Thoughts on a Late Administration

It used to be said that, in “tragedy,” the denouement, the fiery, lethal ending springs from the very character of the central figure.  If that is true, then we learned the lesson anew last Wednesday, as Donald Trump brought his Administration, and its accomplishments, to a crashing end.

Only a few days later the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would come forth with a final version of its new regulation of federal grants, brought forth after months and years of work.  The purpose was to protect, on many fronts, the religious freedom that was swept aside by the Obama Administration as a matter of no import.

Congress had never passed any statute to forbid discriminations based on “sexual orientation,” and yet the Obama Administration had put in place the regulations that would bar federal grants to any institution that bore moral reservations about same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and abortion.

But this new regulation was part of a corpus of other measures, emanating from HHS in the Trump Administration, to shore up protections of “conscience” for doctors and nurses who did not wish to be commandeered to perform or support abortions.   This new regulation was the work of young lawyers and administrators, strongly pro-life, who worked with  dedication.  This too may now be swept aside by a new Administration determined to wipe away any traces of the works of Donald Trump.

We had here an Administration doing many good things, at many levels, by people who had formed their convictions and cultivated their competencies long before the advent of Trump.  And the irony was that at the top of all of this was a man who could not speak in sentences, or explain the rationale behind so many of the policies that his Administration was putting in place.

Still, those things could not have been done if he had not touched something in a large portion of the American people, a sense that the governing political class was insensitive to the people they were  pleased to rule.

Without him, we would not have had three promising appointments to the Supreme Court, along with fifty-four new appellate court judges, who seem inclined to sustain those laws coming from the States, trying to put more limits on abortion.

Joseph Biden, with his fastidious concern for historical accuracy, said that Trump was the most “incompetent” President ever to serve – more bumbling, apparently, than James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore.

But then Biden would need to explain how this man without a clue had managed to run up such a string of successes that had eluded the prodigies in the preceding Administration.

There was the wave of deregulation that spurred the economy, producing the lowest levels of unemployment recorded for black people; the scaling back of taxes;  the support for fracking, the approval of drilling in the Arctic;  the withdrawal from the disastrous Paris accords and the agreement with Iran;  the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel;  but then even more, recognizing that the key to peace in the Middle East would not lay in treating the Palestinians as the center of the problem.  Trump could instead foster ties between Israel and the Gulf States, and begin to form a new structure to sustain new ties of investment.


Trump, on his own, could not have chosen the fine judges selected so carefully by the young lawyers in the office of the White House counsel and the Senate Judiciary Committee.   Nor could he supply the scheme for rolling back regulations and taxes.  But the decisions on Iran and Israel and the Paris accords came from his own gut.

A genius he wasn’t, but as Machiavelli suggested, only a wise man could recognize wise advice when he heard it.  Trump was rather like that character sketched in Plato’s Meno:  he can’t give the reasons, but somehow he knows how to make his way when the landmarks are down.  That knack had strangely deserted him by the end.

It was remarkable as to how many educated people had trouble grasping that when some of us were willing to vote for Trump even as we recoiled from his sensibility, it was because we were making a choice of Administrations:   We wanted to put in place the moral perspectives and policies that had been shaped over the years in the conservative party.

I could understand the aversion to Trump, but I couldn’t see how one could vote for the party of the Left now without absorbing the sense that the killing of 860,000 small humans in abortion every year was something not even worth thinking about any longer.

Trump had risen in the world with a sense of what ordinary people, in Queens or Peoria, would find dazzling.   It was not surprising that he had a sense of what people in the broad public cared about – and cared about with a passion previously unseen.

His appeal was that he had not absorbed the habits cultivated in the political class.  And yet his achievements sprang precisely from the policies and perspectives of his party.

Trump came apart because he was so consumed by his own anger and grievance that he was willing to press them even at the cost of two Senate seats in Georgia and the loss of the Senate for his party.  With that move, so much of his legacy now may be swept away.

What he was missing was that finer sense, caught by Edmund Burke, of the habits of loyalty and obligation that were cultivated in a political party.  For a party worked by trying to knit together interests that were often at odds.  What a party offered, he thought, were “hard essays of practiced friendship and experimented fidelity,” as “the only proper method of rising to power.”

For the sense was “that he who, in the common intercourse of life shewed he regarded somebody besides himself, when he came to act in a public situation, might probably consult some other interest than his own.”


*Image: The Lord Answering Job from the Whirlwind by William Blake, c. 1804 [National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh]

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.