Yesterday, when I received the winter 2020/21 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, I expected to see a series of articles defending Trump, because the Claremont Institute has been doing that since the fall of 2016. So I was shocked to see three articles criticizing Trump--by Andrew Busch, William Voegeli, and Charles Kesler--and only one offering a tepid defense--by Michael Anton.
For four and a half years, I have written posts disagreeing with the Claremont Institute's support for Trump (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here,) I am pleased to see that they have now been persuaded by my arguments.
Busch, Voegeli, and Kesler agree that Trump lost the election and that it was not stolen from him. Anton tries to claim that fraudulent voting was common, but he offers no proof.
Busch, Voegeli, and Kesler agree that Trump has never been popular, that his core of supporters has always been a minority, and that Trump did nothing during in his first term or in the 2020 campaign to win over a majority of voters. In 2016, he lost in the popular vote by 3 million votes, although Clinton was a weak candidate. During his term in office, Trump was "the most consistently unpopular president since polling began" (10). In the election of 2020, he did win 75 million votes, but Biden won more, and perhaps a third or more of Trump's votes were from people voting against Biden rather than for Trump (34).
The fundamental problem is not just that Trump is unpopular, but that the Republican Party generally is unpopular. As Anton says, "a national popular vote guarantees a Democratic win in every presidential election henceforth" (26). The Republican Party has become a permanent minority party at the national level.
This points to the strange incoherence of Trump's unpopular populism. Populist rhetoric depends on the claim that there are only two groups--the Elites and the People--and that the Populist demagogue speaks for the People. But this makes no sense if the Populist leaders speaks for only a minority of the People. I made this point at a Claremont panel at the 2017 American Political Science Convention, and the panel members dismissed this with disdain. But now it seems the people at the Claremont Institute are conceding this problem.
Of course, Trump and his supporters say he really does speak for the great majority of the people, but that the Democrats stole the election from him. Anton tries to say that the election was probably fraudulent, but his reasoning for this is confusing. He refers his readers to Claes Ryn's "Memorandum: How the 2020 Election Could Have Been Stolen" as "the single-best summary of the irregularities" (25). But if you read Ryn's essay, you will see that he simply repeats Trump's claims about fraudulent voting without offering any supporting evidence, while remaining silent about the evidence against those claims.
For example, Ryn writes: ". . . There, on the evening of Election Day, counting was suddenly stopped. Election observers and most others wee sent home. CCTV captured what happened then a a voting place in a convention center in central Atlanta, Georgia. A few election workers stayed behind, pulled out suitcases with ballots from under a covered table and, without the legally required election observers, fed them into the voting machines into the early morning." Ryn says nothing about the fact that this was investigated by the Republican Secretary of State in Georgia, who found that if you looked at the entire video tape, you could see that nothing illegal occurred, and that the tape presented by Rudy Giuliani on the Hannity show and elsewhere had been edited to distort what happened.
Similarly, Ryn repeats the wild claims about the Dominion voting machines changing votes from Trump to Biden, without even mentioning that these claims have been debunked, and that Dominion is now suing those who promoted these false claims. Oddly enough, Anton admits that Trump and his supporters made "extraordinary claims" about vote fraud, and "extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, of which none was provided" (25).
TRUMP'S CHARACTER AND JANUARY 6
I have insisted that Trump's extraordinarily bad character--his lack of any moral or intellectual virtues--is enough to render him unfit to be President. Now it seems that the people at the Claremont Institute agree.
Busch says that "Trump gave Democrats plenty of ammunition to run a campaign against his character and temperament" (12). And after November 3, Trump "gave vent to his most narcissistic and demagogic impulses" (15). Voegeli says that Trump's bad character created "Trump Fatigue": people were just tired of four years of daily displays of his mean-spirited narcissism, lying, and boorishness (20-21).
One of the many bad consequence of Trump's bad character was the rioting in the Capitol Building on January 6. Kesler admits that "Trump was reckless" in calling the rally for January 6 that led to the riot (32). But he tries to defend Trump against the charge of incitement to insurrection by claiming that his speech of January 6 provides no clear evidence of his intending to incite a riot (31).
In making his argument, however, Kesler is silent about the evidence that Trump intentionally refused to stop the riot after it began. For over two hours, people begged him to say something to stop it, and he refused, even while watching the television coverage of the violence. During this time, Chris Christie said publicly: "The president caused this protest to occur. He's the only one who can make it stop."
Many of Trump's supporters have objected that his bad character does not matter as long as his policies are good. But a president who lacks moral and intellectual virtues like self-discipline, honesty, prudence, and wisdom is unlikely to intelligently formulate and promote good policies. Voegeli suggests this when he notes the chaotic disorder in Trump's policy reasoning. Kesler says "the Trump agenda was never well prepared and thought through" (34). Isn't that because due to his bad character, Trump was never well prepared, and he never thought through anything?
So what are Trump's policies? Anton suggests: "secure borders, fair trade, a modest foreign policy" (26). Kesler suggests: "economic protectionism, 'internal improvements' or infrastructure spending, immigration reduced and tied to assimilation, a modest foreign policy mindful of the national interest, low taxes, judges willing to enforce the constitutional limits of legislative power, and a patriotic civic culture" (34). Kesler rightly points out that this largely coincides with the old-fashioned Republic Party policies that prevailed from Lincoln to Coolidge.
If these are good policies, they need intelligent and prudent proponents to defend and implement them. There is no reason to believe that a person like Trump has the character traits to do that.
THE LIBERTARIAN ALTERATIVE
All of this points to the alternative in 2016 that was ignored by both the pro-Trump Republicans (like the Claremont Institute) and the anti-Trump Republicans (like Bill Kristol et al.). They could have supported the Johnson/Weld ticket of the Libertarian Party. Certainly, many voters thought they were being presented with a bad choice between two bad candidates. In retrospect, the failure of the Republican Party leaders to support a libertarian alternative to Trump now seems like a big mistake.