Flight of Fancy

The Conundrum for anti-Trump Conservatives

In his June 1 column, George Will wrote that not only should President Trump be defeated this Fall, but so should his Congressional “enablers.” In language evocative of an angry god declaring that all shall be vanquished before him, Will wrote:

The nation’s downward spiral into acrimony and sporadic anarchy has had many causes much larger than the small man who is the great exacerbator of them. Most of the causes predate his presidency, and most will survive its January terminus. The measures necessary for restoration of national equilibrium are many and will be protracted far beyond his removal. One such measure must be the removal of those in Congress who, unlike the sycophantic mediocrities who cosset him in the White House, will not disappear “magically,” as Eric Trump said the coronavirus would. Voters must dispatch his congressional enablers, especially the senators who still gambol around his ankles with a canine hunger for petting.

Will was not quite finished.

We cannot know all the measures necessary to restore the nation’s domestic health and international standing, but we know the first step: Senate Republicans must be routed, as condign punishment for their Vichyite collaboration, leaving the Republican remnant to wonder: Was it sensible to sacrifice dignity, such as it ever was, and to shed principles, if convictions so easily jettisoned could be dignified as principles, for . . . what?

Nothing cries dispassionate analysis quite like World War II parallels.

Will is certainly not the first fire and brimstone spewing conservative critic to call for the electoral elimination of the Republican party, but he’s perhaps the only one worth taking seriously.

Most anti-Trump conservatives[1] will not find much to disagree with GeorgeWill here. We have watched in horror as the Republican party has transformed itself into a cult of personality. Even Trump-skeptical Republicans have either muted their criticism or have become, to not put too fine a point on it, royal ass-kissers, including certain 2016 primary opponents of his. In many right-wing journals even mild criticism of the president is considered something like treason.

So why might an anti-Trump conservative have reservations about Will’s strategy? Because the beneficiary would be a political party no more deserving to hold the reins of power. It could also have the unanticipated result of inspiring a reaction that leads to something much worse than Trump down the line.

The case against Trump

The easiest part of Will’s argument to swallow is the most basic one: President Trump does not deserve to win re-election. The reasons so many conservatives opposed Trump in 2016 still obtain. If anything, Trump has exceeded our worst expectations of his character. He continues to spew idiotic conspiracy theories on Twitter even in the midst of a global pandemic that his administration, to put it charitably, bungled the response to. And even as America descended into riotous protests, Trump’s response was to suggest a “shoot first, ask questions later” response to the protesters and to suggest another conspiracy theory about a man whose skull was cracked open after being pushed by the police.

Trump supporters downplay the significance of all this – “They’re just tweets,” is the common response – but even for those of us who think the “rhetorical presidency” is overblown, we cannot ignore that these insane ramblings do nothing to help unify the country or advance his agenda.

Speaking of Trump’s agenda, while he has been not as bad as conservatives feared, there’s little here to suggest that he has earned a second term, as the miles and miles of invisible border walls attest to. Thus far Trump’s main “accomplishment” has been a tax cut, but for credit for that mainly goes to former Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And while his administration has rolled back regulations, these are temporary victories that can be easily undone with the next Democratic administration. He has been bolder than other theoretical Republican presidents in some areas – moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, for starters – yet Trump has been more of a paper tiger than a fierce warrior slashing down the cultural enemies quaking before him.

And then there’s the courts. “But Gorsuch” was the rallying cry for Trump supporters once upon a time. Indeed, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court, not to mention hundreds of federal judgeships secured for originalists throughout the country, is a major victory for Leonard Leo and Mitch McConnell. But as several late-term SCOTUS opinions demonstrate, there are limits to how much the judiciary has advanced. Specific opinions aside, if the major argument for a president’s re-election is judicial appointments, then the republic is on far rockier ground than we even realize.

Trump supporters have another “ace” up their sleeves: Flight 93 revisited. If Joe Biden is elected president then the Green Deal will be enacted, religious liberty will be destroyed, taxes will go through the roof, single payer healthcare will be upon us, and the rivers will run red with the blood of cancelled conservatives. It’s a familiar argument that turns every election into the most important election in American history™ and demands that all good God-fearing American must vote for the Republican nominee or else.

The rebuttal to this is straightforward enough: even a Biden administration will be unable to enact a quarter of what the most radical progressives desire. There are far too many moderate Democrats – yes they exist, no matter what social media fearmongers insist – for a President Biden to force through major changes (assuming he even wants to). Assuming Senate Democrats eliminate the filibuster – and they will – Democrats will still need a Sinema and Manchin-proof majority, not to mention vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in 2022. Do you think Michael Bennett is a sure vote for single payer?

To say that Donald Trump doesn’t deserve to be re-elected is not to suggest that conservatives must go out and vote for Joe Biden. Casting a protest vote against Trump’s character for someone who has repeatedly lied about the sobriety of the man involved in the accident that killed his wife, enabled the disgusting character assassination of Robert Bork and then Clarence Thomas, and told a black audience that Republicans “want to put y’all back in chains,” not to mention his move to the left since wrapping up the nomination, is a little bit odd.[2] Then again, I voted for Evan McMullin, so my judgment on protest votes is also suspect.

Against Never-GOPism

Whatever conservatives decide to do this November with regards to the presidential election, though, Will’s own contention that it is a moral imperative to remove President Trump is undermined by his added contention that Congressional Republicans be decimated at the polls as well. As I noted above, one of the main arguments against the Flight 93 paranoia is that there’s only so much a President Biden can do. That argument is nullified if the Democrats have a 60+ seat Senate majority and a triple digit advantage in the House of Representatives.

One could plausibly counter by observing that the Democrats had a 80+ seat advantage in the House and a filibuster-proof (at times) majority in the senate during the Obama administration, and the world didn’t end. While true, there are two counterarguments. First of all, the 111th Congress managed to pump out a lot of legislation with long-lasting and negative impacts. Dodd-Frank, the massive stimulus, and the expansion of SCHIP are but a few of the major pieces of legislation signed into law in Obama’s first term, not to mention a little thing called the Affordable Care Act (which, one observes, was not repealed by the 115th Congress). Even if the long, drawn-out process of passing Obamacare prevented the Democrats from achieving more, that’s a pretty substantial list and it was certainly more ambitious than the Republican achievements between 2017-2018.

More importantly, even if the Democratic party hasn’t moved as far left in its totality as Republicans contend, it has moved left. The legislative program to be pursued by a Democratic Congress with supermajorities in both chambers is likely to be far, far more ambitious than one with narrow majorities (and perhaps a continuing Republican majority in the Senate). Suddenly single-payer, the Green New Deal, and God knows what else are all on the table.

It’s easy enough for people like George Will to say that’s what Republicans deserve for kowtowing to Trump for four years, but a radical re-orienting of America to the far left seems to be a pretty high price to pay to teach Republicans a lesson.

More to the point, one lesson from life under the pandemic is that the Democrats have done little to merit the gift on uncontested power.

Life in Lockdown

Neither party holds a monopoly on good or bad governance during the COVID crisis, highlighted by the recent spike in infections in both red and blue states, but the very worst behavior among state and local officials played out in New York thanks to the Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne of New York, Andrew Cuomo and Bill deBlassio, whose gross incompetence, negligence, indecision, and egoism literally cost thousands of lives.

And while (largely) Democratic reticence to end lockdowns can be debated on the merits, the gross inconsistency in how lockdown policies have been applied is sufficient evidence of why many Democratic officials should never be allowed near the levers of power again. We will continue to debate the merits of past and future lockdowns for years to come, but there’s no debating the moral inconsistency demonstrated by the likes of Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser in not only permitting mass Black Lives Matters protests but in actively celebrating and encouraging them even as they energetically pushed for continued lockdowns.[3]

Seeing what amounted to (in some cases) giant block parties being permitted while being denied the ability to receive Holy Communion is bound to rub some people the wrong way. It also does not inspire confidence that one’s rights will be protected by these same people if they are given even more power.

Whatabout “whataboutism?”

Some will argue that these are tantamount to “whatabout” arguments, and indeed they are. What about Democratic party radicalism? How does a conservative reviled by Donald Trump and unhappy with Republican party subservience to him solve this conundrum? How was a conservative to vote in, say, Texas in 2018 when Ted Cruz was up for re-election to the Senate?

Ah, Ted Cruz. This is a good time for a slight tangent. I supported Ted Cruz during the 2016 Republican presidential primary, and I would not have made a different choice if I had to do it all over again, especially once some of the heavy-hitting solid GOP governors bowed out early. And this is why I am not Never Trump. Because when people started adopting this term, for many it also meant “and not Cruz either.” The very same people who urge the fiery destruction of the Republican party are the ones who continued to support the dead-end candidacy of John Kasich. Instead of uniting behind the one candidate who could actually defeat Trump, as the Democrats did this year to united behind Biden when the prospect of a Sanders nomination stared them in the face, these self-centered, short-sighted dolts wasted time and resources on the pointless candidacy of John Kasich. Would Trump have won anyway? Perhaps, but it would have been awfully nice to have tried a true one-on-one matchup. But since Ted Cruz gave them the ickies, they selected a path that only aided and abetted Donald Trump. And now these same geniuses are still dishing out political advice? Lest I run afoul of such stalwart conservatives as Max Boot and Tom Nichols, maybe I will follow my own instincts.

Anyway, back to Ted Cruz. I have been as disappointed as anyone in his sudden turn from fierce Trump critic and as a man who said “vote your conscience” at the Republican convention into another Trump-defending sycophant, especially as he adopts policy positions he should know better than to support. But if I lived in Texas (I wish) in 2018 and I had to choose between him and Beto O’Rourke, I wouldn’t have even given it a second thought before voting for Senator Cruz. Sure, there’s always the option to not vote or vote for a third party, as I am doing this year in the presidential race, but am I really just going to “punish” a Senator who I am aligned with on 99 percent of issues because he hasn’t been as critical of Donald Trump as I would like? Who am I punishing in allowing someone like “Beto” to represent me in the United States Senate?

Both Trump critics and Trump fans are finally joined in unison as they shout back at me “Aha – charade you are!” After essentially disclaiming against the “elections are binary” argument for the presidential election, I am now changing tact for other elections.

Not quite. In every election you have to make a rational decision weighing all the circumstances. In 2016 I decided that neither Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump were good enough to earn my vote, but neither was so obviously heinous as to force me to vote for the other person. I have made the same decision (so far) with regards to the 2020 presidential election. But not every election is the same. I couldn’t (and still can’t) vote for Donald Trump because, well, he is an utterly repellent human being and an ineffective president. But Ted Cruz? I’m supposed to enable the ascension of a character like Beto O’Rourke at his expense because I don’t think he’s been critical enough of Donald Trump? That’s a stretch to me.

More importantly, in at least the example outlined above, I did find the other person (Beto) heinous enough to move me to vote for Ted Cruz (if I could have).

But that’s a discrete decision based on the circumstances of one race. The larger context, which I have tried to lay out, is that punishing Republicans at the ballot box for insufficient Trump hatred is a questionable, at best, strategy. Leaving aside the question of whether Republicans have truly enabled President Trump (and it’s not a small question to leave aside, but I don’t need to drone on for another thousand words), conservatives are right to feel more than a little suspect at the prospect of handing unlimited control of government to the Democrats.

Populism: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

There’s one other big risk entailed in a massive Democratic takeover of the government. Anti-Trump conservatives have held a (likely fanciful) hope that there will be something like a return to normalcy once Trump is removed from the scene. This is wishful thinking. The populist ascendency within the GOP is no short-term phenomenon. It began before Trump, and will outlive him. Perhaps this populist strain will be more “enlightened” – it cannot but help but be. Yet the tension between the classically liberal/conservative and anti-liberal/populist strands of the movement is likely to become even more fierce once Trump is no longer on the scene (and his defeat this November by no means guarantees he will not be a major player in the years to come).

What’s more, a complete Democratic sweep this November is more likely to favor a populist ascendency. The Democratic sweep in the aftermath of the 2008 election inspired the growth of the tea party movement. Some of us might pine for the relatively sanguine days of a libertarian-inspired social protest movement. Yet this was also a populist revolt. Indeed it was a paradoxically libertarian-populist (two words combined that can’t make sense[4]) protest. Over time, though, it was the libertarian side of this uneasy alliance which lost.

There has been something like a rebirth of the tea party, libertarian-populist sentiment in the wake of COVID lockdowns, and it’s possible two years of hard-left Democratic rule can spur something similar. Yet nothing that has occurred over the past few years inspires confidence that any right-wing reaction to leftist overreach will be measured and reasonable. A more likely right-wing response will look a lot more Josh Hawley than Mike Lee. And it’s possible a Hawley-styled turn is the best case. In other words, the sort of figure to emerge as the leader of the anti-liberal response to left-wing dominated governance may look Donald Trump look like a piker.

Look, it has not been a fun five years or so for anti-Trump (but not quite Never Trump) conservatives. We spent the better part of a year vocally arguing against Trump’s nomination. We then watched as a majority of those who were in the trenches yelling with us swiftly turned around and decided to be a part of Trump’s palace guard. (Some for genuine reasons, some, well, less so #caring). Then for four years we dealt with accusations of disloyalty from Ever Trumpers on one hand, and on the other hand complaints about our insufficient hatred and fear of Trump by idiots playacting as the modern incarnation of who people who #resisted an actual tyrannical regime.[5]

We are frankly just a little bit weary of it all. So when George Will tells us it’s not sufficient that Trump be defeated, but that the entire GOP should essentially be burnt to the ground, it’s hard not being a bit conflicted. Because, frankly, the GOP does deserve to be massacred at the polls.[6]

But so do the Democrats.

And so we are confronted with yet another ugly choice with really no good options. Sure, we could stand aside and let the Republicans go down to defeat, and hope (foolishly, no doubt) that it will be reborn in the aftermath of an electoral massacre. And in this fit of rational spite we might come out on the back end even worse off, with the most radical elements of the Democrat agenda enshrined into law. And if the GOP does endure such a defeat, and Democrats are allowed to roam about the country unchecked for two years, does anyone expect that the reaction to this will be measured?

In case I am not making myself clear, if George Will has his way then expect something much worse than Donald Trump four years hence.


[1] Note I do not say “Never Trump.” For reasons to be explained shortly, this is a term I reject for myself.

[2] Kevin Williamson has the measure of the man. https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/03/joe-biden-not-a-socialist-just-a-scoundrel/

[3] To say nothing of the mandate in new York not to ask COVID-positive patients if they attended BLM rallies, or the Oregon decision to exempt “people of color” from the obligation to wear masks.

[4] HT: Megadeth.

[5] Because one recalls the history of anti-Vichy Frenchmen openly and loudly denouncing Hitler, lining up bookshelves with their tales of denunciation, and being supported by a media establishment that aids and abets their animus. Totally the same thing there, fellas.

[6] Like, for instance, calling a man who has served in every Republican administration a “warmonger” because he had the temerity to write a book publicly critical of Donald Trump.