“A Deep Irony At Work”: Forget What You’ve Heard. Donald Trump Isn’t Really Challenging Conservative Orthodoxy
There used to be a standard operating procedure for Republican presidential candidates when they got asked about the Supreme Court. Avoid talking about specific issues you hope the Court will decide, don’t mention any specific people you want to put on the bench, and just offer some vague principles that sound good to everybody but are actually meant as dog-whistles to reassure your conservative supporters that they’ll get the kind of appointments they want. Your model justice would be an advocate of “judicial restraint,” who “won’t legislate from the bench” and who “respects the intent of the Founders.”
But as in so many things, Donald Trump doesn’t play by those rules. Instead, he just released a list of 11 judges from whom he says he’ll choose his Supreme Court picks.
In doing so, Trump demonstrated to conservatives why there’s almost no reason for them not to get behind him.
But that’s not because the list shows that he shares their perspective or will be ideologically reliable. It’s because it’s yet more evidence that when it comes to the things conservatives think are important, Donald Trump just doesn’t care one way or the other. And that means they can get almost everything they want out of a Trump presidency.
As our reporters Jenna Johnson and Robert Barnes wrote, “Trump’s picks looked more like a wish list of the nation’s conservative legal elite than the product of a political revolutionary.” And that’s because, I promise you, Trump just told somebody to put together a list, looked at it, and said it seems fine. He had previously said he’d let the Heritage Foundation assemble his list, while this one has some of their picks and a few others. But I’ll bet that if you asked him today who’s on his list, he couldn’t give you more than one or two names. Even though, as I’ve been arguing for the last couple of years, the Supreme Court may be the single most important issue in this election, there’s nothing to suggest that Trump much cares about who he puts on it. Which means conservatives get what they want.
Some people, myself included, argue that we focus way too much on personality in the presidential campaign (as interesting as personalities are), because what matters more than anything is the basic ideological distinctions between the parties. Yes, the individual characteristics each president brings to the office can make a difference; for instance, Barack Obama is extremely cautious about foreign entanglements, while Hillary Clinton is likely to be more aggressive when it comes to getting involved in hotspots around the globe. But on the vast majority of issues, what matters is whether there’s a Republican or a Democrat in the Oval Office. Any Republican will pursue basically the same set of policies as any other Republican, and the same is true of Democrats. Furthermore, they’re going to have to fill all those thousands of executive branch positions from the same pool of people. Each party has its own government-in-waiting when it’s out of power, cooling its heels in think tanks and advocacy groups and lobbying firms, waiting to move back into government when they win, no matter which contender from their party gets the nomination.
But there’s a deep irony at work with Donald Trump. He’s the least ideologically committed candidate we’ve seen in a very long time, at least since Eisenhower and maybe even before. To the broad public, he offers a Great Man theory of the presidency: don’t worry about issues, because with my huge brain, superhuman deal-making skills, and overall personal tremendousness, I will solve all our problems. Yet precisely because Trump doesn’t care in the least about any policy issues, conservatives may have no more to reason to fear that he’d betray them on policy than they would with a committed conservative like Ted Cruz.
How are things likely to proceed in his presidency? On the Supreme Court, he just takes a list from conservative activists. When Republicans in Congress craft legislation, is he going to stay up late at night going over each sub-section to make sure they reflect his beliefs? Of course not — they’ll pass it, he’ll sign it, and he won’t bother reading more than the title. Is he going to worry about who all his undersecretaries and deputy secretaries are, and make sure he agrees with the policy decisions they make? Not on your life. He’ll say, “Get me some fabulous people, really top-notch, the best” — and the Republicans around him will put the same people in those positions who would have served in any Republican administration.
Trump has said many things during the campaign that contradict conservative dogma. So what? If you’re a conservative worried about some policy stance Trump took today, you can just wait until the next time he gets asked about the same topic, and he’ll say something completely different. That may mean he isn’t committed to your position deep in his heart, but that doesn’t matter. If on a particular day as president he takes some policy stance that runs counter to conservative ideology, is he really going to care enough to pursue it, especially when the people around him are objecting? Or is he more likely to say, “Eh, whatever — what else is going on today?”
This has already been made clear on specific issues. As this blog has previously detailed, no matter how many times media outlets say otherwise, Trump did not actually signal that he might raise taxes on the rich or raise the minimum wage. All he has done was signal general vagueness born mostly of disinterest or lack of appreciation of policy detail, followed by clarifications that he would cut taxes on the rich and opposes the existence of any federal minimum.
There are a couple of exceptions, particularly trade, where conservatives are generally advocates of free trade and Trump seems determined to start a trade war with China. But even on what may be the issue most important to him, it’s hard to tell how his bombastic rhetoric would translate into actual policy decisions. So there too, the Republicans around him would have plenty of room to shape policy in their preferred direction. And yes, the fact that he’s so ignorant and erratic could have consequences that range from the problematic to the catastrophic. But that’s not an ideological question.
So if you’re a conservative, you can refuse to support Trump because he’s such a raging buffoon that there’s no telling what kind of damage he could do to the country. That’s more than enough reason to oppose him. But if what really matters to you is the substance of conservative ideology, you probably have nothing to worry about.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, May 19, 2016