John Ford’s most moving scene in his best film, The Searchers, is the unloved Ethan Edwards’s final exit from a house of shadows, swinging open the door and walking alone into sunlit oblivion, the community he has saved symbolically closing the door on him.
If he is lucky, President Trump may well experience the same self-inflicted fate. By his very excesses, Trump has already lost in conventional terms of being admired or considered presidential, but in his losing he might alone be able to end some things that long ago should have been ended.
No one can still quite calibrate whether Trump’s combativeness and take-no-prisoners management style always hurts him as president, or is a necessary continuum of his persona that ensured his unlikely election and early political effectiveness as president. And no one quite knows either whether Trump’s inexplicable outbursts are sometimes planned by design to unnerve his critics and the media, or are instead spontaneous expressions of indiscipline and crudity. Conventional wisdom squares these circles by concluding that Trump’s ferocity shores up his base, but his base is not large enough to give him a reliable 51 percent popularity rating among voters. Most also have concluded that Trump’s unorthodox style, speech, and comportment likewise are designed to advance his agendas, but are usually overtaken by his fury. But how often the last three years has conventional wisdom been right?
When Trump entered office, he was immediately faced with a self-created contradiction. He had won the key midwestern and purple swing states on promises of ‘draining the swamp.’ That refrain was taken by his base to mean both dismantling the permanent deep state and staffing his administration with unorthodox appointments that would lessen the opportunities for corruption.
Yet Trump needed some tried old hands who knew the deep state and yet were not part of it. But how many such loyal fellow iconoclasts were there?
Added to Trump’s conundrum were two other challenges. One was certainly political. Trump’s agendas that had won him the presidency were deeply antithetical to those of most of the bipartisan Washington hierarchy. In terms of economic policy, Trumpism, at least in theory, did not appeal to many Republicans with prior government service, blue-chip academic billets, and directorships of major companies and corporations. The usual Republicans eager for high office were precisely those most likely to oppose Trump’s promises to leave Afghanistan, avoid most overseas interventions, level tariffs, or build a border wall.
Trump also forged a management style foreign from almost all prior presidents, born from Manhattan real estate brokerage, reality television, and entrepreneurial salesmanship. Drama, even chaos, was considered ‘energy,’ even creativity. Loyalty and compatibility above all were prized, even over competence. Looks and fashion mattered, on the principle that both drove up ratings. How something was said and who said it were as important as what was said.
Hiring and firing for Trump were also organic processes. Trump consulted outsiders in the private sector almost as frequently as he did his own team. Turnover was a necessary means of finding those with ‘talent’ whose personalities jived with Trump’s own mercurial moods.
In prior administrations, ‘stability’ and ‘continuity’ were more prized. Difficult or even unimpressive figures who should have been promptly fired often were not, on the principle that their abrupt departures might signal poor presidential judgment or incur crises of confidence at the center of the global order, or, more mundanely, earn a spate of incriminating, get-even, tell-all memoirs.
Did the apparent bedlam bother Trump? Hardly.
Amid the disruptions, lost was the fact that in terms of process, Trump met the press frequently. He was far more candid and accessible than had been Barack Obama. His inner team was as diverse in terms of race, sex, class, and prior political leanings as most prior administrations. His tweets held back nothing. And yet that accessibility and informality were mostly lost on the press. Or such familiarity with Trump only bred more media contempt.
As far as the nation’s soul was concerned, America’s elites — academic, journalistic, and political — were ironically revealing to the American people the sort of crude put-downs, stereotyping, and biases about Trump supporters that questioned the value of their cultural advantages, higher education, and privilege, given that they had proved so unsteady, profane, and unhinged since the appearance of Trump in 2015. No establishmentarian quite figured out that any success that Trump enjoyed was often seen as a de facto negative referendum on the past performance of the status quo—and by extension themselves.
It was hard to see how US relations with key allies or deterrent stances against enemies were not improved since the years of the Obama administration, at least in the sense that there was no more naïve Russian reset. China was on notice that its trade cheating was no longer tolerable. The asymmetrical Iran deal was over. And the United States was slowly squeezing with sanctions a nuclear North Korea. Was chaos or predictability the more dangerous message in dealing with thuggish regimes?
Yet an ‘adults in the room’ anti-Trump narrative was hyped through deliberate media massaging and disloyal leaking. ‘Anonymous’ senior officials winked and nodded on ‘background’ to reporters that, if had it not been for their own sober stewardship, the entire Trump administration would have imploded. . .
Still, the real moral question is not whether the gunslinger Trump could or should become civilized (again defined in our context as becoming normalized as ‘presidential’). Rather, the key is whether he could be of service at the opportune time and right place for his country, occasionally crude as he is said to be.
After all, despite their decency, in extremis did the frontier farmers have an orthodox solution without Shane? The town elders of Hadleyville in High Noon had no viable plan without Marshal Will Kane in the streets. Even Agamemnon’s ego did not convince him that he would ever have had any chance of killing ‘man-slaughtering Hector’ without use of a petulant and dangerous Achilles.
Trump’s dilemma was always that at some likely point his successes on the economy and in foreign policy might create a sense of calm prosperity — and thereby, in counterintuitive fashion, allow voters the luxury of reexamining the messenger more so than the message. In other words, if crudity got results, then the results might appear no longer to hinge on further crudity. Every tragic hero realizes that he can be driven out of town, not just after the original threat is ended, but the moment it first appears that soon the danger will be neutralized. For civilized society, the perceived coarseness of the tragic hero always remains nearly as repugnant as the threat that brought in its deliverer in the first place.
In sum, the nation may believe that it could not withstand the fire and smoke of a series of Trump-like presidencies. But given the direction of the country over the last 16 years, half the country, the proverbial townspeople of the classic Western, wanted some outsider, even with a dubious past, to ride in and do things that most normal politicians not only would not, but could not do — before exiting stage left or riding wounded off into the sunset, to the relief of most and the regret of a few.
This is an excerpt from The Case for Trump, which is released on Tuesday March 5.