Politics & Policy

With a Little Effort, Donald Trump Could Have Appealed to Conservatives

(Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
The GOP lies fractured over Trump’s candidacy — but it didn’t have to be this way.

One of the questions that has hung in the air since Donald Trump effectively clinched the GOP nomination a month ago is whether the #NeverTrump movement — the large-scale rupture between the Republican nominee and, at a minimum, a large swath of the conservative movement — was an inevitable result of a Trump nomination. I think it was not — at least, not inevitable simply due to Trump’s record before running. Trump brought this on himself — and is still doing so. If a lingering conservative resistance to Trump was inevitable, it’s only because this is who Trump is.

Let’s think back to an alternative universe where Trump approached his campaign differently. Donald Trump is not a stupid man, and he clearly put some thought into certain aspects of his presidential run. For example, in 2014 he read — or at least claimed to read — Rick Santorum’s book Blue Collar Conservatives, and cited it to Santorum at the time as inspiration for the working-class focused message he would go on to make the centerpiece of his campaign. While that message was in line with some of Trump’s prior inclinations (he had been blasting foreign trade, especially with Asia, for a quarter century), it is clear that Trump’s focus on working-class voters is not accidental.

Now imagine what would have happened if Trump had looked at conservative and Republican voters and the ideas, platforms, and goals that have motivated them across the country — in races from the local to the national — over the past several decades, with an eye toward making himself minimally acceptable to most conservatives. Imagine that he had sat down with major GOP foreign-policy hands, whether or not he agreed with them, and spent time studying up on national-security issues. Imagine if he had spent even a few days looking into the constitutional issues of great import to conservatives, and had hired some responsible people to develop a message about the federal judiciary. Imagine if he had informed himself about the Republican legislative proposals kicking around Capitol Hill, at least enough to identify a few he supported.

Then imagine a Trump campaign that was still the Trump campaign, but one that was harder for conservatives to dismiss. So “yes” to the trade demagoguery, the Mexican border wall, the insults at rivals, the trucker hats, the bashing of entitlement reform, and a lot of the Trumpian theatrics. But alongside the sizzle, some steak as well: concrete and consistent pledges to work with conservatives on key issues, seriousness on foreign affairs, a health-care plan he could describe in more detail than just “lines around the states,” and a sustained effort to convince voters that he was genuinely converted to advancing the pro-life cause and overturning Roe v. Wade. And just as important, no unforced errors: No defending Planned Parenthood and promising not to overturn the abortion laws, no praising single-payer health care and Obamacare mandates, no throwing his own tax-cut plan under the bus, no blaming George Bush for 9/11.

Imagine a Trump campaign that was still the Trump campaign, but one that was harder for conservatives to dismiss.

In short, imagine a Trump campaign that was noisy and rude and Trump-ish, but also fundamentally responsible, in the sense that behind the bluster, the candidate knows what he’s talking about, and knows how to demonstrate on a consistent daily basis that he understands what conservatives want and wishes to deliver some of it to them.

Would conservative writers, activists, and leaders have flocked to Trump in the primary? Would he have rolled up a lot more mainstream endorsements? No, probably not. I can’t see myself, or a lot of others, choosing to pass over a lot of candidates with real records of accomplishment and principle in favor of a political amateur with a ton of baggage and a longer record of supporting liberals than of doing anything at all for conservative causes. So yes, conservative opposition to Trump in the primary was surely inevitable, just as it was for Mitt Romney and John McCain and Bob Dole.

Right now, the major conservative argument for Trump is instrumental: Not that Trump would be a good president, but that Hillary would be against us on everything — whereas Trump is a wild card who would probably support at least some of the conservative legislative agenda coming from congressional Republicans, and appoint at least a few judges and executive-branch officials who would be good conservatives, and reject tying the U.S. to transnational progressive causes and agreements. Trump would be half a loaf, while Hillary would give us nothing.

It’s a seductive argument for a party out of power eight years, and if the president’s sole job was signing things sent to him by Congress, I might well swallow hard and buy the risk, much as I did in backing Romney. But a huge amount of the president’s job is national security and running the executive branch and appointing judges, tasks in which he takes the initiative rather than receiving proposals from the Hill. And even in Congress, it’s easy for Republicans to slide away from conservative principles when the White House is pulling them away rather than pushing them. Trump’s first congressional primary endorsement (who went down to defeat at the hands of grassroots conservatives last night) shows how little interest he has in the types of policies the GOP Congress supports, so long as it supports him personally.

Right now, the major conservative argument for Trump is instrumental.

The instrumental case depends on trusting that Trump would put in the effort to be something like a responsible commander-in-chief, and to pay attention to the merits of judges and legislation, and to at least draw some minimal lines he would not cross and spite conservatism, when he has spent his whole primary campaign doing the opposite at the precise moment when the system presents the strongest incentives to appeal to conservatives. If Trump never cared to figure out how to sound like a pro-lifer while running in a GOP primary, why would we expect better in the White House? The presidency, unlike the Supreme Court, is not an intellectual job, but it is not really possible to do the job if you lack even the basic intellectual rigor to learn what the office entails and decide what you would want to do with it.

This week’s flap, with Judge Curiel and the Trump University lawsuit, relates to a different aspect of Trump’s irresponsibility, his incessant race-baiting — and worse, demagoguery done in service of his own personal causes rather than anything that could arguably construed as an interest of the Republican party or the conservative movement. It’s a stance that further undermines the instrumental argument for trusting Trump to appoint good judges, as well as reminding those on the fence of the perils of being associated with Trump.

Mitt Romney, for all the apostasies in his record, made a point over his two campaigns of courting conservatives by doing precisely the things I’ve outlined here: studying the issues, being knowledgeable and responsible, remaining relatively consistent within his national campaigns. Romney never won the hearts or the trust of a lot of conservatives, but he made it hard to justify opposing him when the alternative was reelecting Barack Obama. Trump has seemed determined from the outset to make it easy — just ask yourself when was the last time we had a week’s news cycle (even a day is rare) when Trump didn’t offer more reasons for conservatives to feel justified in opposing him as a matter of both policy and politics. In some ways, the dynamic reminds me of the descent from Bill Clinton (who was always looking to co-opt the center, stealing Republican issues and themes and peeling off Republican votes) to Obama, who from the very beginning of his presidency has always made it easier for Republicans to oppose him than to work with him, by always offering a poison pill that made any deals intolerable to swallow. Temptation is easier to resist when it offers you nothing you want in exchange for accepting what you fear or despise.

The theory of Donald Trump — a rough-edged businessman-entertainer with no political experience who takes some populist detours away from conservative orthodoxy — is not the most appealing one for conservatives, but it’s not one we would necessarily reject out of hand when the alternative is Hillary Clinton. But that idea has not been the reality for the past twelve months, and there’s no reason to expect a change after his 70th birthday in a few weeks. Trump could have put in the effort to convince us that we would gain some policy and political rewards, and be able to trust him as commander-in-chief and head of the executive branch, if we supported him. He could have convinced us that he was, while not one of us, a man we could do business with. Trump’s inability or unwillingness to even fake it convincingly makes him a poor tempter indeed.


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