Trump sealed the nomination, my wife became more enthusiastic; I settled down uncomfortably into a Never Hillary posture on the respectable Centre Right. When he won the presidency against the odds, we both felt justified—she on the grounds that a bold new conservatism had been launched, I because a repressive Left party had failed to close the trap on the American people.
My rationale was the simple one that however bad Trump might be (impulsive, vulgar, abusive, seemingly ignorant on public policy …), he was certainly better than Mrs Clinton, who was a national leader of the progressive Left movement that holds sway in the media, universities, foundations like Ford and Rockefeller, labour unions, many corporations, the federal bureaucracy (the “deep state”) and the whole Moving Left show. The behaviour of Clinton, the Democrats, and the activist Left since the election has only confirmed my judgment.
John O’Sullivan’s columns appear in every Quadrant.
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For better or worse, however, we were both in the Trump column. Which is how we found ourselves as guests of a Republican congressman at an off-the-record speech by Trump in Washington to an enthusiastic meeting of Republican congressmen and donors. It was the first time I had sat through an entire Trump speech. It was a revelation, because it was a masterful performance. That was not because of what he said (which I can’t report), however, but because of how he said it.
Trump ranged freely and spontaneously over politics, riffing easily on the news of the moment like a late-night comedian. He was extremely funny—funnier than some of the alleged comedians—and he displayed a very good grasp of the details of quite arcane policies. (One shrewd test of someone’s knowledge of a particular policy, incidentally, is “Can he make good jokes about it?” Trump did.) He spoke for just over an hour without ever losing his audience or his bounce. Above all, he was received with enthusiasm by an audience of Republican loyalists—venture capitalists, small- and medium-sized business owners, inventors and entrepreneurs—yet that same speech would have been greeted with at least equal acclaim by blue-collar workers in a union hall. You can’t buy that kind of political instinct—as the miserable record of the GOP’s political consultants demonstrates.
Trump was speaking, moreover, ten days before the US Senate confirmed Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. He was in the middle of a major political crisis with an uncertain outcome. Yet, if anything, he was pumped up by the battle. His performance was reminiscent of Joseph Chamberlain’s reply when he was asked how he differed from his great rival, Arthur Balfour: “Arthur hates difficulties. I love ’em.” That’s something to set against the criticisms of Trump’s impulsive personality listed earlier.
As the Kavanaugh confirmation turned out, moreover, Trump got an additional boost from its outcome that went beyond the purely personal. How both sides conducted the struggle over Kavanaugh seems in retrospect to be reshaping political loyalties and advantages across the spectrum in three important and unexpected ways.
The first way is the least surprising. The Kavanaugh battle has begun to reconcile the factions on the Right behind Donald Trump. Kavanaugh himself is not a Trumpian conservative; he comes out of the Bush “moderate” wing of the Republican Party, and Trump probably selected him in order to appease the Bushies as well as to reassure the non-Republican establishment that he would be content to appoint moderates as judges—leaving tough-minded conservatives in reserve in case the Senate rejected his first choice. Not a bad strategy.
But it worked far better than he could have calculated. Because of the ferocity and unfairness of the Democratic attack, almost all the Never-Trumpers not only rallied to defend Kavanaugh but also responded indignantly to the assault by saying to themselves: Compared to these people, Trump may not be so bad after all. Senator Lindsey Graham, who delivered the coup de grace to Democratic hopes in the Senate committee hearings, was an ally of the late John McCain and a fierce critic of Trump until quite recently. Most former Never-Trumpers are now Never-Hillaryers (or latest equivalent) as I was in 2016. Only a handful cling to detestation of the President, and they are almost all “conservative” columnists on the Washington Post. It looks as if Trump will go into the 2020 election campaign with the GOP substantially united behind him.
That is partly an achievement of the Democrats, who made every possible mistake in their anti-Kavanaugh campaign. Three examples:
1. There was their parliamentary jiggery-pokery to delay presenting the sexual battery allegations against Kavanaugh until the very last moment and then to try stringing them out indefinitely in the hope that “copycat” claims would surface that, even though unsupported by evidence, would sink his chances. That was unscrupulous, which in politics is fine; unfortunately for Senator Feinstein et al, it was transparently unscrupulous, which in politics is the equivalent of a pratfall.
2. They manoeuvred themselves into presenting the Kavanaugh vote as a choice between “believing the women” and preserving the presumption of innocence in law and custom. At times I had to replay the video to ensure I was hearing Senators argue passionately that “fairness” was irrelevant to job interviews, promotions and court appointments. It was an argument they were bound to lose, especially when no evidence surfaced to support the women. Republicans, by contrast, were careful to respect both sides of that choice and thus the dignity of the women accusers. The absence of evidence then made their case, amplified by Kavanaugh’s own angry eloquence.
3. Senate Democrats and liberal commentators failed to dissociate themselves effectively from the more extreme demonstrators on the anti-Kavanaugh side who harassed Republican politicians, disrupted the Senate’s proceedings, and issued blood-curdling threats to murder those who voted to confirm Kavanaugh. That made them look extreme too.
All in all, these mistakes caused them to lose the fight against Kavanaugh but also to look unscrupulous, mean-minded (one of their favourite words), generally clueless, and hostile to some of the founding principles of what used to be American liberalism.
What caused them to make such obvious and damaging mistakes? One answer is that the establishment media and other US institutions reached exactly the same judgments as the Senate Democrats and they then encouraged each other in their errors. So Senator Feinstein never got the storm warnings that a genuinely diverse media would have given her. And that brings us to the third aspect of the reshaping of post-Kavanaugh politics.
MODERN politics in the US and other Anglosphere societies is waged by two opposing forces that no longer correspond to the two major parties of Left and Right: essentially these are the highly-educated mobile elites and the modestly-educated, locally-rooted rest of us. The first dominate almost all institutions, the second exercise their influence through democratic institutions. If the elites were gifted and dispassionate moral philosophers, that division of labour might be justified. But a recent event confirmed earlier suspicions that the education our elites get—at least outside technical fields such as engineering and science—is often little more than indoctrination in highly debatable (if not absurd) political attitudes.
Three academics from different disciplines—Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian—trained themselves to learn the techniques of critical and cultural studies and then wrote and submitted a series of papers to journals that advanced absurd theses in the jargon of these fields. One paper repeated a passage from Hitler’s Mein Kampf in feminist language; another had the title: “Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria, Transhysteria, and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use”. It was published in Sexuality & Culture, as were eleven other of their papers.
These were, of course, extreme examples inspired in part by clever satirical imaginations. But much progressive thought and writing is not too far distant from them, consisting of highly questionable statements—women don’t lie; only white people can be guilty of racism—that are treated as axiomatic truths accepted by all in the Ivy League and MSNBC. It is only when they emerge into major public controversy that their vulnerability to criticism and mockery becomes clear. On this occasion, the Democrats’ adherence to the “believe the women” mantra probably radicalised some men of all races in Trump’s direction while also revealing that many women don’t believe the women, notably mothers of sons.
This is a structural flaw in the progressive Democratic view of politics. It will return again and again to mislead and hurt them. On this occasion it gave Donald Trump a major political victory to add to the rising economy and other good news.
I still think he should give up the vulgar put-downs and the impulsive tweets on the grounds that they diminish him and damage him with respectable suburban voters. But the political expert at the breakfast table tells me I’m wrong about that.