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On the coming radicalism of Donald J. Trump
The indictments have fueled him. If he wins in 2024, his second Presidency will marry that personal fury with a conservative attack on the administrative state to remake the government radically.
Donald Trump has felt the boot of the government on his neck.
And he is angry.
The conventional wisdom about Trump’s first term is that for all his bluster, he governed as a fairly standard conservative.
And - as it sometimes is - the conventional wisdom is correct. Whatever Trump’s radical impulses might have been, the bureaucracy and his own limitations kept them in check through 2020.
Trump cut taxes, appointed conservative Supreme Court Justices, and allowed the government to continue to grow. He made noise about NATO but ultimately took no action. He hardened the southern border but remained far from closing it. When Covid arrived, he deferred to public health experts and did not fight lockdowns or mask mandates.
Trump spoke like a populist. But he governed in the post-World War 2, post-New Deal American tradition, which assumed the world is an unruly place, and only a strong America headed by a large federal government can lead it.
(NOT THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM, JUST THE TRUTH. FOR 20 CENTS A DAY.)
Whether or not you agree with that view, all of us should recognize that it has been the consensus for three generations now.
But the consensus is breaking, especially on the right.
The populist right is furious at government support for the left’s increasingly overt cultural intrusions. Further, it sees no financial benefit either from the neo-liberalism that was the left’s playbook before 2008 or the climate change-driven anti-growth policies that the left has peddle since. (The populist left promises that it has learned its neo-liberalism lesson and will split the pie more fairly for the working class. It misunderstands that the populist right wants a bigger pie first.)
These currents are not new, but before Donald Trump the Republican Party had largely suborned them for a generation. The elite right - the Washington right - was content to nibble at the fringes of the administrative state while launching two wars in Iraq (the second monumentally stupid and destructive) and failing to navigate its way out of Afghanistan.
(Angry old man)
It was the failure of the second Iraq war that paved the way for Donald Trump, radicalizing the Republican base in a slower but arguably even more profound way than the failure of Vietnam radicalized the Democratic base.
So Trump won the Republican nomination, and then he beat Hillary Clinton, the ultimate neo-liberal, even though all the good people who thought all the right thinks - including the entire media - were with her.
But for all his bluster, Trump did not really know what to do with his power.
He governs by instinct, but he is sloppy and intemperate, easily distracted and not all that smart. He enjoyed the trappings of the office and the world’s attention, but when entrenched and powerful interests confronted him, he backed off. It is no accident that the most impressive individual decision he made as President was the killing of Iran Revolutionary Guards general Qassim Soleimani, an impulse choice that the military carried out quickly, before anyone could frighten him or convince him otherwise.
But 2023 is not 2016, or even 2020.
The elite right is ready to launch a full-on attack on the administrative state, for it has seen that Democrats are ready to use the levers of unelected government in unprecedented ways.
The Biden Administration tried to use the Covid emergency to wipe out hundreds of billions of dollars in student debt as a gift to their supporters. Even more strikingly, it used the Centers for Disease Control to keep property owners from exercising their rights and evicting tenants. And of course it used OSHA to force companies to enforce its obscene mRNA jab mandates.
Donald Trump, too, has seen for himself the way the public health mandarins and the press used Covid to manipulate him and the United States.
And not just on a policy level, not just from the lockdown or mask or school closing or testing policies he was forced to accept. He saw it personally. He lived through Covid, beating it back in a few days, and he told the world not to be too afraid. For this bravery the left pilloried him.
Now Trump has felt the government’s power for himself in the most direct and painful way of all, in a way that few people of his wealth ever do.
The leviathan has come for him, to take his freedom. For espionage or murder or treason or rape? No. For the crime of contesting an election and insisting that he would not accept its results. Though he did indeed accept its results, after the foolish riot he encouraged on January 6.
Given that Trump appears to have a solid shot at winning the next election - he is running now neck-and-neck with the apparition known as Joseph Biden - this turn of events has infuriated him and his supporters.
Meanwhile the elite right has staked its ground. Last month, The New York Times explained:
Trump and Allies Forge Plans to Increase Presidential Power in 2025
The former president and his backers aim to strengthen the power of the White House and limit the independence of federal agencies.
What was stunning about the article was that the Republicans quoted in it did not hide their plans to attack the underpinnings of the modern (domestic) federal government, the agencies that operate mostly independently of the White House.
Why didn’t they hide their radicalism?
Because they want a mandate if Trump wins. They don’t want Congress to say that Trump didn’t explain his goals ahead of time.
Now, again, one can agree or disagree with the wisdom of these ideas. As one person emailed me, if you’re a Republican, making agencies and the Justice Department creatures of the White House is a wonderful idea, as long as you plan to win every Presidential election for eternity.
But. Make no mistake. If Trump wins in 2024, he will take no prisoners in 2025. Neither will his appointees.
The federal government will likely look and act very different. It will be smaller and more politicized. And do not be surprised if Trump turns foreign policy upside down. Everything, including pulling out of NATO and ending all support to Ukraine, will be on the table.
All the people who have hated Trump since 2016 will figure this out, if they haven’t already. The stakes are high. Which means that the 2024 election is likely to make the last two look like pillow fights, especially if Trump and Biden are still a coin flip a year from now. It will be the angriest political cycle since 1968.
And 1968 was a very bad year for the United States of America.