A common lament in leftist (and some right-wing) circles is that #NeverTrump conservatives mouth criticisms of Trump, but by their actions demonstrate they are no better than Trumpists. For instance, Senator Ben Sasse, a very vocal critic of Trump since day one, still votes “with” Trump over 90 percent of the time, thus showing himself to be a hypocrite.
The nub of the argument seems to be that conservatives ought to vote against their ideological interests to demonstrate their solidarity with the anti-Trump cause, otherwise they will be lumped in as enemies to the people. This attitude reflects a deep misunderstanding of Trump critics and the distinctions of flavors among his detractors on the right.
To understand better, we need to step back to the primaries. This piece does a pretty good job in explaining where Trump’s support came from. It also helps explain where it did not come from. The most consistent and vociferous opposition to Trump within the Republican party came from those who labelled themselves “strongly conservative.” These were principally Cruz voters, though some preferred Rubio and some of the other candidates. In exit polls, particularly in the early stages of the primary, they were the category showing the weakest support for Trump. Support for Trump increased through each step away from strong conservatives, to mild conservatives, to moderates, and then even Democrats. As the article shows, moderate is perhaps not the best descriptor of a typical Trump supporter, though these individuals were definitely not traditional conservatives – being far less concerned with issues related to government spending, economic freedom, or opposition to abortion.
For those who opposed Trump, opposition can be labeled in one of two categories: ideology and personality. Ideological opponents of Trump deemed him to be a RINO in the truest sense of the term. He was literally a Democrat who called himself a Republican, but who still clung to many of his “big government” principles. He may have mouthed certain conservative pieties, but in his heart he remained something of an authoritarian. Conservative opposition to Trump was built largely, though not solely, on these grounds.
More moderate voters also had some ideological grounds for disagreement, but their concerns were centered more around personality: Trump was an uncouth, half-witted blabbermouth who catered to the worst instincts of his supporters. To be sure most conservative critics of Trump also felt the same way, but the points of emphasis were different. These types of voters tended to cluster around Kasich and Rubio. They are also why some of us never referred to ourselves as NeverTrumpers, because those who were most fervent in that designation were #AndNotCruzEither.
If you understand this gap in reasoning, you can understand why certain parts of the right have been more comfortable in praising and supporting Trump on policy, or have become outright supporters. The more one’s suspicion of Trump was based on ideology, the easier it is to support him to one degree or another. I am not going to get into an in-depth analysis of whether or not Trump’s presidency is truly conservative, or whether he has delivered as many conservative policy victories as his supporters claim. But he has certainly not governed against conservative principles as much as his detractors feared. (Trump’s tariff policies have been the one area where has most governed against conservative ideology, but the results of those actions have not been as severe as feared, even if not as successful as pretended they are).
Conservatives who put a good deal of emphasis on the personality side (raises hand) are not as positive about Trump as those who don’t care as much about those concerns. But they are much more sanguine about him than those whose primary concerns were attitudinal. Not only has Trump affirmed their worst fears, he has governed relatively conservatively. Because here’s the rub: while moderate Republicans distrusted Trump due to personal considerations, the most hostile of this group have moved away for more ideological reasons. Maybe it’s better put this way: moderate NeverTrumpers were barely tethered to the Republican party to begin with. Trump has pushed them over the edge because now they feel completely alienated.
I’m going to use the most recent defection as an example. Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, and a very vocal critic of both Trump and the populist base of support (Nichols makes me look like a rabid man of the people democrat in comparison), announced he is finally leaving the Republican party. Frankly I didn’t know he was in it. Let’s go over some of the reasons he provides:
Small things sometimes matter, and Collins is among the smallest of things in the political world. And yet, she helped me finally to accept what I had been denying. Her speech on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh convinced me that the Republican Party now exists for one reason, and one reason only: for the exercise of raw political power, and not even for ends I would otherwise applaud or even support.
I have written on social media and elsewhere how I feel about Kavanaugh’s nomination. I initially viewed his nomination positively, as a standard GOP judicial appointment; then grew concerned about whether he should continue on as a nominee with the accusations against him; and finally, was appalled by his behavior in front of the Senate.
It was Collins, however, who made me realize that there would be no moderates to lead conservatives out of the rubble of the Trump era. Senator Jeff Flake is retiring and took a pass, and with all due respect to Senator Lisa Murkowski—who at least admitted that her “no” vote on cloture meant “no” rather than drag out the drama—she will not be the focus of a rejuvenated party.
When Collins spoke, she took the floor of the Senate to calm an anxious and divided nation by giving us all an extended soliloquy on… the severability of a clause.
The severability of a clause? Seriously?
It took almost half an hour before Collins got to the accusations against Kavanaugh, but the rest of what she said was irrelevant. She had clearly made up her mind weeks earlier, and she completely ignored Kavanaugh’s volcanic and bizarre performance in front of the Senate.
Nichols claims Susan Collins’s speech was the final straw for him. Let’s do to Nichols what is unable to do for Collins: take him at face value. He thinks he has been abandoned because one of the last true moderates has shown she is a true Trumpian, interested in only raw political power. Her speech, he says, was a sham because she had already made her mind up and was now just making an excuse to justify her vote.
I’ve discussed Collins’s speech, and had a much different takeaway. I can understand Nichols’s cynicism, but I don’t think he has made a convincing case in his favor. Nichols argues that Collins was biased in favor of Kavanaugh, but here he glosses over his own bias. Nichols had already expressed his opposition to Kavanaugh, and thus he dismisses Collins through his own biased prism. Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Senate was “volcanic and bizarre” only if you were already predisposed towards opposing him. For those unconvinced that Dr. Ford had adequately proven her allegations, and who thought the other allegations against him were outrageous fabrications, Kavanaugh’s performance was completely understandable. It’s okay to come to a different conclusion, but Nichols seems incapable of contemplating that Collins – and most other Kavanaugh defenders – are acting in good faith.
Nichols then says he cannot join the Democrats because of their execrable behavior, but says the Republicans were worse.
The Republicans, however, have now eclipsed the Democrats as a threat to the rule of law and to the constitutional norms of American society. They have become all about winning. Winning means not losing, and so instead of acting like a co-equal branch of government responsible for advice and consent, congressional Republicans now act like a parliamentary party facing the constant threat of a vote of no-confidence.
He’s not entirely wrong about the shift in Republican attitudes, but it is strange to make this argument in light of the Kavanaugh proceedings. The Democrats were the ones who threw every manner of hyperbolic, unreasonable argument against Kavanaugh, and that was before the Ford allegation. The Democrats never gave him a fair shot, and tried every maneuver to win by smearing him at every turn. Moreover, it’s difficult to claim Republicans were acting like authoritarians (as Nichols believes the GOP has become) when they were not the ones who seemed to abandon the concept of innocent until proven guilty during this process.
Nichols further claims Republicans have abandoned principle in pursuit of pure power politics.
Politics is about the exercise of power. But the new Trumpist GOP is not exercising power in the pursuit of anything resembling principle, and certainly not for conservative or Republican principles.
Free trade? Republicans are suddenly in love with tariffs, and now sound like bad imitations of early 1980s protectionist Democrats. A robust foreign policy? Not only have Republicans abandoned their claim to being the national-security party, they have managed to convince the party faithful that Russia—an avowed enemy that directly attacked our political institutions—is less of a threat than their neighbors who might be voting for Democrats. Respect for law enforcement? The GOP is backing Trump in attacks on the FBI and the entire intelligence community as Special Counsel Robert Mueller closes in on the web of lies, financial arrangements, and Russian entanglements known collectively as the Trump campaign.
Again, he’s not totally wrong, but he’s also not completely right. I’ve already mentioned tariffs, where Nichols has a much stronger argument. But how much has the GOP gone wobbly on national security? I, too, weep when some Trumpists shrug their shoulders at Putin’s malevolence, and Trump’s verbal sucking up to dictators is sickening. But has this actually impacted policy? When it comes to real world actions, Trump has not been a shrinking violet with regards to Russia. As for the Mueller investigation – I’ll just say it’s not as simplistic as Nichols is making it out to be.
And most important, on the rule of law, congressional Republicans have utterly collapsed. They have sold their souls, purely at Trump’s behest, living in fear of the dreaded primary challenges that would take them away from the Forbidden City and send them back home to the provinces. Yes, an anti-constitutional senator like Hirono is unnerving, but she’s a piker next to her Republican colleagues, who have completely reversed themselves on everything from the limits of executive power to the independence of the judiciary, all to serve their leader in a way that would make the most devoted cult follower of Kim Jong Un blush.
Have they? This is a nice rant, but is it actually true? Again, presumption of innocence is an aspect of demonstrating respect for the rule of law, and I think the Democrats have been woefully worse. Nichols may be right about individual Republican Congressmen being afraid to take on Trump, but where has it manifested in disrespect for the rule of law? I’m less than convinced by this particular argument.
Nichols says its other conservatives who have abandoned their principles, not he.
Maybe it’s me. I’m not a Republican anymore, but am I still a conservative? Limited government: check. Strong national defense: check. Respect for tradition and deep distrust of sudden, dramatic change: check. Belief that people spend their money more wisely than government? That America is an exceptional nation with a global mission? That we are, in fact, a shining city on a hill and an example to others? Check, check, check.
This will hopefully be the subject of future posts, but “limited government” is a meaningless bit of shorthand offered by people trying to prove their conservative bona fides, but which proves nothing. “Respect for tradition and deep distrust of sudden, dramatic change” is the only point of substance, and it is a very good one.
So Nichols is bit more credible as a somewhat conservative Trump critic than others who have publicly said they were leaving the Republican party. But then he continues:
But I can’t deny that I’ve strayed from the party. I believe abortion should remain legal. I am against the death penalty in all its forms outside of killing in war. I don’t think what’s good for massive corporations is always good for America. In foreign affairs, I am an institutionalist, a supporter of working through international bodies and agreements. I think our defense budget is too big, too centered on expensive toys, and that we are still too entranced by nuclear weapons.
Not every Republican who has left the party in the age of Trump is pro abortion (I left and am most definitely not pro abortion), but it does seem like every public figure who has made a public break is. Can someone who believes abortion should remain legal really call themselves a traditional conservative? Again, this could be the subject of an entirely different post or twenty, so I don’t want to dive too deeply on this. But no. The answer is no.
As for the rest of this, I actually am on the same page with Nichols with the possible exception of being an institutionalist, but I don’t think many conservatives would have a problem with any of these points, at least in the abstract. But how does one concretely reflect these principles in the real world? Aye, there’s the rub, and I suspect Nichols might be underplaying his differences.
I’ve run longer than I intended, and perhaps more dismissive of Nichols than I meant to be. As a registered Independent I am in no position to critique someone who no longer feels they can remain in the current GOP. But I do think Nichols is indicative of a larger break within right-wing circles. One begins to wonder if Trump is the real reason for moderates to leave the Republican party, or is he simply the excuse?