Donald Trump’s teachable moments

What lessons should today’s conservatives take from Trump?

Artillery Row

This time last year, it was not yet obvious whether President Biden would seek to resolve or profit from America’s ongoing culture war. Today the answer to that question could not be clearer. While Biden campaigned as a moderate, even in his more lucid interludes he has governed as a grouchy radical, deploying racially woke rhetoric and alienating citizens who had looked to him for stability. 

Republicans can be forgiven for entertaining hopes of a clear run at the White House in 2024. Their problem is that Donald Trump not only still exists, but will almost certainly want to avenge his 2020 defeat by being the man to oust the flailing Biden. 

Trump’s vulgar manner and poor self-control cost him a second term

Before he can do so, Trump would be wise to recall how his own vulgar manner and poor self-control cost him a second term in the first place. Piers Morgan’s recent Uncensored face-off with the former President was for the most part sensationalist rubbish. The trailer to this explosive coup, landed by TalkTV, was mired in controversy after Trump loyalists accused Morgan of wrenching clips out of context to suggest that Trump had stormed out of the interview in an intemperate huff. It was not altogether accurate, but even his closest allies would struggle to say, at least with a straight face, that Trump otherwise came across as a reformed, more teachable character.

Indeed, Biden was wise to pick a fight with the former President’s personality in 2020. Knowing it was a battle they could win, the Democrats focussed their campaign around a promise to salvage the soul of America from the horror of the Trump years. This had its attraction to voters who, though keen on his policies, had grown weary of Trump’s brash, overpowering character. Having been marketed as the return to normalcy candidate, Biden felt he should pay lip service to the virtues of healing and “unity” upon entering the White House. He stumbled through pious speeches on both themes, but the 79-year-old has since been anything but a unifying President.

Early falsehoods about masks and daily vaccine shots set the standard for what has proved a petty, divisive administration. Jen Psaki has openly pressured Big Tech companies to police the free exchange of ideas or whatever can be conveniently passed off as “misinformation”  in our increasingly digitalised public square. Any notion of Biden as America’s Healer-in-Chief was then bulldozed when he blasted Georgia’s new voting law as Jim Crow on steroids  a slur that went mysteriously un-fact-checked by the guardians of Truth™ at CNN. This is not even to mention the President’s unforced policy errors: high inflation, the Afghanistan debacle, and his unconstitutional vaccine mandate.

Recent polls suggest Americans are more on the ball than the man running the show: the President’s approval rating having dropped to a meagre 41 per cent. Biden’s ill-tempered bitterness is also increasingly evident. Asked about the possible impact of inflation on the midterms, Biden mocked the questioner, Peter Doocy from Fox News, as a stupid son of a bitch. The garish vulgarity of the Trump years is beginning to look like an era of suave, Reaganite statesmanship. 

Republicans are optimistic about their chances in the midterms later this year. Even the Democrats share this sense of a coming red wave, as Justice Breyer’s resignation from the Supreme Court well-timed in the likely event that Biden loses his majority in Congress demonstrates. Still, the problem of Trump’s unwillingness even to recognise his past mistakes, let alone learn from them, could yet prove a stubborn obstacle to a Republican backlash in 2024. Since an acrimonious primary would unite Democrats and distract from Biden’s failures, it is highly probable that Trump will be able to campaign for re-election unopposed by the Republican establishment. The danger is that such freedom will embolden the former President’s least appetising habits and foster complacency at the heart of his campaign.

For one thing, Trump is still pushing claims of widespread, game-changing election fraud in 2020, as he did in his recent face-to-face with Piers Morgan, saying that he won “by a tremendous margin” and “very easily”. At one point, he even brought up the topic himself, without needing to have it teased out of him by a savvy cross-examiner. Within a matter of minutes, Trump contradicted himself by insisting, quite preposterously, that he never talks about it. It was in part thanks to the disillusion created by such muddled propaganda that, conservative turnout being so poor, Republicans lost both contests in the Georgia Senate run-off elections at the start of 2021. The stolen election obsession is not only tiresome and unconvincing; it also indicates that Trump has learned nothing from his own loss.

There is no chance of Republicans nominating an inoffensive sweetie

His first Presidential debate with Joe Biden, for example, was utterly chaotic. Trump’s performance was marked by endless insults, interruptions and non sequiturs. Most foolishly, his overbearing style meant that Biden a reliable gaffe-machine at the best of times was never able to speak long enough to blunder before the many millions watching at home. Winston Churchill, who it must be said took a Trumpian-esque view of his own power and destiny, nevertheless had the self-knowledge to say to his wife Clementine: I should have made nothing if I had not made mistakes. It remains difficult to envision such a statement being made by Donald Trump.

If he does run again, Trump has two winning strategies. He can do his utmost to make sure, as he failed to do last time, that 2024 does not turn into a referendum on his own personality. Better still, he can radically alter that personality, ridding it of the extreme pride that may yet again be self-destructive to American conservatism. There is much to be said for fighting the culture war, at least at the right moments and against deserving targets. There is less to be said for behaving constantly like a petulant, if very amusing, toddler.

True, Republicans have learned much from Trump about the need to meet left-wing smears with right-wing belligerence. There is no chance of Republicans nominating an inoffensive sweetie like John McCain or Mitt Romney in the immediate future. Thanks to Trump, they now appreciate that no matter who runs, Democrats will line up to call their conservative opponents “racists” in any case. Biden himself did so with Romney in 2012, saying that the #Never-Trumper now celebrated by disingenuous Leftists would put black Americans back in chains if elected to replace Obama.

In return, Trump would do well to learn lessons from younger Republicans such as Dan Crenshaw and Ron DeSantis. Their success and popularity show that it is possible to battle uncompromisingly in the culture war while also being polished, knowledgeable and sparing with full-blown insults. Even recently, the contrast has been striking. While Trump makes bizarre public calls for Putin to dump whatever dirty secrets Russian intelligence agencies possess on Hunter Biden, DeSantis is showing greater shrewdness and discernment. The Florida Governor picks fights he knows he can win, banning the teaching of sexual or transgender ideology from kindergarten through 3rd grade to the howls of the Democratic establishment and woke Disney executives. Indeed, while Trump plays into the hands of Leftists who caricature Republicans as dim or even treacherous stooges, DeSantis tricks Democrats into stripping down to their radical nakedness, exposing them as a faction of unelectable degenerates.

The pitfall of the Trumpian bargain was always that belligerence, for all its virtues, would become an end-in-itself. In truth, the appetite for combat is only useful when allied to the conservative principles which make fighting worthwhile. Not to grasp this distinction risks alienating middle-of-the-road Americans and delaying the reckoning that the Democrats deserve.

Trump has played an instructive role, but he should not be entrusted with the future of American conservatism. It would be better served in the hands of the new generation of Republicans, the best of whom have been quick to appreciate Trump’s unbreakable fighting spirit without adopting his (perhaps incurable) character flaws. If we compare politics to the art of war, Trump is much closer to a battering ram than a first-rate General: essential to breaching the castle gates, but a burden to carry around once the soldiers are inside. 

That said, the Republican Party shows little sign of wanting to drop Trump, and the former President himself would be the last to concede that the very stable genius behind The Art of the Deal could ever be an obstacle to winning. Live with Piers Morgan, Trump all but completely confirmed that he will run again, no doubt because he fancies himself as the favourite. Indeed, Joe Biden has had a pitiful first year and Democrats, on account of their radically unpopular agenda, look practically certain to lose the White House in 2024. 

But in that election year, much less will be left to chance if Trump can prove even half as teachable as he has always been entertaining. Despite their blunders over the last twelve months, there can be no doubt that Democrats are already searching for ways to punish Republican complacency.

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