The 27th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in March, 2016.
Much is being made of Trump’s “inconsistency.” Unlike many of Trump’s defenders, we’ll admit to being troubled by this, though in a different way that most of Trump’s conservative enemies mean.
But first, the areas of agreement. It’s troubling that Trump has not merely said and done inconsistent things over the course of his life, but some diametrically opposed to what we consider (or hope) to be the core of Trumpism: secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy. Trump’s supporters, and Trump himself, have tried to explain these inconsistencies in various ways, none altogether satisfying. Perhaps he really has rethought these issues as he claims. We’re more convinced by his (cynical) explanation of certain business practices: he had to play by the corrupt rules the government has set, lest he self-penalize.
Trump’s inconsistent statements during this campaign cycle are also troubling—and even more troubling are his (all too frequent) deviations from and even contradictions to his own policy papers. This could be mere laziness, or a tendency to find policy boring, or overconfidence born of having gotten this far by winging it, or some combination of the above. Still, we pin our—perhaps vain; who knows?—hopes on Trump’s (so far) quick and consistent reassertions of Trumpism after every heresy. To those who find this irrational on our part, we repeat: what else would you have us do?
Where we disagree is with the “conservative” fetishization of “consistency” as rigid adherence to yesterday’s doctrines. Cruz and Rubio may be more “consistent” than Trump in the sense of having held the same positions over the course of their political careers (though even that is debatable). But what good is that if those positions don’t meet current necessities? Trump admittedly could be better at sticking to his published program. But at last that program actually speaks not only to voter concerns but to the actual challenges facing the country.
This points to a larger issue that the “conservatives” don’t seem to understand. Policy positions are all second-order phenomena in the hierarchy of being. That’s a fancy way of saying that they don’t exist for their own sake but for the sake of something else, and that something else—the country and its people—are what is really important. George Washington’s policy prescriptions addressed the necessities of his time, just as Lincoln’s addressed those of his, Coolidge’s of his, and Reagan’s of his—all with the same ultimate end in view: the safety and happiness of the American nation. Our intellectuals don’t seem to begrudge these statesmen for having calibrated their “positions” to their times. But they insist there will be hell to pay if any fresh face deviates from Reagan’s recipe for a time that has been gone for nearly 40 years.
Nor is this to deny, but rather to affirm, that there are permanent principles, goods, and truths that wise statesmanship always seeks to favor and further. Would any conservative writer today (apart from the Lincoln-hating paleos) deny that Washington and Lincoln (and Coolidge and Reagan) believed in essentially the same first principles and political fundamentals? Yet they are allowed to be different—allowed the freedom to address differently the challenges of their differing times—without being read out of the pantheon. So why must every candidate since Reagan recite the 1980 platform like the Nicene Creed?
A distinction should be drawn between two kinds of inconsistency. First, a statesman in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other. His arguments in each case when contrasted can be shown to be not only very different in character, but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction; yet his object will throughout have remained the same. His resolves, his wishes, his outlook may have been unchanged; his methods may be verbally irreconcilable. We cannot call this inconsistency. In fact it may be claimed to be the truest consistency.
That’s Churchill, Charlie—heard of him? He understood what politics is for. Do you?
There are infinite reasons why Cruz and Rubio and all the others are failing and have failed. Failure to distinguish true consistency from rote recitation is near the top of the list.