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Trump Contra Mundum

books and culture

Trump Contra Mundum

Conrad Black’s sweeping and insightful look at an unprecedented president August 10, 2018
Politics and law

Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other, by Conrad Black, foreword by Victor Davis Hanson (Regnery, 228 pp., $28.99)

After finishing Conrad Black’s luminous anatomy of Donald Trump’s rise to the American presidency, I was reminded of a passage from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which Gulliver observes of his conversation with the King of Brobdingnag:

I remember very well, in a discourse one day with the king, when I happened to say, “there were several thousand Books among us written upon the Art of Government,” it gave him (directly contrary to my intention) a very mean Opinion of our Understandings. He professed both to abominate and despise all Mystery, Refinement, and Intrigue, either in a Prince or a Minister. He could not tell what I meant by Secrets of State. . . . He confined the Knowledge of governing within very narrow Bounds, to common Sense and Reason, to Justice and Lenity, to the Speedy Determination of Civil and criminal Causes . . . And he gave it for his Opinion, “that whoever could make two Ears of Corn, or two Blades of Grass, to grow upon a Spot of Ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of Mankind, and do more essential Service to his Country, than the whole Race of Politicians put together.”

One can say many things about Trump’s relationship to our own race of politicians. Certainly, most progressives and many conservatives continue to look upon him as a bounder, an outsider without the necessary credentials to hold public office responsibly. For them, he remains the rankest of amateurs. The epithet most often thrown at Trump is “unfit to govern.” The columnist Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., to take just one example, has argued that the 25th Amendment needs revising to respond to what he describes as “the stunning eccentricities of Donald J. Trump.” For Yoder, the problem with the amendment is that it “leaves us with no workable constitutional resort, even when the manners and mental fitness of a president are reasonably in question.” Yoder is insistent: “We need a serious discussion of this defect in our constitutional machinery, which today encumbers presidential discipline with petty legalism and shields a clownish misfit. ‘High crimes and misdemeanors’ still lack useful definition but the need is today more glaring than ever.” In other words, our laws should be made more malleable so that we can criminalize presidents whom we oppose.

The “clownish misfit” about whom Black writes may not have impressed Gulliver—Trump can hardly be said to exemplify the “art of government” as practiced by most politicians in Swift’s day, or in ours—but he would certainly have met with the approval of the King of Brobdingnag. Black makes this clear when he notes how “To a man of Donald Trump’s self-confidence, the idea of his becoming president of the United States of America was not at all outrageous.” Having frequently met with politicians and presidents before entering politics, Trump “was not at all intimidated by them and did not believe that they had any special powers or talents or mystique that he lacked.” In fact, he had qualities that they clearly did not possess, not least a lively skepticism with regard to the shibboleths of politicians. Without this belief in his own lights, he might never have won the primaries, let alone the presidency. Since entering the White House, he has continually confounded his enemies by remaining true to those lights.

Neither our pundits nor our political class may be prepared to acknowledge as much, but in the short time in which Trump has held the presidency, he has done his country more “essential service” than the last three presidents combined. Liberating the nation from the regulatory tutelage in which his statist predecessor bound it, reforming the tax code, positioning the United States to attain economic-growth rates of 3 to 4 percent, appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court (with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation pending in September), appointing federal judges across the country who will uphold (not rewrite) our laws, securing our hitherto unsecured southern border with Mexico, putting China on notice that their unfair trade practices will no longer fly, and initiating talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, with or without the cooperation of Kim Jong-un—these are all steps in the right direction. They are also proof that there is an inspired maverick in Trump, and it is on this aspect of his subject that Black focuses in his insightful study.

Black’s thoughts on Trump are worth considering for several reasons. First and foremost, as a matter of public record, Black predicted the possibility of a Trump win before anyone else. Indeed, his reading of Trump’s rise—chronicled in articles throughout Canada, America and the U.K.—showed remarkable prescience. Knowing Trump personally, he knew that the stories about him being stupid, authoritarian, misogynistic, and incompetent were false. Second, Black’s biographies of FDR and Richard Nixon, not to mention his political journalism, demonstrate that his insights into politics often sharply diverge from the consensus of our more sequacious commentators. In other words, Black himself is something of an inspired maverick. Third, having been set upon himself by the political establishment, Black knows what it takes to defy its myrmidons. And lastly, Black’s ebullient prose is well suited to capture the more outlandish aspects of his singular subject. One example:

In November, 1992, Trump arranged another pre-packaged bankruptcy for the Plaza Hotel, and he held a celebration for his financial deliverance at the Trump Taj Mahal. It was an extraordinary self-celebration: eight hundred guests received Donald Trump masks and were treated to uplifting music based on invincible comebacks, and the host eventually emerged with red boxing gloves, a silk robe, and boxing shorts over his dinner jacket and trousers, as the theme from Rocky was belted out through the sound system. It was a preposterous performance for someone who had been a party to four bankruptcies, and was even now not out of the woods, but it was magnificent in its tasteless way.

Black shows how a good deal of Trump’s life before running for the presidency made for an unlikely but nevertheless effective preparation for the country’s highest office. It was from his Scottish mother, Mary Anne née MacLeod, a domestic servant before she married Fred Trump, that her second son inherited his flair for showmanship and his entrepreneurial drive. Like second-in-line Jack Kennedy, Trump was not his successful father’s heir apparent. He only assumed that role after his beloved brother Fred, Jr. took to drink and proved too crapulous to take over the reins of the family’s real estate business. Seeing his brother fall prey to alcoholism, Trump became a sworn teetotaler and developed an indefatigable work ethic. His rise to the presidency was also paved by his career as one of America’s most successful brand owners. Putting his name on everything from hotels and golf courses to apparel and home products connected him to Middle America in ways that none of his political opponents could hope to match. His successful television program The Apprentice proved this—at its peak, the show attracted 27 million viewers—as did his foray into professional wrestling, where he got to know and prize the more plebeian elements of his base.

In addition to his underrated skills as an entertainer who could appeal to the man in the street—the “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton would brand them—Trump the negotiator showed remarkable ingenuity and determination in the notoriously unscrupulous real estate business, which should give pause to critics like Yoder who see him as a “clownish misfit.” As Black rightly observes, Trump “never merited the derision he received from those repelled by his vulgarianism . . . there was always much more to him than that.”

Long after the current controversies surrounding Trump have passed away, Black’s book will remain a valuable historical study because it recognizes that we can only make sense of Trump by seeing him within the context of the opposition that he aroused, and that sought to deny him, first, the Republican nomination; then, the presidency; and finally, a presidential term unmolested by threats of impeachment. Moreover, if an indispensable qualification for a chronicler of contemporary history is the ability to handicap events accurately as they unfold, then Black must be judged a good chronicler indeed:

Those who oppose Trump generally do not understand how desperate and disgusted almost half of Americans are at the most inept twenty-year streak of presidential misgovernment in American history that preceded the 2016 election. These decades of fruitless war, bone-cracking recession, humanitarian disasters, collapsing alliances, oceanic deficits, and the erosion of economic growth and private sector industrial investment to a third or a quarter of levels under Ronald Reagan, could rattle any American’s patriotic self-confidence. Trump is a throwback to Reagan in that he rejects the chic defeatism of the establishment; and despite all the media and Democratic Party and Never Trump calumny of him, his political program is essentially conventional, moderate, conservative wisdom lifted in large part from the policy recommendations of thoroughly respectable conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation. Trump speaks to Americans fearful of decline. He wants, as his slogan says, to make America great again.

Critics still fleer at Trump’s ability to make good on his slogan—former CIA director John Brennan even suggests that the president is “treasonous”—but some commentators are recognizing, with Black, that the country’s economic numbers have already begun to tell in Trump’s favor. “Rising investment means more productive companies and better-paid workers in the future,” writes James Freeman of the Wall Street Journal. “This is great news for everybody except the crowd of former Obama economic advisers who keep dismissing the U.S. economic resurgence as a short-term Trump ‘sugar high.’ What’s really sweet is that bullish shareholders are now demanding investment for the long term and even punishing companies that simply distribute their earnings instead of positioning themselves for growth.”

Much of the opposition to candidate Trump came, of course, from the Left, especially those appalled that the progressive utopia that they had been constructing for decades now faced dismantling from a populist who shared few of their convictions. Yet even more striking was the opposition that Trump faced from the Right. “Unctuous and self-important groups of Establishment Republican thinkers and former officials solemnly produced petitions and open letters denouncing Trump,” Black writes, “which were often jubilantly highlighted in the New York Times.”

Considering how crucial the pro-life Catholic vote proved to Trump’s victory—and it will likely be every bit as important to his reelection—it’s striking that these voters went against not only many of their bishops but also such prominent Catholic leaders as Robert George and George Weigel. In voting for Trump, everyday Catholics matched Trump’s defiance of the country’s political elite by defying their own religious elites. Some Catholic bishops may now be trying to foment outrage over Trump’s immigration policies to turn these same Catholic voters against Trump, but with the Supreme Court nomination of Kavanaugh putting the abortion issue once again front and center, they’re unlikely to succeed. Indeed, many Catholics in the pews feel as betrayed by the establishment-leaning proclivities of their bishops as pro-Trump voters felt by the same proclivities from politicians of both parties.

Throughout the book, Black cites variations on the theme of Trump’s unfitness to govern, thus underscoring the odds against which his subject continues to contend. He also illustrates the unrealistic standard by which Trump is judged. To hear Never Trumpers speak, one would think that America before Trump had been governed by paragons of virtue and refinement. Such a view of the behavior of America’s presidents would have astounded the Earl of Lytton, who wrote of Ulysses Grant when the former president toured India:

On this occasion, ‘our distinguished guest’. . . got as drunk as a fiddle . . . He fumbled Mrs. A., kissed the shrieking Miss B., pinched the plump Mrs. C. black and blue and ran at Mrs. D. with intent to ravish her. Finally, after throwing all the female guests into hysterics by generally behaving like a must elephant, the noble beast was captured by main force and carried (quatre pattes dans l’air) by six soldiers, which relieved India of his noble presence.

If the political establishment on the Left and the Right misjudged Trump’s political skills, especially his ability to speak directly to the needs and aspirations of Americans, it also underestimated Trump as counterpuncher. Trump was fierce in refuting his Republican critics, whom he justly called “the failed Washington elite.” For Trump, the political outsider nonpareil, the Republican establishment was responsible not only for the debâcle of the Iraq War but also for abandoning America’s blue-collar workers to joblessness and opioids. Unsurprisingly, whenever Trump reminded his supporters of these bleak realities, their enthusiasm for him soared. And he duly returned the favor by referring to them as “the smartest, strongest, most hard working and most loyal” supporters that the political world had ever seen.

The counterpuncher in Trump was at his best when the Access Hollywood tape surfaced, in which the candidate could be heard bragging of his ability to take advantage of his celebrity to “move on” women. While his apology might have been admirably straightforward—“I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize”—it was the context that he supplied for the apology that undid his enemies. “There is a big difference between words and actions,” Trump pointed out. “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims.” After that salvo, as Black shows, the “October Surprise” became the dampest of damp squibs. The Clintons may not be the most conscionable of politicians, but they’re smart enough to recognize when they have been dealt an unanswerable riposte.

Black is also good on how the Democrats’ attempt to use the Harvey Weinstein scandal to their political benefit backfired. Far from enabling their Hollywood friends to expose Trump and prosecute him as an equally criminal predator, the Weinstein episode only showcased what Black calls their “sanctimonious hypocrisy.” As Black argues, “The whole lurid story laid bare the preposterous presumption of the entertainment industry to lecture the American people on politics and morals. Hollywood is a moral and intellectual pigsty, an asylum for the stupid, the corrupt and the vocally shallow.”

Once Trump won the Republican nomination over the political dead bodies of nearly all of the party’s leaders, the presidential contest took on a character that had nothing of the banality that had characterized past contests. Instead, it epitomized the stark divisions that continue to lacerate our political life. In recapturing the battle’s vitriolic partisanship, Black is at once incisive and amusing:

It became a titanic struggle between Mrs. Clinton and the Democrats’ ability to represent Trump as a crooked and half-mad egotist and impostor, and his ability to rouse resentment against the Clintons as personifications of the decline of America while they immersed themselves in financial greed and the moral hypocrisy of Bill Clinton’s philandering like a rutting panther while she strutted the country as a priggish scold and virtue-sodden feminist.

On election night, surely the most memorable in living memory, Black recalls “Wolf Blitzer, as he scrambled like an asphyxiated roach between electoral maps in the CNN newsroom, desperately trying to unearth a thread of plausible data that would conduct Hilary Clinton to the White House.” After the unthinkable upset began to take shape, Black notes how “all the networks turned from a sniggering mood of participating in a Clinton coronation to a much more serious, not to mention panicked discussion of what might actually happen. The discomfiture of poor Blitzer . . . and his fellow liberal hysterics across the networks and cable news channels was palpable and almost oppressive, though gratifying.”

As these excerpts suggest, one of the best things about Black’s book is its sprightly narrative. Reading the book gives one a chance to relive the Trump story’s many vertiginous twists and turns. Black’s accounts of the primaries and the general election, not to mention his hero’s unremittingly embattled presidency, are vivid, judicious, and perceptive. For those who did not follow the election closely, or somehow missed its import, Black’s book is the best place to start to understand an unprecedented president.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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