It should be perfectly clear by now that Donald Trump doesn’t have a political ideology. His Republican primary campaign lacked the philosophical coherence even of a naked quest for power; it was a brand-building exercise for the Trump Organization. He won the primary and then the general election simply by reaching for the most galvanizing rhetorical weapons closest at hand — nativism, Islamophobia, anti-elitism, et cetera — whether he actually believed what he was saying or not. The proof that his message was little more than rank opportunism is the bewildering and almost random series of backtracks and sidesteps of campaign promises and commitments that has characterized his transition process: his sudden indifference to investigating and prosecuting Hillary Clinton; his about-face on waterboarding; his newfound “open mind” to the Paris climate accords; his serious consideration of Mitt Romney as Secretary of State because he “looks the part.”
Liberals and moderate Republicans might find relief in these signals — maybe he’s not such a “fascist” after all! Conservatives might find reason to return to their erstwhile suspicions that Trump was a closet Democrat all along. But these conclusions would miss the point. A president with no ideology is much more dangerous than a highly ideological one, even when that ideology is precisely the inverse of your own.
A president with no ideology is a president without any philosophical constraint. He is free to pursue whatever goals he feels like pursuing on any given day and abandoning others on a whim, because he is effectively immunized from charges of hypocrisy. Sure, constituents who were promised one thing and then given another might feel betrayed, and their disillusionment will be reflected in polls and at the ballot box in 2018 and 2020. But that’s just politics, same as any other president has to deal with.
What sets apart an ideological empty vessel like Trump is that he has no broad set of governing principles to abide by, no philosophy to compel consistency. There is thus no measuring stick by which to gauge the integrity of his decisions, no intellectual scolds of any influence at places like the Hoover Institution and the National Journal looking over his shoulder, and no credible charge to be made that the president has abandoned his convictions and caved to special interests/the opposing party/media pressure/et cetera. He doesn’t have any convictions, so what’s to abandon? His only governing framework is his own impulses.
During George W. Bush’s first term and into his second, he assumed the posture of a principled (if “compassionate”) conservative. He embraced conventional conservative policy goals like school accountability, privatization of Social Security, health savings accounts, and tax cuts, even while overseeing developments ostensibly anathema to conservative orthodoxy, such as the dramatic growth of centralized state power, increased government spending, and the expansion of entitlements through the Medicare Modernization Act.
By the end of his second term — especially in light of his support for immigration reform with a path to citizenship and, later, the bank bailouts — the cognitive dissonance had caught up to him. His brand of conservatism was sufficiently discredited among the party’s ideological grassroots to trigger the emergence of the insurgent movement that, after the election of Obama and the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, would come to be known as the Tea Party.
This is the predictable dialectical pattern of politics when it is attached, as it always has been, to competing political philosophies: the party out of power clings to the moral high ground of political purity, which is the only thing it has to cling to; the leaders of the governing party necessarily compromise their purity in the name of Getting Things Done, exposing themselves in the process to attack from the Robespierres lurking in their midsts. The pragmatists make deals and achieve tangible victories for their constituents. The purists endeavor as best they can to keep the dealmaking pragmatists faithful to the party’s principles.
But Trump upsets the whole apple cart. He never had any political convictions to begin with, and, since nearly every member of the Republican establishment was against him at some point during his 17-month campaign, since the voters who ushered him into the GOP nomination were those who were most disaffected with the party’s leaders, and since he won on a message that savaged Republican orthodoxy on foundational issues of trade, national security, and monetary stability, he will owe nothing as President to the age-old ideological influence-brokering institutions of the Republican Party, be they magazines, big party donors, or Congress. And owing nothing means being free of accountability to them.
For those who oppose the Republican agenda, in some cases that will be a good thing: the Bush-era neocons, who by and large refused to rally to Trump and in at least one case voted for Clinton, would have no leverage to push Trump to reverse his reversal on torture even if they wanted to. Climate change rejectionists who bet on the wrong horse (twice!) can’t do much more than plead with the President-elect to close his mind again on the Paris agreement.
But in many other cases, this lack of even informal accountability will pose a grave risk not just to liberals, but to our entire system of government. It’s bad enough that President Trump will preside over a one party state, in which the very real possibility exists that outright violations of the law on the part of the White House will be met with impunity. But as Jonathan Chait has shown, a shocking proportion of the edifice of the presidency is composed of mere norms, not laws, and Donald Trump has close to zero compunction about ignoring those norms. If Trump began his primary campaign as a branding stunt, his ascendance to the Oval Office doesn’t seem to have changed that objective in the slightest. And the entire project of transforming the United States of America into a promotional vehicle for the Trump Organization, it appears, can be executed without breaking any laws at all — a fact that surprised even Trump himself — just a bunch of unenforceable customs and standards of conduct. This is worth repeating: If Trump chooses to, he can subordinate the state to his family’s private interests, and he can do so legally.
If Trump were a philosophical conservative, even as a political outsider, the ideological purists of the Republican establishment could exert some sort of influence over him, by threatening to blow the whistle on some of his more outlandish and deeply un-conservative impulses, such as refusing to honor NATO treaty obligations, or blowing up the deficit by cutting taxes while spending massively on crony infrastructure contracts and border militarization, or aligning the country with dictators who are openly hostile to the United States (but not necessarily to Trump hotels and condos), or disgracing the presidency by accepting thinly veiled bribes. (On other questions, such as immigration, they might admittedly play an enabling rather than a restraining role.) These things, they might say through their magazines and think tanks and cable news appearances, are anathema to true conservative governance, and a conservative President might shudder at the prospect of being held in contempt by the party’s ideological base, with all its donors and activists and evangelists and media spokespersons.
But Trump owes these people nothing. The judgment of the President-elect, a man who gets his news from InfoWars, will be checked by almost noone. He might feel beholden to some of his most stalwart anti-establishment grassroots champions, the ones who were with him from the beginning, but that was largely a hitherto unorganized mass of the disaffected that cohered into a movement under the force of his own personality; it will take a lot for them to rebel against their charismatic leader. Their presence compensates little for the absence of influence on the President by a conservative party base that has developed over generations of organizing and institution-building. And whatever you think of that base, their absence leaves a void that could be filled by the only organized ideological constituency whose loyalty to Trump — that prized virtue of the President-elect — dates back to the days when the rest of the world laughed at him: white nationalists.
To be clear, the lack of accountability I’m deploring is not so much accountability on a policy level; it’s unlikely, to put it mildly, that the current Republican Party’s ideological priesthood would temper the extremism of a Trump administration’s policy agenda rather than encourage it. What I fear we need is something we’ve barely even had to think about in the past, so much did we take it for granted: accountability sufficient to contain the White House within the boundaries of legal, constitutional, minimally transparent, minimally respectable governance. Because without any check on President Trump’s power whatsoever, whether legal, normative, or political, this is an administration that could easily spin into outright kleptocracy; indeed, that almost seems to be the plan. That’s the kind of unprecedented challenge we face with this incoming administration.