The 40th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in March, 2016.
The estimable Steve Hayward says of us (and more generally about other pro-, or anti-anti-Trump, writers on the right) that he’s “wondering if these interpretations of the Trump phenomenon aren’t trying to understand Trump better than he understands it himself.” He seems to mean it as a criticism—if more of Trump than of us. We won’t presume to speak for any of the others Hayward names. But speaking for ourselves, we say: that’s absolutely what we’re trying to do! Thanks for noticing!
We may have more to say later on the aptness of the comparison. Strauss’ brilliant formulation was intended for application to thinkers, not doers. The modern obsession with placing all thinkers into “context” is intended, Strauss argued, to foreclose the possibility that a thinker could be out-of-step with or transcend or even (at the highest level) create his time—change history, in short. Hence summarizing (say) Locke as a “product of the Age of Reason” already assumes that Locke (and others like him) didn’t—intentionally—cause, through reasoned argument and subsequent widespread adoption, the very Age of Reason of which they are supposedly just products.
Strauss was quite clear that political actors, as opposed to thinkers, often or even mostly don’t have a coherent grasp of their own doings. Who understood the Sicilian Expedition better? Nicias? Or Thucydides?
As we’ve argued, Trump is not an intellectual. That’s no dig on him. Most people aren’t. Most politicians aren’t. Even politicians who lead realigning movements tend not to be. Strauss knew that. Hence he would be completely unsurprised by Trump’s apparent lack of interest in theory, and—we hope—encouraged by our attempt to apply what little political education we have to the task of understanding Trump.
Still and all, we concede a non-trivial difference between being an intellectual and having a coherent, thought-through political program. Reagan—also no intellectual—had the latter. By contrast, no one can imagine Trump spending hours, over decades, writing out radio commentaries and speeches on yellow legal pads. We nonetheless have our doubts that Trump’s program is as vacuous as alleged. No doubt, to others, our mere “doubts” sound preposterous: we should be as certain as everyone else that Trump has no platform or program, much less a political philosophy.
We’re mostly there—but not quite fully. Trump does seem to have at least the outlines of a program or an agenda, which we summarize as: secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy. Granted, his positions are not well fleshed-out. He seems not—yet—to employ the small army of “policy advisors” that most presidential campaigns find essential. But this—along with his related lack of big-name, big-check consultants and DC celebrity endorsements—seems to be part of his appeal. Candidates with immense conventional political operations and experience have fallen one by one.
Was that primarily because of the slickness of their operations? Or was it more fundamentally what they were saying?
Here we’re willing to meet Hayward and the other Trump-is-incoherent critics halfway. We think the latter explanation is far more plausible. Slickness surely can be a turn-off, as Ted Cruz has shown throughout this season. Yet slickness—polish—done right is a plus. As the old Hollywood saw goes, once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.
We think a Trump or a Trump-like candidate with the same issues, but with positions more fully fleshed out and more seamlessly presented, would have done just as well if not better than Trump. After all, whenever Trump contradicts one of his own policy papers (a distressingly common occurrence, we admit), none of his supporters cheers him on because of the contradiction. They rather wave away the contradiction and insist that Trump’s original position is the one he actually holds and intendeds to enact. No one claims to support Trump because he gives a semi-coherent interview on foreign policy. Rather, those supporters (who bother to read such interviews) hear things, even amidst all the incoherence, that make more sense to them than what the “principled and consistent conservatives” are saying. Yet the intellectuals (not necessarily you, Steve!) scoff at Trump for not being able to dazzle the Washington Post editorial board on Syria but don’t seem the least concerned when his rivals spout neocon tropes frozen in amber from September 2002.
Similarly, the root of Trump’s appeal can’t simply be that he’s taking on the establishment. Plenty of pols have tried that, including many in this cycle. Nor can it be his political inexperience or outsider status. Every cycle now includes as a matter of course at least a handful of candidates who see the presidency as an entry level job; this one was no different. Nor can it only be Trump’s willingness to say allegedly outrageous things.
Surely that has helped, the way that showmanship typically does, but far too little is paid to the content of those allegedly outrageous sayings in comparison to the alleged outrageousness itself. The commentariat and the Republican establishment is so deeply opposed to Trump’s message that they can’t admit, even subliminally, that it might be the primary factor in his rise. So instead of considering the simplest explanation for Trump’s popularity, they grope for alternatives while denying that he has a message at all. The very insistence that things so many voters find so sensible are outrageous is but another factor in Trump’s rise—and goes a long way toward explaining why no pol or pundit saw it coming.
Hence our project is less to understand Trump better than he understands himself than it is to understand the times, the necessary next steps, and the electorate better than the current class of professional political thinkers understands any of the three. This has proven less difficult than we anticipated.
The point—we cannot emphasize this enough—is not ultimately about Trump. He may win, he may lose. He may win and then fail in office. Who knows? We certainly don’t claim to.
What we can repeat with confidence is that Trump—and, for the moment, Trump alone—has shown the way toward renewal or rebirth. Perhaps of the Republican Party. Or perhaps of a new party. Perhaps of America as currently constituted. Or perhaps of something else. However incoherent or unprepared he may be, on the biggest issues facing the nation right now, he is right—or closer to right, when he speaks rightly—and all his enemies and rivals are wrong.
Whatever level of renewal Trump may accomplish or open the way toward accomplishing, we don’t think he can do it alone. Not just Trump but the effort itself needs help. Intellectual help. I.e., people to make the effort to understand these currents better than they are currently understood. Right now, we appear to be among the very few so trying. Socrates says in the Republic that the worst penalty to good men who decline to rule is to be ruled by someone worse (347c). Without claiming the mantle of Socrates or philosophy, we can say that our motivation is similar.