Our conversation moved from James Madison to Donald Trump, who, Will says, is not mentioned in his book for the same reason Doris Day isn’t: Neither has made a contribution to our understanding of conservatism.
Of course, President Trump matters in a way that Doris Day does not, since it is Trump, by his takeover of the Republican Party, who has fundamentally redefined the GOP, and in so doing, left conservatism politically homeless. As someone who raised alarms about Trump as far back as 2011, I wish he were not relevant too. But I’m not sure that the leader of the Republican Party, the president of the United States, and the most popular figure among self-avowed conservatives can be so easily removed from the picture. Trump knows almost nothing about conservatism, yet because of his political success, his fate is now intertwined with those of conservatism and of America’s civic and political culture.
Peter Wehner: Trump’s sinister assault on truth
Will has claimed that Trump has done more lasting damage than Richard Nixon did during the Watergate scandal because, in Will’s words, “you can’t un-ring the bell. You can’t unsay what he has now said is acceptable discourse in the United States.”
Trump supporters argue, I told Will, that the president may be a little rough around the edges, that his tweets might be over the top now and then, but those things are mostly inconsequential and ephemeral. What matters, they say, is what Trump does, not what he says, and what he has done is advance conservative policies and appoint conservative judges.
Will replied that he hoped Trump supporters are right—but he’s pretty sure they are wrong when they say that what Trump is doing to our culture, our politics, and our civic discourse is ephemeral.
Trump’s supporters on the right “misunderstand the importance of culture, the viscosity of culture, and I think they are not conservatives, because they don’t understand this,” Will said. “Nixon’s surreptitious burglaries were surreptitious; that is, they were done in secret because they were unacceptable to the country, and once exposed, they were punished and the country moved on. What Mr. Trump has done is make acceptable, make normal, a form of behavior that would get a third grader sent to the principal’s office or to bed without dessert.” Will argues that Trump’s agenda, to the degree it pleases conservatives, is what any Republican president would have done. “So the question is, What does Trump bring that’s distinctive?” Will said. “And it’s all vulgarity, coarsening, semi-criminality.”
I pressed the point, asking about the concrete, tangible harm of Trump’s conduct.
“The answer is in the terms themselves,” Will replied. “The norms, that is, what are normal and what are normative, cease to be normal. And cease to be normative.” His point is that Nixon, for all his crimes, evaded norms; he didn’t challenge them. He didn’t dispute them. He didn’t degrade them. In fact, he was ultimately done in by them. Donald Trump promised when he ran for president that he would overturn our norms, Will has said, and that’s one promise he’s kept.