Tuesday, October 13, 2020


Bret Stephens embarrasses himself by writing a column that can be summarized as "Imagine how great Republican president Donald Trump could have been if he hadn't been a Republican and he hadn't been Donald Trump." I'm not exaggerating:
... let’s imagine an alternative history for a (politically incorrect) Trump presidency.

January 2017: Shortly after his inauguration as president, Trump fulfills a campaign promise by releasing his full tax returns. In a statement, the president says he’s releasing them for two reasons.

“First of all, if our dishonest media ever gets a hold of them, and they will, they’ll lie about what’s in them! And second, they show just what’s wrong with our tax code. As a real estate developer, I make no apologies for taking advantage of every loophole. As president, I will close these crazy holes for the sake of the American people. #IAloneCanFixIt. #MAGA.”

February 2017: Infuriating movement conservatives, Trump resubmits 64-year-old Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, saying he wants to uphold the principle — denied to his predecessor — that a president has the right to nominate a candidate to fill a vacant judgeship at any point in his administration.

But he does so as part of a deal in which one of the court’s older conservative justices steps down from the bench in favor of Neil Gorsuch, 49....

June 2018: Invoking Gerald Ford’s congressional testimony regarding his presidential pardon of Richard Nixon, Trump agrees to sit before the House Intelligence Committee on the subject of his campaign’s links to Russia. He expresses regret for hiring Paul Manafort as campaign chairman and for his praise for WikiLeaks....
Our media continues to preserve the widespread delusion that there are Republicans -- apart from a handful of Northeastern governors -- who reject Fox News dogma and are therefore willing to tax the rich or (as the fantasy Trump also does in this column) accept restrictions on gun ownership. In reality, any D.C. Republican who challenged GOP orthodoxy in these ways would lose badly in a subsequent primary. And I haven't even gotten to the notion that Trump might have felt he had nothing to hide on Russia or taxes. (By the way, is Stephens passive-aggressively accusing his own newspaper of lying about the content of Trump's returns?)

But there's one passage in the Stephens op-ed that's plausible -- not as a description of what Trump's behavior might have been, but as a depiction of what any other Republican president would have done when faced with the coronavirus pandemic:
February 2020: Warning Americans that the novel coronavirus risks becoming the greatest global health emergency of the century, Trump tells Americans that we can beat this, and keep the economy strong, by adopting common-sense social-distancing measures: avoiding crowded public transportation, sports arenas, concerts and bars. Going further than even his own health experts recommended, he talks up his well-known germophobia and insists that everyone in the White House wear a face mask. But he also warns state governors that attempts to lock down entire communities in an effort to contain the spread is a futile cure that will impose ruinous economic costs.
That's more or less what I believe Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, or any other 2016 GOP presidential contender would have done. (Yes, probably even Ted Cruz.) I don't think there would have been a culture war built around mask-wearing -- that was a Trump neurosis turned into a right-wing act of defiance. Under another Republican, the repsonse would have been largely science-based.

Up to a point. Other Republican presidents wouldn't have had Trump's unhealthy aversion to masks and would have realized that an air of seriousness about a crisis is politically advantageous -- but they all would have demanded that restrictions on business be held to the bare minimum. This is mainstream plutocrat Republicanism. We would have reopened after a too-brief shutdown in the spring, and then we would have had a series of spikes and retrenchments and relaxations and more spikes and more retrenchments and relaxations. But another Republican president at least would have seen masks as complementary to a "Let's reopen" message. On balance, this would been an inadequate response to the pandemic, but it would have led to fewer infections and deaths.

Trump is Trump. Stephens's wish for a "politically incorrect" Trump who challenges orthodoxy but ultimately does the right thing is a romance-novel fantasy of a manly hero who's bad, but ... good-bad. That Trump doesn't exist. And Republicans who challenge party orthodoxy don't really exist either, except in areas that are backwaters for the party. Stephens and his Times colleagues David Brooks and Ross Douthat always believe they're spying a new Republicanism just over the horizon. But it's never really there.

No comments: