Trump is that quintessentially American figure, hated by intellectuals on both sides of the aisle and on the other side of the Atlantic, who doesn’t start with a “plan,” but rather gets himself in the thick of things and then moves outward to a workable idea—not a “principled” one—that can address the problem at hand, but which goes no further. That’s what American businessmen and women do. (And, if popular culture is a reliable guide to America, it is what Han Solo always does in Star Wars movies.)--Joshua Mitchell@Politico
One notable fact, and it has not been properly acknowledged by my friends, is that quite a few intellectual media outlets that for a few generations reliably support Republicans were outright critical of Donald Trump (even if many admired his campaigning): this included traditional (neo-Burkean) conservatives at the National Review, the Strauss-inspired Neocons at the Weekly Standard, and various Libertarians. (This is not to deny that one can find folk from these groups that do or still support Trump.) While the reasons for rejecting Trump varied, Redstate's while I may view Clinton’s campaign as anti-American, I view Trump’s campaign as un-American. Most critics will note not just Trump's racism, nationalism, and misogyny, but will also emphasize that he utterly lacks principles and expresses deep character flaws. Because most of the people I know abhor Donald Trump, this made me wonder if any intellectuals inside universities, think tanks, and media supported Trump's candidacy.
I did not expect to find many such intellectuals because Trump shows little public interest in the world of ideas and he does not flatter intellectuals: he treats us as insignificant. To be sure, quite a few intellectuals were taking Trump's rise seriously as a phenomenon that represented a potentially wider breakdown of the post-Cold-War consensus or alignment. I devoured anything said by Stephen Davies (himself a classical Liberal), who was both prescient and interesting in predicting the rise of nativist defenses of welfare states (limited to culturally/ethnically defined insiders).
As it happens during the campaign I was added/invited, much to my surprise, to join a secret Facebook group (well, probably not secret to the NSA and KGB, etc.) with folk who were at least not hostile to Trump and where I found quite a few thoughtful supporters of Trump, warts and all. My reason for inclusion was pretty straightforward: some members of the group had read some of my earlier posts on Trump and from these they concluded correctly, that I was not treating Trump's rise as an aberration, and that I was trying to understand the meaning and significance of his rise. I was never kicked out of the group, despite my clear opposition to Trump. I mention this because I can't properly acknowledge their contribution to this post.
I think it is worth reflecting on Trump supporting intellectuals, because they may teach us something about our times what too many over-confident liberal intellectuals missed. It strikes me that there are three kinds of intellectuals that support Trump: 1. traditional conservatives; 2. Christian conservatives; 3. Rejectionists of the post-Cold-War consensus. The first two are not especially interesting. First, to be frank, I find the small group of traditional conservatives that still supported Trump simply incoherent; there is nothing Conservative about Trump, who attacked Clinton from the Left and the Strong state Right (and because I devoted a long piece dissecting Bonevac's views, I won't repeat myself.)
Second, the motives of Christian conservatives can be summed up easily, "It's The Supreme Court, Stupid." They all start and end with the recognition that for the first time in nearly forty years the Supreme Court may well turn liberal. And while from their perspective they have already gone through several grievous losses on abortion and other traditional values (not the least gay marriage), they all decided that they were guaranteed to lose under Clinton while Trump, after selecting Pence, offers them some hope they will get a Judge at least friendly to their concerns. A thoughtful articulation of these concerns [HT John Schwenkler] can be found in the writings (e.g., here) of Eric Metaxas, the author of a book on one of the few heroes of Nazi-Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Hope matters in politics, and sometimes one's interests and moral aspirations require coalitions/alliances with folk one abhors and detest, including moral detestation. FDR and Churchill (neither angels) recognized this paradigmatically when they allied with Stalin against Hitler. Even so, while reading the Christian Conservatives is interesting both because they reflect carefully on their own moral struggle in voting as well as on their diagnoses of what ills The USA, ultimately their argument boils down to realpolitik. There is a further question about the compatibility between long-term moral ends and short-term realpolitik; the answer to this conundrum (although I did not see it expressed by a Christian conservative) is best captured by the Calvinist thought that (as Joshua Mitchell notes) God sometimes uses the wicked for Holy purposes.
The third group is itself a heterogeneous bunch. But key to it is the idea that Trump represents a global phenomenon (with nods to Brexit, especially). It includes critics not just of liberal values such as free movement of people across borders, free trade, of cosmopolitanism, rule-based (bureaucratic) rule, but also critics of group identity politics, US foreign interventions, global technocratic elites, the financialization of the economy, the decline of national community, and, yes, political correctness; in addition, some favor more aggressive confrontation with Islam (as a clash of civilization). It includes modern Jacksonians and some so-called West-Coast Straussians enchanted with decisive leaders and America's would-be-greatness. I return to these before long.
As it happens, few emphasize what is rather distinctive of Trump: his emphasis on deal-making. This is an unfamiliar trope in Europe. (My colleage Tom van der Meer has also noted it.) In particular, I want to note his pride in making zero-sum deals. Many Trump defenders that I have read in preparing this post, will claim that President Obama and Hillary Clinton voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006. What is much rarer noted by these intellectuals -- perhaps because they think it is a joke -- is that Trump insists that he will make the Mexicans or the President of Mexico pay for it. But in his campaign speeches it always was a big line. This matters because it shows his willingness to explicitly engage in zero-sum bargaining. This is a distinctly anti-Liberal (which emphasizes mutual gains) mindset. Now I have suggested that the mindset is a perfectly rational mindset if you think (i) the world is zero-sum; (ii) we inhabit a cronyist political economy; the point is not to eliminate the cronies, but rather to get (and this also Jacksonian) the right cronies in. (It, thus, need not be the optimal or most moral mindset.)
One intellectual, who writes with admiration of Trump (although he may not endorse all of Trump's views and he allows it is possible that Trump could be a would-be-tyrant) is [HT Mark Yellin] Joshua Mitchell a Professor of Government at Georgetown (see here and here). He treats Trump as a quintessentially American figure (without mentioning the inheritance), who turns Trump's lack of interest in ideas* into something positive; on Mitchell's account Trump rejects principles and plans, "but rather gets himself in the thick of things and then moves outward to a workable idea." Mitchell goes on to connect this (somewhat less persuasively) with philosophical Pragmatism; but that is a mistake (because Pragmatists have a fondness for experts and democratic self-rule not national greatness). As it happens, the idea of Trump as a problem solver (in the service of the nation) has an odd pedigree in the campaign. It was initially bestowed on him by the NoLabelsCampaign (the brainchild of former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman (R) and former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman (D – CT)), and was echoed (not very often) at times during the campaign. I was a bit dubious about Mitchel's point (because Trump did often mention his plans). But early in his victory speech, Trump said,
I’ve spent my entire life and business looking at the untapped potential in projects and in people all over the world. That is now what I want to do for our country. Tremendous potential. I’ve gotten to know our country so well — tremendous potential. It’s going to be a beautiful thing. Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential.
Here, indeed, Trump's rhetoric echoes Mitchell's point. But he does so in the service of beauty (and, in fact, he often used "big, beautiful, powerful wall"). To the best of my knowledge only Trump's critics have remarked on the significance of Trump's aesthetics, which means that the intellectual case for Trump has not fully been made, yet.