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Justin Stapley: Conservatives don’t need Donald Trump again

Trump made the presidency more powerful, grew the debt and made America less confident.

(Cooper Neill | The New York Times) Cruz Majeno and Duane Schwingel pose for a photo with a cardboard cutout of former President Donald Trump, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas on Saturday, July 10, 2021.

A few points for Republicans who say we need Donald Trump again:

Firstly, I’ve been seeing lots of confusion between two different presidential tendencies as people try to place Donald Trump in the company of Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge as limited government presidents.

Trump’s approach wasn’t one of limited government. It was the unitary executive approach. Yes, he assaulted the bureaucracy, but he didn’t return one iota of power to Congress or the states. The bureaucracy developed as Congress ceded its authority to administrative agencies. Trump did not address that distortion of the constitutional order. He accumulated that authority into the presidency itself.

Trump only accomplished handing over to Joe Biden a presidency that he had dramatically expanded and empowered. That isn’t limited government. It amounts to serious inroads towards autocracy, the rule of will over the rule of law.

Secondly, Trump continues to get praise for lowering taxes. But that’s an empty gesture without addressing the deficit and the national debt. This is a point Barry Goldwater made often throughout his career. We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Lowering taxes without addressing spending passes the buck to future generations. It makes our own reckoning creep closer.

Trump’s Trillion-dollar deficits were more reckless than Barack Obama’s. Trump accumulated serious spending in a time of plenty when we should have been applying the principles of thrift and fiscal conservatism.

Finally, Trump’s policies of economic nationalism and protectionism were a shrug back to the very mercantilism the early American patriots revolted against.

By throwing off the economic policies of the mother country (#BritainFirst, if you will), America established what amounted to an empire of free trade. The country thrived and grew thanks to the application of market forces and free enterprise.

Trump, in essence, has taught conservatives to believe America isn’t good enough to compete on an equal playing field. He has trained his supporters to believe that American enterprise has to be insulated from competition by an activist government gaming economic policy in its favor.

No, Trump wasn’t a dictator (nor do I believe he has the mental capacity or work ethic to become one). However, James Madison said that “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands ... may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” The unitary executive is authoritarian. Not only did Trump fail to reel it in, he expanded it and asserted it (“I have an Article 2 where I have the right to do whatever I want”).

No, Trump isn’t a fascist (nor do I believe he has any governing ideology or philosophy beyond a belief in his own grandeur). However, Alexander Hamilton once said that “The only path to a subversion of the republican system ... is, by flattering the prejudices of the people ... to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion.” He warned that “When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper ... [and] despotic in his ordinary demeanour [sic] ... mount[s] the hobby horse of popularity ... to flatter and fall in with all the non sense [sic] of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”

Trump has marked himself with all the signs of a demagogue seeking to channel public anxiety towards gaining power. The fact that he lowered taxes despite failing to rein in spending only confirms this observation. Such an act throws a bone to the ravenous crowds of popular sentiment without actually accomplishing anything when it comes to the irresponsible fiscal policy of the government.

No, Trump isn’t a Nazi or a modern-day Hitler (thankfully, Trump’s intellect is too narrow to thwart a democracy the way Hitler did). But George Will defines protectionism as “government coercion supplanting the voluntary transactions of markets in the allocation of wealth and opportunity,” amounting to “socialism for the well connected.”

When a nation engages in protectionism as a nationalist project, we get a form of crony capitalism that we can only describe as national socialism.

No, the last thing we need is Trump again. Republicans need to rediscover the principles of conservatism that have traditionally made us more than just an angry far right reflection of the hard left we claim to oppose. We need to seek an American renewal, not pile on to the further degradation of our free society and the political decay that continues to weaken the representative government established to preserve it.

Justin Stapley

Justin Stapley is a political science student at Utah Valley University with focuses in political theory and constitutional studies. Before returning to school to finish his degree, he served four years as a deputy sheriff in Salt Lake County. He currently lives in Bluffdale with his wife of 10 years, his two daughters and his newborn son.

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