By Luke Phillips, Assistant Editor
Comparing Donald Trump to unsavory figures like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and George Wallace is enough of a fad these days that it needs no further mention here. A less-popular but equally misleading fad is comparing Donald Trump to admirable figures. I’ve done some work in puncturing holes in those arguments- I attacked First Things Editor R. R. Reno’s comparison of Trump with Benjamin Disraeli in The American Interest, and I refuted my friend Jim Pinkerton’s characterization of Trump as an Alexander Hamilton-style Hamiltonian over at our old Progressive Republican League blog. I was hoping that the comparisons would cease once Trump lost to Hillary.
But unfortunately, Trump won the election and is still at the center of the public eye and will be so for quite some time. So of course, until he leaves office, we’ll be seeing more and more comparisons, some unsavory and some admiring. I’ll keep rebutting the admiring ones until I have reason to do otherwise.
But I must admit- most of them, especially those peddled by centrist-center-right thinkers like Conrad Black, have an important point. The point is that Trump’s instinctual economic nationalism and anti-elitism are far more in line with the American tradition than our contemporary (just-deposed) elite’s neoliberal/libertarian economics and elite social liberalism. If you take Trump’s views on immigration, trade, manufacturing, and infrastructure, and squint just hard enough, they don’t look unlike the views of Hamilton, Lincoln, and Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt on the same subjects. (But you do have to squint pretty hard.)
This comparison falls flat on a very important area, of course- any politician’s economic and government program is organically, intrinsically, tied to their social vision. And the social vision of FDR, TR, Lincoln, and to a lesser extent Hamilton, was far more open and tolerant than the social vision of Donald Trump. The Roosevelts appealed to the better angels of Jacksonian America’s nature; Trump appealed to Jacksonian America’s prejudices and fears.
So on that basis, I don’t really think any just comparison between Trump and America’s great Hamiltonian nationalists can be made, simply because they united and Trump divides. He’s, if anything, a partial shadow and poor emulator of any of them.
All this being said, two recent articles by part-time Reformicons compared Trump to more recent great moderate statesmen, and although they’re not entirely correct, they get a lot right.
Sam Tanenhaus compared Trump to President Eisenhower (yes, that’s Dwight David Eisenhower, not some other guy) on the basis of them both being distinctly non-ideological acolytes of the New Deal amid a much more conservative Republican Party. Tanenhaus makes a number of important points, especially on the notion that Trump might normalize centrist economic pragmatism within the GOP. But ultimately, I think his analysis falls flat on the social side. He even concedes that Trump might look more like George Wallace due to appointments like Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon.
In a somewhat more insightful and analytical article, Reihan Salam argued that “Donald Trump is Richard Nixon’s obvious heir.” Salam concocts a fascinating two-by-two grid whose axes are support for/opposition to government and support for/opposition to social elites. Where Ronald Reagan and figures like Ted Cruz fall in the anti-government/anti-elite quadrant, Richard Nixon- and Donald Trump- fall in the pro-government/anti-elite quadrant. That’s not at all surprising, given Trump’s obvious support for infrastructure and entitlements while railing against elites, and Nixon’s economic pragmatism and expansion of the regulatory state, while railing against elites.
I think Salam’s right that Trump follows Nixon’s general political model- anti-elite and pro-government. But just as the “Trump-is-______” argument for Eisenhower, the Roosevelts, Hamilton, and Disraeli fell apart on social grounds, so it does, somewhat surprisingly, for Nixon. Nixon, after all, despite his odious embrace of the Southern Strategy, desegregated southern schools, endorsed Affirmative Action and the Equal Rights Amendment, and strove to marginalize the racialist right wing of the GOP so far as was possible. He might have been an unconventional and quiet social visionary, but his social vision was broadly much more like Dwight Eisenhower’s than like Barry Goldwater’s or Pat Buchanan’s.
The main thing to pull from Tanenhaus and Salam’s pieces is that Donald Trump has shifted the balance of policy power in the GOP and revealed that its electorate’s preferences are far, far removed from the GOP donor-intellectual class’s preferences. Though Trump is a very poor vehicle for it, it’s increasingly looking like the Trump Presidency will bring economic nationalism and Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat’s “Sam’s Club” pro-worker policies back into the Republican galaxy of acceptable ideas.
As Tanenhaus said in his piece, “A Rust Belt Republicanism that returns to the older idea of pragmatic consensus politics could be a revolution for the better.” Donald Trump’s chief virtue is his not being constrained by the heavily ideological policy straitjackets of the Ryan Congress and most of the GOP Establishment. I have concerns over whether he has the discipline, temperament, and long-term strategic vision to forge that into something practical and durable. But even if he doesn’t, he’s opening up room for in-party conversations that would’ve been heresy as late as the 2012 presidential race. That means reformers like the Reformicons (and hopefully soon, the New Hamiltonians) will have more room to operate, and likely a more receptive audience to operate upon.
So, Trump’s abhorrent social vision and un-coded appeals to white nationalists notwithstanding, his presidency might wind up being a godsend for centrist and reformist Republicans looking to recast what it means to be a Republican policy-wise. Fiscal austerity and supply-side economics a la Paul Ryan need not be Republican gospel post-Trump. But the challenge will be making sure that a program of economic nationalism and reformism has other backers than just Trump himself, lest that program be discredited by Trump’s buffoonery. That’s another project.
In the meantime, here’s to hoping some Republican with the cunning of the actual Nixon or the magnanimity of the actual Eisenhower rises to the challenge. We’ll need them soon.