As someone who wishes President Trump success, especially with the parts of his agenda that are identifiably conservative, but who has grave doubts about the chaos he creates around him with his bombast and insecurities, I try to read as much as I can about him, both the good and the bad. That seems to me to be the best way to cut through the confirmation biases of right and left cluttering up the commentariat and try to decide for myself how he's doing.
In that spirit, today I link to an article detailing one aspect of the bad, which I include because, unfortunately, it has the ring of truth. It's by Megan McCardle, someone I like and trust because in her writing I think I detect the same odd mixture of libertarianism and conservatism I see in myself. I could be wrong about that, but I'll stick with it until she writes something that makes me change my mind.
Republicans, she writes over at Bloomberg, wish all that bad news was fake. "But no, it's real: The administration is destroying itself."
Consider the endless debates over last week's series of leaks. Washington conservatives read the news stories too. But for connected conservatives in DC, the media isn't the only source of information about this administration. I'd venture to say that most of them have by now heard at least one or two amazing stories attesting to the emerging conventional wisdom: that the president either can't, or refuses to, follow any kind of policy discussion for more than a few minutes; that the president will not be told no, or corrected about anything, forcing his staff to take their concerns to the media if they want to get his attention; that the infighting within the West Wing is unprecedentedly vicious, and that those sort of failures always stem from the top; and that his own hand-picked staffers “have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him.” They hear these things from conservatives, including people who were Trump supporters or at least, Trump-neutral. They know these folks. They know, to their sorrow, that these people are telling the truth.
Though the conservatives in Washington agree with conservative outsiders that the media skews very liberal, she writes, and take all its pronouncements about Republicans with a heavy sprinkling of salt, they know that the reports of this administration's dysfunction aren't all media hype:
They have seen the media report on their own work, and that of their friends; they know what sort of things that bias distorts, and what it doesn't. Washington conservatives know that reporters are not making up these incredible quotes, or relying only on Democratic holdovers, or getting bits of gossip from the janitor. They know that the Trump administration is in fact leaking like a rusty sieve — from the top on down — and that this is a sign of a president who has, in just four short months, completely lost control over his own hand-picked staff. Which is why the entire city, left to right, is watching the unfolding drama with mouth agape and heads shaking.
What's most distressing about her observations is that they come not a NeverTrumper or one of those prissy "conservatives" who will never be satisfied with anyone less than a fellow snooty Ivy Leaguer (and they couldn't even tolerate George W. Bush, let alone Trump), but from someone who, like me, has been waiting a long time for conservatism to push back the progressive agenda at least a little.
(Compare and contrast, for example, with the venom coming from the pen of George Will, who writes that Trump's "inability to speak and think clearly," is not a mere disinclination "but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence." Will expressed similar scathing remarks about Ronald Reagan, only changing his mind when it became apparent the man knew what he wanted and how to get it. There aren't enough salt shakers in the universe with which to consider Will's rants,)
So what conservatives here know is that the freakout in Washington, which looks from afar like a battle between Trump and “the establishment,” is actually one side screaming in amazement as the other side turn their weapons on each other.
Of course, that's not the only reason that Washington conservatives are screaming. They fear that Trump's incompetence may torpedo the policies where they and the outsiders are in agreement: a better tax code, a fix for Obamacare's many problems. They are desperately worried that his sinking approval ratings will hand Democrats at least one chamber of Congress, and the White House in 2020, where they will resume all the things both camps of conservatism hated about the Obama administration. And they are sincerely and deeply concerned that through bumbling or bad character, he will do considerable damage to things more important than party or ideology.
So while many of us resented W. for the damage he did to the cause with his barely coherent "compassionate conservatism," we fear Trump, with his "bumbling or bad character" could hurt it far more, for a lot longer.
What we Trump well-wishing worrywarts are left with, then, is hoping that Donald Trump could become someone other than Donald Trump. That being an impossible dream, could we at least ask that he choose a different president to emulate?
Trump fancies himself the political reincarnation of Andrew Jackson, the most famous bombastic, populist outsider of all our past chief executives. The parallels between the two are eerie enough that Jackson's, to be kind, mixed record as president should give us pause. In particular, they shared a stubborn "don't tell me I'm wrong, ever" approach to delicate situations.
I'd much rather Trump emulate one of my favorite presidents, "Silent" Cal Coolidge. When historians are asked to rank the greatest presidents, they usually go for the ones who stepped up at turning points in the nation's history and did "the right thing," or at least big things. George Washington did a superb job with no blueprint to go by. Abraham Lincoln held us together in our darkest hour. FDR fought back against totalitarian evil and redefined the federal government. Ronald Reagan beat back the Evil Empire and tried to redefine the federal government.
I put Coolidge up there because he recognized what the proper limits on federal authority should be. Because he did not see the president as someone who should be the most powerful person in the world, he probably did the least damage to the country and the Founders' vision than any chief executive we've ever had:
His view of administration was that it should avoid harm rather than promote good. It was the job of the president to enforce the law as it stood not to change it. This led to his being what has been called a 'minimalist politician'. He never did what someone else could have done instead.
It's probably a little late in the game to hope Trump would copy that part of the Coolidge record. But he could at least emulate Coolidge's disinclination to spout off at all occasions. Actually, his reputation for silence overstates his reticence. He spoke only when he had something to say and, more often than not, it was worth listening to, as when he spoke about the Declaration of Independence:
It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things which are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed.
To paraphrase that great philosopher Archie Bunker, we sure could use a man like Calvin Coolidge again.