We are ten days into the presidency of Donald Trump; where do things stand? Some people would call it a disaster and others a sweeping success. The view among many conservatives who were part of the #neverTrump movement during the election is one of tempered relief. Though there have been a number of criticisms, some of them harsh, the consensus seems to be that the beginning of Trump’s presidency has not been the train wreck some predicted. Erick made this point here.
On one hand, though some of Trump’s cabinet nominees have drawn criticism, none has proven completely unqualified. A few — Secretary of Defense James Mattis and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley come to mind — have conservatives cheering. Trump has even shown encouraging deference to the expertise of Mattis (though, to be far, almost anyone would defer to a man who commands the respect Mattis does.)
On the other hand, there is the eerie ‘National Day of Patriotic Devotion’ which just happened to fall on the day of President Trump’s inauguration. There is the halting of entrance to refugees from Syria and other countries in the region that are humanitarian disasters — something I wholeheartedly oppose. There was the economically silly plan to pay for the border wall with a tariff on imported goods from Mexico — but after an outcry, Trump has backed off that policy.
Still, a lot of people who are not simply knee-jerk anti-Trump liberals are nervous. If Trump wants to calm, heal and unite the country, as well as secure his legacy, he would do well to meld the sometimes-conservative policy objectives he has pursued with a more conservative disposition.
To many founding conservative thinkers, conservatism is as much a way of approaching policy and reform as it is the specific policies and reforms. Specifically, there are two ways Trump could change his approach to policy reforms that are conservative in nature and would reassure skeptics.
1. President Trump should aim for more gradual change. As a major player in multiple aggressive industries, he understandably values getting lots of results quickly. Republicans have moved too slowly in a number of cases, so conservatives are refreshed to see someone on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Still, such aggressive change worries a lot of Americans. When combined with Trump’s unilateral approach, they sense that things are happening without their involvement. That is not the way in a representative republic. And in the complex policy environment we have, Trump needs to be sure to avoid pulling out the Jenga blocks too quickly or choosing the wrong one. Conservatives from Burke to Kirk have considered prudence in governing one of the highest virtues and this is why.
Senator Rand Paul seems to understand this instinctively. When Republicans moved to repeal Obamacare immediately, Paul warned that they should have a replacement plan ready to go. Encouragingly, he quickly put his own principles for a replacement out. Others have joined in putting together what happens after repeal.
In moderation, quick, decisive action is a good way of approaching politics because it prevents the opposition from causing gridlock. While I wouldn’t call for Trump to slow to the speed Republican have traditionally worked, he should moderate and allow Americans to examine everything that he is doing and make them feel like they are part of the process.
2. President Trump needs to take care to defer to the Rule of Law. Almost everything Trump has done in the first ten days has been via unilateral executive action. While there are areas that do not violate the separation of powers in the Constitution, other actions are accepted simply based on the precedent of previous presidents. Some appear unprecedented
When Trump signed an executive order regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline, he was simply reversing the Obama administration’s unilateral and arbitrary suspension of approval that had been the result of due process. This is a legitimate use of an executive order: it restores the Rule of Law.
By contrast, the way in which his order regarding refugees, visas and immigrants affects green card holders, according to the Department of Homeland Security, is itself an arbitrary and unilateral suspension of approval that had been the result of due process, as it applied only to those who happened to be outside the country at the time. This is one of the many reasons Trump should rescind this executive order.
Many Trump skeptics are worried that he displays an authoritarian personality. He can reassure these people by acting in a conservative manner that emphasizes that we are a nation of rule by laws, not by men.
Additionally, it will help to secure his legacy. Conservatives have mocked President Obama’s “pen and phone” line regarding executive power and noted that anything that can be enacted using a pen and a phone can be rescinded the same way. If Trump wants his reforms to stick, he should follow the process of passing legislation in both houses of Congress and signing the law. The resulting laws will be moderated and less purely what he would like them to be, but they will be more legitimate and lasting that way.
President Trump has pursued a number of policies that are positive, but it is not just the policy itself, but the way it is pursued that is important. While there is no reason to bend over backward for knee-jerk critics, he should not ignore the legitimate concerns of others, but rather seek an inclusive, uniting presidency by seeking to allay their fears. He should do this (and contrast himself with liberals) by applying the conservative principles of gradual change and the Rule of Law. The executive order on refugees, visas and immigrants is a good place to start.