Politics & Policy

Prelude to a Sellout

President Trump walks to Marine One on the South Lawn, March 20, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
Trump’s new enemy is the same as Trump’s old enemy: conservatives

If you want to pinpoint the precise moment when Donald Trump started selling out conservatives, there is a good case to be made for November 20, 2016, at 8:05 a.m.

That is the moment when Trump began his embarrassing if short-lived public campaign of sucking up to Chuck Schumer, and, by extension, to the Democratic/media consortium he represents. When Democrats made it official that Schumer would take over for Harry Reid — a miserable specimen who might well have vied for the title “most dishonest person in American politics” in a world that contains both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — Trump slobbered all over him with praise: “I have always had a good relationship with Chuck Schumer,” he tweeted. (We should not dwell too long on what to call a “relationship” in which one party gives the other party large sums of money on a regular schedule.) Schumer, he said, “is far smarter than Harry” Reid, a man who “has the ability to get things done.”

Schumer — and this must have shocked Trump — did not permit himself to be seduced by a single fulsome tweet. And so Trump more or less reverted to form.

Schumer eventually answered Trump’s overture a few months later in Schumerian fashion: As Trump’s long-promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act went down in whimpers, Schumer kicked him when he was down, declaring that Trump had “proved to be incompetent” and that his record was likely to amount to little more than “incompetence and broken promises.”

A man who “has the ability to get things done”? He didn’t have to do anything at all — except gloat.

Trump is a man who is constitutionally incapable of taking responsibility for his own defects and errors, and as such requires an enemy. The one he has chosen isn’t Schumer — it is congressional conservatives, the Republican true-believers who make up the grandiosely named “Freedom Caucus.”

One of the arguments for Trump — the argument heard most often on talk radio and on the dopier of the cable-news programs — was this: Even where Republicans enjoy theoretical political superiority in Washington, they do not get very much done, because the Establishment, which is made up of moderates who are too eager to compromise with Democrats, subverts the actual conservatives in the Republican caucus. This was, we were told, the great sin of John Boehner and of Paul Ryan — but with a fire-breathing, earth-shaking President Trump on the case, Republicans would rediscover their spines and arise to victory and splendor.

What is falling into place in Washington right now is something close to the opposite of that.

On the matter of health care, Republicans led by Paul Ryan produced a limp proposal that left the main architecture of the Affordable Care Act in place, offering a few improvements (and a few bad ideas that would have made it a good deal worse) with the promise that this was only the opening salvo in a future shock-and-awe campaign against Obamacare. Conservatives didn’t buy it. Like Rudy Giuliani, Obamacare is what it is, even if it is in drag.

Trump, who has staked so much of his reputation on being a great negotiator, was humiliated.

Trump said he’d move fast in office, and boy has he: He has gone from triumphalism to midterm funk to the inevitable temptation to “grow in office,” all by April.

Now comes the reaching out to Democrats, not only abandoning congressional conservatives but promising to “fight” them, retreating into his little cabal of decidedly unconservative family advisers (Ivanka Trump, who the day before yesterday swore she’d never have a formal role in her father’s administration, is setting up shop in the West Wing and soon will be a federal employee), and talking up Democratic priorities such as raising taxes on financial firms.

Which is to say, Trump is teeing up the same shot that his most enthusiastic supporters associate with the hated Establishment: Lining up Republican moderates and Democrats in a bipartisan coalition against conservatives.

Conservatives should not be under any illusions about President Trump’s orientation at this moment. After the health-care debacle, he is proceeding as though he believes that conservatives are his enemies, and he is ready to recruit Democrats, who will bring their policies with them, into that fight. Trump being Trump, nobody knows where he’ll be politically the day after tomorrow, but from one point of view it makes no sense to worry about Trump’s selling out conservatives: He was never a conservative to begin with, and it is impossible to betray principles that one does not in fact hold.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.





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