Wanted: A New Gerald Ford Establishment, After Trumpgate

Luke Phillips, Editor

The Hamiltonian Republican


David Brooks has a thoughtful piece out at the New York Times today, investigating what species of threat the Trump Administration represents. There is the threat of authoritarianism, for which the proper response to save the Republic would be pour out onto the streets in protest and defend freedom by any means necessary. There is the threat of stagnation and corruption through pitched political combat and gridlock, for which the answer must include preserving liberty and improving governance at more local spaces than the national level. Then there is the threat of incompetence and anarchy, a dysfunctional administration humiliating America on the world stage and disenchanting the American public at home. The remedy for this last threat would be a dignified statesman or statesmen capable of restoring the public’s trust in their institutions.

Against authoritarianism, Brooks recommends the model of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Nazi Germany. In response to hyperpartisanship and corruption, Brooks advises St. Benedict in the last days of the Roman Empire as a guide. And if we’re facing incompetence and dysfunction in the White House, Brooks says we need a new Gerald Ford to pick up the pieces of Trump’s Watergate.

As is usual in sets of three options, Brooks believes we’re facing the third threat, the threat of decadent leadership, rather than unfixable gridlock or mere tyranny. (Incidentally, the New York Times’s other main conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, agrees.) Brooks views as the administration’s chief sin its sheer ignorance of the basic tasks and standards of governance, rather than a proto-fascistic authoritarian conspiracy or a hyperpartisan inflexibility. And the events of this particular Tuesday, the unfolding scandals following in the wake of General Flynn’s resignation, only strengthen Brooks’s argument.

So let’s assume that Trump’s days are numbered, that he will not serve a full first term. Or that even if he does serve a full term, that he will not earn a second, and that his successor will inherit a public more disillusioned than it was throughout the long slog of the Iraq War or the deepest storms of the financial crash, and a set of institutions more dysfunctional and rudderless than they’ve been since Watergate itself.

Brooks says we don’t need a charismatic FDR, or an everyman’s Ronald Reagan, to restore the public’s faith during and after the present crisis. What we need is a Gerald Ford- to paraphrase, “a decent, modest, experienced public servant who believes in the institutions of government, who can restore faith in government, who has a plan to bind the nation’s wounds and restore normalcy and competence.”

I can think of a couple of “decent, modest, experienced public servants” nowadays who would seem temperamentally fit to play that kind of role, were they entrusted to heal a broken country. Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Robert Gates comes immediately to mind, as does former Governor, Ambassador, and perhaps soon-to-be Senator Jon Huntsman. (Both Eagle Scouts, incidentally, as was President Ford. They say character is destiny…) Unfortunately, neither Gates nor Huntsman is anywhere near the Presidency.

So is Vice-President Mike Pence that graceful, humble figure? Perhaps, but it seems more likely that Pence is to Ford as Trump is to Nixon- there are real, discernable parallels there, but the substance of each man’s character and intellect is too distinct to assume much at all. Nixon, for all his crookery, accomplished a great deal of good in both foreign and domestic affairs, and had an intellect second to none, certainly not to Trump. Reihan Salam’s note that Trump and Nixon are similarly anti-elite/pro-government on a four-way ideological chart speaks only to political positioning and instincts, and not to actual policy substance or governing acumen. Ford was a unique figure in his own right, and who can tell whether Pence would or even could imitate him should Trump fall?

But in some ways, that’s a pointless question. Regardless of whether Trump serves for four more years or four more days, and regardless of whether Mike Pence or another 46th President of the United States removes the golden carpet from the Oval Office, there’s a bigger challenge facing us.

Trump is not the disease. Trump is a malignant and terrifying symptom of the broader disease afflicting American politics for the last two and a half decades at least- the decadence of our governing and cultural elites and the resulting dysfunctionality of the institutions those elites staff. The last three presidencies before Trump- Clinton, Bush, Obama- all exhibited that disease in different ways and in different areas. Our institutional capital and social trust was hollowed out through mismanagement, year after year, until the system imploded and gave us the Trump insurgency on the right and the Sanders insurgency on the left. And by the strangest of circumstances, an insurgent billionaire populist who’d gone to parties with his establishmentarian opponent became President of the United States, inaugurating our present crisis.

Here’s Brooks’s take on that crisis and opportunity:

“Now and after Trump, the great project is rebinding: rebinding the social fabric, rebinding the government to its people, and most of all, rebinding the heaping piles of wreckage that Trump will leave in his wake in Washington….

…The baby boomer establishment polarized politics, lost touch with the voters and paved the way for Trump. We need a new establishment, one that works again.”

As with all political questions, there are basically two ways to build that new establishment: change the behavior of the people in power (compel them to take certain actions,) or change the people in power. Either course will take a while- lobbying elected officials and electing candidates are full-time well-paid jobs these days- but we at The Hamiltonian Republican will do what we can to help, in providing a blueprint of ideas for now, and in the conduct of our careers in the further future. To paraphrase our intellectual forebears of the early Ripon Society, “if we cannot find the men of such a new establishment, let us become them.”

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