The Irreverent Contractor
During the 2016 Presidential campaign, commentators on the Right were conflicted. Was Donald Trump an interloper, a renegade New York liberal adopting conservative policy themes only because he had decided to run as a Republican? In the past he had supported New York and national Democrats, even his current opponents, the Clintons, donating money and hob-nobbing at their dinners. Did he have any core principles at all?
One clue, too lightly considered by the political literati, was his blunt disregard of political decorum. The southern border, he avowed, was letting in ‘rapists’ and ‘murderers’. We need to build a Wall to stop them. This immediately got Mr Trump branded a ‘racist’ by vested interests in the unrestricted flow of illegal aliens (both Left and Right); you don’t say such things! Then The Donald’s erstwhile buddy from New York, Mrs Clinton, floundering in her email scandal, became ‘Crooked Hillary’, and deserved to be ‘locked up’; candidates shouldn’t use such blunt language! She quickly denounced him in turn as a loose cannon, unfit for the office, and then began to claim he was in cahoots with the Russians (this of course was the tip of a sinister iceberg launched by the Obama administration, but that’s another story).
Candidate Trump attacked our lopsided and unfair trade with China, and the failure of NATO nations to live up to their financial obligations under the treaty. Other candidates, all professional politicians, pussy-footed around these issues. Donald Trump spoke his mind, and garnished his debate appearances with nicknames for his opponents, ‘Lyin’ Ted’, ‘Little Marco’, ‘Low-Energy Jeb’. Clearly this approach resonated with Americans who were tired of being condescended to by the politically-correct Left and the timid Right, hungry for straight talk and blunt speech.
There was already a hint of his appeal, of course, in his self-portrayal as no-nonsense boss on his TV show ‘The Apprentice’. I had never watched it, so was unprepared for his bravado and self-confidence. But I realized quickly enough, once I was led to his 2005 testimony in the Senate on the UN Building boondoggle (see ‘Trumped by The Trump’, in August 2016), that we were not dealing with an equivocator. This was a man used to working in the real world, creating businesses and buildings, a man who understood the exigencies of the practical life, how to deal with people at all levels of experience and power, from carpenters and union bosses to financiers and CEOs.
It bothered me at first that Mr Trump was confident but unschooled in the world of statecraft. He knew the trades, and understood Trade, but he did not know what the Nuclear Triad was. Hadn’t he read the papers all during the Cold War? I should not have worried: he is a quick study, and he is not afraid of being corrected. That again, is the sign of a man of the world, a doer not a talker.
Pundits call Mr Trump a ‘Pragmatist’. It’s a word I don’t care for, because it sounds like a philosophical, or worse, an ideological, position, contrary to its origins. He is at best a problem solver, a man who looks at the dilemma of the moment and figures out a way to address it. Not necessarily the only, or best, way, but a way forward. It is the modus operandi of the good general, or the good contractor. Listen to the UN testimony: he’s a good contractor.
The Common-Sense Revolution
What I think Mr Trump’s admirers among the American public see in him is a quality that harkens back to the Revolution. At that time the way to proceed hung very much in the balance. Some were restive under the rule of Great Britain, and the grievances of the Colonies were many (well documented in the Declaration of Independence), yet many saw no need to confront the Sovereign. Their lives were increasingly successful and prosperous; the future looked secure. But there was Independence in the air, a movement for confederation and freedom from the Imperial yoke. The embers of this movement were fanned into a bright flame by an immensely popular pamphlet written as the Revolution was beginning, by an expatriate Englishman named Thomas Paine. Tentatively titled Plain Truth, Paine’s friend and Declaration signer Benjamin Rush suggested he call it Common Sense instead.
For Thomas Paine the plain truth was that monarchy was an archaic evil, that a republic, which gave equal weight to all men, was the right way to organize society, and that the new American nation would, if liberated from the Crown, launch mankind upon the journey to a new kind of government. It resonated with the independent, free-born colonists because it spoke to the truth of their situation. England was months away by sea, the administration of the Empire was heavy-handed and increasingly foreign. Free men could manage their own affairs; there was no need for a King.
America’s independence was only Common Sense. So too were the ’self-evident Truths’ on which that independence should be based: that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. . .” These foundational principles would have been foreign to the Western world only a century or two earlier, but with the Scottish/American Enlightenment they became the Common-Sense Realism of the American Revolution.*
Common-Sense Truths are Plain Truth, self-evident. That seems simple enough, yet Common Sense is a slippery concept. The Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid defined it as “that degree of judgment which is common to men with whom we can converse and transact business.”** It depends on a commonality of experience, not only in the world of objects and events, but in upbringing. More than shared experience, Common Sense requires a shared understanding of that experience. That uniquely American understanding was shattered only eight decades after its founding, when the proponents of black slavery challenged the authority of the Declaration by denying the humanity of the slaves. President Lincoln said he was preserving the Union, but in reality he was also determined to preserve the self-evident truths of the Declaration.
Ripping Apart the Plain Truth
It took a century to weld that shattered understanding back together. But are we not now ripping apart the Plain Truth once again?
Donald Trump came down his golden escalator at a time when institutional America seemed to have lost all commonality with its own citizens. Government seemed to have ballooned into a many-tentacled monster that controlled every aspect of life. Jobs and business seemed to be shrinking, even as goods from overseas flooded our stores. Millions of people were encouraged to live on government handouts for food, housing, medical care, and all the accoutrements of life. Women were paid to have children with no husbands. Millions of illegal aliens were flooding across our southern border, speaking no English but expecting support, hospitals, and schools for their young. Drugs and shootings were rampant in our cities, while the police were condemned for attempting to enforce the law. Millions of unborn babies were being aborted, to applause from elites. Bizarre ideas of sex and marriage were trumpeted as normal, and promulgated to the young, while speakers who objected were shouted down.
Into this chaos strode the TV celebrity and businessman Trump, who built towers in cities bearing his name. But unlike the government, academy, and even business elites, he did not chastize people for their parochial and outdated values. Instead he was as ‘politically incorrect’ as ordinary people wanted to be, but had been stifled by their ‘betters’ in the media, the town councils, the schools and colleges. He said what they were thinking, and he spoke their language. And his questions resonated and affirmed the Common Sense of the public: Why are we shipping our manufacturing jobs overseas? Why are we running huge trade deficits with China and others? Why are we apologizing to other countries, for whom we have always been a shining example, and whom we had liberated from tyrannies in the past? Why can’t we control our borders and bring some semblance of order to immigration? Why are we strangling our businesses with high taxes and oppressive regulation? Why are we lending kids vast sums to get worthless college degrees, when they could be working in the trades and starting families? Why are we killing private medical insurance, forcing people into paying more and more for less and less medical care? Why can’t we get back to our core values and begin Making America Great Again?
For a great many people plain talk and Common Sense go hand-in-hand, and the combination is a great part of Donald Trump’s appeal. He speaks his mind, and as often as not, does what he says. It is uncommonly refreshing in a politician, which of course he isn’t. Mr Trump’s detractors fault him for lack of finesse, but they are determined not to recognize Common Sense when they hear it. How can this be, you ask? Sadly, too many are blinded by either politics, or ideology—or both. President Trump sensibly wants to build “a beautiful Wall” on the southern border. How else can you keep out hordes of migrants overwhelming our border patrols? So the Speaker of the House, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, announces that “A wall is immoral,” flying in the face of both Common Sense and rationality.
So too the misnamed ‘Liberals’ or ‘Progressives’ (being neither liberal, nor favoring progress) adamantly cling to big-government programs that have manifestly failed to solve problems, or have actually caused them, for example welfare programs that encourage dependency and destroy families, or corporate taxes that encourage business to leave our shores for friendlier climes, or ‘environmental’ rules that prohibit reservoirs and irrigation for fear of harming small bait-fish. The problem is that more than half of the Congress support policies that defy Common Sense, as do the vast numbers of bureaucrats in the gigantic and ever-expanding Administrative State, and their allies in the media and academia, even in corporations operating in the global marketplace. How can we even begin to restore a modicum of sense to public life when the powers that control the pursestrings pursue agendas that run contrary to the common experience of ordinary citizens?
The answer is to first, elect a Common-Sense President, like Donald Trump, and then to elect Common-Sense folks to Congress and the State legislatures, representatives who will work to reverse the folly of the last several decades. The focus has to be on returning to the Self-Evident Truths that informed our founding documents: Governments are instituted among men not to rule over them, but to provide the environment to freely pursue their dreams, retaining their inalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. We could do worse than revisit the Common-Sense wisdom of our 40th President, Ronald Reagan: “As government expands, liberty contracts.” It’s only Common Sense! /LEJ
* I am indebted to Robert Curry’s discussion of the American Enlightenment in his Common Sense Nation (2015).
** Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (2001), p. 266.