Trump’s Quiet Virtues
It’s always a special treat when a smart person writes compelling, idea-rich prose. And Charles Kesler delivers just that with his terrific essay in the new issue of the deservedly influential Claremont Review of Books: Thinking About Trump. I found his discussion of whether a bad man can make a good president interesting, but I’m going to focus on his identification of some of Trump’s important virtues.
But first, here’s part of Kesler’s succinct explanation of how the Republican establishment lost its way:
The story of Trump’s rise was also the story of Jeb’s fall—of the whole Bush establishment’s fall. Republican voters came gradually to realize that George W. Bush’s presidency, despite some glorious moments, looked more and more like a failure. The administration’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan had curdled into endless war and self-deluded democratization. Its domestic agenda of compassionate conservatism had proved underwhelming, leading to a bigger federal role in education, a new Medicare entitlement, and failed efforts to implement “comprehensive immigration reform,” meaning more immigration, multiculturalism, and Democrats. At the end of his tenure the economy collapsed into the Great Recession, prepared in part by his administration’s compassionate distribution of mortgages to uncreditworthy borrowers.
He had two conspicuous virtues that his Republican opponents, and Hillary Clinton too, lacked. One was a sense of humor. To address rallies for an hour at a time off the cuff and keep them laughing is very hard to do. His humor was not gentlemanly or self-deprecating like Reagan’s; it was cutting, bold, outrageous, and usually at the expense of his opponents and the press. But Trump connected with his audience as Reagan did, because each spoke as a citizen to fellow citizens, without a trace of the policy expert’s condescension, cosmopolitanism, or crocodile tears. The press never got Trump’s humor.
His second virtue was a kind of courage in defense of one’s own. This was a courage never tested in war or physical emergency, to be sure, but it was a large, and impressive, political fact. He was prepared to stand up for his family, his company, his campaign, his country, and for his country’s jobs, workers, factories, and products. Courage never demands that one be perfect or morally pure, and he isn’t, so this virtue fit his rhetorical needs and strength. America does not have to be perfect for him to defend her wholeheartedly against her enemies. He does not have to be perfect to seek or to assert the privilege of defending her. Warts and all. It’s necessary only to love her.
Trump was unapologetically free of “liberal guilt”
One effect of his courage in defense of our own was to neutralize the effects in the campaign of what used to be called “liberal guilt.” In truth, liberals long ago spread it to Republicans and conservatives. Part of the Bush dynasty’s high self-regard had to do with its presumed sensitivity on this question. Why Republicans should feel so guilty over historic Democratic policies like slavery and segregation is itself a good question, but the tactic has worked for decades to paralyze conservatives’ self-confidence and pride, and to induce them to take compensating positions on, say, immigration “reform” to prove their bona fides. Trump was the first GOP candidate and president in a long time to prove immune to this gambit. He appeared in public guilt-free.
In his confidence in America’s principles and in the ultimate justice of the people, and his refusal to indulge in racial and sexual guilt-mongering, Trump resembles those brave conservatives like Clarence Thomas, Shelby Steele, and Thomas Sowell, who have turned their face against the contemporary politics of liberal guilt, including its insistence on never-ending affirmative action.
Proud of America
“Make America Great Again,” Trump’s slogan, presupposes of course that America once was great, and might be again. His courage in defense of her is thus not entirely blind to her faults and her glories. (You can love someone and still see the warts.) He assumes that her citizens ought to be proud of America, that she is something noble or capable of being noble.
These notions, which used to be the common sense of American politics, are now highly controversial. They are politically incorrect, rejected as “offensive” on many college campuses and increasingly in American politics. Today’s freshmen, who are tomorrow’s voters, soon learn (if they hadn’t been taught already) to believe in the ubiquitous malevolence of “white supremacy” in American politics as earnestly as Protestants believe (or used to) in the depravity of human nature after Adam’s fall. Needless to say, it’s a very different thing to believe that human nature is inherently warped, and that white nature is. To disbelieve this racist canon is itself, in contemporary parlance, proof of racism.
Blaming the American people
The Old Left had opposed American capitalism, the Progressives had condemned American plutocracy, but not until the ’50s and ’60s did a significant faction of the Left begin to blame the American masses, not the elite, for the country’s sins. The people became the problem. They were racist, materialist, imperialist, sexist, and sexually inhibited, according to the original catalogue of sins; later the phobias were discovered—homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, and so forth.
Make immigrants assimilate again
Increasingly, therefore, the effect of higher education is to turn our own children into aliens, and hostile ones at that. In truth, the difficulties of assimilating today’s immigrants are due mainly to us, not to them; they are reluctant mostly because they are learning from us that America is not a country worth assimilating to. Trump alone among the 2016 candidates took an unflinching, a proud stand against the multicultural dissolution and loathing of America. In that sense he was, as he occasionally indicated, a pro-immigration politician: great again, America would be a country worth immigrating to. “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely,” as Edmund Burke observed. To be citizens again, Americans of all sorts must rediscover their country’s loveliness.
Trump’s courage and virtues
That stand on behalf of America took not only courage but also a certain justice, which he expressed in very American terms. “When you open your heart to patriotism,” he said in his inaugural address, “there is no room for prejudice.” Donald Trump has gotten little credit for such virtues, but they are present amid the hurly-burly, the distractions, the mistakes, the tweets, the investigations, the exhaustion, and the shrewd public policy of the Trump Administration so far. His good qualities are the quietest part of his presidency.
Peter Zeller is Director of Operations at Center of the American Experiment.