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Donald Trump touts pie-in-the-sky plans and power grabs if he becomes America’s strongman

Donald Trump touts pie-in-the-sky plans and power grabs if he becomes America’s strongman
Former US President Donald J Trump appears in the New York Criminal Court in New York, New York, USA, 04 April 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andrew Kelly)

Since Donald Trump entered elective politics in what seems like a lifetime and a universe away, thoroughly polluting an already murky political space, political analysts have been trying to categorise him coherently. Is he a conservative, a strange kind of revolutionary or just a shape-shifting con artist? His rhetoric in the campaign for the 2024 nomination is revealing him to be an authoritarian wannabe. 

It has become commonplace for some to label Donald Trump a conservative. An alternative version of his politics, however, has tried to pin him down as a new — or a tried and true — model populist. A third school has metaphorically thrown up its hands and simply labelled him a political shape-shifting con artist. In that sense, he is supremely responsive to the ever-shifting demands of a fickle electorate hoping to give vent to its collective anger. 

One thing almost everyone agrees on, however, is that there is little of the old, mainline, country club-style Republicanism about him, despite his apparent wealth. Given those electoral defeats in 2018, 2020 and 2022, it might be easy to say Trump is now old news. 

Instead of being a man of the future, he is a man stewing perpetually in his own unresolved grievances; a narcissist unable to avoid admiring his physiognomy in any reflective surface he comes into contact with; and a man unwilling to move past all the perceived slights by the elites and his society betters. Accordingly, he is eager to wreak vengeance upon those who have done him wrong. 

The only challenge to the view of seeing him as last week’s crumpled newspaper is that he is currently leading in public opinion surveys when those who respond to such sampling by saying they are Republicans — and that they will support him in the 2024 Republican primaries. This should be surprising, given the bad news he keeps collecting over his legal woes and personal behaviour, but it remains true that there is something eerily magnetic about his presence on the political stage and the tales he spins. 

Maybe it is that some measurable share of Americans actually want a crass, egocentric entertainer to be their first citizen, rather than someone who actually understands that governance is a complex tapestry of things. Issues are not usually black and white, to be solved by a sleight of hand trick. They are not things to be sliced through like Alexander the Great did with the Gordian knot.

But one truth is that Donald Trump is no conservative. Classic modern conservative political thinking largely evolved out of the ideas of British thinker Edmund Burke at the end of the 18th century. In basic outline, Burke argued change was not necessarily for the better — and often, the wisdom of history pointed to the realisation that unguarded change often made things worse. Moreover, while elected representatives had an obligation to consider the opinions of their constituencies, they had a higher duty to adhere to their own core principles in the broader public interest. 

Shifts and changing seasons

On into the 20th century, especially in Britain, the US and Western Europe, conservatism came to stand for a social, political and economic order that generally privileged business and that, concurrently, business leaders should, themselves, be principled. Loyalty to country was a given; change should be managed slowly and carefully, and government’s involvement in the economy (and the social order) should be limited. During the Cold War, especially in the US, conservative Republicans largely embraced a vigorous foreign policy of internationalism (in contrast to an earlier isolationism) in the defence of the West. 

Or, as Bret Stephens, the conservative voice on the New York Times, put it, in discussing what could have happened with Fox News, “But, executed well, it could have elevated conservatism in the direction of Burke, Hamilton and Lincoln, rather than debase it in the direction of Andrew Jackson, Joe McCarthy and Pat Buchanan.

“Such a channel would still have been plenty conservative, in a way that most liberals would find infuriating. But it would also have defended the classically liberal core of intelligent conservatism: the idea that immigrants are an asset, not a liability; that the freedoms of speech and conscience must extend to those whose ideas we loathe; that American power ought to be harnessed to protect the world’s democracies from aggressive dictators; that we are richer at home by freely trading goods abroad; that nothing is more sacred than democracy and the rule of law; that patriotism is about preserving the capacity to criticise a country we love while loving the country we criticise.”

Traditionally, Republican conservatism was supportive of big business, even if a majority of its voters were largely small town and small business; more rural than urban. Nevertheless, classic internationalist Republican liberals continued to be elected from the votes of prosperous suburban expanses around big cities. 

However, as a tide of jobs shifted to East Asia, with the disappearance of yet more jobs as a result of increasing automation, and with larger shifts within the economy away from shop floors, many previously reliably Democratic blue-collar voters looked to give vent to feelings the established order had forgotten about them — or just left them behind to their fates — a trend that began in earnest in 1968. Such feelings came to merge with an anger and fear about their perceptions of the growing strength and prominence of the nation’s non-white populations and its voters — turning these people into formerly Democratic voters. 

Those holding these grievances became fair game for someone like Trump, who could offer an avenue for their frustrations. As a result, the contemporary Republican Party now increasingly looks very different from earlier Republican Party officeholders and their traditional values. Instead, it is now the party of grievance. 

Walking on hot water

In becoming the embodiment of this shift, Trump almost instinctively (nobody has ever accused him of being a deep thinker over the stresses and strengths of a democratic order, let alone a scholar of Edmund Burke or any other political thinker) has been assembling a palette of notions representing this grievance populism energised by angers about race, economic disparities, the elites (the people who aren’t like you), and those interminable foreign commitments. Throughout, he has joined this with an expressed admiration for strongmen of the international landscape.

In this light, Donald Trump, or more properly “Trumpism”, is significantly the newest incarnation of a nativist populism beyond the country’s usual political divisions that have erupted from time to time over the centuries. Now it comes with the idea that what the country needs is a leader who can deliver salvation from all those ills and makes use of the transmission belt of ultra-partisan cable news and social media. 

Trumpism peers abroad for examples of successful leaders who can achieve a North American caudillo-ism in the manner of Juan Peron or even Benito Mussolini — with preferred contemporary models like Vladimir Putin, Recip Erdogan, Viktor Orban, Kim Jung Un and Xi Jinping — even if China is the enemy incarnate.

In fact, in recent weeks, the Trump campaign for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination has begun to gain some momentum (including a mean girls-style ad on television and the internet, paid for by a Trump-aligned super PAC, linking the uncouth habits of eating chocolate pudding to likely challenger Florida’s Ron DeSantis’ lack of political nous). 

Trump’s campaign is coming along despite all the legal troubles he is increasingly facing. Now more of his 2024 agenda is coming into a clearer focus through hints in his speeches and rants. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Donald Trump — now a mere mortal and criminal defendant — faces justice: Act 1

Among other ideas, he is punting the regular deployment of the military domestically in the event of any public order problems, such as the Black Lives Matter protests of a few years ago. This would be a significant violation of the role of the armed forces in the country’s history other than during the Civil War or actual out-of-control urban riots. Then there is the idea of purging the federal workforce of any employees who even theoretically might be said to harbour dangerous ideological tendencies antagonistic to Trumpism.

Meanwhile, there is a proposal to build futuristic cities from scratch (for South Africans, this might bring back a memory of their own president airily promising something of the same pipe dream). The latter is clearly conceived as a way of abandoning those evil cities and their dirt, disorder and decay. 

It may not be understood by Trump’s writers that new towns actually have a long history in the US and UK, among other states, as a way of creating wholesome living spaces for ordinary citizens. Additionally, numerous countries have created new capitals to move beyond older, established national divisions such as Australia, Brazil and America as well. Nothing new there except for the nastiness. The Trumpian idea is to lock out the undesirables (and presumably immigrants and minorities), walling these new towns off against the rest of the nation. 

Police state

Digging further into statements and speeches, other ideas being floated include enforcing national policies of mandatory stop-and-frisk policing, deploying the military to fight street crime, break up gangs and deport immigrants, and the rapid criminal charging of leakers of government information.

As the Washington Post noted in its summary of these positions, “Former president Donald Trump has steadily begun outlining his vision for a second-term agenda, focusing on unfinished business from his time in the White House and an expansive vision for how he would wield federal power. In online videos and stump speeches, Trump is pledging to pick up where his first term left off and push even further.”

Or as Trump said in his recent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference and then at that rally in Waco, Texas, “In 2016, I declared I am your voice. Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

In contrast to the traditional Republican appeals of past presidents such as Ronald Reagan, to limit government’s reach into personal lives, by contrast, Trump is proposing to apply government power, centralised under his authority, toward a vast range of issues that have long remained outside the scope of federal control.

While some of his ideas remain mere sketches, Trump has a record of first floating ideas that may generate outrage or confusion, then, as the Post added, “roiling government and legal institutions to realise them, such as banning citizens of several majority-Muslim countries from coming to the United States and imposing trade barriers,” even if such banning orders were overturned in the courts. There will be more such ideas in the coming weeks.

At his Waco rally, he added, “Together, we are going to finish what we started. With you at my side, we will totally obliterate the deep state, we will banish the warmongers from our government, we will drive out the globalists, and we will cast out the communists and Marxists, we will throw off the corrupt political class, we will beat the Democrats, we will rout the fake news media, we will stand up to the RINOs, and we will defeat Joe Biden and every single Democrat.” Sounds like the announcement of a mediaeval crusade against the infidels rather than a would-be statesman outlining his hopes.

Interestingly, despite an increasingly angry feud, both Trump and Ron DeSantis have articulated many of the same kinds of ideas, as with DeSantis’ own doctrine, as the Post noted, “of asserting more government power, exemplified by his flagship bills restricting classroom instruction of diversity, gender and sexual orientation; his moves to punish Disney for opposing him; and his suspension of a Democratic prosecutor. The shared positioning on executive power by Trump and DeSantis, who lead early primary polls, underscores how much Trump has reshaped the Republican base in the mould of his ‘Make America Great Again’ movement.”

Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Larry Diamond, responded to these developments, saying, “The Reagan limited-government conservatism and emphasis on federalism is being displaced by a new muscular, nationalising cultural conservatism, with a lot of anger. One thing we’ve learned about Trump and authoritarian populists like him is not to dismiss what they’re saying as just idle language and toothless roar. We need to take it very seriously.” 

Still, there is a stirring among more conventional conservatives about this shift. Paul Dans, director of the traditionally conservative Heritage Foundation’s 2025 Presidential Transition Project (an effort to lay the basis for policy planning in a Republican administration), said, “The reality is we have to meet the government where it is presently. That’s really where the more activist leaning is coming from in this project, that we need skilled operators to start taking this battleship and pointing it in a new direction.”

Spin city

Turning to his new cities flyer, as the Post also notes, “Trump has discussed the new ‘Freedom Cities’ in utopian terms, with flying cars, manufacturing hubs and opportunities for homeownership, promising a ‘quantum leap in the American standard of living’. The campaign has provided few details on how the plan would work in practice.

“Trump acknowledged that the idea needed more work over a Sunday dinner in mid-March, according to economic adviser Stephen Moore. ‘He said, ‘I’m still trying to figure out how it’s going to work’, something like that,” Moore recalled in an interview. “He said, ‘How do you think we should make that work?’ And I’m going to help him with the idea.”

Moore said the cities could be designed in part by offering tax incentives and creating a “super police force that keeps the place safe”, reflecting GOP allegations that Democratic-run cities are awash with crime. It’s not clear how that will prove more attractive than similar measures already enacted by GOP governors. Even some of Trump’s allies have been sceptical of the plan.

“‘I hate this thing,’ one outside economic adviser to Trump said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations with campaign officials. ‘The economic problems facing the nation are so severe, and we’re going to talk make-believe about building new cities?’”

In all of this welter of ideas being tossed out, Trump is now speaking to defining standards in current cities to make use of classical-style architecture, more monuments to “true American heroes” and to end naming schools and streets “not after communists but patriots.” And there are also words about forcibly moving homeless people to tent encampments outside cities.

“Violators of these bans will be arrested, but they will be given the option to accept treatment and services if they are willing to be rehabilitated,” Trump said in a recent campaign video.

In the midst of all this, the candidate has also endorsed more federal intervention in education, broadening out programmes of school choice payments, as well as direct elections for parents to hire and fire school principals. He is also pushing to reestablish a presidential commission to promote a “patriotic” curriculum. 

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, responds, “What Trump is trying to resurrect is something that was thoroughly discredited by the professional historical community in a totally apolitical context. There are lots of places to look and see what happens when history education gets stripped of its professional integrity in the interest of a political party.”

The ideas just keep coming, including making it easier to fire federal workers, cracking down on media leaks and a “truth and reconciliation commission” to publish records on alleged abuses by spy agencies. 

The Post adds, “He said he will require all federal employees to pass a new civil service test covering due-process rights, free speech, religious liberties, and Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

“‘This is how I will shatter the deep state and restore government that is controlled by the people and for the people,’ Trump said in a campaign video. In another, he elaborated, ‘We need to clean house of all of the warmongers and America-Last globalists in the deep state, the Pentagon, the State Department and the national security industrial complex’.”

Even if Donald Trump wins the nomination, it is no foregone conclusion he will win the election, especially now that President Biden has officially declared he is standing for his party’s nomination in 2024. 

If Biden is reelected, do not expect to see much of this agenda even formally debated in Congress. But even if Trump wins, one should still expect a furious debate over most of these ideas — and with criticism coming both from Democrats as well as what is left of the traditional conservative wing of the Republicans. 

But it should also be clear many of these ideas will become fodder for debates and stump speeches by Trump in 2024. DM


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