Here’s the thing about our new president – Barack Obama ran his mouth about fundamentally transforming the United States, but it’s Donald Trump who is actually doing it. Making America great again is not simply about rolling back the calendar to some hazily-recalled, glorious yesterday; it’s about creating a new conservative paradigm of both strength and conflict that is absolutely grounded in the post-modern, new media present. Trumpism is not focused on the past, except in the sense that it seeks to replicate the feel of the strong, healthy, normal U.S. of A. that resides in the memories of us elders. Trumpism is something new, something unprecedented, something radical, hidden in the body of something old and awesome, a 1965 Mustang with a computer-controlled 289 V8 engine, a built-in, voice-activated nav system, and a steering wheel warmer, ready to race the libs in their clunky ’71 straight-six Dodge Dart for America’s pink slip.
The first weeks of the Trump presidency have been a series of bouts in the Octagon, where our president gleefully provoked cage matches with his opponents and left them in bloody heaps on the canvas. At the same time, he has nominated the most delightfully right-wing cabinet in American history, converting some #NeverTrumpers into #OkayMaybes. Into this brawl wades Hugh Hewitt with his new book, The Fourth Way: The Conservative Playbook for a Lasting GOP Majority, a clarion of wonky rationality sounding in the midst of the beautiful chaos.
The Fourth Way is a short and pithy game plan, a sort of half wish list, half to-do list for the new president and Congress. It’s a policy book (but a readable one), yet it’s directed at an administration that’s less about policy than about vibe, as well as a Congress that’s less about policy than trying to figure out how to pursue its own often out-of-whack-with-the-base priorities in the shadow of the Orange Sledgehammer at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Hewitt understood that Trump could win and that we could grab the Senate too, but he couldn’t quite let himself dare to hope that it would happen (Neither did I, frankly). To the extent the Republican Party collectively asked “What do we do now?” in the wake of the biggest upset in our history, this is his attempt to answer.
Hewitt is a nice person, a Republican of the classic sort (I mean that in a good way) who would likely be driving a Buick and glad-handing at the PTA or church social if he had not left his smallish town for a gig with Richard Nixon. That led him to his current status as the serious conservative everyone, right and left, talks to, what with his syndicated radio show and his gig at NBC/MSNBC (where his co-panelists regularly test his near infinite patience with everybody except those who either think Alger Hiss was framed or opine on Muslim terrorism without having read The Looming Tower).
Again, Hewitt’s nice, as you would expect from his Ohio upbringing. He reaffirms niceness via the relentless optimism and goodwill that run through the book. Hewitt has been unbelievably gracious to me personally even though I, another son of the Buckeye State, avoided infection with the Midwestern niceness virus by moving to California at age six. I hear the same about him from many others as well. Hewitt is the kind of guy who signs onto a county board of concerned citizens to aid the community’s less fortunate because, well, that’s what citizens do. And this is the world he hopes Trump will build; that kind of civic engagement may be a pipe dream, but we could do much worse, and have.
Yet while Hewitt is not the kind of guy to match a screaming feminist decked out in a genital suit swear for swear – he’s relentlessly dignified and he finds jousting with trolls distasteful, whereas many of us battlecons live for the fight – he’s also a nice conservative who’s been mugged. Hewitt knows what kind of orderly, thoughtful politics he wants, and The Fourth Way describes it, but he’s seen enough bad behavior from the other side (and from ours) that he doesn’t demand adherence to the sort of Martyr of Queensbury rules that for so long led to Republicans getting rolled by street fighting Dems.
Get him going on the Supreme Court and you’ll find no stronger advocate of taking the Reid Rule overturning the filibuster for lower court judges and shoving it down the Dems’ craw by applying it to Trump’s SCOTUS picks (suffice it to say, Hewitt likes his judges smart, young, and originalist). Hewitt’s nice, but he’s not so nice that he feels the moral compulsion to lose that so frustrated the fed-up Tea Partiers and Caddyshack conservatives who finally seized the GOP like Al Czervik snatched the aptly-named Bushwood Country Club from Judge Elihu Smails.
And Hewitt has always been willing to remonstrate his wayward allies, with a noticeable increase in intensity in recent years as the GOP Establishment types refused to listen to his sage advice. After a long period of trying to make it work with John Boehner, he finally cut him loose. I love The Fourth Way’s characterization of these DC perma-hacks as the “Dean Martin Republicans,” though it’s unfair to the crooner; at least Dino could swing.
Hewitt remains enamored of Paul Ryan even though the Speaker still stubbornly retreats into WSJ editorial page-pleasing bouts of tone deaf conservofundamentalism. Awhile ago, Hewitt desperately tried to get the House to unshoot itself in the foot after it inexplicably started off its attack on entitlements by slashing the pay of retired vets. The utterly predictable outcry convinced the caucus to sullenly recall that mind-bogglingly dumb bomb run on its own voters. Hewitt understands what too few old school GOPers do. You dance with who brung ya; you don’t take a fork off the snack table and plunge it into your date’s back.
Now Hewitt frets – with good cause – that these ninnies plan to go after three basic middle class tax deductions around which millions of Republican voters have organized their financial lives. The tax reformers’ rationale for messing with the mortgage interest, state tax, and charitable deductions is largely one of economic aesthetics – these all “distort” the economy or something. And…so? The base loves them. The base relies on them. And the base will gut the House and Senate majorities like fish if the caucus is insane enough to choose poorly by laying a finger on them in pursuit of the Holy Grail of tax reform.
Hewitt is too nice to say it, but I’m not. Look, stupid – you screw us over and you’re finished. Luckily, President Trump is far too politically savvy to allow himself to be crucified on the cross of Austrian economics. Donald J. Dangerfield has much to teach them about the real world he actually thrived in versus academic theory. I can just see him reacting to a bunch of eager legislators as they present him with a proposal to slash the values of 50 million Republicans’ houses by 10% in order to drop from five income tax brackets to two. “Are you bleeping nuts? Nobody voted for me – or you – because of tax reform. Reince, get these morons the hell out of here! Sad!” The subsequent tweetstorm would be epic.
But that’s the extent of The Fourth Way’s brawling – Hewitt is less about the fight than the policy, and his policy is mostly right on target. We all want a 350-ship Navy and a 540,000 soldier Army (Hell, we actually want more of both). And we surely need to replace the Ohio-class subs and put China in its place in the Pacific. As with Ronald Reagan, defense trumps the debt. That’s old school Republican hawk red meat that fits snuggly into Trumpism’s narrative of unchallenged American supremacy.
Yet conservorthodoxy be damned; infrastructure is totally going to be a thing, and Hewitt gets it that Trump promised it and the green eyeshades guys are going to have to deal with it. Trump could do a lot worse than allow the kind of local control of infrastructure spending that Hewitt recommends. Trump should build the tangible “trophies” Hewitt suggests, though I suspect the master of branding structures with his name was always going to make sure absolutely everyone knows that that public pool is a Trump pool, and that that interchange is a Trump interchange.
But the policy part is not the entirety, nor even the most important part, of Trumpism – though the conservative stuff we’ve been seeing so far is awesome and is turning many leery conservatives at least Trump-curious if not fully Trump-committed. Keep in mind, if you ask a lot people why they voted for Trump, you often get a response along the lines of “Righteous vengeance.” If we can’t have a conservative ideologue, so the reasoning went, at least we can have a bare-knuckled brawler. Trump fights. Yet somehow we ended up not only with a warrior but the most conservative administration ever. Maybe it’s because Trump is a secret conservative. Maybe Trump sees that conservatism (or at least conservativishism) works. Maybe Trump just figures he can annoy and outrage his enemies most effectively by implementing conservative policies.
Trumpism is mostly, critically, an attitude. It is a response to the sense that we have lost ourselves as Americans, that we are being swamped by lies and slanders and hate poured down on us from the heights of power by liberal pols, media jerks, and the social justice gestapo. Trumpism is about telling these bastards to “Go to hell,” but hiking up your kilt and flashing the other side a vertical smile is not exactly Hewitt’s wheelhouse. He’s realistic enough to know there’s no cooperation with the libs on judges where he’s rock solid, but where he’s significantly softer than the base he hopes for a kumbaya compromise that’s never going to happen.
That issue is illegal immigration. Hewitt, the nice guy, feels sorry for the nice families whose lives would necessarily be disrupted by us doing a 180 and enforcing the laws these nice families voluntarily chose to break. He’s 100% with us on the border wall – a double fence with a road in the middle to provide a physical testament to our newfound seriousness about protecting our sovereignty. He gets it up to that point – the base is done with the lies and the strategic procrastination and wants it built. Count on Trump, the man with the finger on our pulse, to be down there on the border very soon in a hardhat turning over the first shovelful of dirt.
But Hewitt considers the wall a first step to be followed by a grand compromise between the Dems and the Republicans to allow the 11 million illegals to stay with a “purple card” giving them residency with no potential for citizenship. Oh dear. This is The Fourth Way’s most wishful of wishful thinking. The minute those purple cards go out in the mail the left will be crying about “second class Americans” who must be naturalized, though we won’t hear the libs over the clamor of those of us in the base shrieking “Amnesty!” and pointing out the GOP collaborators like an army of pod-spawned Donald Sutherlands. The base will call it “amnesty” because it is “amnesty,” and amnesty is not just a bridge too far, it’s past the bridge too far, a proverbial fourth bridge somewhere way beyond Arnhem. Amnesty would be the GOP’s Market Garden times one hundred; fortunately, Trump is more Patton than Montgomery.
Maybe it makes policy sense to let the illegals stay here with some sort of regularization, but it doesn’t make political sense to do it, either in terms of the effect on our morale or the impact on our politics when their kids start voting Democrat. Trumpism prioritizes that, not the purity of policy perfection. Trumpism is therefore a conservatism that triumphs by subordinating mere policy to politics, though some would doubt that could be considered conservatism at all (Hewitt is the biggest of big tent guys and would never, ever start that pointless argument). In a pure policy world, a flat tax might be best, and maybe it’s better, as a matter of pure policy, to let the illegals out of the shadows rather than keep them in. But neither of those things will make America great again, so we aren’t doing them.
Hewitt’s The Fourth Way is a solid policy plan that, leaving aside the illegal alien stuff, the GOP would do well to read. But at the end of the day, Trumpism isn’t about policy. That’s Trump’s radicalism. He’s about the attitude. He’s about the fight. Most of all, he’s about the winning.