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The Great Debate: Trump vs. Coolidge

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Donald Trump’s enduring support from so many of his fellow Republicans stems largely from their unshakable conviction that he remains the most conservative major figure in the party’s national leadership. But that conclusion contradicts the traditional notion that true conservatism inevitably demands a modest, limited government, while Trump’s “America First” agenda glorifies an activist, big government populism. Consider the contrast between the 45th President (Trump) and the 30th (Calvin Coolidge), when it comes to the suitability of an aggressive, all-powerful chief executive in the White House.

In his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention in 2016, Trump famously and unforgettably proclaimed: “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

Coolidge expressed a dramatically different view of a leader’s role and of the timeless values of our Republic. After completing his successful second term in 1929 and passing up another run for the presidency, the overwhelmingly popular “Silent Cal” completed a brief, best-selling autobiography that included this profoundly important passage: “It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man,” wrote Coolidge. “When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.”

This disagreement over the centrality of a president’s personality, and his exercise of federal power over ordinary citizens, demonstrates why Coolidge remains a conservative icon nearly ninety years after his death. Two more brief items of advice from this often under-appreciated figure seem particularly appropriate for this fraught, angry, impatient, and bitterly contentious moment in our history.

“Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong,” Coolidge said. “Don’t hurry to legislate. Give administration a chance to catch up with legislation.”

And, perhaps most importantly for all of us: “Four fifths of all our troubles in this life would disappear if we would only sit down and keep still.”

The marvelously readable Coolidge autobiography has just been re-released in a new addition, edited and annotated by Amity Shlaes and Matthew Denhart. It could hardly be more welcome – or timely.

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