Making Sense of the New American Right

Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.

I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s

  • gun rights,
  • pro-life,
  • taxpayer,
  • right to work

— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.

Performer in Chief

Everyone observing our politics, or serving in it, still has the sense that anything could happen at the White House at any time. But neither the most hopeful nor the most fearful prognostications about the effects of Trump’s presidency on our political system have been confirmed.

..  It would be hard now to claim that the surface appearance of reckless incompetence at the White House is just a mask for deep strategic genius.

.. Both begin from the assumption that Trump ran for president in order to use the presidency to achieve a set of relatively conventional political or policy objectives, and each approach formed its expectations around some sense of what those might have been. Ten months into his presidency, it does not look as if this was the nature of Trump’s ambition.

.. Instead, his ambition seems to have been something like a desire to put himself at the center of our national consciousness and attention. This looks to be what Trump wants most, and what some of his most peculiar choices and actions are directed toward achieving. Everything else — from policy priorities to political alliances — is always subject to change in pursuit of that goal. This could also be a key to understanding the effects Trump might ultimately have on our constitutional system.

.. Trump’s ambition that most resembles the ambitions of many other politicians.

.. But they also, of course, run to do something.

.. Trump’s exertions in office have mostly been of a different sort altogether. They have generally been neither channeled through the constitutional framework nor directed against it

.. The ideal of the president as project manager was especially prominent in how Trump spoke about his ambitions at the very beginning of his campaign. In August 2015, for instance, asked by George Stephanopoulos how he would carry out his immigration proposals, Trump responded, “These people don’t know what they’re doing, George. They’re politicians. They don’t know management. I get the best people and we will do it properly and we will do it humanely.” Asked three months later to respond to criticism from his primary opponents about his proposal for a registry of Muslims, he responded, “It would be just good management.” Pressed for more details, he said, “It’s all about management, our country has no management.” We have grown so accustomed to this sort of vague, brash talk from Trump over the past two years that we barely stop to ask what it actually conveys.

.. Trump still seems to believe that he has unique management abilities to offer the country and that this job is like his last one. Perhaps ironically, given his now-infamous lack of discipline, his sense of the president’s core administrative function remains exceptionally managerial — and not, in this sense, quite political or constitutional. He instinctively treats members of Congress like incompetent subcontractors.

.. Trump’s sense of the president’s broader functions, meanwhile, has turned out to be fundamentally theatrical. In just about every setting, he is performing for an audience. Thus his obsession with ratings and audience size, his running commentary on Twitter (often calling for actions that he could instead just undertake as chief executive), and his peculiar tendency even to comment on his own speeches as he delivers them.

..  his intense desire to please the room at every moment — which has led him incessantly to shift course and change positions. He seems to want different things at different times in front of different audiences. But he actually always wants the same thing: He wants to be acclaimed a winner.

When he isn’t depicted as successful, whether it’s on morning television or in a meeting with congressional leaders, he says and does whatever seems required to change the story in his favor. He can’t resist such provocations because he is always on the stage, needing to please or save face before the crowd.

.. This has left President Trump open to shameless attempts at manipulation by members of Congress and his own administration who think they can push him in their direction on key policy questions by portraying their preferred approach as a way for him to look stronger.

.. Trump’s capacity to disrupt our exhausted political order and force other politicians into at least modestly more populist directions could well prove a boon.

.. the presence of an undisciplined, aggressive performance artist at the heart of our government — a figure whose excesses are not structurally counterbalanced by others in the system because they are not strictly speaking excesses of presidential power — could alter the public’s expectations of government and politics in ways that are decidedly unhelpful to American constitutionalism and would not be easy to reverse. Viewing politics as entertainment could be a hard habit to break.

.. Washington has experienced the Trump presidency so far as an exhausting, intense, and unproductive circus.

.. Both seem to have been incapacitated by concerns that anything meaningful they do could be undercut by an erratic presidential tweet at any moment.

.. The appointment of judges might be the one presidential function that does not require perseverance — once nominated, they are confirmed by another branch of government and then perform their work without dependence on the president

.. it is frankly hard to say just what the president actually aims to achieve except for being on everyone’s mind all the time.

.. For many decades now, American progressives have advanced an ideal of the presidency in great tension with the logic of our broader constitutional architecture. Trump now offers a far less coherent model of the presidency that is downright unaware of that broader architecture and so stands as a kind of histrionic alternative to constitutional politics. If we are to hold out any hope for a constitutional restoration, these cannot be the only options before the public.

The Supernumerary Executive

Conservatives who think about constitutional and legal issues, the administrative state, and the executive branch have argued for many years now for the importance of the so-called “unitary executive” model of the presidency.

.. And conservatives therefore tend to recoil from the notion that the broader executive branch has its own distinct prerogatives and exists apart from the president as a kind of administrative state onto itself.

But when you talk to senior officials in this administration about their work, and when you listen to the ways they talk about it with journalists and activists, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that what we are seeing in the Trump era so far is the emergence of something like the inverse of the unitary executive. 

.. Today, the people who occupy executive-branch positions (in the White House and in other agencies) are all trying to administer the government as if there were a president in office directing their work in the ways presidents generally do, even as they know that isn’t quite the case. And when people raise concerns with them about something the president has said, they respond by offering calming assurances that there is a body of people governing precisely not as extensions of the president. They say “the system is working,” and they mean we have a functional administration most of the time despite what’s going on at the top

.. The national security team calms foreign and domestic worries by pointing to the layered infrastructure of decisionmaking they have tried to set up. Social and fiscal conservatives on the inside calm those on the outside by pointing to the work being done by various appointees. When the most populist and nationalist of Trump’s supporters become worried that he might be abandoning them to make deals with swamp dwellers they are reassured by like-minded people very close to the president that he will soon enough move on and let them work. These various calming voices are of course in some tension with one another, but they are in agreement that at this point what the administration does is not connected to what the president says in the usual way.

.. But once in a while—through Twitter or an interview—we get a glimpse of Trump himself that has the feel of a fleeting glance into the dark, swirling maw of a shrieking brute, angry and in pain, and kept out of view by careful machinations. 

.. But the idea that there is much more to the executive than the president is a form of a problem with the administrative state that conservatives normally, and rightly, worry about.

.. Like the importance of character in leadership, this longstanding conservative concern is a subject many on the Right will probably feel is better avoided or dismissed while this particular president is in office. But as with the character question, it sure seems like there will be a price to pay in time.

Situation Normal …

He seems simply incapable of thinking institutionally, and instead he does something like the opposite: He confuses the relationship between the institution he serves and himself, expecting it to serve him. This means we often effectively don’t have a president, in the constitutional sense of the term.

.. “Amid global anxiety about President Trump’s approach to world affairs, U.S. officials had a message to a gathering of Europe’s foreign policy elite this weekend: Pay no attention to the man tweeting behind the curtain.”

.. senior administration officials and senior members of Congress are asking people with concerns about Trump to just ignore him and pay attention instead to what his administration is doing, which often has fairly little to do with what Trump says.

.. we are asked to see only a tax cut and a great parade of judges when we think of Trump’s governing record.

we shouldn’t become too desensitized and should take note of the character of some of what now pass for everyday occurrences. To note them is not to charge the president with treason or with any other crime or to suggest he’s becoming an autocrat, nor is it to defend his predecessor’s (or his election opponent’s) misdeeds. To note them is not to deny that anything worthwhile has been accomplished this past year. And to note them is also not necessarily to propose any immediate remedy. A mature citizen knows those aren’t always available.