I was a charter member of #NeverTrump, and, as such, I was a true believer in the justice of the cause and the probability of its success. So no one was more surprised by Donald Trump‘s victory than I. Or more bewildered by it. Or more angry about it.
I have been told ad nauseum that my blindness was the result of being out of touch with the WWC (the white working class, which is just the latest unimaginative iteration of the Silent Majority and similar descriptors from the long history of American populism) because I am an Establishment Elitist — my small town, lower middle class provenance notwithstanding.
And if being out of touch means being unable to comprehend why anyone would want to see Trump as president of the United States, then out of touch I was, and out of touch I remain. I have heard all the justifications: Hillary hatred, anti-establishment mania, right wing delusions — and I have heard them from longtime friends who I previously believed to be of sound judgment and from relatives to whom I am related in the first degree. But when I thought about Trump as they talked — when I pictured him speaking at one of his rallies, any one of his rallies, and remembered all the bullying, all the ignorance, all the lying, all the extremism — they might as well have been speaking Urdu.
What they were saying was literally incomprehensible.
At the beginning Trump’s candidacy — to borrow a bon mot from Salena Zito — I was among those who took Trump literally but not seriously, rather than among those who took him seriously but not literally. As a result, I believed him to be a dangerous neofascist, a real threat to the Republic. But as I watched him trim his sails and tack with the prevailing wind during the course of the campaign, on immigration, on the Muslim ban, and on abortion, to cite but a few examples, I came to believe he was first and foremost a con man, not Mussolini Lite. Still dangerous, but not so much so.
Having believed him to be a con man before the election, I have prayed that he is a con man since the election. And the past week has seen an accumulation of evidence that my prayers are being answered. The Trump transition team is chockablock with the very lobbyists and Establishment mandarins that he inveighed against when repeatedly promising to Drain the Swamp. He has been walking back his hard line on the mass deportation of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in America so fast that it is a wonder he has not tripped and broken his hip, given his age.
The infamous wall that was to be paid for by Mexico and was to stretch from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico is fast becoming a fence, and is probably on its way to ending up as a fleet of drones and a passel of bloodhounds.
The repeal of Obamacare, another centerpiece of the campaign, is already becoming a plan to amend it in some fashion that retains the essential elements of Obamacare that make it so onerous and so expensive. And Reince Priebus, Trump’s designated chief of staff and current chairman of the RNC, is the antithesis of a populist radical.
These are yet but straws in the wind, indications of the possibility of a reservoir of sanity beneath the flood of demagogic bluster by which we have been inundated for the past 18 months. There are, of course, contraindications, the most obvious of which is the retention of Steve Bannon, avatar of the alt right, as the eminence grise in the White House. This raises the possibility of an administration that operates on parallel tracks, throwing rhetorical red meat and an occasional policy bone to the faithful on the far right while actually governing from the center right.
If that proves to be the case, then the biggest losers will be the probable minority of Trump supporters who actually took him both seriously and literally. But their disappointment will be a small price to pay compared to the cost to the country of him meaning what he said and trying to accomplish it.
Many Republicans who opposed Trump are now rushing to wish him success, but I believe they are being precipitous. The jury is still out and will be for some time.
I cannot wish him success with the platform on which he campaigned for the simple reason that I wish America well. But if, on the other hand, he follows the more measured, conservative course on which he may now be embarked, I can be reconciled to Donald Trump as a president, contenting myself with continuing to hold him in contempt as a man.
J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich is a Republican strategist and lobbyist who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Martinez.