One of the chief arguments against Donald Trump is the very fact that so many of us on the right spend so much time arguing with each other about him.
“The right” has always been a broad ideological coalition, and any president is going to lean toward one part of that coalition at the expense of others, leaving some people disgruntled. But in my experience, that usually led right-leaning writers to debate their differences on the issues, rather than just arguing about the man. Yet that’s what we’re doing with Donald Trump. He has a remarkable talent for needlessly pitting former allies against one another in internecine battles.
The latest place this is happening is at National Review, where Rich Lowry just published a piece writing off the NeverTrump movement as “deluded.”
Cue the record-scratch sound effect. National Review, as you may recall, defined NeverTrumpism in the 2016 Republican primaries with a special issue titled “Against Trump,” rounding up articles from a variety of intellectuals across all major factions of the right. That issue, you may recall, was compiled by Rich Lowry. But now he’s gone 180 degrees.
It’d be much better, obviously, if the president didn’t conduct his administration like a reality TV show run by a mercurial and cruel executive producer. Indeed, most of the fears of how Trump would act in office have been realized (everyone would have thought Jeb Bush was crazy if he had predicted a President Trump would fire a high-level cabinet official via Twitter, and not even using direct message).
This is a really cherry-picked list of Trump’s faults, making them sound trivial and merely a case of crude manners. Let’s try this again. It would be a much better if the president didn’t say white nationalists are “very fine people,” if he weren’t enamored with unilateral executive authority, and if he hadn’t paid hush money to women of ill repute, among many other things. This would be a better way to start listing what Trump’s opponents find objectionable about him. But honestly summarizing Trump’s opponents isn’t what Lowry is aiming for, because he goes on to present a comical straw man of the anti-Trump position on the right.
Yet we shouldn’t buy into the fantasy either that Trump is going to disappear into thin air, or that Trumpism can be blithely dismissed so the party can return to what some Never Trumpers believe constituted the status quo ante.
The word “some” is doing a lot of work here. I’ll agree that some Trump critics on the right have gone off the rails. The whole idea of NeverTrump, back in the day, was to reject the idea that all of politics boils down to a “binary choice” between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and that if we’re not for one of the two, we must be for the other. This argument was rolled out for the election season, where it had some element of short-term plausibility. Now it has become the permanent argument for Trump. If you’re not enthusiastically boosting him, then you must love CNN, Elizabeth Warren, and the far left. The argument is absurd—yet there are a few prominent NeverTrumpers who let this “binary choice” get inside their heads, so now they are for whatever Trump is against. That’s how you get Jennifer Rubin flip-flopping on every issue in order to stay on the opposite side from Trump, or William Kristol pining for a Michelle Obama presidency.
But that’s a very small and embarrassing sampling that leaves out—well, it leaves out a lot of people who write for Lowry’s own publication. Two of them, Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru, reply that “of course it is possible to be a severe critic of Trump from the right without thinking he is going to ‘disappear.'”
Sensible conservative criticism of Trump should not be (and usually is not) based on Reagan nostalgia. But it is not at all clear that Trump “usefully points the way” to a conservatism that addresses today’s challenges or toward the populist-conservative synthesis Rich desires. Republicans have essentially no agenda this year, with the exception of spastic administrative actions against trade. That is not entirely Trump’s fault. But it suggests that he has done more to confuse and paralyze conservative thinking about those challenges than to spur it.
More sharply, they add: “It’s no shock that liberals want to argue that conservatism has always been synonymous with Trumpism. It seems misguided to surrender the point.”
By the way, what’s wrong with a little Reagan nostalgia, all of a sudden? Reagan had his faults and made plenty of the kind of compromises we expect from a politician. But why shouldn’t we be just a little nostalgic for a time when we had a Republican president who was genuinely interested in pro-free-market ideas and had a friendly, optimistic, appealing personality?
But I get the impression that all of this is talking at cross purposes. What we might have or ought to have is irrelevant to the question. It’s not about offering intellectual leadership. It’s about following the crowd. Note that Lowry spends a lot of time worrying about political popularity and the need to support Trump for the good of the Republican Party. His argument is summed up in his assertion that: “Trump is closer to the national Republican consensus than his conservative detractors.” Apparently, it is the job of intellectuals to stay as close as possible to the consensus.
Back when Lowry was rallying the right Against Trump, I described one of the purposes of taking that stand. “For political commentators on the right, the fundamental challenge posed by Trump is whether we actually meant all that stuff we’ve been saying for decades, or whether we are willing to chuck it all out to jump on somebody’s political bandwagon.” I also knew that for many intellectuals, particularly those who write about politics, there is a powerful, ultimately irresistible pull to go where your audience goes—combined with a pathological fear of being out in the wilderness, disregarded and irrelevant. At the very least, there’s the desire to fit in with one’s friends and coworkers and the people you spend the most time with. I’ve always thought that’s why conservative columnists for the New York Times tend to go native. It may also explain the conservatives who are being stampeded onto the Trump Train. They feel the pull of their tribe, and where it goes, they go also.
But it’s not our job to stick to the “national Republican consensus” of the past few years. After all, if we just wanted to cave to a “national consensus,” wouldn’t it be easier just to fold up our tents and join the left? No, it’s our job to help influence the consensus and to build a new one, if need be.
The Trump Train doesn’t seem to know where it’s going or what it’s going to do when it finally runs out of steam. Somebody needs to have an idea for what the ideological alternative to the left is going to be when that time comes.