Resisting the Tar of Trump’s Brush

by Oren Cass

Keeping any distance in the public mind between conservatism and Trumpism — not just checking his executive power, but continually repudiating his demagoguery and standing beside its targets — will require a Herculean effort in the coming years. Perhaps it will be impossible. But we should try, most importantly because it is the right thing to do.,

If doing the right thing isn’t enough, or if it feels politically tenuous, consider it instead a political necessity. An aggressive push is underway to conflate the legitimate objectives of a conservative policy agenda with the unacceptable intolerance, vulgarity, and authoritarianism that Trump brings to the White House.

For instance, just sticking to publications with “New York” in their title:

  • In today’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes, “Trump has talked about repealing Obamacare, deporting millions of our neighbors, instituting religious tests, overturning President Obama’s actions on climate change and moving the Supreme Court far to the right. How can progressives respond with anything but resistance — or emigration?” But repealing Obamacare, reversing Obama’s actions on climate change, or nominating a Scalia-like replacement for Justice Scalia are not extraordinary acts and should not be listed alongside mass deportations or religious tests.
  • Also in the Times, David Sanger writes that America now faces “an era of unknowns that has little parallel in the nation’s 240-year history.” But his first five examples are repeal of Obamacare, a Scalia-like Supreme Court justice, a border wall with Mexico, the return of Bush-era torture policies, and withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. Some of those policies may be questionable, but none contribute to an unparalleled “era of unknowns.” They don’t even lie outside the margins of conventional American politics or the likely policy agenda of any Republican president. Only later does Sanger turn his attention to Trump’s truly unprecedented foreign policy.
  • At the New Yorker, David Remnick writes of “inevitably, miseries to come: an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court; an emboldened right-wing Congress; a President whose disdain for women and minorities, civil liberties and scientific fact, to say nothing of simple decency, has been repeatedly demonstrated,” as if restoring the pre-existing balance of the Supreme Court were the same kind of problem as Trump’s personal failings and ugly messages. He also condemns Trump’s “band of associates — Chris Christie, Rudolph Giuliani, Mike Pence, and, yes, Paul Ryan.” But Paul Ryan could belong on that list only by virtue of supporting a conservative policy agenda.
  • At New York magazine, Jonathan Chait places the upcoming “period of darkness” alongside the Civil War and slavery. His examples, though, are that “Republicans will pass massive regressive tax cuts; they will take access to medical care from the poor and sick; they will deregulate the financial industry and fossil-fuel emitters.” Trumpism, he feels, “grows out of a decades-long trend toward authoritarianism as the dominant tendency of Republican politics.” It seems clear that Republicans, not Trump, are his source of “darkness.” (Recall that, during primary season, Chait argued that “a Trump presidency would probably wind up doing less harm to the country than a Marco Rubio or a Cruz presidency.”)

The objective is to tar all conservative policy and politicians with the same brush that Trump himself actually deserves. My Facebook feed is filled with posts from kind, intelligent people who are genuinely devastated that Trump could become president — because of character, not policy. The Left would like nothing more than to channel that revulsion toward legitimate policy debates. Casting conservative policy as beyond the pale is nothing new, and the same pundits might be trying even if the president-elect were John Kasich, but Trump makes the task so much easier.

Conservatives cannot afford to have their long-standing agenda become indistinguishable from the noxious elements of Trumpism. Yes, Trump proved he could build an electorally successful coalition. But to be viable (or deserving of respect) in the long term, Republicans will have to sustain that coalition independent of the antidemocratic and intolerant aspects that Trump leveraged. Some will smirk that this is impossible and guts the core appeal of Trumpism, but if that’s true, then we’ll have to ensure its gutting anyway.

Further, looking outside the Trump coalition, conservatives should take seriously the feelings of those genuinely upset and scared by what a Trump presidency represents — not the irrational equation of a conservative policy agenda with a “war on women,” but the quite rational interpretation of his success as a slap in the face to various groups. The Obama coalition’s dismissal of “bitter clingers” over the past eight years has proven itself unhealthy for both American democracy generally and the durability of Obama’s own agenda. So let’s do better than they did, again because it’s both right and politically smart.

Presumably every right-of-center congressional office, publication, and think tank has set to work planning how best to make progress in a suddenly realigned Washington. But arriving at the White House alongside those potential opportunities is also Trump’s toxic aura. Everyone’s time and resources need to go not only toward planning for one, but also attacking the other. “Nominating originalist Supreme Court justices, banning Muslims, repealing Obamacare, and turning a blind eye to white supremacy” must never sound like a coherent list.

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