In 2016, Donald Trump started a hostile takeover of the Republican Party and he succeeded. The GOP and the larger conservative movement in America is becoming more and more like the man who “bought” the party in last year’s presidential election. While for the most part policy is somewhat following a conventional GOP agenda, temperamentally it is a very different party. As columnist Michael Gerson wrote recently:
The war against terrorism has been rebooted on the basis of anti-Muslim bigotry, which undermines domestic law enforcement and anti-radicalization efforts. Authoritarian regimes around the world — now shielded from human rights criticism — feel more secure. Dissidents and democratic activists feel more lonely and abandoned. Fleeing refugees feel more desperate and friendless. The president is conducting delicate nuclear negotiations with demeaning pet names. Morale at the State Department is in collapse, leading to the hemorrhaging of diplomatic talent and experience. Trump has alienated important allies with demands for protection money. The United States has stepped back from effective economic competition in Asia, leaving China a more dominant regional power. Russia, in all likelihood, has helped elect a favorable U.S. president in the largest intelligence coup of modern history.
But even though a good chunk of the GOP is either falling for Trump or kissing up to him like one Vice President Mike Pence, there is a remnant of conservatives that hasn’t bent the knee to the President: that erstwhile group, of which I am a part, called “Never-Trumpers.”
The Never-Trump or Trump-skeptic group is a diverse group with different views on how to deal with Donald Trump. What unites them is that they see Trump as unfit to serve as Commander-in-Chief. There are fissures in this group and they came to a head recently as a number of skeptics “fought” against each other.
There are basically two groupings of Never-Trumpers: the Revolutionaries and the Pragmatists. The Revolutionaries see Trump as such a threat to the Republic that anything he supports has to be resisted. Because the GOP seemed to easily acquiesce to Trump, they now have doubts about the whole conservative project. The most well-known people in this camp are former speechwriter for George W. Bush, David Frum, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, and former presidential candidate Evan McMullin.
On the other side are the Pragmatists. The Pragmatists don’t like Trump, but they concede he is the titular head of the party. They have decided to work with him where possible, but also criticize the President when necessary. While they are pragmatic, that doesn’t mean they don’t speak out with force; they are very clear where they stand. Most of the representatives of this side of Never-Trumperland are found at the National Review and they include David French, Jonah Goldberg, and Weekly Standard publisher Bill Kristol.
The match that started a brief conflagration came when National Review editor Charles C. Cooke wrote an article criticizing Jennifer Rubin. Since the rise of Trump, Rubin has been known to radically switch positions without really telling people why. Cooke wrote about Rubin’s flip-flops which started the online fight. Here’s what he says:
The illustrations are endless. In two years, Rubin has gone from arguing that the “ludicrous,” “absurd” Iran deal “has to go” — and, indeed, that John Kasich was a fool for contending otherwise – to praising those who believe it must remain in place as “reasonable” “experts,” and predicting that even to decertify would put “American credibility” at “risk.” In 2015, she wrote that “if you examine the Iran deal in any detail, you will be horrified as to what is in there.” In 2017, she characterizes this position as the “emotional” “temper tantrum” of an “unhinged president.” A similar metamorphosis has sullied her views on tax cuts, welfare, energy, and gun control (before, after), as well as her attitude toward Jews and anti-intellectuals, which once led her to defend Sarah Palin, but which now leads her to condemn Trump on almost all of the grounds she once dismissed.
This prompted a response from David Frum who saw Cooke’s article as a savage attack. Frum then criticizes Cooke and all of National Review for falling into line when it comes to Trump:
Rubin’s crime is that rather than waking up every morning fresh for each day’s calling of balls and strikes, she carries into her work the memory of the day before. She sees patterns where Cooke sees only incidents. She speaks out even when Cooke deems it prudent to hold his tongue.
In this course, Cooke is following the Republican leadership in the House and Senate and the more presentable of the conservative commentariat: Hope for the best. Make excuses where you can. When you can’t make an excuse, keep as quiet as you can. Attack Trump’s critics in the media and Hollywood when all else fails. That has also become the working position of many conservatives who in 2015 and 2016 called themselves “Never Trump.”
In the spring of 2016, National Review published its “Against Trump” issue. Twenty-one prominent conservatives signed individual statements of opposition to Trump’s candidacy. Of those 21, only six continue to speak publicly against his actions. Almost as many have become passionate defenders of the Trump presidency, most visibly the Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell and the National Rifle Association’s Dana Loesch.
So, who is right?
First, you should know where I stand. I tend to see myself as a Never-Trumper and have been since Trump started his campaign. Having said that, now I want to give my own view of this conservative remnant.
I tend to agree with Cooke about Rubin. She has changed positions for what seems like no other reason than Trump supports it. She tends to chew out anyone who dares support a bill that Trump might like. Rubin kind of reminds me of how Andrew Sullivan acted in the latter years of George W. Bush; running around with your hair on fire.
The problem I have with the Revolutionaries is that they currently seem to want to burn everything down. We see that with Rubin, but it is also at times what Evan McMullin and Max Boot have done. McMullin has occasionally said things that seem like he is turning his back on conservatism as a whole. McMullin doesn’t seem to show any fealty to his former intellectual home, if only to present himself as a conservative alternative. Boot wrote recently that he hoped Republicans would lose in the midterms. In all three cases, it might feel good to seek the right side. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t help reform conservatism. In these polarized days, denouncing your side and not proposing solutions or alternatives, only makes you lose integrity among conservatives. Burning bridges might feel good, but it won’t help change the movement.
The pragmatists can at times seem too accommodationist to Trump’s agenda. They really aren’t. The National Review has been a strong voice against Trump when it needs to. That said, it can appear that they don’t want to rock the boat.. The fear from liberals and Never-Trump revolutionaries that we might become some living version of the Handmaids’s Tale hasn’t happened. What is happening is actually a bit worse because it is so insidious. There is a breaking of social norms; lines have been crossed that had never been crossed before. How Trump has acted might not destroy American democracy as we’ve known it, but it will weaken its foundations, in ways that will take years if not decades to fix. Yes, he has governed in many ways like a normal Republican; but how he has expressed himself in the office falls far short of the expectations that come with being President. Pragmatists see Trump kind of as a hurricane that will pass in time. As much as I think Trump is full of air, I don’t see him as a storm that will pass. Instead, Trump is more like a nuclear bomb that brings destruction and leaves areas toxic for years. What he is doing now will impact not just conservatism, but America as a whole for years to come.
A case in point is Trump’s treatment of persons of color. You could look at a recent story in the New York Times where Trump said all Haitians have AIDS and referred to Nigerian immigrants as not wanting to go back to their huts after seeing America. You could also see how he treated Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Over and over again, he has not hesitated before treating Americans and others who aren’t white as less than human. Or calling Mexicans rapists. Or refusing to condemn white supremacists after Charlottesville. All of this has an effect. If one thought it was difficult to get Latinos and Blacks and Muslims to listen to what the GOP has to offer now, just wait. Trump has made the GOP and conservatism toxic to people like me. While I don’t think that means we should run around with our hair on fire, we ignore that Trump is doing things that will impact our society for a long time.
But while that toxicity is disconcerting, I still fault the revolutionaries for losing their heads at every little thing the president does. You can be concerned without falling off the deep end and pissing off people who aren’t as…”passionate” as you are. And if Trump has caused you to rethink your assumptions, for God’s sake, please tell people why.
What really needs to happen right now is a meeting of the two groups.They need to find ways to work together, even if they have different approaches to dealing with Trump. I doubt that will happen, but both sides need to see that they are on the same side and learn from each other about how to act in the age of Trump.