I am among those who appreciate Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, his defense of religious liberty (at least for compliant Christians; Muslims’ and Unitarian Universalists’ mileage may vary) and increasingly his immigration policy at its highest level of generality — especially after all 20 Democrat debaters advocated for effectively open borders and lavish benefits for all who cross them.
But I am indicted by his base for morally culpable ingratitude, electoral stupidity, and worst of all, stylistic snobbery when I lament
- his his sexual predations,
- his vulgarity (which needs no adjective),
- his racist-suffused rhetoric,
- his reality-distorting narcissism,
- his reflexive, unsurpassed and transparent lying,
- his abysmal civic ignorance,
and I know not how much longer I could extend this litany.
Why can’t I take a moderately convincing “Yes, I’m on your side” for an answer?
Because of my conviction that the deficiencies, sub specie aeternis, matter more more.
Why that is so is not easy to articulate with clarity that satisfies even me, but Greg Weiner today helped me out:
Constitutions depend on habits and traditions, not the momentary outcomes they produce. Mr. Trump’s upending of these customs, not his transient policies, will form the legacy that endures.
Edmund Burke would recognize the error Mr. Trump’s base makes. He noted similarly flawed logic in the French Revolution. By destroying all political institutions, Burke wrote, the French revolutionaries had doubtless done away with some bad ones. By starting everything anew, they had inevitably done some good. But to credit their successes or excuse their crimes, it was necessary to show “that the same things could not have been accomplished without producing such a revolution.”
Mr. Trump’s defenders are in largely the same position: To excuse his trampling of norms, they must demonstrate that he could not have achieved his policy agenda without doing so. Yet there is no obvious connection between serial dissembling and the success of a policy agenda. Mr. Trump need not behave uncivilly to nominate originalist judges. He can advocate a reassessment of the nation’s foreign commitments without sacrificing the dignity of his office.
In fact, Mr. Trump would be better positioned to accomplish these things if he observed rather than overran norms, which would curb his most self-destructive impulses …
There are already indications that Mr. Trump’s bombast will not leave the political scene when he does. At their debates last Wednesday and Thursday, many Democrats pledged to prosecute Mr. Trump if they are elected, which is hard to distinguish from his politicization of law enforcement.
… [T]here is a point at which style overwhelms substance …
[M]any of the same supporters claim to seek a constitutional revival. In particular, they believe that the judges he has named atone for every other presidential sin. It is true that these judges will shape constitutional interpretation for decades. But constitutions depend far more on traditions of voluntary adherence than on judicial decree.
If constitutionalism teaches anything, it is to trust laws over individuals and processes over outcomes. One reason is that power placed in an ally’s hands will inevitably be available to an adversary. Another is the fleeting nature of policy as opposed to the lasting need for constitutional traditions. Judges come and go, even if life tenure places them on a long clock. Taxes rise and fall even more quickly. In Mr. Trump’s case, the legacy of bulldozed norms will outlast the policies.
If self-proclaimed constitutionalists are actually willing to exchange enduring habits for transient policies, they should at least be sure the means are necessary to the ends. There is nothing Mr. Trump has achieved to which his incivility has been indispensable or even useful.
Greg Weiner, The Trump Fallacy.
This appeared in the New York Times opinion pages, by the way. I wish I could believe that the Times would entertain such opinions if the Democrats take over in 2021 and make good on promises that amount to destroying political institutions and civil society’s mediating structures, starting everything anew.
UPDATE: I can’t believe I omitted “constant, reflexive, arguably sociopathic cruelty” from my list of laments.
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