It is said that history is recorded by its victors. Apart from the traditional understanding of this maxim, we at The Mendenhall offer another interpretation: that ultimate victory does not come from those who fight the battles, but from those who write of them. The history of an era, as written and interpreted by its intellectuals, not only allows future generations to look back and learn the lessons of their predecessors, but also sets the cultural tone for years to come. So vital is the emergence of a rational culture to the achievement of our own ideals, we have taken it upon ourselves at the end of each year to summarize and analyze the year previous from a capitalist, pro-liberty perspective.
It is in that spirit that we look back on the events of the last twelve months often with frustration, occasionally with the pride of hard-fought victories, and always with a love for our country and the ideals that it was founded upon and may once again embody.
On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will become the fifth president in United States history to reach the White House without holding a prior elected office. He will be the first to do so without having served in either the military or a cabinet-level position. In many ways, Donald Trump and his successful ascendency to the Oval Office are emblematic of the broader state of America’s culture in 2016, and not simply because the presidential campaign was the year’s biggest news story. As with Trump, America is riding upon the achievements of its forefathers, presently unable to match them or else unwilling to undertake an attempt to do so. And so America, like and through Trump, saunters forth aimlessly in hopes of stumbling upon what made America “great,” all while grasping in the dark for those underlying values that made the United States possible.
To most news and commentary outlets, Trump’s election is the preeminent story of the year. In many ways, we must agree, just as the election of any new president is generally the most historically significant event in an election year. However, thoughtful analysts strive to look beneath the political veneer and to understand the cultural and intellectual causes of our political condition. Accordingly, the story of the year for us at The Mendenhall is the way in which the hollowness of political rhetoric, the disposable nature of policy stances, and the malleability of views once held as sacrosanct have been laid bare for all to see–especially, but not exclusively, on the American right.
Lest the reader infer too much too soon, this is not an indictment of anyone who voted for Trump as the lesser of two evils. It is to the true believers that we refer: those who adamantly and passionately argued for economic freedom and individual rights with the Tea Party in 2010 and 2012 but who became, in this last year, the disciples of moderation and the outspoken defenders of a mixed economy; who rightly decried every encroachment on free speech and every regulatory measure taken by the present administration but who pardoned every heinous proposal for the same from their candidate of choice; and who demonized their party’s leadership when they thought that they would lose but became the most pious establishmentarians when their candidate became the nominee. This is, as we have warned for years, the manifestation of a uniquely American philosophy: pragmatism.
This review, however, is not about one candidate or one election. It is about a country and the ideas that made it possible. It is about the more than three hundred million people who call it home and the issues and events that affect their lives, their economy, their security, and their futures. So let us look back on the last twelve months in order to better grasp where we stand today and, with luck, glimpse what tomorrow might hold. Throughout, we encourage you to join us in focusing on the role of ideas, the way in which they animate current events, and how those who reject philosophy and the need for an ideology are most powerfully under their control.
President Barack Obama’s time in office has come to a close. Though Inauguration Day is still a few weeks away, the president has held his final press conference, signed his pardons (a record number of them) and issued the last of his executive orders. Despite being constrained for six of his eight years by at least one oppositional house of Congress, President Obama did much to further his agenda both at home and abroad, pushing–and, we would argue, exceeding–the limits of his office many times in order to impose greater federal control over the American economy, prioritize his regulatory agenda over growth and recovery, and involve the United States in unnecessary military and diplomatic entanglements abroad. Our positions on his administration are well established. The Mendenhall was founded in 2010 largely in reaction to the many perceived abuses of Americans’ individual rights and the institution of capitalism. Since then, we have derided the president as the first truly New Left president that America has ever had, as a nihilist and a force of destruction who has violated the individual rights of Americans in an attempt to achieve material equality at the expense of prosperity, control at the expense of growth, and an unearned redistribution of wealth at the cost of Americans’ right to the products of their labor. We stand by all of it.
Even in his final weeks, the president has used his powers to shut down offshore oil drilling, either in a farewell gift to his loyal environmentalist lobby or in order to keep oil prices from falling and to support struggling, oil-dependent Gulf State monarchies. In either case, it comes at the expense of the American people and symbolizes the ways in which he has consistently prioritized special and foreign interests over the well being of middle America. Unfortunately, the injustice of acts such as this have been glossed over in the past year by an unprecedented level of media focus on the presidential elections, bought at the expense of due attention to the current administration’s actions. As one administration ends and another commences, it is disappointing that the utterly poor character of the Republican Party in 2016 has made the Obama Administration appear mild-mannered and sensible by comparison. In a matter of weeks, though, it will be delegated to the historians to interpret his presidency. We hope that in doing so they will look to the substance of his policies and their effects rather than the day’s poll numbers, which are undoubtedly tainted by a year and a half of the media prioritizing campaign coverage over scrutiny of the administration.
Whereas January 2017 should have been a moment of pure triumph for the American right, there remains a sense of division and distrust as to what the coming administration will bring. Along with that is the unspoken sense that, though the GOP won the presidency and held both houses of Congress, a moral victory was lost. Their incoming president is a man who has stood for everything that they claimed to oppose since 2010 and who has taken every possible position on every issue under the sun. They have won by, as Paul said to the Corinthians, being “all things to all men, so that [they] might by all means save some.” One worries, however, that in the process they have dug deeper into the pragmatism at their roots and become a party that now controls everything but stands for nothing. They are for markets and controls, for intervention and restraint, for freedom and a more expansive state. It is no wonder that, despite their victory in the November elections, a considerable measure of uncertainty haunts both markets and diplomatic relations.
Though the 2016 elections have now concluded, few predicted the outcome at the start of the year. Pundits, editorialists, and statisticians around the nation all discounted Trump’s polling successes from 2015, and rightly so. However loudly some may proclaim that they “knew” then that Trump would win, their predictions were indistinguishable from their hopes and aspirations. Confidence in his victory seemed strongly correlated with the degree to which one supported Trump in the first place, and wishful thinking seemed to make many into political scientists and pollsters overnight. And when nothing is at stake personally, “knowing” is cheap. With open access to political betting markets at their fingertips, one wonders why so few of these oracles elected to profit from their newfound expertise.
But to those looking at the evidence—to political scientists, statisticians, pollsters, and election wonks–there was little basis to believe that Trump would exit the primaries as the Republican nominee. Partisan primaries are highly volatile (and relatively recent) phenomena in American politics. Candidates can rise rapidly only to fade in the next news cycle, and Trump’s incessant string of gaffes, insults, and simple embarrassments suggested that such a fall was imminent.
Putting Trump’s lack of legitimate qualification aside, even the poll numbers that he liked to tout painted a dim picture for Trump’s electoral chances. While he had tapped into an insular subset of Republican voters, his numbers essentially plateaued in late 2015 and he seemed unable to construct a broader coalition. His stances were often (and remain) at odds with the Republican Party’s platform, and he performed poorly among the party’s most conservative voters (even falling behind Ted Cruz nationally in February). Besides the Northern Mariana Islands territory, Trump failed to achieve at least 50 percent of the vote in any primary until New York’s in mid-April.
In terms of political science, Trump’s victory was due in part to a widely divided field. The more qualified candidates split the GOP’s traditional base amongst themselves, while Trump’s core of populist partisans remained loyal irrespective of other movement in the polls. While that populist core was not a majority of the party, it constituted a plurality in many early races–which played heavily to Trump’s favor in states that allocated delegates on a “winner-take-all” basis after March 15. That plurality was especially acute in open primaries, in which voters wholly undevoted to the party’s political well-being were nevertheless able to participate in choosing its nominee. Ted Cruz, oppositely, outperformed Trump in closed primaries.
By the time the field narrowed to a handful of candidates, Trump had accrued too many delegates to overcome. Moreover, the final states in the primary were overwhelmingly Democrat-leaning states, which again favored Trump. But for the recalcitrance of some candidates who never stood nor deserved a chance at the nomination, the primary may have turned out differently. A victory by Marco Rubio in the early Virginia primary may have united enough voters to push him to victory, or at least to force a contested convention. However, the nature of the primary was too ripe for exploitation for the populist wave that eventually pushed Trump to victory.
Probably the most decisive figure in the 2016 primaries, despite not being a terribly well liked candidate, was John Kasich. In the end, it was Kasich who, polling third behind Trump and Cruz in almost every primary, insisted upon remaining in the race with little hope of winning and ultimately handed Trump the Republican nomination. Kasich was reportedly offered vice presidential slots on both Cruz’s and Trump’s campaign, dispensing with the possibility that his remaining could have been an attempt at leverage. That leaves three possibilities for understanding Kasich’s motives. First, he could truly have believed that he still had a chance at the nomination if Cruz dropped out. One can argue that Cruz led him in almost every state, but the anti-Trump vote within the GOP was sufficiently strong that whether Cruz or Kasich dropped, the other would inherit the majority of primary votes in the remaining states. It is customary that the candidate who is polling third would drop first in such a situation out of an interest in the party’s success, and polling did suggest that Kasich was all that kept Trump in the lead, but clearly that was not sufficient here. Second, there was rampant speculation of a secret deal between Cruz and Kasich in which each would reduce spending and campaign efforts in states where the other was likely to win in order to avoid splitting the anti-Trump vote so much that neither could come out on top. If so, this was clearly unsuccessful, and it would have better served the anti-Trump effort for one of them to simply drop. And third, it has been considered in some editorials that Kasich may have deliberately aimed to hand the nomination to Trump on the expectation that Trump would lose terribly and Kasich would have the chance to run again in 2020. This would amount to a candidate sabotaging his own party’s efforts to secure the White House in order to serve his own presidential aspirations. It may sound outlandish, but then Kasich did hold his own rally apart from the Republican National Convention and seemingly began campaigning in New Hampshire soon thereafter. To the extent that this last theory is supported by evidence, GOP voters should think long and hard before considering John Kasich on any future ballots.
As for the Democrats, their challenges proved no less daunting. An avowed socialist was a stone’s throw away from achieving the Democratic nomination, and the eventual nominee was only marginally better. So married were the Democrats to the notion of a Hillary Clinton presidency that they failed to groom any alternatives for 2016, fearing that she might be overtaken as she was in 2008. WikiLeaks’ release of internal DNC emails this year showed the extent to which party leadership had been working for Clinton rather than the party as a whole and confirmed suspicions that Bernie Sanders’ campaign had been deliberately undermined by party heads. In response, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was forced to resign. Her successor, acting DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile, did not escape similar allegations of impropriety when she, a CNN commentator, reportedly used her role in both organizations to share town hall questions with Hillary Clinton for CNN-hosted events.
Thus the Democratic Party continues to age, at least relative to its base and to the Republican Party. While the Republican Party has begun to pass the baton between generations, Democratic leadership still largely consists of the same aging hippies who coopted it generations ago. The likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren continue to push the party further into the realms of economic illiteracy and of contempt for individual rights, while the party’s center has failed to offer a response. Moderate voices like Virginia’s Jim Webb who focus on conventional American values have clearly been told that they have no place in the future of the Democratic Party.
Hillary Clinton was the weakest Democratic nominee in a generation–weak enough to be bested by the weakest Republican nominee in several generations. Put simply, the Democratic center is undergoing a succession crisis, and there are few solutions in sight. Because Democrats have largely been expunged at the state level, Democratic leadership will be hard-pressed in the ensuing years to rebuild their numbers with center-left individuals who stand a chance to save the party from its tone-deaf path toward the sort of Bolshevism offered by Sanders and Warren. Such rebuilding is not impossible, and Trump’s ascendance has provided an opportunity for individualists to encourage the Democrats’ to oppose Trump with capitalist stances on issues like trade, free speech, and freedom of association. But 2016 leaves Democrats’ wanting for a plan forward, especially as the Democrats re-elected Nancy Pelosi as their House Minority Leader, quadrupling down on the same strategies that led them to defeat in 2010 and every election since.
Sadly, as the primaries ended and Trump emerged as the winner, there was no individualist option, no pro-market choice left for voters who valued such traits. On the one hand was Donald Trump’s nationalism, complete with protectionist economic policy, xenophobia, and–whether he personally endorsed it or not–a distinctly white nationalist element in his support base. On the other were Clinton’s constant invocation of the now-standard leftist appeals to race, class, and gender designed not to elevate or unite but to wreak divisiveness and profit from social tensions. Unfortunately, even libertarian candidate Gary Johnson was no exception. Despite being the most prominent third-party candidate since Ross Perot, Johnson’s campaign neglected disaffected, individualist Republicans in favor of disaffected, collectivist Sanders supporters. He and his vice presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, devoted seemingly the entirety of their message to showing the common ground between libertarians and the far left rather than counterbalancing it with a limited government message for Republicans who were struggling to stomach the idea of voting for Trump. Weld appeared to go truly beyond the pale, speaking praise of Clinton whenever he was interviewed and appearing entirely unconcerned about her apparent security indiscretions. The end result: any consistent advocate of capitalism and individual rights was left without a major party candidate in whom they could place their confidence or even a clear lesser of two evils, and the third party candidates who should have been a check against them were pandering to all of the wrong views.
After the party nominees became clear, the campaign between Clinton and Trump devolved from a high-minded debate regarding principle to a slugfest of vague policy assertions and attempted character assassinations. Trump’s stump speeches merely expounded upon the same “make America great again” vagaries from the primary, promising to use his executive power to protect “American jobs.” Meanwhile, Clinton tried to straddle the divide between the left’s desire for expanded government programs for healthcare and education and the general public’s dissatisfaction with Obamacare.
At each turn, the candidates managed to distract the public from their message. For Trump, the press dogged him in the early weeks of the campaign for his attacks on the family of slain soldier. An investigative report by the Washington Post later revealed an interview in which Trump glibly remarked on his ability to sexually assault women without consequences, which merely added to an extended list of Trump’s misogynistic tendencies. Clinton, meanwhile, could not avoid her own past. Reports suggesting that foreign powers used the Clinton Foundation as a “pay-for-play” scheme to gain access to Clinton while she served as Secretary of State were persistent, and Russian-led hacking efforts sought to embarrass the DNC and Clinton with well-timed (though often innocuous) leaks. Both candidates were deeply unpopular, but Trump remained consistently less popular than Clinton through Election Day–and the popular vote corroborated as much.
When the Republican National Convention came in early August, talk remained pervasive as to whether the GOP was a party with a future. So strong was the Never Trump movement that a party rift was predicted. One can argue whether conditions were worsened or ameliorated by the refusal of GOP leadership to entertain a roll call vote and claims that votes on the measure to do so had been suppressed. Nevertheless, Trump prevailed in the final tally, securing the nomination. The next morning, with the three-day convention at a close, Senator Ted Cruz held a press conference. When asked whether he would endorse Donald Trump for president, Cruz refrained from doing so and encouraged voters to “vote their conscience.” One would think that he had issued a violent tirade by the response it elicited, with Trump supporters claiming that “vote their conscience” was code for encouraging voters to vote against Trump, whether for Clinton or a third party candidate. Though Trump had already secured the nomination, Trump’s and his supporters’ inability to move on psychologically into the general election and his predilection for digging up conflicts with Republicans allowed this to become the peak moment of the Never Trump movement. Despite having been the party that claimed to run on moral values, much of the base was vitriolic at the suggestion that anyone on the right might prioritize their conscience and their sense of right and wrong over party loyalty. Those who had been passionately opposed to GOP leadership now encouraged others to fall in line and accept the cards that they had been dealt.
The months that followed proved sluggish, and most of the country appeared ready for the election to simply end, however it was to do so. Politics without romance prevailed. Trump continued to fight fellow Republicans as he had in the primary, suggesting in response to Cruz’s “conscience” comment that he might create a superPAC to block Cruz, Kasich, and presumably other Republicans who opposed him from being re-elected. RNC Chair Reince Priebus, who had initially worked to appease both sides of the divide, quickly became a leading Trump enforcer, threatening to block Cruz, Kasich, Jeb Bush, and others from being able to run again if they would not endorse Trump. Priebus is now slated to be Trump’s chief of staff in the new administration. Whether such an offer played into his approach toward fellow Republicans, we cannot say definitively.
When the dust settled, Trump bested Clinton by about 800,000 votes in pivotal swing states like North Carolina, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa. The nonexistent “firewall” that Democrats took for granted–the same that voted for Barack Obama for two consecutive elections–voted for Donald Trump. While Clinton saw drastic improvement over her Democratic predecessor among wealthier, more educated voters, Trump gained ground among minorities (primarily due to reduced turnout) and low-income voters. The shifts proved asymmetrical, leading Clinton to gain ground in states she already led (primarily on the heavily urbanized coasts) while losing ground in states where Trump needed to win (southern states and the “Rust Belt”). Thus, Trump emerged victorious by a safe margin.
Ultimately, as Inauguration Day approaches, the value and character of Trump’s administration as a whole is somewhat undetermined. It is far from perfect, that much is sure. In the end, as a devout pragmatist, Trump seemingly believes in little to nothing as a matter of principle. Everything is negotiable to him, everything a suggestion. He is as prone to a good decision as he is a bad one, as likely to be an utter disaster as he is a benefit to the country. We worry that the manner in which Trump was elected and the particular platform positions that he ran on will encourage the new administration to pursue highly detrimental economic and foreign policies. Trump won by appealing to economic ignorance and the worst, most vengeful spirits in the American electorate. Granted, as we have noted, not every Trump voter was a Trump supporter, and most voted for him as merely a lesser of two evils despite disliking him. Still, in the process, he emboldened those elements and gave them newfound prominence (albeit infamy) in media voices such as Breitbart News and Sean Hannity, who are already vilifying and antagonizing any Congressional Republicans who do not bow deferentially to Trump and swear their undying allegiance. How quickly pundits who once valued the media’s role in checking political power have become the enforcers of “loyalty” to executive authority!
Doubtless, much about the new administration and its culture will depend upon those whom Trump is now placing in positions of power around him. One of the more shocking revelations of the year came after Trump had secured the nomination and former Ohio Governor John Kasich revealed, to shockingly little news coverage, that he had initially been offered the vice presidential slot on Trump’s ticket and told by Trump’s camp that a vice president in Trump’s administration would be in control of both foreign and domestic policy. When he asked what the president would then be doing, he was told that the president would be in charge of “making America great again.” This revelation, in combination with the way in which Trump has been on a victory tour while his administration is being staffed, the way in which Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence has been rather subdued the way that a president-elect usually is, and the numerous apparent implications that Pence is receiving intelligence briefings more regularly than Trump, suggests that Mike Pence may actually be the acting president of the United States after Trump’s inauguration. If so, this would be, on the one hand, a betrayal of Trump’s voters’ intentions when they voted for him but, on the other, a comfort for many to know that someone so volatile and clearly ignorant of policy as Donald Trump is not in charge of day-to-day decisions. That said, as we shall soon address, with respect to defending the values of economic freedom and individual rights, Pence is no hero.
Amidst many justified reservations about Trump and Pence, the cabinet that they are forming looks to have some promise. General James Mattis, a former CentCom commander and Marine Corps four-star general who led the 1st Marine Division during the Iraq War, brings a refreshing tenacity and insider knowledge of the military as Trump’s choice for secretary of defense. Rex Tillerson’s nomination as secretary of state invites some concerns as to the Exxon Mobil CEO’s conflicts of interest in conducting relations with foreign heads of state, particularly Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Not enough is known yet to speak to the extent of such conflicts, but, as always, much will undoubtedly come down to character. Unfortunately, not enough is known of Tillerson, a private figure, to speak to any personal traits either. The choice of Betsy DeVos as Trump’s nominee for secretary of education is a promising one. DeVos, an outspoken supporter of charter schools and opponent of Common Core, is at least consistent in her ideals with what Republicans have long supported. The preferred approach, in our eyes, would be a dismantling of the costly and unnecessary Department of Education, with its assets disbursed to state departments of education. If it is to remain, however, it is best that it be under the leadership of someone who values private solutions. Rick Perry took a considerable amount of mockery in 2012 for, in the process of listing which executive bureaucracies he would dismantle, forgetting the fourth entry on his list, which turned out to be the Department of Energy. Perry seems to be getting the last laugh, however, as he is now Trump’s nominee to lead that department. Though Perry was not our top choice for the presidential nomination in 2012, he would be a prime selection for this cabinet post–especially if he can get the White House’s support to shutter it by the end of Trump’s time in office. Unfortunately, it seems that the worst conflicts of interest in Trump’s cabinet may coincide with where Trump’s views are already at their worst. In choosing Wilbur Ross as secretary of commerce, Trump chooses a man who has seemingly made his riches in the steel industry by supporting stiff tariffs that use government power to privilege domestic producers. Ross is likely to not oppose Trump on such measures and to encourage his most irrational views. Fortunately, in nominating to the labor department fast food executive Andrew Puzder, however, Trump at least brings a critic of the minimum wage onboard who might, with congressional support, elect to lower or eliminate the arcane, job-destroying policy. We can dream.
And, in the end, any commentary as to what we should expect from the new administration is mere groundless speculation. Trying to anticipate the moves of someone who so relies on the expediency of the moment is a fool’s errand. All that we can reasonably say with confidence is that Trump will do whatever seems to “work” at the moment, will likely change his mind on many issues over the course of his term as he has on the campaign trail, will delegate power extensively to others in his administration, and will likely grant more control to Congress than it has recently enjoyed–not out of a belief in legislative prerogative but out of his own inexperience.
Needless to say, it is not what those of us who prioritize individual rights, capitalism, and an intellectual approach to politics would have preferred. Nor, however, is it what the Republican Establishment would have preferred. We cannot help but think that in many ways they got what they bargained for—if not in the ways that Trump and his supporters believe. Trumpian populism filled the void left by the Tea Party when it was blocked out by the GOP establishment. Now, the spectre of the middling sellout artist John Boehner now fading into the past, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and others are left to deal with a far greater beast. It is fair to say that the GOP gambled, lost, and wound up with something much more volatile. In rejecting the more limited government objections of 2010 and 2012, they found that anger redirected in the form of a dangerous populism, the consequences of which we are just beginning to observe.
It is strange to think that it has been six years since the ‘Tea Party Revolt’ of 2010 and that the first batch of senators brought in on that wave are now in their second terms, all of them remaining. The words alone now invoke a strange reminiscence of the time the Republican Party came close to presenting a principled, free market vision for America that was relatively free of the party’s usual preoccupation with social issues. With a rising generation of millennials more libertarian than any in recent history, the Republican Party—not renowned for its appeal to American youth—almost anticipated their rise to prominence by offering up a secular vision of capitalism and limited government. Sadly, as we have written elsewhere in these pages, the Tea Party’s success was its own undoing: highly successful in 2010 at electing new candidates and making old incumbents toe the line, by 2012 and 2014 it had attracted a slew of imitators—alienated social conservatives whose status had been diminished, flocking to call themselves Tea Partiers despite their clear prioritization of issues such as gay marriage and abortion over deregulation and low taxes. It is all the more tragic to think what a prime opportunity 2016 should have been for those ideals.
Economic stagnation, ObamaCare premiums increasing twenty-plus percent until MSNBC even admits the program’s failure, low labor force participation, and an ever-growing entitlement burden still unanswered. This is the economic landscape as we enter 2017. Add to that widespread voter dissatisfaction and you have exactly the sort of challenge that the Tea Party was designed to meet. Ideologically geared to these problems and, if not always knowledgeable as to the proper solution, at least willing to listen to those who were, the Tea Party combined a well intended political spirit and nascent individual-rights-oriented political philosophy with outstanding grassroots organizing capabilities that truly startled the Democratic Party.
In the thousands of pages of commentary published across the internet in the last year devoted to understanding just how the Republican Party went so wrong as to devolve into warring camps of classical conservatism versus Trumpian populism, there has been scant attention paid to the five years before Trump’s announcement and the struggle waged between the Tea Party and Republican Establishment. Contrary to the prevailing narrative, the GOP has not been divided for sixteen months. It has been divided for six years. The difference between those two periods is that the contest between the Tea Party and the Republican Establishment was a struggle to inject a renewed respect for limited government and the Constitution into the party mainstream; the struggle between the Republican Establishment and the Trumpian populists is one to retain the party’s very existence against a non-ideological spirit of mob rule, hollow sentimentalism over eras past, and the plain ugliness of xenophobia.
Angry, bitter, and paranoid, the Trump movement was every negative thing that the Tea Party was accused by the GOP Establishment of being. In its propensity to attract violence and racism, it is everything that the Left accused the Tea Party of being. Unfortunately for all, neither the GOP nor the Left seem to have any ammunition left to fight it. The treads on the Left’s racism accusations are worn out, and the alienated right’s propensity for self-awareness and reflection has been killed by the GOP Establishment’s condescension. In their minds, the time for talk is over and they want their strongman. Wrong though Trump supporters are, it is not hard to see the path that brought them here. For all the claims of Tea Party extremism in the negotiating room or on the Senate floor, we would wager that leaders on Left and Right wish that they could go back to a set of principled extremists who, though perhaps amateurish, were nonetheless noble in their purposes rather than face the red-hat-wearing nationalists who have emerged from the woodwork in the last year. When reasonable objection was dismissed, however, extreme forms emerged. That is by no means to excuse them but merely to understand them.
There is one reasonable countersuit to the argument made here, however, that we must give audience. That is: perhaps the Tea Party would never have stood a chance against Trumpism. Perhaps nothing would. As a movement, it is ideologically amorphous, pragmatic, unattached to any guiding principles. It is a cult of personality that will forgive one man’s any and every offense, every dishonesty, every betrayal—even of their own allegedly cherished and inviolable tenets. ObamaCare is wrong, they proclaim. Trump gives his moral support to government control of medicine but says that it was just done badly in this case. They still accept him . Build a wall, they cry. Trump wavers on the idea. They embrace him. Stop the abuse of executive orders, they plead. Trump boasts of many issues on which he will take unilateral executive action if Congress does not support him. They cheer for him. Lower taxes, they implore. He seemingly plans to lower income taxes but insists upon raising tariffs (a tax). They applaud him. Deport all illegals, they demand. Trump says he will, then he won’t. They love him.
This is pragmatism laid bare; the philosophy that teaches that ideology is an encumbrance, that moral values only bog one down, and that to be effective means approaching each new day with the attitude that what worked yesterday may not work today, that what works today may not work tomorrow, and that any attempt to establish and adhere to broader guiding principles of action is mere sentimentalism. With his supporters demanding the implementation of his programs, accepting them as unquestionable dogma, and Trump meanwhile saying that every statement of his is not one of fundamental belief but a mere “suggestion,” one knows not whether to blame them or sympathize with them as one would the victims of a con artist.
To some extent, maybe Trump supporters just wanted their strongman. Tired of feeling pushed around for eight years under Obama’s presidency and unresponsive GOP Establishment leaders, they want to push back for a while and have their own day in the sun. Short of being genuinely concerned with the moral and political rightness of executive overreach, they just wanted it to be their man doing the overreaching. Short of principle, they want vengeance, and the well being of the country must be put on hold.
Perhaps, then, when Trump came down that escalator in spring of 2015 the GOP nomination was already sealed. Perhaps the Tea Party candidates who had been so admired by much of the GOP base for five years never stood a chance, their principled brand of Constitutionalism already being out of fashion. Time will tell whether, in the wake of this election, there is anything left of its ideals to be salvaged—or of the Republican Party’s, for that matter.
One thing is certain: GOP leaders will have a bear of a job on their hands trying to convince their base that there is enough common ground left among those on the right to build a party upon. If they do not succeed in that task, the question turns to what should replace the GOP–for much of the year was spent wondering whether the party retained enough common ground to survive. Trump, it is fair to say, has evoked an image of one kind of party—an ugly one. How will liberty-minded Republicans, libertarians, and capitalists answer it? For that, we recommend looking to the lost ideas of 2010, embracing the Tea Party’s adulation of the Constitution, and bringing to it the intellectual depth that it needed to succeed.
Join us again tomorrow for Part II of the 2016 Review, when we will address American foreign relations, the state of freedom abroad, and America’s economic policy under the incoming Trump administration. See you then!
[This review is continued in Part II]