Many conservatives who once found Donald Trump unpalatable have come around to accept him. Most famously, Mitt Romney once excoriated Trump as dishonest, "a phony, a fraud," and condemned his bullying, greed, showing off, and misogyny. After the presidential election, however, Romney praised Trump ("I look forward to the coming administration") and hoped to work for him.
Donald Trump and Mitt Romney dine together.
This change of heart has not been limited to job applicants. The president-elect's many qualities that conservatives once condemned have disappeared down memory hole, to the point that recalling them is akin to making rude noises during a prayer service.
Instead, Republicans are in a mood of optimism, even ecstasy, celebrating Trump's unconventionality and holding him up as the only candidate who could have defeated the despised Hillary Clinton. As House Speaker Paul Ryan put it, "Trump heard a voice out in this country that no one else heard," enabling him to accomplish the "most incredible political feat" Ryan has ever witnessed.
Personally, I did not vote for Trump but did prefer that he win. Since the election, I am glad to see he has recognized that, as an outsider to Washington, he needs cabinet members (with the inexplicable exception of the secretary of state) who know the ropes. I am even more pleased with Trump's many appointees ready to forward a conservative agenda, especially ones ready to disagree with the boss.
James Mattis and Mike Pence; will they, can they keep Donald Trump in line?
James Mattis will end social experimentation with the military and return to its war-making mission. Jeff Sessions will consistently apply the rule of law. Steven Mnuchin will simplify the tax code. Tom Price will undo Obamacare. Betsy DeVos will focus on the interests of students rather than of teachers and bureaucrats. Andy Puzder will prune back regulations obstructing job growth. John Kelly will secure the borders. David Friedman will revive U.S.-Israel relations.
But two giant caveats remain, both pertaining to character.
First, what Trump gives he can take away. As an egomaniac with enormous political latitude and no consistent ideology, he could, for any or no reason, sack these worthy cabinet members and replace them with technocrats. Worse, he can freely discard his current conservative orientation. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, once boasted that "we're going to build an entirely new political movement. It's everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy." Trump himself has warned that nothing he has specified so far commits him: "Anything I say right now - I'm not the president – everything is a suggestion. ... I'm always flexible on issues."
Steve Bannon promised to "build an entirely new political movement" that will make conservatives "go crazy."
Second, much depends on whether the office of the presidency tames Trump or he continues with his old ways. Colin Dueck of George Mason University suggests that Trump has the bravado of a real-estate developer who adopts maximalist rhetorical positions but "is not actually about to implement every off-the-cuff statement." Maybe.
But the qualities that appalled so many Americans remain and, indeed, have been massively vindicated. Trump reached the ultimate prize by staying true to himself; also 70-year-olds tend not to change much. It's entirely possible he will continue to attack individuals and companies, obsess over grievances, insult the press, make flamboyantly reckless or false statements, display defiant ignorance, engage in dubious business practices, resort to bravado litigiousness, and pursue wildly inconsistent policies.
At best, Trump will be to Barack Obama what Ronald Reagan was to Jimmy Carter, the leader of a national renewal of optimism and strength. At worst, his personal flaws will lead to social tensions, domestic disturbances, economic upheavals, and war. I am agnostic, having no clue where the country is heading. For me, America now resembles a monarchy whose incompetent but predictable king has died and a rowdy, volatile son takes over.
As Trump becomes president, I wish him the best, for his sake and ours. I shall applaud when he does well (conversing with the president of Taiwan, thereby breaking with decades of moldy precedent) and condemn when he does badly (his "reckless and bizarre" conversation with the prime minister of Pakistan). I will aid his administration as best I can while keeping my distance from it, not being part of it nor ever apologizing for it.
Trump's appointments have earned him a conservative's good will but his character flaws prompt skepticism and worry. Let him now prove that he is worthy of the extraordinary position he soon will occupy.
Jan. 22, 2017 update: Peter Wehner looks at the Trump presidency in a similar way – good personnel and policies so far but deep mistrust of the new president's character. But he is pessimistic where I am agnostic, citing a fantasy health proposal and then getting to the heart of the matter:
Mr. Trump has continued to demonstrate impulsivity and narcissism, an affinity for conflict and vindictiveness. ... Donald Trump is a transgressive personality. He thrives on creating disorder, in violating rules, in provoking outrage. He is a shock jock. This might be a tolerable (if culturally coarsening) trait in a reality television star; it is a dangerous one in a commander in chief. He is unlikely to be contained by norms and customs, or even by laws and the Constitution. For Mr. Trump, nothing is sacred. The truth is malleable, instrumental, subjective. It is all about him. It is always about him. ...
when hard times hit, when crises arise, when other politicians and world leaders do not bend to his will — pernicious things will happen. Rather than try to address the alienation and anger that exists in America, he will amplify them. He'll create yet more conspiracy theories. He will also go in search of enemies — the press, the opposition party, other nations, even Republican leaders — in order to create diversions that inflame his most loyal supporters. And when he locates his targets, he will do what is second nature to him, which is to try to delegitimize and destroy them. What's different now is that he will have the additional, awesome power of the presidency at his disposal. ...
the danger is that Mr. Trump will fail to see the limits of his authority and will try to use both the bully pulpit and the power of government — the I.R.S., the F.B.I., regulatory agencies and others — to settle personal scores. He'll do what he needs to in order to get his way. That has been the animating force in his life. ... A man with illiberal tendencies, a volatile personality and no internal checks is now president. This isn't going to end well.
To which I say again: How reassuring to know that impeachment offers a way out and Mike Pence would be a reliable president.