The question for conservatism is whether 2019 will be a tougher year for James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville than it is for Donald Trump. The President can take care of himself. His never-apologize philosophy combined with the loyalty of his base insure him against the hardest turns. But Madison and Tocqueville may need help from a revival of the conservative ethic that process and norms, not just outcomes, matter.
The greatest challenge facing conservatism is thus neither Robert Mueller nor House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The kryptonite to which Mueller’s investigation is vulnerable is that he is out of surprises and that Trump seems invulnerable to them anyway. Who did what may remain unsettled or at least undisclosed. But Trump is Trump, his virtues and flaws on relentless display. Mueller has no capacity left to shock anyone.
Pelosi, meanwhile, has the ability to block or force moderation of parts of Trump’s agenda. That is what it is. Driven by the increasingly far-left caucus in her party, which has managed the considerable feat of turning Pelosi into The Man, she may overreach. Barring that, the president will have to deal. He is alleged to have mastered that art. Even where he does not parley, he has certainly demonstrated the ability to quarantine and deflect blame.
The most serious challenge to conservatism does not, for that matter, come from Trump either. It comes from conservatives. It is the rising if not now established belief that as long as Trump is delivering substantive results, how he does so is either irrelevant or positively virtuous. This is a notion of conservatism that cannot see beyond Trump’s personality to its own values—of conservatism as an agent of Trumpism rather than the other way around.
With the economy teetering and Trump’s tariffs poised to raise consumer prices in 2019, even his greatest claim to substantive results is on the brink. He has given voice to the forgotten communities struggling to survive in the middle class, which is to his credit, but it is hard to identify what exactly he has done for them. He will have to get acquainted with the idea, alien to the New York City real estate sector, that economic strength comes not from wheeling and dealing but rather from creating wealth that did not exist before.
There are other areas of substantial achievement, especially his judges. He has kept this promise, recognizes its centrality to his base, and deserves credit for understanding these facts. But the base’s emphasis on the judiciary suggests either that conservatives have accepted an inflated role for judges in the constitutional scheme or that the judges’ most significant contribution will be what they do not do. Of course, as Learned Hand said, one of the most important things judges do is not doing, so a revival of judicial modesty would be an enduring achievement.
But here is the thing, and there is no getting around it: If the judges matter, even in an inflated capacity, it is because constitutional philosophy matters. And Trump’s is about to be put to the test.
Christopher DeMuth and Josh Blackman have both demonstrated persuasively that in his first two years, Trump has launched a comprehensive and admirable offensive against the administrative state, including deferring to Congress in areas properly within the legislative realm. That is no mean achievement, but neither is it a hard one when controlling a Congress gripped by thrall.
The real question now is whether Trump, in his frustration, will adapt the anti-constitutional executive unilateralism of his predecessor and whether, if he does, conservatives will stand for it. Even a continuing undoing of administrative governance, such as Trump’s commendable withdrawal of the guidance letters the Obama Administration used to mug private institutions, implies deference to the institution that ought to be making policy, which is Congress.
There have already been hints—such as Trump’s threat to use money appropriated for the military to build a border wall if Congress does not pony up—that his commitment to Madison is subordinate to his commitment to Trump. Is it for conservatives? A tribalism according to which Trump can do this because he wears the conservative team’s uniform while Pelosi wears the opposing colors—or because Obama did it first so all is fair game—ill becomes conservatives who should value the long game of constitutionalism, not to mention the constant ethic of personal responsibility—over the immediate desire for policy results.
That brings us to the Tocquevillian danger. Tocqueville’s emphasis on the mores of democratic life—both the “habits of the heart” and the “ensemble of ideas from which the habits of the mind are formed”—belies the idea that Trump’s tweeting, falsifying, vulgarity and the mercurial impulses are irrelevant as long as he continues to allow the Federalist Society to advise him on judicial nominees.
What Tocqueville grasped was the key role of mores in maintaining democratic life. It is true, as Charles Kesler has persuasively argued, that there are good mores and bad mores. But unless Publius was wrong about the presidency, a proper constitutional distance from the people, a basic devotion to truth-telling within the reasonable confines of electoral politics, and dignity in manner are good mores. None of these entails polite deference to the establishment or to the administrative state. Nor do they require the President not to respond when he is attacked, even if he could do so more parsimoniously.
They require the basic elements of civility, a conserving virtue. They involve telling the truth rather than being a serial fabulist. They probably mean not spending hours in the living quarters of the White House with tweeting thumbs. And it would be nice if they entailed the dignity of presidential addresses rather than demagogic, campaign-style rallies.
Trump’s apologists have contorted conservatism to get him off the hook for systematically undercutting such norms. But his incivility—the unchivalrous (on which topic, see Burke) emphasis on women’s looks or opponents’ intelligence—is unnecessary to dismantling the administrative state or getting conservative judges through 53 Republican senators when it only takes 50 plus the Vice President to confirm them. It is not enough to dismiss Trump’s demeanor as inflected with the Queens of his roots any more than it would get Barack Obama off the hook to say he speaks in the argot of a constitutional law professor from Hyde Park. No conservative would say Nancy Pelosi’s flights of fancy should be disregarded as the dialect of a San Francisco liberal.
As to the lying, Aristotle observed that speech is the unique human capacity. If words are systematically drained of meaning, we are making noises, not using logos. Trump is hardly the first president to lie, but he may be the first to do it openly and habitually while conservatives deliberately look the other way.
All these are not challenges for Trump. He is who he is, which is no small part of his attraction. There comes a point in a presidency—halfway in seems easily past it—when not having been the other candidate is an insufficient justification for one’s behavior. A philosophy that emphasizes individual responsibility should not be in the business of reflexively excusing Trump from it.
To be sure, this counsel to take Trump on his genuine constitutional merits applies to the Never Trump caucus too. It is no more admirable to be blinded by opposition than to be blinded by admiration. The point is that both need to step back from momentary electoral or policy concerns—which are always evanescent—and look to the long-term health of the Constitution. This will not be restored by judges alone, it can be seriously damaged by undercutting the norms that are the glue of republican political life, and it cannot long withstand—on any conservative principle that preceded Trump—the immediacy of his tweeting connection to the public.
These things matter. If conservatives no longer believe they do, they had best prepare for a partisan not of their choosing to behave similarly. That means the greatest threat to a Madisonian and Tocquevillian regime is not Trump’s behavior but rather the excuses conservatives are willing to make for it.