Politics & Policy

Can Conservatives Be a Loyal Opposition?

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Conservative critics of Trump needn’t be his cheerleaders, but they shouldn’t seek the the destruction of the president or their party.

What hope is left for conservatives who oppose Donald Trump? If Michael Gerson is a reliable barometer of what the Never Trump crowd is thinking these days, it’s clear from his latest Washington Post column that he has as little to offer now as any of the other die-hard opponents of the president did last year as they watched in horror as a populist reality star took possession of their political home.

The problem isn’t just that Gerson hasn’t any non-disastrous options to offer Republicans who are appalled by the president’s unpresidential behavior and largely dysfunctional administration. It’s that he believes their top priority must still be to exorcise the specter of Trump from their party at all costs. But in doing so, they would be forgetting that the focus of their political thought and action should not be on keeping their distance from Trump but on how best to advance conservative principles and those of the nation. And like it or not, that means coming to terms with the fact that Donald Trump is president.

The premise of Gerson’s piece is that Trump is an irredeemable creature whose numerous faults are such that they will destroy not only him and his administration but also all who are associated with it. He sees no possibility for compromise and thinks that to do anything other than to oppose Trump is to “be corrupted and stained” and ultimately “morally and politically discredited.”

Seen from that perspective, Republicans have no choice but to do anything to take down the president so as to preserve their “integrity, honor and sanity.” He also mocks those who have chosen to make their peace with Trump as blind followers who have chosen to “shut up and salute” their general.

But even he understands that the options he lists — creating a third party; trying to primary Trump in 2020; hoping for a Democratic victory in 2020; joining with Democrats after they take control of Congress in 2018 to impeach Trump; or just sitting out the next seven years until even a re-elected Trump goes away — are all awful. I’d go further than that. With the exception of an almost certainly futile though defensible effort to challenge Trump in the 2020 primaries, choosing any one of them is even more dishonorable than being Trump sycophants.

I don’t entirely dismiss Gerson’s mocking of the “Flight 93” thesis that impelled many Republicans to back Trump because they felt the alternative would be the utter collapse of the republic. Handing the country over to Hillary Clinton would have been a calamity, but if the republic survived eight years of Barack Obama, another four of a politically inept liberal wouldn’t necessarily have finished it off. It might have offered a non-Trump conservative a good chance to defeat her in 2020.

But the notion that Trump’s presidency must turn out to be an unmitigated disaster for both conservatism and Republicans is still an unproved thesis. Along with the dysfunction and incompetence of the White House, not to mention the unnerving spectacle that is provided by the daily childish tweet storm from the commander-in-chief, there is still a chance for Republicans to govern.

So far, the opportunities offered by the most conservative cabinet in memory and GOP congressional majorities have been squandered. But not all of the fault for these early setbacks is Trump’s. Congress’s failure to come up with an Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill that is not seen as an even bigger disaster than the problem they seek to correct must be put on House and Senate Republicans rather than on Trump.

More important, the insistence on prioritizing disgust with Trump’s faults ignores the nature of the real political battle that is being fought in Washington.

It’s become clear that the only goal Democrats have is to impeach Trump on the strength of a myth that Republicans colluding with Russia stole the 2016 election. Trump may be materially aiding their efforts with foolish statements and decisions, but in the absence of proof of collusion that doesn’t appear to be forthcoming, this effort is about nullifying the results of a valid election more than anything else.

That should remind even those who considered themselves Never Trump Republicans that there is virtue in standing up for democratic principles even if they can’t stand the president. The fact that this president is deeply flawed doesn’t justify standing by passively while the Democrats’ “resistance” delegitimizes an election result they didn’t like.

Nor can they ignore the fact that the goal of the “resistance” isn’t the restoration of establishment rule but the imposition of an even more left-wing government than Hillary Clinton would have provided. If you don’t realize that fighting to stop that liberal surge is more important than your frustration and even disgust with Trump, then you’re still stuck fighting the political battles of 2016 rather than focusing on those of the present and future.

What conservatives need to do now is to assume the role of a loyal opposition to Trump. Ordinarily that position would fall to the Democrats, but since their only interest is in resisting rather than opposing his administration, conservatives must do it. Being a loyal opposition means respecting election results, and that obligates even those who regret the fact that Republican voters chose a man they believe to be unfit for office to try to help him govern so long as his goals are consistent with conservative principles.

That means opposing Trump where necessary, such as the Senate has already rightly done in passing a bill seeking to restrain his inclination to appease Russia. It does not mean they are obligated to cheer when he offends their sensibilities or behaves badly. But it does also mean working with him to get more deregulation and tax cuts as well as to confirm more conservative judges.

What Gerson forgets is that nothing in history — even a Trump-fueled apocalypse that will destroy the GOP — is inevitable.

Republicans can’t stop Trump from destroying himself if he cannot somehow eventually learn to cope with his anger management and impulse-control issues. But that does not free them from their obligation to try to guide him to do the right thing as much as they can.

What Gerson forgets is that nothing in history — even a Trump-fueled apocalypse that will destroy the GOP — is inevitable. As the Georgia special-election results made clear to Republicans, their party isn’t doomed to be defeated by its association with Trump so long as able people in the party are willing to step forward and work for conservative policies.

More to the point, what Gerson recommends is the moral equivalent of the Vietnam War cliché about burning down a village to save it. Even passively rooting for those who wish to take down a legally elected president on what is, for all intents and purposes a false pretext, let alone colluding in his impeachment, is the opposite of honor. Nor is it defensible to sit back and watch the Left triumph simply to avoid the taint of being even a reluctant ally of Trump.

The Never Trump movement is already a relic of the past. Loyally opposing Trump where necessary and supporting him when possible is the only rational and honorable course for Republicans.


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