President Trump possesses an almost unprecedented ability to get inside the heads of both fans and foes alike. Trump Derangement Syndrome will surely enter into the next diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Consider, for instance, last week's column, "Why I'm Still a Never Trumper," by Bret Stephens, a worthy Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist and a personal friend.
Stephens begins by honestly listing all the things he is happy about in the first year of Trump's presidency: Dramatic cuts in the regulatory burden, lower tax rates, superb picks for the federal judiciary, yes to Keystone, no to Paris, spokes in the wheel Title IX kangaroo courts on university campuses. And on the foreign policy front, the area of Stephens's greatest expertise, it's almost all spades so far: ISIS crushed, troops to Afghanistan, a tougher stance towards North Korea; arms for the Ukraine, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the decertification of the Iran deal.
And to that list each of us could add others: the out-of-the-box appointments of Betty Devos to head the Department of Education and Scott Pruitt to return to the EPA to its original mandate of environmental protection and not societal refashioning through regulation; letting the Palestinians know that peace is a two-way process and much more is expected of them; the dissing of the UN; and the commutation of Reb Shalom Mordechai Rubaskin's sentence.
Yet, writes Stephens, "I still wish Hillary Clinton were president." He explains his position: "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society." And he finds Trump lacking in character.
Stephens points out all the obvious character flaws of our president: his impulsivity, pettiness, vanity (which in turns makes him an easy subject for manipulation), boastfulness, penchant for saying things that are not true or grossly exaggerated, blame-shirking and finger-pointing when things don't go his way: and his shaky command of policy and seeming lack of interest in learning more.
The list is not short. Nor is it wrong. A less Trumpian Trump would probably be enjoying approval ratings in the high fifties, instead of the low forties on the best of days. Instead of creating a younger generation that identifies conservatism with Trump and rejects it in favor of the utopian socialism of Bernie Sanders, he could have sealed the massive conservative electoral gains during the Obama years had he not kept shooting himself in the foot or provided his enemies the ammunition with which to do so.
Nor do I disagree with Stephens that great powers ultimately disappear from the scene because of internal rot, not external threats, and that the character of the citizenry is determinative in the long run. But Trump is more a reflection (siman) than a cause (siba) of the decline of American character. Surely, the fact the choice in 2016 was between so deeply flawed individuals tells us as much about the American people as the candidates themselves.
Stephens wisely does not try to make the case that Hillary's character is exemplary or even superior to Trump's, though his entire argument is based on that superiority. True, Hillary would be more comfortable at faculty sherry hours and among the rich and famous in Hollywood and the Hamptons than the "crass" Trump. James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal recently commented with some justice that the #Never Trump movement has been reduced to a question of style. Trump simply does not fit elite opinionmaker's image of how a president should talk or conduct himself – nor mine, for what it is worth.
But is it a given that Clinton's character is superior? She is not more honest, just a more practiced liar. Scandal has dogged her since first days in politics: Whitewater, cattle futures, the White House travel office. And the evidence that she put the financial well-being of the Clintons and their Foundation above her duties as a public servant is strong.
Why did she set up a private server in the first place and violate all protocols for the transmission of classified information, other than as a way to avoid governmental archival requirements that would have blown the cover of the self-dealing and pay-to-play chicanery of the Secretary of State and the Clinton Foundation? Is there a more fundamental character flaw in a public servant than the willingness to subvert ones public duties for private gain, even at the cost of potentially exposing intelligence operatives and national secrets.
Moreover, President Trump has some genuine virtues as well. One is generosity and human sympathy. How many stories have you read detailing Hillary's charitable giving or reaching out to help a stranger? Probably none. Such stories abound about Trump.
My guess it is the milk of human sympathy in Trump that lies behind the Rubashkin commutation. Sure, Hillary also prevailed on Bill to pardon Orthodox Jews, but in exchange for a sure bloc of votes in her first senatorial bid. No one has yet come up with any reason for the Rubashkin pardon other than the best and simplest: It was the right and just thing to do. And the plight of Reb Shalom Mordechai and his family touched President Trump's heart.
Trump lacks any trace of being a snob. He relates to common people no differently than to his fellow plutocrats. He has described his frequent visits to his father's building sites in his youth, and his easy familiarity with the carpenters, plumbers, and other hardhats. Hillary, by contrast, spent the entire 2016 campaign avoiding voters, while devoting herself to fundraisers in all the country's toniest locales.
At an upper crust fundraiser in San Francisco candidate Obama dismissed those still living in places where the jobs have all left as clinging bitterly to their guns and religion. And Hillary managed to subsume almost all those voting for her opponent – i.e., nearly 50% of the American population – in one pithy category "deplorables."
Critics frequently charge Trump with anti-Semitism and racism. Maybe he doesn't know the religion of Ambassador David Friedman, Presidential envoy Jacob Greenblatt, and his grandchildren, in whom he takes so much pride.
I have never seen one shred of evidence that Trump views people in terms of their skin color. It is not racism to suggest that the lives of poor white males also count. Nor is it racism to confront with eyes open the connection between terrorism around the globe and the backwardness and failures of Muslim societies.
Racism means defining people by their skin color. And that is much more typical of Democratic identity politics, which views skin color as the primary determinant of one's personhood. Woe to any black – for example, Clarence Thomas, Tim Scott, and Thomas Sowell -- who refuses to go along with the essentialism of identity politics, which posits that all blacks must think the same. They will be denounced as Uncle Toms and not infrequently mocked in racially degrading terms. "Some fellow named Raj" is how some CNN talking head derisively referred to White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah this week.
SURE THE CHARACTER of leaders is important, sometimes even determinative. Who but Churchill could have rallied the British people, and in the process have likely saved the Western world from Hitler? Much of Lincoln's greatness as a leader lay in his largeness of spirit; for instance, his willingness to overlook slights and put old political battles behind him in choosing his cabinet and holding it together.
But policy also matters. Stephens list does not consist of small bore items, but of changes that will dramatically affect millions of lives. And much of their impact will be felt immediately. None would have taken place under Hillary.
By contrast, reformation of national character is a slow process, and it will take place not at the level of politics but of the family, religious institutions, and voluntary associations.
Had Hillary Clinton been elected instead of Trump it is quite likely that any dramatic reformation of American culture and character would have been forever foreclosed. With two or three Supreme Court choices, the administrative state leviathan might well have been entrenched forever, and a government "of the people, by the people, for the people" permanently replaced by one based on orders from government bureaucrats.
And without the essential independence and liberty upon which American greatness has always been based there can be no hope of individual character reformation.