Politics & Policy

Keep Your Powder Dry, Holdouts

(Scott Morgan/Reuters)

One by one, even the most contumacious of dominoes have fallen. It has been one week since Donald Trump leaped with self-satisfaction into the Republicans’ saddle, and already the resistance is a rump. Given their previous pronouncements, the likes of Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal could quite easily have remained hostile. Given the manner in which he was treated by Trump and his friends, Marco Rubio would have been forgiven for retreating into conspicuous intransigence. Given the taunting she endured, it would have been understandable had Nikki Haley taken a pass. And yet, in one form or another, all of these figures have buckled under and signaled their acquiescence. Even rebellious Paul Ryan was keen to mitigate his dissent with that most flexible of caveats: “yet.” Come July, come August, come October, his reluctance will almost certainly morph into a host of nervous justifications, and “unity” will be prized über alles.

Because the press favors horse-race excitement above all else under the sun, such submissions tend to be cast in operatic language. Perry’s endorsement, it was said, was a “boon” to Trump and a “blow” to his opponents. Jindal’s hesitant praise was helping to “cement” Trump as the nominee and to “set back” his critics. Rubio’s reluctant ratification was evidence of the party’s “coming together.” Given the stakes and their scale, this angle is certainly important. And yet, from my perspective as a Trump skeptic, the question of party unity pales in comparison to a larger and less transient one: Namely, if Trump’s detractors all see fit to lash themselves to his mast, who will lead the fightback if he crashes and burns?

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Once upon a time, Rick Perry described Trump as a “cancer on conservatism” who would “lead the Republican party to perdition.” Prior to his conversion, Bobby Jindal termed Trump “a madman who must be stopped.” Earlier in the cycle, Marco Rubio contended that Trump was a “conman” who could not be permitted to hijack “the party of Reagan and Lincoln.” You will note that not one among this trio claimed that Trump’s problem was that he would lose. Rather, they augured terrible things for the country if, somehow, he were to ascend to office. “The United States,” each man said in his own inimitable way, “does not need to be led by just anybody with an ‘R’ next to his name, but to be led by a sane conservative who hews to certain principles. Anything less would be disastrous.”

Now, in surrender, all the talk is of binary choices and electoral consequences. Does this mean that those underlying problems no longer obtain? Of course not. What, pray, is Marco Rubio going to think if Donald Trump wins the White House and sets about agitating for precisely the sort of agenda that yielded the Tea Party in the first instance? Is he going to roll over and pretend that everything is fine? What will the fiscally hawkish Bobby Jindal do when Trump informs the country that there is no need to reform entitlements and that the debt is a good thing after all? And where will Rick Perry hide when populist Republicans begin to abandon the Texas model as so much free-market orthodoxy? Had they kept their powder dry, all three men would have been in an ideal position to say, “I told you so” come December. Now, if any of of them speak out, they will be treated to an instant, karmic rejoinder: “You were on board when things were good!”

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In a republic such as ours, no man is indispensable: not Marco Rubio, not Bobby Jindal, not Rick Perry, not Paul Ryan. But, by the same token, no political movement can afford to lose all of its talent at once. Alas, with every small step that the Republican party takes towards “unity,” the conservative movement narrows its bench and deprives itself of figures who, when the aftermath inevitably arrives, can step credibly into the fray. If there is to be an American Right after Trump, its luminaries will need to use the man’s shortcomings in illustration of their own virtues, and, to paraphrase William F. Buckley Jr., to provide photographic evidence that they were there yelling “Stop.” At present, only an eccentric handful have demonstrating a willingness to play this role. An absence of further holdouts will guarantee that their efforts are made in vain.

#related#American conservatism has always been at its best when its fire was trained ecumenically. Although practically intertwined, “Republican” and “conservative” have not invariably been synonymous, and the ability to distinguish between the two has long set the sedulous thinker apart from the partisan. The excesses of the Nixon administration were no less egregious because the man who signed the checks was a member of the GOP, nor were George W. Bush’s domestic apostasies whitewashed by his being the lesser of two evils. It was always unlikely that Trump’s victory would produce a full-scale insurrection; indeed, such a development would likely have caused more trouble than it would have prevented. But in the name of prudence alone, could we perhaps keep some of our bright-hopes-for-the-future in reserve for a rainy day?


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