The Republican Party resembles the man who told his psychiatrist, “I have an identity problem, and so do I.” The party’s leader is at best indifferent to, and often is hostile to, much of the party’s recent catechism: limited government, the rule of law, a restrained executive, fiscal probity, entitlement reforms, free trade, the general efficiency and equity of markets allocating wealth and opportunity, and — this matters especially — the importance of decorousness in political discourse.
Americans standing on scorched earth that is still smoldering need a respite from furiousness. Andrew Jackson was, until last Tuesday, the only person elected president who was defined by his anger. He seems to have been constantly angry after 1780, when at age 13 he carried messages for the patriots fighting the British at the Battle of Hanging Rock in South Carolina. He was taken prisoner, and a British officer ordered him to clean the officer’s boots. When Jackson refused, the officer swung his sword, gashing Jackson’s head and fingers.
Today, many Americans seem to relish being furious. An indignation industry has battened on the Republican Party, feeding this addiction. This industry is inimical to conservatism’s health.
A veteran baseball coach once said baseball is not a game you can play with your teeth clenched. The sport of the long season requires emotional equipoise, a continuous combination of concentration and relaxation. As does democratic politics, which is an unending exercise in patient persuasion.
Furthermore, in politics, style and substance are braided. Many things, and all the most important ones, cannot be effectively advocated at the top of the advocates’ lungs. Try to shout a persuasive argument for caring about the separation of powers, or why the judiciary should be actively engaged in countering the excesses of the majoritarian branches.
Critics will respond: Most voters do not give a tinker’s damn about such matters. This is true, which is precisely why persuasion is necessary to temper the public’s instinctive aversion to the patience that politics requires — the public’s proclivity for disparaging institutional impediments to immediate gratification. Only conservatives will undertake such persuasion.
Indeed, making difficult constitutional arguments is central to conservatism’s raison d’être. This is particularly urgent now that conservatism is identified with the president-elect, a conservative-of-convenience who expresses his adopted convictions as though he recently purchased a Rosetta Stone program for quick fluency in speaking conservatism.
People who have been conservative since before 2015 should, in considering how to relate to the president-elect, ask themselves some questions, such as: What are we saying if we say we are against free trade? Protectionism is comprehensive government intervention in economic life. It supplants commercial calculations with political considerations. Using tariffs, which are taxes imposed at the border, government imposes its judgment of what Americans should be permitted to purchase, in what quantities and at what prices. If conservatism can embrace such statism, can it distinguish itself from progressivism — the doctrine that government experts are wiser than markets in determining individuals’ choices and directing the efficient use of labor and capital?
Progressives think — or did until last Tuesday — as Woodrow Wilson did about the delights of unconstrained presidential power. In 1887, Professor Wilson of Bryn Mawr College regretted that America had excessively “studied the art of curbing executive power to the constant neglect of the art of perfecting executive methods.” It exasperated him that America “has been more concerned to render government just and moderate than to make it facile, well-ordered and effective.” Progressives may regret Donald Trump’s executive methods if he emulates Barack Obama’s “just try to stop me” approach to presidential enforcement (or non-enforcement) and regulatory (or deregulatory) actions.
Before the election, Trump’s more thoughtful supporters conceded his comprehensive unfamiliarity with governance but insisted that he would be sufficiently wise to surround himself with seasoned people and sufficiently humble to heed them. He could make these suppositions more plausible by nominating Kelly Ayotte to be attorney general.
A former attorney general of New Hampshire, Sen. Ayotte distanced herself from Trump during her unsuccessful reelection campaign this autumn. But the Justice Department has been politically tainted by, among other things, its lassitude regarding the IRS’s abuses against conservative advocacy groups. It needs a steely but amiable leader, not someone with a recent record of hysterical partisanship (e.g., Rudy Giuliani). With such Cabinet choices, President-elect Donald Trump can begin to present a persona more measured and less bellicose than that of candidate Trump.