In a 1770 pamphlet titled “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents,” Edmund Burke offered what is probably the first principled defense of organized partisanship in the history of political thought. “Party,” he wrote, “is a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” The object of the party’s members is to “carry their common plans into execution, with all the power and authority of the state,” and they are particularly loath to “suffer themselves to be led, or to be controlled, or to be overbalanced, in office or in council, by those who contradict the very fundamental principles on which their party is formed.” Given some well-settled principles, “a man must be peculiarly unfortunate in the choice of his political company, if he does not agree with them at least nine times in ten.”
A decent case can be made that Burke was too idealistic about the role of principles or ideas as the binding element of parties. The great twentieth-century party scholar E.E. Schattschneider thought so, remarking in Party Government (1942) that “it is equally just to say that parties are held together by the ‘cohesive power of public plunder.’” By no means cynical—merely realistic—Schattschneider added that “it ought not to be very difficult to imagine reasons for wanting to control a modern government.”
One thing on which Burke and Schattschneider seemed to agree was that partisan activity is most vitally a phenomenon not of the people in general but of a much smaller political class, consisting of the men and women who make a profession of politics. Burke’s account of partisanship is a description of parliamentarians and ministries, not of voters, while Schattschneider said there is a “zone between the sovereign people and the government which is the habitat of the parties,” adding that “whatever else the parties may be, they are not associations of the voters who support the party candidates.” In short, party “establishments” really are our political parties.
Partisanship just is a “swamp” thing—to use the currently fashionable pejorative for our professional political class. And, following Burke and Schattschneider, I want to suggest that the Swamp Thing is a good thing.
Lessons from Trump’s First Year
These reflections are prompted as we begin the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency. Two years ago, during the primary campaign season, I argued here at Public Discourse that our political parties had rendered themselves dangerously vulnerable to extremists, demagogues, and unprincipled outsiders by taking the democratization of the presidential nomination process too far. My evidence was the success in each of the two parties—so far at that time—of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, each man a species of the genus demagogue.
Sanders was soon thereafter crushed by the quintessential establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, but Trump took advantage of the multiplicity of his Republican rivals, none of whom succeeded in becoming the “not Trump” candidate around whom primary voters could coalesce. And, although the best scholars of presidential elections concluded that Trump underperformed in the general election compared with what a less chaotic candidate might have achieved, it’s hard to quarrel with victory, however narrow. Trump may have lost the popular vote as well as seats in both houses of Congress, but he did flip six states Barack Obama had won twice, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, which no Republican had won since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
I have not for a moment regretted the choice I made during the general election season not to vote for either Trump or Clinton. But I confess I turn out to have worried a little too much about how bad a president Trump would prove to be. What I did not anticipate was how much the residual coherence and strength of the Republican Party would be able to counteract, contain, and guide a president who had run against the party establishment, and who had shown scant attachment to (or in many cases awareness of) the principles of the party he now nominally led.
Mind you, I have not changed my mind about Donald Trump. He remains what he ever was: a fine exemplar of most, perhaps all, of the seven deadly sins. One need not join in the febrile speculations about Trump’s mental health, his alleged senescence, or even his native intelligence to reach the obvious conclusion that he remains, after a year in office, the least knowledgeable, least informed, least curious, and least energetic human being ever to occupy the office he holds. His principles are few, and negotiable; his interest in policy matters is narrow, and even within that narrow band fairly ill-informed; his attention span is that of a squirrel, unless the matter at hand concerns his image of himself.
Yet, from a conservative standpoint, and focusing mostly on policy rather than personality, the first year of the Trump administration has been a commendable success in some areas—think first and foremost of his judicial appointments—mixed with moderate successes in other areas, and disappointments and failures in still others. The single strongest variable that appears to account for where the Trump administration has succeeded and where it has fallen short is the extent to which the party establishment has stepped in and supplied the principles, the knowledge, and the skill in execution that the president lacks.
One of the overall lessons of the year has been to remind us how very institutionalized the modern presidency has become. It is as true as ever, in one sense, that the “energy in the executive” that Alexander Hamilton extolled in the Federalist comes largely from the office’s unitary character, for ultimate authority (and responsibility) in the executive branch is concentrated in a single person. But even the most energetic of modern presidents must oversee a government too vast for one person really to master in all its details of policy options and decisions. What then will happen if a president arrives in office like Donald Trump, with no prior knowledge or experience in any of these matters, and no real inclination to learn much about them all?
Personnel is Policy
It turns out that what will happen is that the most powerful instincts and inclinations of the party he ostensibly leads will kick in and take over. Personnel, as the saying goes, is policy. With the exception of the military men Trump has appointed as secretary of defense, national security adviser, and White House chief of staff (chosen for their leadership and steadiness in the business of administration), all the best of his Cabinet and subcabinet picks have been drawn from the ranks of the most conservative and ideologically coherent elements of the Republican Party. His attorney general, solicitor general, energy and education secretaries, UN ambassador, and EPA administrator, as well as many other less visible political appointees, are from central casting in GOP policy activist circles, and represent the boldest and most idea-driven approaches to their respective responsibilities.
Whether one likes the ideas they advance or not, these administration officials have been responsible for much of the conservative policy progress of the last year—in reducing regulatory burdens on the economy, in rescinding Obama administration guidance that harmed due process at colleges and universities, and in lifting the burden of the HHS contraceptive-abortifacient mandate from conscientious religious objectors, among other achievements.
As for the president’s appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch and a record twelve circuit judges in his first year, White House counsel Donald McGahn amusingly confirmed—while claiming to deny—the extent to which this business has been taken over by persons to whom the president entirely defers. Speaking to the annual convention of the Federalist Society in November, McGahn said (as reported by Politico):
“Our opponents of judicial nominees frequently claim the president has outsourced his selection of judges. That is completely false,” McGahn argued. “I’ve been a member of the Federalist Society since law school — still am. So, frankly, it seems like it’s been insourced.”
“But seeking advice from Leonard Leo and many members of the Federalist Society is not outsourcing the judicial selection process,” he added. “The fact is we all share the same vision of the judicial role, and we welcome input from many sources.”
There is no reason to believe that the “we all” in McGahn’s remark includes President Trump, who has never shown a sign of having given any thought to questions of judicial philosophy. From the moment candidate Trump issued his first list of potential Supreme Court nominees after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in early 2016—a transparent stratagem to lasso social conservatives at a critical moment in the primary contest—it has been plain that his judicial nominees have simply been names on a list that others handed him. So long as he cares little about this himself, and remains tractable, we are likely to get very good conservative judges out of him—Thomases and Scalias, not O’Connors, Kennedys, and Souters. (In fairness, we might even generalize this as the Harriet Miers Axiom: the proposition that when Republican presidents think they can trust their own unilateral judgment about judges, the odds of a good choice go way down.)
In his purely executive activities, then, the president is keeping his head above water because the party establishment is holding him up. Where he flounders the most in his executive functions is in those policy areas he cares the most about, such as the travel ban, and in trade relations and foreign policy more generally, where the party establishment is less equipped by nature and positioning to be of much help.
The Impact of Trump’s Deficiencies
But if the executive side of the Trump presidency is supported by the party, to which the administration’s real achievements can be attributed, on the legislative side of the ledger, it is the party that needs the president’s support. And here we find the signal deficiencies of President Trump. Obamacare’s repeal and replacement failed on Capitol Hill for lack of presidential leadership. A conservative tax reform bill was produced with practically no meaningful contribution from the president himself. And even the recent stunt of inviting television cameras into an hour-long session between President Trump and congressional leaders on immigration—supposedly one of his signature issues—revealed the president to be Low-Information Donald, and not exactly a master negotiator. In short, any conservative legislative achievements of the last year, such as they are, can be attributed to the GOP’s ability to get its act together when the president is not in the room or in the picture. As congressional Republicans head into a midterm election season, they must come to the realization that they are on their own. Given the president’s low approval ratings, they must work to reduce his drag on them.
Regular consumers of the news, not to mention followers of the president’s Twitter feed, will remark that I have not said anything about special counsel Robert Mueller’s “collusion with Russia” investigation, or about the putative reverse-scandal of the Steele dossier and bad apples at the FBI. Nor have I said anything about the real reason for those low approval ratings—Trump’s serial offenses against the dignity of his office, common decency, and elementary justice whenever he opens his mouth or taps out tweets on his phone. It is a real worry, of course, how much those who surround this exceedingly needy man must abase themselves in serving or associating with him. This takes its own toll on the party’s integrity. But such things would take another column to consider, and I could hardly say anything readers can’t conclude for themselves.
Here I simply wanted to bring to the surface the surprising resilience and effectiveness of that most maligned of creatures—Swamp Thing, the party establishment. Even when its nomination process is broken enough to give us such a man as Donald Trump for our president, the party establishment has shown a remarkable capacity to fill the voids created by his inattention and to guide many of his most important policy decisions. For my part, I shudder to think of its natural habitat being drained.
[An earlier version of this essay indicated that despair is one of the classically listed seven deadly sins. The author chalks up the error to sloth.]