Why Trump Succeeded Where Others Failed
Every Republican president has said that he would do this. Only Donald Trump actually did it. Here is a possible explanation of why:
Over the years that I have been blogging at Twilight Patriot, I have made a number of predictions about the future. Most of these ended up being correct; a few were wrong. One of those wrong predictions was that at least one of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees would vote with the liberals to uphold Roe v. Wade. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be wrong than I am right now.
My reasoning, at the time, was pretty straightforward: over and over again, Republican presidents have ran for office on promises to appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices, but then, once they were in the White House, they appointed centrists with no clear ideological commitments. These justices usually ended up drifting left once they were in power, which is how we got Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, and John Roberts.
To me, it did not look like Trump’s commitment to conservative values ran any deeper than that of Reagan and the two Bushes, who gave us the four turncoats I just named. (For comparison, only three of their justices – Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito – have turned out to have consistent principles).
And since it seemed to me that Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh had both shown signs of leftward drift, I concluded that at least one of them would probably do the same thing as O’Connor, Kennedy, etc.
And yet they didn’t. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, all three of Trump’s appointees held the line, and voted to start treating America like a constitutional democracy again. And even John Roberts, who even very recently was trying to peel off at least one conservative justice to join a “compromise opinion,” eventually gave up and wrote a partial concurrence. As a consequence of this, abortion will soon be illegal in about twenty states.
Obviously, this is nowhere near a total win for the right-to-life movement. Most Americans still lean pro-choice, and the laws in most states will continue to reflect that. Also, it’s worth remembering that the Court reversed Roe v. Wade voluntarily, due to random, age-related changes in its political makeup, and not as a result of the kind of massive outside pressure that steamrolled over its worst pre-modern decisions, Dred Scot v. Sandford and Lochner v. New York.
Because of this, it remains possible that the Court will reinstate Roe v. Wade in the near future – if, for instance, Justice Thomas or Justice Alito has the ill fortune to die under a president of the opposite party, the way that Justice Ginsburg did. But even with these caveats, what happened today is still a huge win for conservatives, and it easily outweighs all the downsides of the Trump presidency.
Which brings us to the big question: Why did Trump succeed where others had failed? Why did people like me, whose expectations for Trump were based on what had happened when earlier Republicans ran on the same sort of promises that Trump was making, turn out to be wrong?
I have a theory, and it goes like this: Unlike most of his rivals within the Republican party, Donald Trump is not, at heart, a scoundrel. He’s just a child who never had to grow up.
Which is ironic, considering that when he was sworn in back in January of 2017, he was the oldest person to ever assume the presidency. But for rich people who don’t have to do much to climb their way up the ladder of life, and who are always being sheltered from the consequences of their own actions, the mentality of never-ending childhood is common.
Did Trump need to do well in high school in order to go to an expensive college? No. Did he need to do well in college in order to get a job with the Trump Organization? No. Did he need to prove his abilities in lower jobs before being entrusted with multi-million-dollar real estate deals? Again, no.
When he wanted to avoid the draft, Trump had doctors at the ready to find evidence of bone spurs. When he wanted to get through his divorces and bankruptcies and other legal affairs with as little trouble as possible, he had the best lawyers at his beck and call. And so forth.
As a result, Donald Trump didn’t have to develop a thick skin. He didn’t have to learn to be humble about his abilities or realistic in choosing his goals. He didn’t have to get into the habit of only making commitments that he was willing to work hard to keep. And he didn’t have to learn to persist at a task even when he wasn’t surrounded by other people doing their best to make that task easy for him.
Basically, he never had to evolve past the level of development that most of us were at around the age of ten. But at heart, he is still a patriot. He loves his country, and he wants what is best for Americans. And he also has some important talents – not in management or trying to run a bureaucracy, but in deal-making, brand-building, and showmanship.
And Donald Trump is not, at his core, corrupt, malign or insincere. When he said that he wanted to build a big, beautiful wall on the southern border, he really meant it. He didn’t exactly do a good job of following through with that promise – waiting until Congress’ lame duck session, when the Democrats had already won the midterm elections, to force a shutdown over the issue was an especially clueless move – but at the same time, I have little doubt that his feelings toward the wall remained 100% positive.
It's a bit like when a ten-year-old boy says that he is going to practice basketball or piano or something every day of his life, so that he can grow up to be a superstar. Will he? Not if he isn’t surrounded by adults who keep pushing him to do it. But at the same time, in the moment that the kid says it, he is almost certainly sincere – he really does think it would be very cool to be the next Wilt Chamberlain or Glenn Gould. And if he does get the right kind of support from the people around him…
Trump did not get any real support, from the rest of the Republican Party, on the Wall. So he flubbed it. But he did get support, from Mitch McConnell and the Federalist Society, on judicial nominations. Hence his success in that arena.
In this way, Trump differs greatly from the moderate republicans who used to control the party. Consider, for instance, this representative quote from Mac Stipanovich, chief of staff to Bob Martinez, the moderate Florida governor who later served in the first Bush administration:
“There was always an element of the Republican Party that was batshit crazy. They had lots of different names—they were John Birchers, they were ‘movement conservatives,’ they were the religious right. And we did what every other Republican candidate did: we exploited them. We got them to the polls. We talked about abortion. We promised—and we did nothing. They could grumble, but their choices were limited.”
Donald Trump never treated his base this way. He did not look down upon or secretly despise the people who put him in office. He was never guilty of the more sophisticated kinds of mendacity.
Like any ten-year-old, Trump is prone to wildly exaggerating his own achievements and abilities, and to saying that he wants to do a thing but then forgetting all about it five minutes later. But like most ten-year-olds, he does not tell cool, calculated lies, or make a show of liking and respecting people whom he privately disdains. Everything he has said has been a genuine reflection of his thoughts at the moment he said it. Including things like the following comment, made in response to a Democratic governor’s veto of a born-alive bill:
“The baby is born, the mother meets with the doctor, they take care of the baby, they wrap the baby beautifully, and then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.”
So when Trump uses this kind of harsh language, it means he really is against abortion, and he will act decisively to limit abortion, so long as the rest of the Republican Party is there to make it easy for him.
He never acted on his promise to defund Planned Parenthood, because there were too many moderates in Congress for a bill to that effect to reach his desk. But judicial appointments were simpler, and when Mitch McConnell and the Federalist Society provided him with a deep bench of up-and-coming originalists to choose from, he appointed them to as many federal judgeships as he could. And that is how we ended up with Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett.
Contrast this with Ronald Reagan. Back in 1967, when he was Governor of California, Reagan had signed a bill making it much easier for women in his state to legally get an abortion. By the time that he was running for President in 1980, he said that his views had changed.
But Reagan, as we all know, was a skilled actor – a man who knew how to adopt different personas to fit different audiences. In 1981, when he got his first chance to pick a Supreme Court justice, he chose Sandra Day O’Connor, even though numerous leading conservatives – people like Jesse Helms and Phyllis Schlafly – said that they did not trust O’Connor on abortion. (Unfortunately, neither Helms nor any other Republican Senator had the courage to actually vote against O’Connor).
As it turned out, Justice O’Connor cast the deciding vote to save Roe v. Wade in 1992.
After Reagan, we got the two Bushes, who followed Stipanovich’s mantra to the letter, doing “what every other Republican candidate did” and “exploiting” the pro- life people and other “movement conservatives.”
And then we got Trump. As we’ve learned over the last six years, Trump does not always follow through on his commitments. He does not always choose reasonable goals. He seldom acts as if he is aware of his own fallibility.
But like a typical ten-year-old child, Trump’s heart is in the right place, his desires are good, and his words match what he is really feeling and thinking. And Trump will consistently do the right thing, when he has enough friends standing behind him and cheering him on.
When it came to picking the best judges, Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence and the Federalist Society stood squarely behind Donald Trump. And that’s why we have the Supreme Court Justices that we have today.