More than a year into his presidency, the Trump scandals continue. The “Russia conspiracy” has been shown for the fraud it always was. But one still hears about Mr. Trump’s personal vices and the crude nature of many of his public pronouncements. Some focus on these seeming distractions, either condemning them (and him) or reveling in their transgressive nature as a kind of insult to the hypocrisy of liberal elites. Others seek to put them to one side as unfortunate blots on Mr. Trump’s record, which they seek to judge solely on policy grounds. Neither approach, in my view, comports with the reality of either Mr. Trump or the current state of our society.
Mr. Trump’s personal vices are deplorable in the true sense and show a real flaw in his character. But his “style” is, in our time of cultural conflict, as substantive as any policy program. Indeed, it arguably is at the heart of who he is as a politician, and of what he might do for America.
It has become clear to most every sensible person that Mr. Trump’s election was the result of massive revulsion among working and middle-class Americans, especially in “flyover country,” at their supposed betters. Our progressive political and cultural elites have worked hard to undermine traditional American society, pushing policies that destroy opportunity and self-respect among mainstream Americans of whatever color who value faith, family, and freedom. Mr. Trump was elected as the champion of normal, traditional Americans; his primary task is to reimpose limits on the power of Social Justice Warriors to shame and bully traditional Americans into cooperating in their own political, cultural, and economic demise.
Given all this, any report card on the Trump Presidency must begin by recognizing the great progress he has made in undermining the power and legitimacy of our progressive elites. Whether on Twitter or through more traditional media, Mr. Trump has used politically incorrect language and proclaimed overtly traditional values of faith and patriotism. His language has at times been vulgar in more ways than one. But his intent has been clear: to affirm traditional norms in a manner designed to make elites lose their self-control and drop the mask that long covered their hatred for traditional American society and the people who love it.
Conservatives have finally begun to acknowledge that we are in a genuine cultural war and that, for decades now, we have been losing badly. Unfortunately, too many traditional conservatives have responded by surrendering their place in the public square. It is true that progressives in significant measure already have succeeded in transforming the United States into a European-style social democracy with the added “benefit” of Third-World-style identity politics. But while the survival of our way of life may require strategic retreat (as Rod Dreher would have it) in education and other areas ruled by the Left, we cannot afford political surrender; the victor will have no mercy on those it deems racist, sexist, and homophobic oppressors. To survive as well as to win, we finally must recognize that choosing a general in this war is not a matter of finding the man with the most virtue, but rather finding the man with the most relevant virtues, namely the ability to draw out our enemies and defeat them.
Flawed as he is, Mr. Trump is the necessary instrument of effective resistance to the burgeoning phalanx of Social Justice Warriors in the bureaucratic trenches and at the commanding heights of popular culture. Only when the progressive media complex has shown itself as the ignorant and intolerant mass of adolescents that it is will they lose their ability to control public opinion. Only when the SJWs who infest our administrative state have been rooted out and the bureaucracy subjected to proper limits and oversight can we reestablish control over our own destiny as a people. Only then can we begin in earnest the crucial task of rebuilding our communities and the public virtues that once protected and invigorated them.
The desire to maintain public civility was wise and good up until a clearly defined moment in American history. That moment was the refusal of the United States Senate to remove Bill Clinton from the presidency. Previous presidents, including Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin Roosevelt, were adulterers. But Mr. Clinton’s case was of a completely different order. The entire Democratic establishment, along with a substantial part of the Republican establishment, was determined to keep Mr. Clinton in office despite the fact that he clearly had committed perjury and obstruction of justice, and attempted to suborn perjury. And the claim that it was “just about sex” showed the callous vulgarity of our political class and its corruption of public life. Clinton’s enablers were defending their own power and ideology. To do so they were willing to defend, and prevent effective investigation of, a man credibly accused of multiple instances of sexual assault, including rape. Thus, it became clear decades ago that, until that class of persons and their enablers were removed from power, civility was nothing more than a trap for the unwary.
Trump’s refusal to fall into the “civility” trap earned him unprecedented vitriol, including persistent claims that he is, or soon will be, Hitler. In fact, of course, he has made America safer internationally and more productive at home while wielding much less power than his immediate predecessor. That predecessor, the darling of our chattering classes, colluded with leaders of his party to evade the constitutional requirements for valid legislation, saddling America with the incoherent mass of destructive regulations we now call Obamacare. Countless assertions of raw legislative and bureaucratic power, whether called Executive Orders or “guidance letters,” stifled markets, innovation, employment, and free speech throughout America. Mr. Trump’s major successes—and there have been many—have centered on his simple reversal of these unconstitutional actions. By doing so, he has bought us limited relief from the progressive onslaught, time to regroup and to institute more permanent remedies. Mr. Trump’s many judicial nominations are especially important because they have brought us dozens more judges with genuine respect for the Constitution and for their own role as interpreters rather than makers of the law.
The one weak spot in this administration, predictably, has been its relative lack of legislative success. No better proof exists of the common interest of establishment Republicans and Democrats in maintaining our massive, unfettered state, than the inability (more unwillingness) of Republican leadership to produce meaningful reform of Obamacare, immigration, or the budgetary process. Where Mr. Trump has managed to herd the self-interested cats, namely in securing the first significant tax cut in decades, there have been predictable positive results.
The question is whether Mr. Trump’s combative style will succeed in fully delegitimizing the largely unelected elites who seek to rule our nation in contempt of the people. The real work of this administration is to halt the onslaught of political correctness on our families, churches, and other natural associations. He has accomplished much in a short time by undoing many of Mr. Obama’s most radical actions. But the ground he has gained can easily be lost should he fail to follow up with many more administrative appointments and with significant reforms to our civil service system, which shields partisan ideologues from proper oversight. All may be lost should he fail to break the legislative logjam or, worse, lose Republican majorities or, worst of all, decide to cave in on issues like immigration out of a desire to “win.” Mr. Trump’s flaws always have been liberal flaws, rooted in the desire to be loved too much and by too many. It is, ironically, the supposedly darker side of his personality, the side that is willing to speak unpleasant truths unpleasantly, that promises the most in our hour of need. By delegitimizing the smug, narrow-minded, and fundamentally dishonest arbiters of opinion and good taste pushing the progressive agenda at almost any cost, he has begun the real work of rebuilding our historically sane, tradition-grounded political culture.
Bruce P. Frohnen is a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law.