Bret Stephens: Imagining the Trump presidency that wasn’t

(Doug Mills | The New York Times) President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the White House in Washington, Sept. 15, 2020. "America still awaits a politically incorrect president — while it waits out the jerk," writes Bret Stephens.

Where would we be now if we had a truly politically incorrect president? Donald Trump is supposed to be politically incorrect, but, for the most part, he isn’t. He’s mainly just a jerk.

Jerkishness is often mistaken for political incorrectness, in the way that blind luck is easily mistaken for great skill. They’re fundamentally different. Political incorrectness is an expression of intellectual independence. Jerkishness is a personality defect. The former requires a sense of inner rectitude. The latter reveals an absence of inner boundaries.

Politically incorrect people are prepared to deviate from their own party, ideology or personal interest for the sake of a moral principle. Jerks are always in it for themselves alone.

Andrei Sakharov and Liu Xiaobo were politically incorrect: honest men in dishonest systems. Trump is a dishonest man in a country with an increasingly tenuous grip on the concept of honesty itself.

With this in mind, 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. The subsequent retirement of Anthony Kennedy and the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg mean the court regains its conservative majority, with three younger justices, by the end of Trump’s first term.

October 2017: Following the massacre of some 60 people (and the injury of more than 800) by a lone gunman in Las Vegas, Trump delivers a prime-time address on the subject of gun control. He observes that, at the time the Second Amendment was written, a skilled marksman could fire, at most, three or four rounds a minute.

“The right to bear arms cannot become a license for American carnage,” he says, borrowing a line from his inaugural address. “We’re either going to get serious about regulating the ability of just about anyone to get access to high-powered, rapid-firing weapons, or we’re going to start requiring every gun owner to spend every other Sunday doing drills in their local ‘well-regulated militia’ — just like it says in the Constitution.”

May 2018: In the face of a migration crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump proposes a grand-immigration bargain with congressional Democrats: full funding for a border wall, in exchange for a path to citizenship for Dreamers. Later, he expands the proposal to a $2 trillion infrastructure bill with “Buy American” provisions, in exchange for expedited environmental reviews for federal projects and a repeal of the Jim Crow-era Davis-Bacon Act, which has long inflated the labor costs of public works.

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, which he concedes interfered in the 2016 election. But he challenges the factual basis of the Steele dossier and the legal basis for the FBI’s investigation of his campaign.

July 2019: In a telephone call with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Trump makes no mention of the Biden family.

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.

June 2020: After the killing of George Floyd, Trump convenes a conference of law enforcement officials and others to develop a set of national police standards. He asks Rep. Valerie Demings, D-Fla., to lead the conference.

For many conservatives (including me), some of these proposals would have been hard to accept. Liberals would have their own objections to some of this ideological jiujitsu. Then again, what an interesting and fruitful administration it might have been. America still awaits a politically incorrect president — while it waits out the jerk.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.