The Perils of Presidential Pragmatism
Merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains. – Thomas Jefferson
I’ve said that Donald Trump’s lack of ideological underpinning makes it impossible for a voter to predict how he’d handle any particular issue. But that’s a feature, not a flaw of the Trump product, some have told me. Who cares that he’s not ideological? He’s “pragmatic.”
That doesn’t negate the unpredictability problem. And it brings up another question: Why is pragmatism good?
Pragmatism means, “do whatever works.” But how do we know whether a particular policy or strategy has “worked?” There are lots of government programs that seem to “work” – if you look only at individual cases, for a limited time, and don’t “zoom out” to see the whole picture. Social Security “works” if you ask an individual recipient; but it’s bankrupting the country. So it doesn’t work. Or it does, depending on your goal.
Likewise, unconstitutional government “assistance” in almsgiving, mortgages, student loans, faux healthcare insurance and a dozen other areas either passes or fails the pragmatism test, depending on your definition of “success.” A conservative ideology can propose solutions while pragmatism is befuddled about whether there is a problem.
So Donald’s pragmatism is found to have the same fundamental flaw as Hillary’s relativism: there is no real “good.” There is no True North by which we can gauge whether America is “winning” or losing. We discover that we’re talking nonsense because we want what works, but “what works” is undefinable. If we want to know whether our pragmatism is really pragmatic, we’ll need a bedrock and a plumb line to check them against. We’re back to the moral constructs of the Bible by way of the US Constitution. In a word, “ideology.”
The phrase, “A merchant has no country” may apply to the businessman Trump in a different way than Jefferson intended. The Republican nominee certainly talks a lot about “America” and seems to have a strong emotional tie to this nation – leaving aside his hypocrisy in blasting China while making his campaign swag there, etc. But he has no ideological country. He has no philosophical ground on which to base decisions, no homeland of principles. His allegiance has always been to himself and to his businesses.
OK, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. But a businessman’s narrow focus on the success of his enterprise by driving competitors into the ground doesn’t translate directly to the political sphere. Trump’s seeming obsession with those who’ve slighted him makes him look like Captain Ahab, willing to sacrifice ship, crew and self in order to taste revenge on the monster.
Say what you will about Sherman, at least he stopped when he reached the sea.
Ad hoc decision-making isn’t just unpredictable; it’s reactive by nature. Trump is used to “using the laws” to advance his business. He sees what the government requires and what it allows this week, and shifts his strategy accordingly. This is very different than proactively sculpting policy to which others will react. Thinking several moves ahead is especially critical in the battle against non-traditional enemies like ISIS. And if elected, Trump may learn to use the proactive mindset; who knows?
Yes, who really knows? That’s what pragmatism gives you. Flexibility to respond to a crisis, yes. But a long-term vision for restoring righteous and constitutional government? No. At the end of a Trump presidency, every position will have been right and every action will have “worked,” just as Obama’s reign of misery has been the era of lollipops and unicorns, according to Obama.
I wonder what the pragmatists will say then.
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