Donald Trump’s presidency may present problems for Democrats and progressives, but it promises to be a disaster for Republicans and conservatives.
That much is clear from the news he’s generated and the moves he’s made since his surprise election last month.
The people with whom Trump is surrounding himself suggest as much. One can search his proposed Cabinet and staff at length and not find the name or face of a single GOP A-lister or conservative heavyweight.
Instead, he’s surrounding himself with people who have no experience with government or public service. In some cases – his secretary of education nominee comes to mind – the person selected has spent countless hours and millions of dollars expressing nothing but contempt for government.
Trump’s faith is at the least counterintuitive. He seems to think people will perform well in jobs they believe are beneath them.
But his selection of personnel is only part of the problem.
It is the way Trump plans to use the people around him that poses the greatest threat to Republicans and conservatives.
For all their caterwauling about media bias and a liberal hegemony, conservatives and the GOP have dominated the American debate for nearly 40 years. Even in years when Democrats have held office and power, conservatives have dragged the American center to the right.
In the early 1970s, a Republican president considered a reactionary right-winger – Richard Nixon – proposed a guaranteed minimum family income for all Americans. Now, even a self-proclaimed democratic socialist – Bernie Sanders – would consider such an idea politically untenable.
Conservatives and Republicans achieved this dominance because they approached the work of governance with greater intellectual coherence and discipline than their opponents did. At the heart of their approach to governing were two bedrock ideas.
The first was a faith in the power of free markets. They believe – or at least they believed – that a system of lower taxes, fewer regulations and minimal trade barriers would make it easier for businesses to create jobs, which would benefit everyone.
Critics could and did argue that conservatives often conflated (and confused) benevolence with greed, but it didn’t matter. The notion that free markets are unmixed blessings was an article of faith to conservatives.
Trump’s Carrier deal and other economic development moves are a direct challenge to that faith.
To persuade Carrier to keep an as-yet-to-be-determined number of jobs in the United States, Trump had to both lean on his vice president-elect, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, to provide significant tax breaks to the company but he also had to threaten to cancel the government contracts Carrier’s parent company holds and to impose higher tariffs on the company should it make its products anywhere but in the United States.
Both the dedicated tax breaks and threats of reprisal are classic protectionist moves – interventions in the workings of the market most intellectually honest conservatives abhor.
The second bedrock belief was in America’s autonomy. Part of conservatives’ historic distrust of the United Nations, for example, sprang from a concern that ties with international organizations or even other countries would limit our ability to determine and act upon our own national interests.
This concern was so profound Republicans a generation ago made a trip Bill Clinton took to Russia when he was a young man a huge campaign issue.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s report – which has been supported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation – that Russia influenced this year’s presidential election on Trump’s behalf undermines any notion of American autonomy.
The fact that Trump has dismissed the report with little more than a sneer – disparaging the record of the last Republican president, George W. Bush in the process – indicates that this is not a great concern of his. So does the fact that he’s about to nominate for secretary of state someone who has no foreign policy experience and whose sole qualification seems to be his friendly relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Perhaps that is why traditionally conservative Republican U.S. senators such as John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida either have expressed concern about Russia’s involvement in the race or even called for an investigation.
They’re doing so because they know the truth.
For Democrats, Donald Trump is a problem.
For Republicans, he’s a threat.
A serious threat.