Triumph of the Shill
The political theory of Trumpism
Excerpted from The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump (Second Edition), out fall 2017 from Oxford University Press.
In The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump tells us — twice — that he doesn’t do lunch. By the end of the first hundred pages, he’s gone out to lunch three times. Trump claims that he doesn’t take architecture critics seriously. On the next page, he admits, “I’m not going to kid you: it’s also nice to get good reviews.” Trump says the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania is “the place to go” to become a great entrepreneur. In the next paragraph, he states that a Wharton degree “doesn’t prove very much.”
Inconsistency has long been Trump’s style. But while his critics seize on that inconsistency as a unique liability, yet another difference between him and his respectable predecessors on the right, a happy avowal of contradiction has been a feature of the conservative tradition since the beginning. Originally, that avowal assumed a tonier form, as a counter to the simpleminded rationalism that was supposed to animate the left. Against the belief that politics and society could be reduced to logic and reason, conservatives sought what Walter Bagehot called, in a different vein, “truth as a succession of perpetual oscillations, like the negative and positive signs of an alternate series, in which you were constantly more or less denying or affirming the same proposition.” The capacity to inhabit the twin poles of a proposition and its negation without attempting to reconcile or overcome them enabled one to appreciate and thereby preserve the subtle textures of society. A complex social order, layered by centuries of submission and rule, would be ruined — made smaller, more tractable, less grand — by the leveling reason of the left. “He claims that a constitution does not exist unless he can put it in his pocket,” sniffed Joseph de Maistre as he leafed through Thomas Paine’s various plans to remake the world. They were all so legible and transparent, so slight. Burke had their measure, decades before anyone had even heard of Paine: “A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.”