We like it.
During the campaign, conservatives said they were embracing Donald Trump despite his character. They were willing to overlook his flaws in order to achieve policy victories. Yes, he was a vulgar boor, a charlatan, a comic buffoon wandering the landscape, stepping on political land mines. But at least he would appoint the right people. Even if he didn’t, he would never be Hillary Clinton.
This was true for probably the majority of conservatives who voted for Trump: They weren’t fans of his p-word comments, but they’d rather have an imperfect Trump than a Clinton. Trump’s character represented a bug, not a feature.
But for a minority of conservatives, Trump’s character was always a feature, not a bug. He fought, and even if he didn’t fight smart, he was willing to hit anyone with a glass vase at any time. He was an unpredictable force, a brutal hurricane tearing apart the old political institutions. For this group, Trump’s character recommended him rather than counted against him.
Under President Trump, one inconvenient and morally disquieting fact has become increasingly clear: More and more conservatives fall into the second group.
Trump has not moderated his behavior one iota since becoming president. In fact, the man who once promised he would be “so presidential you will be so bored” has now redefined “presidential” to fit his behavior — he recently tweeted that his behavior is presidential because he is president. By that logic, Dr. Kevorkian’s assisted killings would be medical because Kevorkian was a doctor.
And we’re happy with it.
We’re happy with it even though we’re not getting the big wins we were promised. There have been precisely two big Trump wins for conservatives: Justice Neil Gorsuch, and regulatory reform via the Congressional Review Act and the Environmental Protection Agency.
But Trump has re-enshrined the Iran deal; his greatest defender on Fox News, Tucker Carlson, now spends his evenings browbeating commentators who suggest that Iran poses a threat to the United States. Trump has doubled down on President Obama’s policies on Russia in Syria; his cease-fire deal with the Russians was so bad that even the Israelis rejected it. Trump has not reformed taxes. There is no world in which Obamacare will be repealed. There is no wall, nor will the wall be forthcoming anytime soon.
That’s not to say that Trump might not end up fulfilling some of these promises. I hope and pray he does. But it’s clear that the vast majority of Republicans no longer care if he does, so long as he does one thing: keep tweeting about the fake-news media. Were Trump to fulfill every conservative pledge but stop tweeting about Mika Brzezinski’s face and CNN’s ratings, many Republicans would be less enamored of him. Trump’s visceral rage is what thrills Republicans, not his policy — and a huge number of Republicans aren’t even interested in whether the rage undercuts his policy. If Mike Pence replaced Donald Trump and implemented every jot and tittle of the conservative program, then won reelection, most Republicans would be enraged, not excited.
Trump’s character is now a thoroughly accepted positive good.
For most conservatives, the ends don’t just justify the means, the means are the ends. All that matters is the punching.
Case in point: the Donald Trump Jr.–Russia fiasco.
I have long stated that the media have overblown every aspect of the supposed Trump–Russia collusion. Sans evidence, they have suggested repeatedly that Trump won the election illegitimately, and that he conspired with the Putin government to do so. But Trump Jr. himself released documents last week in which he said that he “loved” the notion of receiving opposition research on Hillary Clinton from a “Russian government attorney” as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” This should be a significant irritation for Republicans who want their agenda pursued, not bogged down in the vodka martini of Russian conspiracy.
Instead, many Republicans seem overjoyed to embrace the Trump Jr. –Russia meeting. They’ve moved beyond claiming that the media lack evidence for actual collusion (which they do); they now say that even if Trump colluded with Russia, it’s fine. In fact, it’s preferable! President Trump himself tweeted, “Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one Don jr attended in order to get info on an opponent. That’s politics!” This quickly morphed into the preferred right-wing talking point: Trump fights, so of course he’s going to cross lines. That’s why we love him!
All of which suggests that Trump isn’t the engine, he’s the hood ornament for a certain movement that now feels liberated from traditional rules of decent behavior. Trump allows us to indulge our id and feel righteous while doing it. We grew up believing that decent behavior made you a decent person — but then we realized that breaking the rules not only makes victory easier, it’s more fun than having to struggle with the moral qualms of using moral means to achieve moral ends. So we’ve constructed a backwards logic to absolve ourselves of moral responsibility. The first premise: The other side, which wants bad things, cheats and lies and acts in egregious ways.
The second premise: It requires cheating to defeat them.
The third premise: If they are not defeated, the country will be destroyed.
Conclusion: It is morally required to cheat and lie and act in egregious ways.
Now, the first premise may indeed be true. But the second two are arguable at the very least. Without cheating and lying and acting in Trumpian fashion, Republicans in 2016 won massively at the state level, including governorships, and retained control of the Senate and House. And Democrats, for all their horrible perspectives, are not ISIS or Nazis. That means that the means we use matter.
But we don’t want them to matter.
And so we castigate as “weak-kneed” anyone who says that colluding with Russia to defeat Hillary Clinton is wrong. We suggest they just don’t get it. They must have wanted Hillary! They must be idiots or rubes. We must fight anyone who opposes Russian collusion, because that would undercut our fun.
A year ago, many conservatives said that ends justified means — and that the end was the implementation of conservative policies. Some conservatives still feel this way. But now that Trump isn’t actually implementing conservative policies, the truth is coming out: For most conservatives, the ends don’t just justify the means, the means are the ends. All that matters is the punching, even if the punching is both counterproductive and immoral.