Politics & Policy

Conservatism’s Sad and Ugly Transformation into Trumpism

Trump speaks at a rally in Greensboro, N.C., June 14, 2016. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
If elected, Trump would destroy conservatism, the only solution to our country’s woes.

Another week, another Donald-being-Donald moment.

For many years in baseball, Indians, Red Sox, and Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez became a running joke in the fan community. That wasn’t because he couldn’t hit — he was a tremendous hitter. It’s because Ramirez was a kook. He’d throw to the wrong base, then shrug awkwardly. He’d take a stroll into the Green Monster, then fail to reemerge even as the game continued. He’d steal second base, then get confused and wander back toward first base before being thrown out.

These moments became known as “Manny being Manny” moments: If you want the good, they came along with some of the bad.

Donald Trump is the same way. Every few days, Trump does something so inexplicable, so morally and politically reprehensible, that conservatives end up stunned. The difference between Trump and Ramirez: Ramirez’s job was to hit a baseball; Trump’s job is to not have these moments. Imagine if Ramirez had batted .190. It would have been difficult to laugh off “Manny being Manny.” Trump doesn’t even bat .190. He’s the 2013 Dan Uggla of politics.

And yet Trump keeps having these Donald-being-Donald moments, and we’re supposed to just keep laughing them off. The latest: This week, Trump attacked a Gold Star family by saying, of the mother of a slain soldier, “She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say” — presumably thanks to her religion. He also attacked not one but two fire marshals and said that Vladimir Putin had not invaded Ukraine. Trump simply can’t stop himself.

Which leaves Republicans in an awkward position. After the respective party conventions, Trump is the only viable electoral alternative to Democratic lying harridan Hillary Clinton, the most corrupt major-party nominee in modern American history. And yet Trump is so wildly unpalatable as a presidential candidate by any normal conservative or rational standard that many conservatives find themselves unable to vote for him.

These conservatives are now under heavy pressure to pull the lever for Trump. There are two main arguments advanced by Trump voters: first, that Trump will be better than Hillary Clinton; second, that anyone who refuses to vote for Trump bears moral responsibility for Hillary Clinton’s subsequent presidency.

Both of these arguments fall short.

The first argument seems deceptively simple: There are two candidates, and Trump will not be as awful a president as Hillary.

There is some truth to this. We know Hillary will be a terrible, hard-core ideological leftist; there is probably a 75 percent chance that Trump would govern less badly than Hillary. There is also a 25 percent chance that Trump would do something so catastrophically awful that he seriously harmed the country in ways Hillary wouldn’t dream of. His trade policy alone could cast America back into recession; his foreign policy is a shambles. Any talk of him listening to advisers must be based on conjecture — so far, Trump hasn’t just been a bull in a china shop, he’s been a tank in a glass factory.

Any attempts to rein in Trump have failed miserably. His supposed commitment to appoint a Supreme Court justice in the mold of Justice Scalia means little or nothing — he knows nothing about the Constitution, what he does know isn’t so, and he’s not going to stake political capital on a losing fight against a Democratic filibuster. He’d probably make his first pick somebody palatable to conservatives, get shot down by Democrats, and then come back with a stealth candidate who turns out to be a David Souter or an Anthony Kennedy or a Sandra Day O’Connor. Trump is a man who says openly he wouldn’t mind much losing the Republican Senate majority — a rather disquieting sentiment for those who believe he’s going to be strong on justices.

But let’s even grant that governing in superior fashion to Hillary Clinton is a low bar, and Trump is likely to surpass it.

That brings us to the real reason to oppose Trump’s candidacy: the attempt to turn the conservative movement into a nationalist populist one, complete with shilling for Trump’s incomprehensible decisions and statements. If you believe that the only solution to America’s problems is true conservatism, your greatest fear is not a Hillary presidency: It’s the perversion of the conservative movement itself, the corruption of conservatism in favor of power. Hillary Clinton’s presidency does not snuff out conservatism, even though it provides a serious danger to the republic. Trump’s presidency does.

Why? Because conservatives are already tailoring their morality, decency, and political sense to fit Trumpism. We’ve already seen supposed conservative “thought leaders” go silent when Trump does something unthinkable; we’ve already seen Chris “Shinebox” Christie and Reince “The Enforcer” Priebus  and Newt “Dude, Who Stole My VP Slot?” Gingrich embrace the Trump-or-bust logic that puts conservatism under the wheels of the Trump Train.

That’s to be expected. But I’ve watched conservatives I respect justifying Trump’s latest moral and political atrocities with alacrity. They downplay his enormous heresies and his moral failings — because, after all, Hillary Clinton delenda est.

In short, too many conservatives seem perfectly willing not only to pull the lever for Trump — understandable — but to lie for him, to justify his foolishness and ignorance and instability and overall insanity. That’s why the second justification for voting Trump — that if you don’t vote Trump, you’ll be responsible for Hillary’s presidency — destroys the first rationale: It suggests that anything that harms Trump, including honesty, must be morally deficient.

Blogger Ace of Spades put it this way on his website recently:

Either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will be president in November. If you think Hillary would be a better president — or if Trump is so repulsive to you that you cannot support him even if you think Hillary would be worse — fine. I respect your opinion. . . . Trump supporters will own the consequences of a Trump presidency — and Hillary supporters, both those who declare it proudly and those who wish it secretly — own the consequences of a Hillary presidency. Adults accept the consequences of their choices.

This is hogwash.

Conservatives do not owe their vote to anyone. But more important, my vote simply isn’t that important. The argument that if you don’t vote Trump, you’re electing Hillary is logically flawed: If I don’t vote for Hillary, am I electing Trump? It also ignores the fact that each individual vote counts in America for nearly nothing. If you’re a conservative living in California, as I am, it actually does count for nothing.

And yet those of us who won’t vote for Trump keep hearing that constant refrain: your vote means everything. Today, once again, Trump trotted out that tortured logic to attack Senator Ted Cruz, who committed the grave sin of not explicitly endorsing Trump while doing everything short of giving such an endorsement at the Republican National Convention.

What Trump supporters really mean when they say that failure to vote for Trump is a vote for Hillary is that anything we do that doesn’t help Trump harms him. In other words, we are only morally decent if we turn into full-scale Trump defenders. It’s no longer sufficient to call things as we see them — we must become Trumpkins. If we point out that Trump’s attack on the Kahn family is both stupid and morally debased, that puts us in league with Hillary. If we state that Trump ought to spend less time cozying up to Vladimir Putin and more time standing up to him, that means that we’re Clinton-philes.

This is the danger. And it’s becoming reality right now.

The possibility of voting for Trump while also speaking honestly about him is too much of a burden for many conservatives.

The moral framework of conservatism is based on honesty and decency. Trump is neither honest nor decent. Barack Obama has taken America toward a cliff at 100 mph; Hillary will press the accelerator further, so that we’ll be moving at 120 mph; Trump would presumably press the accelerator only slightly, so that we’d be cruising toward that cliff at 110 mph. The difference: Trump will force his conservative passengers to rip out the reverse gear in order to justify him. Conservatism will become Trumpism. Conservatives will prioritize winning over truth.

No other Republican candidate has asked so much. We could support Mitt Romney and still call him out for his flaws — hell, I voted for Romney, even after writing a column in January 2012 titled “No on Mitt Romney,” in which I said that conservatives should not justify Romneycare just to get Romney elected. We could slam John McCain for campaign-finance reform and still vote for him.

But Trump asks something more — your political soul. Political flaws existed in McCain and Romney, to be sure, but Trump is one giant flaw. It is easier to name Trump’s non-leftist positions than his leftist ones, because he’s more leftist than not; it’s easier to name his personal qualities than to describe his moral shortcomings, since the former are few and the latter nearly infinite. And Trump supporters expect everyone to get on the train.

Human beings have a rough time with cognitive dissonance — the possibility of voting for Trump while also speaking honestly about him is too much of a burden for many conservatives. But conservatives had better get comfortable with such dissonance or dump Trump. If they embrace him, his stink will be on them and the conservative movement for generations to come.

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