In Potentia: Donald Trump’s Upside, and Donald Trump’s Downfall

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 27, 2017

It is hard to imagine (but easy to hope) that Donald Trump’s presidency will dramatically alter how politics works in America. Like many other Catholics who voted for Trump, I had to hold my nose as I entered the voting booth. Trump’s crassness, including all the negative publicity concerning his attitude toward women, is a significant deterrent to admiration. His bizarre commitment to a 2,000 mile wall between the United States and Mexico, on the theory that Mexico will pay for it, is a deterrent to sanity.

But even these negatives prove that Donald Trump represents something very different from politics as usual. One is reminded of Ronald Reagan’s famous statement that it can be a significant advantage to have little or no political experience, because “You don’t know what you can’t do.” And I think it captures the bemused spirit of reluctant Trump supporters to mention that, at the very least, his presidency should be great theater.

On the plus side, of course, Trump has now put teeth into his claim to be pro-life after previously having been pro-choice. The Mexico City policy, like the political bouncing ball it has always been, is once again on the upswing. His administration was also well-represented at today’s March for Life, chiefly but not exclusively by Vice President Mike Pence. There is also every indication that the Affordable Care Act will be substantially reworked, in order to make it financially feasible (for it is both a disaster and a laughingstock as far as insurance costs go), while simultaneously pulling its anti-life teeth.

(Aside: Can you imagine how quickly abortion would become a dead letter in the United States if the mainstream media covered the March for Life with anything like the same approving exposure accorded to the Women’s March on Washington?)

The big key

It seems to me, however, that there is one thing which Trump must accomplish if American politics is to be significantly changed by his Presidency: He must demonstrate by both his moral decisions and his success that politics works far better for everyone when the positive law is held accountable to the natural law. Over the last forty or fifty years, politics has lost its mooring because rules and laws have been driven by the will of our decadent ruling class, which is convinced that the key to a healthy social order is the progressive and totalitarian remaking of human nature according to its own relativistic whims.

Nearly everything that is wrong with contemporary Western culture stems directly from a refusal to recognize the essential givenness of human nature. Our nature is ordered to God primarily through men and women who pledge complete mutual fidelity for the purpose of establishing families in which the virtues natural to the human person are fostered through sacrificial love. The so-called sexual revolution has rendered this natural purpose impossible to achieve. And since the confusion about human nature is so extraordinarily deep and dangerous, the creation of a culture and social order animated by a reverence for this givenness cannot be accomplished overnight.

This means that for progress in the recovery of virtue to be made over time, those who are willing to govern according to the principles of the natural law must not only pursue the right ends but do so effectively. One reason that such progress has not been made in our lifetimes is that those presidents who have been willing to govern within the natural law have consistently made two huge mistakes. The first mistake has been a reluctance to speak clearly about these things out of a conviction that to do so is politically untenable. The second mistake has been to govern so badly that the electorate has always reverted to the opposite party after a very short time.

One thinks immediately of the two Bush presidents. They were morally inarticulate, either by nature or by political choice, and they stupidly embroiled the United States in foreign wars that could not possibly succeed. Following each of these presidents, who at least subscribed to a generally moral platform, the disillusioned electorate swung back to candidates and platforms that directly undermined the natural law at every turn.

The nation’s dilemma

This is the dilemma that stares the Trump presidency in its face. For there to be a significant improvement in the United States through politics, Trump must not only pursue moral ends but also prove through his judgment and competence that Americans are better off—even materially better off—when moral ends are, in fact, pursued.

Quite apart from the uncertainty that still remains about whether Donald Trump will typically commit himself to moral ends, the jury is out on the question of his competence—that is, his ability to make the kinds of hard decisions which actually improve the common good in ways that voters can recognize. It is just here that the question of “the wall” looms large, as will other difficult questions over time. If Trump persists in the folly of attempting to construct and maintain a wall that is just under two thousand miles long, or if he fails to make allowance for the huge numbers of migrants the United States requires for its unglamorous labor pool, then we will be staring yet another infamous boondoggle in the face.

Of course, any president has many and diverse opportunities to undertake measures which cause even a tolerant electorate to consider him a buffoon. But we already know that “the wall”, and immigration generally, presents a signal opportunity for catastrophic failure. If voters are convinced by Trump’s first term that he really has accomplished something significant for the common good, American voters might begin thinking about politics in new ways—ways not determined by political correctness but by a kind of self-justifying pragmatism that operates within the natural law.

But if, like most American presidents, he proves to be unable to effect positive change, then the voters will slip right back into the pockets of our cultural elites. In that case, President Trump will not bequeath a new politics to the American people, and we will end the way we began. We will commend him only for his striking ability to entertain.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: cieslajohn7542 - Jan. 30, 2017 10:13 AM ET USA

    Jeff - great essay overall, but a correction is in order. The first President Bush did not embroil the U.S. in an unwinnable foreign war. In fact, the First Gulf War (aka, Operation Desert Storm) was limited to specific (just) objectives and achieved them. "Bush 1" lost the election to Bill Clinton because he didn't understand that "its about the Economy, stupid...". I spent 28+ years in the Army, and some of my colleagues are dead because "Bush 2" didn't demonstrate the same wisdom/restraint.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Jan. 29, 2017 4:30 PM ET USA

    This is the best article I have read about Trump and his presidency. Every point in it is worthy of serious consideration.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Jan. 28, 2017 11:37 AM ET USA

    I still don't understand the fuss over "the Wall". Perhaps an actual masonry structure is not the best way to accomplish the goal; rather, one might consider drones and motion sensors. Still, a country has the right to control its borders, people are obligated to follow the law, and no foreigner has an absolute right to come and live here.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Jan. 27, 2017 8:49 PM ET USA

    Glad this your opinion. The wall can be and should be accomplished. Mexico should pay a share as they are complicit in encouraging illegals and I repeat ILLEGALS to come here. They are a rogue state controlled by cartels. Given your expertise tell us how you would solve the illegals problem. No kumbya stuff.

  • Posted by: MatJohn - Jan. 27, 2017 7:45 PM ET USA

    "Self justifying pragmatism that operates within the natural law." If that be put on President Trump's tombstone, it will be his greatest contribution to making America great again. Thank you for a brilliant critique of #45.

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Jan. 27, 2017 6:27 PM ET USA

    I commend the president for doing what the last president did not: strike a position for America and stand by it. Re the wall and immigration: we've seen what doesn't work. It's time to try something else. No moralizing about what's right or wrong. Radical Islam has waged war on the West. They have slaughtered Christians, and drugs have poured across our southern border. Mr. Trump is doing something, whereas the last president did little or nothing, Dr. Mirus. Give our new president a chance.