One of the more bizarre spectacles in recent politics is the pretzel twist many economic, social and foreign policy conservatives perform when it comes to American president Donald Trump.
On foreign policy, a recent video compilation making its rounds around the internet compared many American conservatives and their comments on President Barack Obama with their recently-expressed take on Trump. Whereas the columnists and talk-show hosts were critical of Obama on discussions with North Korea, they talked about Trump as if he were the second coming of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger (i.e., on China in 1972).
Nothing substantial has changed. The North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un remains a loon and tyrant, having almost certainly murdered his own uncle and half-brother and others who threatened his power, or just dozed off during meetings. And he still possesses nuclear weapons. All that’s changed is the party in the White House: Republican instead of Democrat.
Flipping on Trump and conservative consistency
The Obama-Trump comparison on North Korea is only one example of where America conservatives and more than a few of their Canadian cousins have flipped. Some American evangelicals have done the same, including Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham. The latter dug into their New Testament to suddenly find grace for a man who revels in his amorality and even brags about sexual assaults.
Grace for others is a quality we should all practice. All of us are flawed. But Trump regularly skips taking responsibility for his actions. One example: How he has hinted the Access Hollywood tapes might have been faked (and no, they were not). The fib thus denies the possibility for grace because Trump did not admit the sin. In such circumstances religious leaders have a duty to be Jeremiah or John the Baptist and not the 1970s’ hippy version of Christ: Peace, love and a free pass for Trump’s sexual aggression.
The irrelevant excuses
The excuse-Trump crowd have excuses: Leaders are not perfect and presidents are not saints. Right, except conservatives did not apply such generous reasoning to Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.
The other excuse is that Hillary Clinton would have been a worse president. Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s not the relevant point when it comes to flipping on issues and criticism of presidents: if you believe morality matters when a Clinton occupies the Oval Office it must also matter when Donald Trump sits at the buck-stops-here desk. If Obama was wrong on North Korea, then Trump cannot be re-invented as a foreign policy genius for going further than Obama would in romancing Kim Jong-un.
What is in play in the Trump-defenders crowd is either rank partisanship (south of the border), or a defence based on the notion the Trump White House has enacted some conservative policies (from defenders on both sides).
That argument happens to be accurate. But it doesn’t mean one should, as I argued before Trump won the 2016 election, give Trump or anyone else an Orwellian pass to pervert honest language in the service of partisan or ideological interests – even if the policies are desirable.
Trump: The accidental, infrequent conservative
For the record, I define conservatives as: respectful of a liberal democratic country’s institutions that were designed by its founders to restrain executive power and other forms of potential concentrated power to avoid de facto monarchs; in favour of free markets over government intervention where no market failure exists; aware that free trade at home and between nations is the soundest way to create prosperity, less poverty – and not another 1930s Great Depression which is where protectionism leads. Lastly, a conservative should be deeply and properly aware of the evil than men can do when not restrained by limited but necessary government, something all great conservative thinkers and leaders from Edmund Burke to Benjamin Disraeli to Winston Churchill, and on to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, well understood.
It was proper of Trump to remove the Obama-era White House-imposed shackles on the Keystone XL pipeline. It was and is positive that the White House and Congress have enacted tax reforms and reductions – though the caveat is that American politicians better quickly reduce federal spending before the whopping debt drowns us all. It was also proper of the American president to appoint cabinet secretaries who favour educational choice and reasonable environmental regulations over previous just-say-no varieties.
But if that’s a conservative approach on some matters, Trump has been anti-conservative on others
While some of his decisions and cabinet picks are pro-market, his economic protectionist shtick is not; it will create and not ameliorate poverty. While it is helpful to Canada and puts downward pressure on our future tax levels when Trump’s White House cuts US taxes, the administration would be more fiscally conservative if they were also prudent on spending.
Similarly, while Trump’s economic policies have taken some regulatory intervention out of the marketplace, he will add more back in with his economic nativism, nationalism and anti-free trade impulses. (Pray that his new economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, can restrain Trump here.) Lastly, Trump is a man who has praised Vladimir Putin in the past, and more recently, congratulated Putin on his “re-election” – and this just after the Kremlin was fingered in yet another poisoning in the United Kingdom. After all this, a president who still thinks he can break bread with a bully, or otherwise persuade Kim Jong-un, may not be as aware of evil in the world as would be helpful in the head of state for a superpower that is still the bulwark against organized tyranny in other nations.
That’s the reality of Donald Trump. For those who like some of his policies, appointments and actions, terrific – praise those. But that doesn’t mean one should ignore his past or present actions when they depart from ethical and rational behaviour. Donald Trump’s conservativism, where it occasionally flares up, is accidental. It is not grounded in an understanding of himself, other people, or the world around him.