I am part of the tiny fraction of the population that deals professionally in public policy from the right. In influence, we are all over the map, from talk-show hosts with audiences of millions (Limbaugh, Hannity) to politicians who directly shape policy (Ryan, McConnell) to academics who write technical papers read exclusively by their peers. We have been dubbed the “Republican Establishment” during this campaign season — bemusing to those like me who have trivial influence and are not even Republicans — but I’ll use Establishmentarians as a convenient label for who we are. This note is addressed to my fellow Establishmentarians, from the Hannities and Ryans to my fellow ink-stained wretches.
Barring a startling turn of events, Donald Trump is going to be the Republican presidential nominee. There are good reasons to question his fitness to occupy the presidency, because of both his policy positions and for reasons of character. The standard response among the Establishmentarians who have announced they will vote for Trump is that “Hillary is even worse.” That’s acceptable for people whose only obligation is to cast a vote. Having to choose the lesser of two evils is common in American voting booths. But that shouldn’t be good enough for Establishmentarians.
If we’re going to presume to lecture others about public policy and good governance — as all of us have made a career of doing in one way or another — we need to put our views about Donald Trump on the table now, before the nomination and election. That’s especially true of the False Priests and the Closet #NeverTrumpers — labels that I owe to Jonah Goldberg.
The False Priests are the columnists, media pundits, public intellectuals, and politicians who have presented themselves as principled conservatives or libertarians but now have announced they will vote for a man who, by multiple measures, represents the opposite of the beliefs they have been espousing throughout their careers. We’ve already heard you say “Hillary is even worse.” Tell us, please, without using the words “Hillary Clinton” even once, your assessment of Donald Trump, using as a template your published or broadcast positions about right policy and requisite character for a president of the United States. Put yourself on the record: Are you voting for a man whom your principles require you to despise, or have you modified your principles? In what ways were you wrong before? We require explanation beyond “Hillary is even worse.”
The Closet #NeverTrumpers are drawn from the Establishmentarians who can easily avoid publicly revealing their views of Trump. They include policy analysts like me who don’t have a history of writing about current politics, political strategists, senior Hill staffers, and potential appointees to high office in a Trump administration. Many of them now privately tell people like Jonah and me that they agree with us, the #NeverTrumpers, 100 percent. Great. But I suspect that many of these private opinions will get deep-sixed if Trump is elected. That’s not acceptable. You shouldn’t be able to cozy up to the new administration without having previously acknowledged your real opinion of the man you will then be willing to work for.
We Establishmentarians, therefore, should all go on the record about our view of Donald Trump. That includes me. I have done so in 140-character tweets, but it’s time to elaborate. Apart from that, I have a specific need to go on the record: While I am already on record with my sympathy for the grievances that energize many of Trump’s supporters, I am thinking about writing a book that is even more explicitly sympathetic with those grievances. I want to forestall any suspicion — especially if Trump is elected — that writing in sympathy with some of the content of Trumpism indicates any form of sucking up to Trump the man.
In my view, Donald Trump is unfit to be president in ways that apply to no other candidate of the two major political parties throughout American history.
Let me begin by acknowledging that in some respects, it’s the same-old, same-old. Greedy and venal candidates? Trump and Clinton are both bad. But LBJ was just as bad. Narcissistic candidates? Trump’s narcissism is complicated by his transparent insecurity. But I actually find Barack Obama’s serenely untroubled narcissism to be creepier.
Candidates with deplorable marital morals? Trump, yes, but Bill Clinton was at least Trump’s equal, and JFK set a bar for reckless personal behavior that neither can hope to match.
This is a little more complicated. Yes, many candidates for president have lied. Hillary Clinton has — with stupefying ineptitude — told and continues to tell whoppers. But Trump takes first prize for sheer bulk, averaging one factual untruth every five minutes, according to a systematic fact-check of over four and a half hours of stump speeches and press conferences.
But it’s worse than that. It’s not that Trump makes strategic decisions about what useful untruths he will tell on any given day — it looks as if he just makes up stuff as he goes along. Many of his off-the-cuff fictions are substantively unimportant: He says Rex Ryan won championships when he coached the New York Jets, when he didn’t. No one would care — if it were a one-shot mistake. But it happens repeatedly. Then it gets a little more important, as when he says Paul Ryan called to congratulate him after his victory in the New York primary, announcing a significant political event that in fact did not happen. Then the fictions touch on facts about policy. No, Wisconsin does not have an effective unemployment rate of 20 percent, nor does the federal government impose Common Core standards on the states — to take just two examples plucked at random from among his continual misrepresentations of reality. That he deals so heedlessly in those misrepresentations makes it impossible for an opponent to conduct an authentic policy debate with him.
It’s one thing when a candidate knowingly deceives the public on a few specific topics. Hillary Clinton has knowingly tried to deceive the public about her flip-flop on gay marriage and her misuse of her e-mail server. That’s bad. It should be condemned. This aspect of her character should affect one’s deliberations about whether to vote for her. It’s another thing entirely when a candidate blithely rejects Pat Moynihan’s (attributed) dictum, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.”
Trump’s indifference to facts is an example of why he is unfit for the presidency — not dispositive in itself, but part of a pattern. That pattern is why “Hillary is even worse” misses the point. P. J. O’Rourke recently announced that he is voting for Clinton. “She’s wrong about absolutely everything,” O’Rourke said. “But she’s wrong within normal parameters!” Similarly, I am saying that Clinton may be unfit to be president, but she’s unfit within normal parameters. Donald Trump is unfit outside normal parameters.
Defending that statement would take a lot of space. I refer you instead to some brilliant essays with which I agree. Ross Douthat has made the conservative case for Trump’s unfitness on grounds of both ideology and character. Andrew Sullivan has written a scarily convincing brief for Trump as a potential “extinction-level” threat to American democracy. But for conveying the essence of why I think Trump is unfit outside normal parameters, I cannot write anything nearly as concise and expressive as David Brooks wrote a few months ago.
Donald Trump is epically unprepared to be president. He has no realistic policies, no advisers, no capacity to learn. His vast narcissism makes him a closed fortress. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and he’s uninterested in finding out. He insults the office Abraham Lincoln once occupied by running for it with less preparation than most of us would undertake to buy a sofa. . . . He is a childish man running for a job that requires maturity. He is an insecure boasting little boy whose desires were somehow arrested at age 12.
Since Brooks wrote those words, Trump has become the presumptive Republican nominee, and he now does have advisors. He has had ten additional weeks to demonstrate his capacity to learn; to show that he is taking national policy more seriously than buying a sofa; to persuade us that underneath the showman exterior is presidential seriousness. My view is that he has not and cannot. What you see is what you get.
I am told that it is unfair to speak in such harsh terms of a person I don’t know personally: Look how nice his kids seem to be. Look at all his friends who say that he’s really a pleasant fellow in private. Sorry. I don’t need any secondary sources. Donald Trump makes the case for David Brooks’s assessment in every public appearance. When a man deliberately inflames the antagonism of one American ethnic group toward another, takes pleasure in labeling people “losers,” and openly promises to use the powers of the presidency to punish people who get in his way, there is nothing that person can do or say in private that should alter my opinion of whether he is fit to be the president of the United States.
I know that I am unlikely to persuade any of my fellow Establishmentarians to change their minds. But I cannot end without urging you to resist that sin to which people with high IQs (which most of you have) are unusually prone: Using your intellectual powers to convince yourself of something despite the evidence plainly before you. Just watch and listen to the man. Don’t concoct elaborate rationalizations. Just watch and listen.
And contemplate this fact about history: We have had presidents whose competence once in office was better than we could have anticipated. Truman, for example. We have had presidents whose characters were subsequently revealed to be worse than they had seemed during the campaign. Kennedy, for example. We have never had a president whose character proved to be more admirable once he was in office than it had appeared during the campaign. What you see on your television screen every day from Donald Trump the candidate is the best that you can expect from Donald Trump the president. “Hillary is even worse” doesn’t cut it. —
Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.