President Trump has an uncanny knack for energizing his supporters and riling his adversaries, but to have a lasting positive impact on American society he will need to find a way to inspire a majority of the American people…
Like most first-time visitors, I rambled as if in a trance through the temple complex at Angkor Wat, mesmerized by the beauty and grandeur of the place. The temple sites are truly breathtaking, but the thing that took my breath away the most was a stunning row of swastikas that decorated some of the walls and facades of one of the temples. Of course, I had heard as a young child that originally the swastika was an ancient Hindu good luck symbol or a symbol of divinity, but I had never imagined just how pervasive a symbol it once was. The more I looked into the subject, the more surprised I was—it was not just a Hindu symbol; it was one that was used throughout the world, including Europe and even among certain Native American tribes. In fact, it was even used by our own 45th Infantry Division up until the onset of World War II in tribute to the native tribes that revered it. So pervasive was the symbol that I began to wonder if the swastika did not have some Jungian significance in the collective unconscious.
This memory of Angkor Wat and swastikas came back to me lately as I read article after article in various newspapers and magazines chastising conservatives for their cold-hearted, ruthless support of various policies and principles. The simple conclusion of most of these simple-minded articles is simply that conservative views are founded upon a bedrock of hate, intolerance, and cruelty. While this view of conservatism has been kicking around a long time, it has gained more stature and a certain credibility because of the current president who espouses many of the same objectives and policies articulated by conservatives. And while he has had some success in furthering a conservative agenda, I wonder if in the long-term he is not doing more harm than good to conservative causes because of his approach to these issues. While he tones down his rhetoric from time to time, the overall image conveyed is negative—something that the mainstream media happily accentuates at every opportunity.
Military Force and its Discontents
There is no better example of this undermining of sensible, sane conservative principles than President Trump’s healthy instinct that we are overextended militarily throughout the world and that we should not be in the nation-building business. The loud and irrational outrage across the political spectrum at the president’s decision to withdraw our troops from Syria is a somber reminder of how much policies and personalities blur in today’s America. Had a liberal Democrat cautioned against maintaining U.S. troops in a warzone indefinitely or without clear, pragmatic objectives, there would not have been such an uproar. Indeed, when former President Obama warned against these same things, criticism was muted and mostly limited to the usual warmongering neocons who are always too ready to risk American blood to further their ideal of a Middle East made completely safe for Israel. In truth, what President Trump is embracing in withdrawing our troops from Syria—and elsewhere, including Afghanistan—is a poorly-articulated version of the Powell Doctrine. But because Donald Trump, rather than Colin Powell, is the implementer of the policy, it is immediately subject to attack and opposition. Because of this reflexive distrust for anything Mr. Trump does or espouses, it is more likely that in the near future there will be an upsurge in neocon-inspired international meddling.
Rapprochement with Russia and Other Diplomatic Imperatives
But the damage being done is not just to President Trump’s prudent reluctance to get ensnared in open-ended military adventures. It is perhaps even more true regarding diplomacy writ large. There is arguably nothing more pressing in the realm of diplomacy than trying to reengage with Russia. Again, when Obama tried to do so with his half-hearted “reset” there was little criticism in the media. Unfortunately, Obama entrusted his reset to the usual group of Russophobes to implement and it got nowhere. Now, because of Russia’s ham-handed efforts to influence the 2016 election and President Trump’s reluctance to publicly and forcefully condemn that meddling, it will be far harder for far longer to fix that bilateral relationship.
This is also true of the president’s laudable efforts toward engaging with North Korea. A sensible effort at nontraditional diplomacy would have been praised by the mainstream media—and condemned only by the neocons—if Obama had tried it, but again it is suspect because it was Mr. Trump who tried it. After well over 30 years in diplomacy, there are few things I have found sillier and more unhelpful than the generally held view that to merely meet with a high-level American somehow legitimizes foreign leaders and thus must be permitted sparingly. American diplomats too often think just to be seen near the President, like being seen with a prissy prom queen, is somehow a huge privilege to the rest of the world. But in fairness to the media, President Trump’s efforts thus far have yielded no tangible benefits. While nontraditional diplomatic initiatives should always be considered, it is crucial that they first be carefully developed so there are no misunderstandings and false expectations. Frustratingly, should Mr. Trump’s efforts with North Korea fail, it may well be another half-century before an American president again attempts an initiative outside the usual constraints of diplomatic practice.
Free and Fair Trade
In much the same way as President Trump’s efforts to reengage with Russia have been met with opprobrium, so too his efforts to level the international trading field. For decades many liberals have warned against Chinese trade practices and some have even argued for tariffs and other measures to rein in China’s locust-like proclivities. But the president’s scattergun approach to rectifying trade injustices has needlessly alienated close allies and others whose transgressions cannot rival those of China. One particularly egregious example of this counterproductive policy was his senseless scuttling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which would have served as a bulwark against further Chinese economic aggression. Had Mr. Trump focused solely on China, he would not only have rallied our allies, but he would have corralled much of the rest of the world to join his crusade against an emerging world power that truly threatens us economically, politically, and militarily.
Immigration: Respect for People… and for Borders
I have never felt that President Trump’s Wall would be as effective as he and his most ardent supporters believe, but neither did I believe that it was completely useless or deserving of the acrimony heaped upon it. But again, Mr. Trump’s own words have made it difficult for many people to see the validity of conservative concerns about unrestricted immigration. Admittedly, many of his more recent pronouncements about the need for a wall and for tighter immigration controls have struck the right balance, praising the accomplishments of our immigrants and accepting the truth that immigration per se is a good thing. But frankly, it is now too late. Nothing he says now can convince others that he has a more balanced perspective on immigration. While this is detrimental to his prospects for success, it is even more detrimental to future efforts to have a reasonable immigration policy that ensures a continued inflow of immigrants, while curtailing the policies and practices that have allowed our borders to become porous and our welfare and educational systems to become overburdened. Disturbingly, because of some of Mr. Trump’s earlier statements about immigration and immigrants, for anyone to advocate for a balanced, pragmatic approach to immigration is now equated with being cold-hearted and uncaring.
What is true of the immigration issue is even truer of other domestic issues such as the unconstitutionality of affirmative action, the importance of religious freedom, the value of local control over education, the assault on free speech on university campuses, and so forth. All these issues have now been tainted with accusations of intolerance and hate, and while the media deserves blame as well, it is indisputable that Mr. Trump has made their work much easier by his refusal to think before speaking and his eagerness to excite and delight his base. President Trump has an uncanny knack for energizing his supporters and riling his adversaries, but to have a lasting positive impact on American society he will need to find a way to inspire a majority of the American people. To riff on a phrase made popular by Matthew: What does it profit conservatives to win the presidency if they ultimately lose their credibility and moral stature?
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Editor’s note: the featured image is “Advice to Subscribers” (1840) by Honoré Daumier, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.