Burning Down His House

White House Entrance

No man enters the presidency prepared for the office, yet few chief magistrates have managed a stage entry as startlingly rife with incompetence and impropriety as Donald Trump. The reason is that the inherent, inertial conservatism of the office disciplines most of its occupants. And this, above all, is why it matters, and why it matters now, that Donald Trump lacks all manner of prudence, restraint, and humility—the disposition of a conservative.

To say he is not conservative does not mean he will not choose judicial nominees from the list the Federalist Society prepared for him. He has and probably will. It does not mean he will not try to repeal Obamacare. He has, if ham-handedly. It means his disposition—his approach to governing and life—is unconservative at its marrow-deep core. And conservatives who are willing to put up with it all to get the tax cuts or the Supreme Court seats or whatever other important yet transient end—a court seat, a court seat, my constitutional regime for a court seat—are just about out of the rope with which they have avoided the reckoning.

Any one of a basic array of conservative virtues—intellectual humility, deference to custom, acceptance of time-honored norms—would have spared Trump the last week’s news. Yet his insistence on substituting his personal instincts for nearly 23 decades of accumulated mores encumbering—slowing down, hedging in—the American presidency is, on any conservative account, a habit of spectacular personal arrogance and public recklessness.

All the norms of the presidency were conspiring to prevent him from sharing with Russia information obtained from an intelligence partner, from trying to pressure the FBI director to stop an investigation of which his own staff and, ultimately, his own campaign were targets, even from tweeting explanations of these that openly contradicted those he harangued his staff into peddling 12 hours before.

It is entirely believable that the President did not know he was violating these norms because, being new to governing, he does not know what they are. That is the point. The issue is not that he is malign, but that he has made a self-conscious choice to reject the accumulated wisdom these norms, and the accumulated expertise with which he is surrounded, reflect.

The consequences of this choice are potentially immense. The combination of this ad hoc approach to policy and the immense power of the American nation could be catastrophic in a crisis. The political effect of Trump’s impetuosity on American conservatism may well be that the the long-term levers of governing will have been exchanged for the ephemeral allure of the presidency. Congressional leaders are in an increasingly impossible position as they debase themselves by reacting (as in Mitch McConnell’s case) to substantive abuses or misuses of power merely by ruing the distractions they cause.

This is why, ultimately, it is no longer tenable to maintain the cognitively dissonant bifurcation between the supposed conservatism of Trump’s policies—a dispute for another time—and the unconservatism of his disposition.

In his essay “On Being Conservative,” Michael Oakeshott described conservatism first and foremost in terms of disposition. This included an inclination to regard change, even when change is needed, with a certain melancholy and reluctance. Likewise for Edmund Burke, the sober English were “afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.” This was Burke’s “moral rather than . . . complexional timidity.”

Yet Trump does not even resort to reason. He is famous for following instinct instead. It is one thing for a leader to follow his judgment rather than his reason if that judgment is tethered to prudence, and that prudence to experience. It may even be better to follow a prudence so anchored than to pursue unrooted reason. But there comes a point when instinct and will are difficult to distinguish. And students of Bertrand de Jouvenel recognize will as an instrument of that which conservatism seeks, politically, to channel and contain: power.

Trump’s apologists, too, are jettisoning the conservatism in whose name they have boarded his train. The relentless litany of excuses—“But Hillary Clinton’s email”; “But Barack Obama and the IRS”; “But the liberal media”; “But the leaks”—ill become their disposition. The only “but” that matters is the one preceding the statement that Donald J. Trump, not Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or the liberal media, is the 45th President of the United States and currently occupies that office. The same theory of law, order, and personal responsibility without excuses that his Attorney General has decided is good for petty drug offenses ought to be good for the conduct of the Oval Office, too.

The other “buts”—“But the Court,” “But the legislative agenda” and so forth—disregard another element of conservatism, which is its disposition to take the long view. The wreckage of constitutional norms is more important than policy disputes or even a court seat, all of which are correctable with time. The practice of presidential tweeting is almost certainly now permanent. The precedent of presidential outrageousness being not only excusable but encouraged, precisely because it shatters norms, is hard to restore once broken. Trump has inaugurated the age of Kardashians in the White House, and it will be far harder to roll that back than to undo Obamacare. There is a particular perversity in obtaining a handful of Supreme Court justices at the cost of undermining the norms of the Constitution that it will be their job to defend.

All this also goes equally for the President’s minions. Granted, they live in a bubble; but it is not an impenetrable one. By now they ought to recognize the pattern of being ordered to tell what they must know are lies, only for their chief to untell them. There is a point at which honorable people refuse dishonorable orders. This includes the apparently honorable Mike Pence. If the Vice President lacks the judgment to see his credibility is being prostituted, he lacks the judgment to serve as a constitutional officer.

It is true, to be sure, that politics requires the suppression of particular preferences for the good of the group. So does patriotism. If the argument was that Never Trumpers should forgo their opposition to Trump for the good of the party, surely there is a point at which the supposed good of the party must be considered in light of the good of the country. The latter cannot be served by a President this reckless. Trump’s escapades—from the intelligence-leaking to what was all but, and perhaps was, obstruction of justice—have run out the clock on the dualism between the supposedly conservative agenda and the obviously unconservative disposition. It is time to reckon.

Greg Weiner

Greg Weiner is a contributing editor of Law and Liberty.

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  1. says

    These arguments about Trump’s disposition are well taken, but that is what his voters voted for. They wanted that kind of recklessness, and we are stuck with it unless or until he does something impeachable, which he does not yet appear to have done.

    • djf says

      What Trump has done will become impeachable just as soon as the Democrats get control of the House – a result that Trump seems to be doing everything in his power to bring about.

  2. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Before going further in critique of this rather amazing piece (which may turn out to have been premature), let us consider:

    Are the “interests” of **individual liberty** (expressed by the conditions of the recent election) being advanced or deterred?

    In the issues of countervailing power (deJouvenel) is one now arising to challenge the distributed power of the Federal Administrative State?

    What prior conditions and actions have brought about the present state complained of? How do they compare on LIBERTY?

    What **assumptions** are necessary to the opinions of this piece?

    After thinking though those matters (and some others) perhaps a critique may be in order, perhaps it too might be premature.

  3. gabe says


    You OVERSTATE the case: both with respect to the firing of Comey and The Trumps “impetulance”

    I would argue that it is precisely a dearth of impetulance on the part of the (GOP) Party AND The Trumpster that has allowed the sabotaging of his adminiostration to progress this far.

    Had Ryan, McConnell, etc had the “balls” of chuck Schumer, had the political instincts to know that you must fight back, maybe we would not have the current situation. gotta go sick baby crying

    • gabe says

      To continue (hopefully)

      Consider the arguments / attacks against The Tweeting of The Trumpster:

      It lacks decorum, it may reveal that which ought not to be revealed, it is emotional not reasoned.

      ALL TRUE!

      Yet, in a world in which all communication, especially media communications, have been *Twitterized,*perhaps it would be better to say that The Trumpster, while, perhaps, the most prominent tweeter, is simply just the latest exponent of this form of modern communications. It should also be observed that such prominence as his Twitter account has is due ONLY in part to his elected position; rather, the prominence of his tweets, owe more to the unbridled, unrelenting hostility and scatalogical impulses of his inflamed opposition.
      Is there but ONE tweeter in the world?

      Listening to a sports radio station, prior to reading Weiner’s essay, I was struck by the hosts referencing to “trending” on Twitter – as if this was all that was of significance, even in the sportsworld.
      The though recurred to me that quite simply ALL OF OUR MEDIA seeks to partake of a story (ies) that are likely” to trend”. Indeed, a survey of the eight years of the Bush administration would yield some interesting results. As with Twitter, the print and electronic media were ablaze with the SAME stories – Could you call this a trend? Without fail, the “media-twits” twitted away the same story – following a trend were they.

      So, too, with the first 3 months of the Trumpster’s administration. All the same stories, all concocted, advanced, or fermented by the same Democrat media-twits. Da ya see a trend here, buddy?

      Moreover, in a world where decorum has long since abandoned the political scene, would it be advisable to be the last holdout for decorum when not one single area of one’s (political) life is considered off limits; where the usual vile, hostile and scurrilous slanders are considered proper argument?

      No, it is well past time to feign respect for a now dead concept of political civility. Indeed, it is suicidal in the same manner that it is not typically productive to “curtsy” to the bully who has continuing designs on your lunch money.
      Yet, that is what Weiner would have the Trumpster AND the GOP do.

      And look what all this curtsying has produced. Now we see a Special Prosecutor will be appointed.
      The proper and *decorous* response ought now to be a move by the GOP to appoint several Special Prosecutors to cover Comey -Lynch Bill Clinton nexus; Clinton Crime Foundation; Lois Lerner – IRS; and 2 or 3 more for the Clintons’ financial escapades, etc.

      However, in deference to Weiner’s just concern, I would advise that the announcement of such appointments be made in the mellifluous intonations commonly heard on NPR. After all, the decorum of NPR does lead to and promote policy prescriptions highly favorable to liberty – DOESN’T IT?

      • nobody.really says

        The proper and *decorous* response ought now to be a move by the GOP to appoint several Special Prosecutors to cover Comey -Lynch Bill Clinton nexus; Clinton Crime Foundation….

        I’m glad to see that there will be no objections when the special prosecutor expands his investigation to include the Trump’s receipt of benefits from foreign agents in violation of the Emoluments Clause, or foreign donations to Trump charitable foundations.

    • gabe says

      Oops, forgot this, Greg:

      “All the norms of the presidency were conspiring to prevent him from sharing with Russia information obtained from an intelligence partner, ”

      WHAT NORMS? American Presidents ROUTINELY share info with those with whom we seek to enlist in a certain strategy / objective.

      Here is but one example wherein the Great and Powerful Obama discloses British nuclear missile capability AND numbers to the Russkies! OMG, launch a special prosecutor. And no, this is not “tit-for-tat” defense. It is simply a demonstration that US Presidents DO share intel with other nations.

      What is sad is that in attempting to “maintain” and promote one’s sense of decorum that we often MUST accept the narrative of those who themselves are utterly lacking in decorum and a healthy respect for the truth.

      Let us not fear losing our *influence*, limited and inconsequential as it may be, by being perceived as lacking decorum by those who themselves foster an un-decorous environment.

      • Jay says

        All good points. Mr. Wiener is well intentioned but seems to have taken the bait left by those who began plotting this coup before the inauguration. He accuses Trumps defenders of cognitive dissonance but apparently doesn’t consider the possibility that they merely recognize the vast majority of these “scandals ” are merely media noise created by his detractors to derail his agenda. His opponents think chanting “constitutional crisis ” and “impeachment ” will magically make it so. They are mistaken, and don’t understand they’re shouting themselves in the foot.

        • milx says

          I don’t know what can be said about “conservatives” who try to justify President Trump by celebrating the erosion of social decorum and our decadent culture of tweeting. They are something that calls itself conservative and they vote for a party that calls itself conservative but there is nothing conservative being forwarded in these comments.

          “And look what all this curtsying has produced. Now we see a Special Prosecutor will be appointed.
          The proper and *decorous* response ought now to be a move by the GOP to appoint several Special Prosecutors to cover Comey -Lynch Bill Clinton nexus; Clinton Crime Foundation; Lois Lerner – IRS; and 2 or 3 more for the Clintons’ financial escapades, etc.”

          What more does one need to see? The solution to a Presidency off-the-rails, engaged in the most base, childish, and vulgar behavior, incompetent at passing its shallow agenda, full of more intrigue than a weak monarch’s court, failing to represent America’s interests abroad, is to blame the minority party that controls no branches of government. The solution is to prosecute the defeated candidate for President. Why? Hillary and Bill control no locus of power, have no contribution to society positive or negative. Your advise is a smokescreen. What happens after Hillary is successfully imprisoned for her misdeeds (ones the left characterizes as ‘media noise’ and fake scandals precisely as you do Trump’s)? Nothing is fixed because Hillary Clinton is not the President of the United States. The author laid it out perfectly for you in the article above that you clearly did not read: “The only “but” that matters is the one preceding the statement that Donald J. Trump, not Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or the liberal media, is the 45th President of the United States and currently occupies that office.”

          You are not a conservative. You are a child rooting for a sports team with all the values that such a blind allegiance suggest. The Republican party doesn’t need people like you and the American Republic doesn’t need people like you. You are the people burning down the house because you think it makes your enemies sad. Well your enemies share the house with you and they can see that we’ll soon all be homeless. Conservatives are supposed to know that civilization is a beautiful and tenuous thing jeopardized by the capricious, incompetent and cruel – peppered by conmen and liars full of self-interest we are tasked to defend it and preserve it for our children. You would throw everything away because it feels good right now. I see no reason why you are not a left-wing liberal college student except that they have the excuse of youth on their shoulders and they don’t pretend to themselves or anyone else that they stand for conservatism. Shame on you and the millions of other Americans just like you who represent and stand for nothing. I pity of all us forced to share a nation with you.

          • gabe says

            Indeed, I am neither a *conservative* (George will – Mitch McConnell version) nor a child and if you feel pity becuase you have to “share a nation with ” me, then everything that needed to be said has been said – AND IT HAS BEEN SAID BY YOU – as it indicates that you also must resort to ad hominem arguments as do all of the Left and the NeverTrumpsters.

            Also, good sir, do not impute to me, the base motives which you have *discerned* during some recent paranoid flight of fancy – burn down houses, indeed.

            If any be guilty of such offense, would it not be those who seek to destroy this young administration?

            It would appear that all the *effete* conservatives that comprise the NeverTrump faction, rather than the likes of one such as I, are the ones who resemble “a left-wing liberal college student except that they have the excuse of youth on their shoulders and they don’t pretend to themselves or anyone else that they stand for conservatism.”

            So I repeat my call for any politician with an appreciation of the value of testicular endowments in [politics to step forward and provide a counter to the lunacy and “class-based” hostility directed at The Trumpster.

          • gabe says


            No, I seek not to throw it away but to preserve it and its attributes – SUCH AS THE RULE OF LAW – and this is why I consider it proper to prosecute the Clinton’s, the Lois Lerners, etc of the political world.

            Are only conservatives to be subject to the strictures of the law and ethics?

            What does this say about *civilization*?
            How does this provide a civics lesson to our children?

            Get off the NeverTrumpster horse – it appears to be leaving an odoriferous trail in it’s wake.

    • Jmey says

      “Impetulance” is not a word. Neither is “impetuosity”… I think he meant to say impetuous…

  4. Mark Pulliam says

    It is telling that this post was reprinted in the noxiously-NeverTrump NRO with this subtitle: “President Trump’s self-inflicted wounds have rendered the cognitive dissonance of his defenders untenable.” http://www.nationalreview.com/article/447746/donald-trump-self-inflicted-wounds-conservative-cognitive-dissonance-untenable?utm_campaign=trueanthem&utm_content=591edef604d30165ecf397f5&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter

    We’ll see whether supporting the duly-elected President of the United States in the face of non-credible, unsourced attacks in the NYT and WaPo is “untenable,” or jumping on the bandwagon of swamp creatures, diehard Hillary supporters, and the left-wing commentariat (and ivory tower professoriate). I know what side I’m on.

    And when it comes to “cognitive dissonance”–a bit of psycho-babble jargon often used instead of actual logic–what can one say about embracing the position, before the November 2016 election, that Hillary Clinton would be preferable as President than her Republican opponent? Yet this is precisely what the signatories to the “Originalists Against Trump” manifesto–including Greg Weiner–foolishly exclaimed. http://originalistsagainsttrump.wordpress.com/2016-statement/ Never mind the corruption of the Clinton Foundation, enabling the sexual predations of disbarred perjurer Bill Clinton, the Benghazi lies, the illegal (and insecure) server, and all the rest. Hillary would be PREFERABLE as President? If she had been elected, wacko Tom Perez would likely be AG instead of stalwart Jeff Sessions. Who knows what reckless activist President Hillary would have appointed to the Supreme Court instead of Neil Gorsuch.

    Is Trump perfect? Of course not. No one is, even the Founders. All presidents in my lifetime have been flawed, some quite seriously. Serious people judge their leaders on their accomplishments, not their styles or peccadilloes. It is always tempting to rationalize a past mistake by selectively overlooking salient facts and re-shuffling the evidence. I believe that it is clear beyond dispute that the nation is better off with Donald Trump as President than it would have been with Hillary Clinton. His policies are better for America. His judges will better defend the Constitution and the rule of law. His economic policies will better promote prosperity for all Americans (a conclusion the rising stock market bears out). “Cognitive dissonance”? Phooey. NeverTrumpers are grasping at straws. I don’t regret my support for Donald Trump, and hysterical articles like this one merely harden my resolve.

  5. Mark Pulliam says

    This says it all: https://originalistsagainsttrump.wordpress.com/2016-statement/. I’ll take Donald Trump offer Hillary Clinton any day, and an electoral majority of Americans agreed with me. “Cognitive dissonance”? Phooey. This is a self-serving rationalization. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/447746/donald-trump-self-inflicted-wounds-conservative-cognitive-dissonance-untenable?utm_campaign=trueanthem&utm_content=591edef604d30165ecf397f5&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter

  6. Mark Pulliam says

    I’m sorry, but anyone who publicly declared prior to November 2016 that they would prefer Hillary Clinton to DJT as President (as the signatories to the “Originalists Against Trump” manifesto did, including Greg Weiner), has no credibility on this topic. Yes, I support Jeff Sessions and Neil Gorsuch (and the POTUS who appointed them). “Cognitive dissonance” (in the words of NeverTrump NRO)? Phooey. This piece is nonsense on stilts.

    • milx says

      Hillary Clinton, a criminal, married to a rapist, who pandered to some of the most extremist elements of the Democratic base, would’ve been a better and more conservative President than Donald J. Trump. Do not consider this an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, consider it damning for the POTUS and his voters.

  7. Mark Pulliam says

    From Bruce Heiden on Facebook: “The author of this childish tantrum says President Trump should be held to the same standard of law and order that AG Sessions applies to petty drug offenders, but he does not point to a single crime, petty or major, that Trump has committed, or any substantive harm he has done in office. The author displays his own shallowness in lamenting the “Kardashian” side of Trump, not because it isn’t there, but because it matters much less than he thinks. Trump’s personal characteristics will not be easy to imitate even if anyone wants to. The effect of his presidency on the decorum of the office will probably be a successor who strenuously adopts the opposite tone. What may never be restored is the integrity of the opposition. Look at the Resistance to the elected president–multitudinous, organized, disloyal, McCarthyist, riotous–and this pompous professor thinks Donald Trump’s indiscretions are socially corrosive.”

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