Like Jonah and David and Erick Erickson, I weary of the continual need for conservative critics of Donald Trump to simultaneously defend ourselves from arguments by fellow conservatives and Republicans we like and respect asking why we aren’t totally on the Trump Train, and from liberal/progressives asking why we haven’t joined “The Resistance.” I tend to agree with their various diagnoses that the latest in these pages from Dennis Prager, a good and decent man and a conservative of longstanding credentials, is disappointingly short on good-faith efforts to engage with us and long on telling talk-radio Trump fans what they want to hear. Let me expand just a bit on three points.
First of all, in discussing current and former Republicans who went “Never Trump” in 2016, it’s critical to remember that we’re not talking about a monolithic group of people, so we should be unsurprised that – since the election – we have gone our separate ways. Some have broken for all purposes with the GOP, some have made their peace with Trump, and many of the rest of us fall somewhere in between. Using the three final challengers to Trump as a shorthand for the various factions, the Ted Cruz-type conservative purists (like Erick) have been the ones least willing to up and join any sort of Democrat-led resistance to Trump, but many have continued to pound him with criticism for being a bad and phony conservative and a man of low character. The Rubio faction has more or less broken in two parts. On the one hand, the “practical conservative” type policy wonks are still trying to work with the Paul Ryans of the party to salvage a good policy agenda from the shadow of Trump. By contrast, there are those who belonged to the Rubio faction mainly to further either a neoconservative foreign policy or a more inclusive Republican Party; both groups have mostly been even more embittered by Trump’s success. The foreign-policy-first people (like Bill Kristol, Max Boot, and Tom Nichols) have been among the most vocal conservative voices against Trump. (These folks are mainly making substantive criticisms of Trump’s handling of foreign policy). Then there’s the Kasich faction (the David Frums of the world), the people who already thought the Republicans needed a softer, more centrist makeover. Despite the election of a Republican president who has no real ideology, this group has tended to be the most horrified by Trump, and most likely to leave the party entirely following the election, especially at the rank-and-file level. Continuing to clump these various groups together for purposes of generalizing about their motives and their actions is unhelpful to the reader.
Second, far too often, columns like this one fail to be specific and avoid generalized ad hominems about our motives. Prager does too much of that here, but I will counter with an important point that he understands well enough to have articulated halfway through this column: “Every time we do good, we make a deposit into our moral bank account. And every time we do something bad, we make a withdrawal.” For those of us in the business of advocacy – writing and speaking to persuade people of the merits of conservative ideas – our first duty is to tell the truth to our readers. Not the whole truth, necessarily; nobody can always cover every angle of every story, and advocacy necessarily involves some choices about what to emphasize, which criticisms (or bad arguments in one’s favor) to ignore, and which to confront. But you only have so much credibility with your audience, and you expend that at your peril. Our moral bank account is not only with Trump supporters judging how well we stand with them, but also with the audience of voters at large (as well as with our own consciences). As I always preach, you argue mainly for the benefit of the unconverted, and they are watching. Every time you have to defend a falsehood, excuse an error, or ignore a misdeed by Trump in order to promote The Greater Good, you are drawing down on that moral bank account with them. Conservatives who defended Nixon all the way – the liberal domestic policy, Harry Blackmun, Watergate – were running pretty empty by 1974.
Third, and maybe most importantly, Prager’s core argument is instrumental: Trump will get us what we want, so pick up a rifle and man a post. To begin with, I think he does a disservice by arguing that Trump’s conservative critics don’t share the view of Trump supporters that the nation faced very significant stakes in the 2016 election. I never liked the whole “this election is like Flight 93″ metaphor, since it assumes that we should adopt a strategy that ends with us all dead. And that’s one of the big problems with Trump. Specifically, as I argued in the primaries and in the general election, the nation faces not only serious policy challenges but a deeper problem: the creeping loss of democratic control over our own government – and there were major reasons to think that Trump would cede ground on that score. That’s exactly how this has played out. Sure, Trump has started a wide variety of fights with the unelected branches – the courts, the bureaucracy, the FBI, the CIA. But there’s every reason to believe that he’s losing those fights, because Trump has activated and galvanized them against him rather than winning more allies in the public and dividing and conquering. Trump just doesn’t have the discipline or the knowledge of the system to fight it effectively. If things continue like this, the end of the Trump years will see all of those actors having seized more power from the elected branches, powers they will be loath to give back.
And what will Trump have accomplished in the meantime? While I have my own sympathies with several of the factions described above, I tend to identify more with the first group of the Rubio supporters in this taxonomy. Many of the criticisms of Trump from this quarter since taking office have focused on the fact that Trump and his Trumpy-est advisors and spokespeople can’t stop getting in the way of the Republican agenda. Prager, like nearly all those who make this argument, totally fails to engage with the many and varied ways in which Trump has generated scandals and bad press (by no means all of it unfair), undercut the ability of Republicans to get things done in Congress, and in general eroded his own approval rating and that of the party just a little over four months into what is supposed to be his honeymoon period. The signs on the wall of very grave trouble for Republicans in the 2018 election are impossible to ignore – is it so hard to believe that some of us who actually support the party’s agenda would criticize the decisions that are feeding that?
Let’s review Prager’s list of Trump achievements:
1. “Appoint a conservative to the Supreme Court”: Done, and well done. I give Trump full marks for this, and moreso since I expected so little, and it counts for a lot, because the Supreme Court is the most powerful branch of our government. So yes, even Trump’s conservative critics should be happy on that score, and it’s not a small thing at all.
2. “Begin the process of replacing Obamacare”: Any Republican would have done this, but there’s no points for beginning. The AHCA is roundly unpopular, failed at its first try, has many features that greatly concern conservative health care experts, and faces a very uncertain fate in the Senate (to the point where Trump himself was Tweeting this morning that he wants the Senate to change its rules). And Trump himself has done virtually nothing to sell the public on the bill. The jury is still out on healthcare, but you can’t give Trump a whole lot of credit so far if you’ve paid attention.
3. “Bomb Russia’s ally Assad after he again used chemical weapons”: Some of us thought this was not a great idea when Obama wanted to do it, and don’t think it was such a great idea this time, either; reasonable people can disagree, but it’s hardly a point of conservative principle.
4. “Appoint the most conservative cabinet in modern American history”: Well, arguably. Trump’s senior appointees have mostly been good, although one must deal with the bad ones as well (Bannon, Flynn, the inept press shop). But many of Trump’s continuing problems with staffing his Administration are self-inflicted, and having adverse policy consequences.
5. “Begin undoing hysteria-based, economy-choking EPA regulations”: Again, a good start – but Trump will need more second-level staff and political capital to finish the job, and if he’s a one-term president, little he does will stick.
6. “Label the Iranian regime “evil” in front of 50 Muslim heads of state”: good in and of itself, but Trump has done virtually nothing to roll back the disastrous Iran deal or break the Russia-Iran-Syria axis; his coziness with Putin threatens to undermine the entire project.
7. “Wear a yarmulke at the Western Wall”: Obama did that, too. Good manners, but not a major accomplishment.
8. “Appoint a U.N. ambassador who regularly condemns the U.N. for its moral hypocrisy”: I agree that Nikki Haley has been fantastic. I’m not sure her words will have much meaning unless this Administration can conduct a successful foreign policy in deed as well as word.
9. “Restore the military budget”: Jury is still out on the budget. I give Trump credit for starting the ball rolling here.
10. “Work on lowering corporate tax rates”: tax reform is still a ways away, unlike in 2001 when the Bush tax cuts passed Congress at the end of May, or 1981, when the Reagan tax cuts passed at the beginning of August.
On paper, this is indeed not a bad record, but a very incomplete one (and – one must observe – notably short on social issues near and dear to the heart of SoCons like Prager). And the list ignores the tangles Trump has created for himself (most notably his ham-handed response to the FBI’s Russia probe), and the way in which those tangles will make it harder for him and his allies to finish the job and move on to other things.
There is a lot that conservatives can and should still hope to accomplish the next three and a half years, but we won’t help the cause by pretending that this president and his team are advancing the ball when we can see with our own eyes that the opposite is happening. Trump’s conservative critics have a duty to tell our readers that in good faith. And Trump’s defenders who think we should stop have a duty to show some good faith as well and grapple with the specific reasons why many of us who’d like to see him exceed our expectations are nonetheless duty-bound to conclude that he’s not.