It’s predictable as night following day. Whenever a conservative criticizes Donald Trump — or even attacks the GOP for enabling his rise — some on the left will respond, “Well, if you really opposed him, you’d oppose his agenda.” Just ask Republican senator Jeff Flake.
In promoting his new book, Conscience of a Conservative, Flake yesterday published an excerpt from it in Politico. It’s a worthwhile read. He attacks the Republican party for entering into a “Faustian bargain,” going along with the “very bumpy ride” of a Trump administration to “achieve some long-held policy goals,” and argues that policy victories won at the expense of principles and “institutions conducive to freedom” will ultimately prove to be “Pyrrhic.” His meaning is clear: Pursue conservative goals, but do so while respecting democratic values, maintaining public integrity, and preserving constitutional structures.
The response was swift, and made clear that a number of folks on the left aren’t content for conservatives to merely oppose Trump. For Flake to be truly credible, his critics seemed to assert, he would have to . . . cease being a conservative. Here’s Slate’s Jamelle Bouie:
A little tired of this two step of "honest conservatives" lamenting the GOP and then voting in lockstep with Trump & McConnell.
— b-boy bouiebaisse (@jbouie) August 1, 2017
This isn’t a serious critique. Do progressives really believe that conservatives should abandon their beliefs in response to Trump? Does that mean voting against tax cuts and conservative judges? Is the only credible opposition to the man grounded in, say, conducting a fair Russia investigation and defending Obamacare? This is akin to the argument for civility one hears all the time on campus: “Our community would be harmonious if only those conservative bigots stopped talking.”
It does, however, does highlight two important truths.
First, we conservatives must understand that everything that happens in this administration will be tied directly to Trump, and unless we can undertake the difficult task of forging and maintaining an independent identity, even our longest-held and most cherished beliefs will be defined as part and parcel of “Trumpism.” Lower taxes? Defunding Planned Parenthood? Border security? Originalist judges? These are positions that Trump adopted for his campaign, but they mean no more to him than the next change of clothes. For conservatives, however, they reflect core principles and ideals that existed long before Trump and will exist long after. It is crucial that we avoid — as much as humanly possible — his enduring taint.
Thus, wrapping both arms around Trump in the hopes of winning a few legislative victories or confirming a few judges risks exactly the Pyrrhic victory that Flake predicts. As I asked just days ago: With the benefit of hindsight, how many Democrats are grateful today for Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976 and for his meager legislative “accomplishments?” His incompetence helped give the GOP the White House for the next dozen years, during which time Republican presidents appointed a majority of the Supreme Court and more than 500 lower-court judges. The Democratic party had to essentially remake itself to win back the White House.
As a practical matter, this means conservatives should do their best to advance conservative goals while at the same time loudly and unequivocally condemning this administration’s absurd excesses. No one should be more angry at Trump’s tweets than conservatives. No one should be more concerned about Trump’s conduct toward Russia than conservatives. And, yes, no one should be more alarmed by White House chaos than conservatives. In reality, until the next round of voting, only conservatives have the true power to keep Trump in check.
The second truth that’s emerging — on both the #Resistance left and the angry populist right — is that there are now two fronts in the culture war. There’s the classic Left/Right split — the battle of pro-life versus pro-choice, say, or of single-payer versus market-based health-care reforms. This fight rages, and it will continue to rage for the foreseeable future. The second front, however, is between those people of all political persuasions who continue to believe in constitutional processes and basic democratic norms on the one hand, and those people who’ve adopted the anything-goes, end-justifies-the-means tactics of the campus social-justice warrior or the “Flight 93” Trump supporter on the other.
For the Right, that fight is right now raging within the GOP and the conservative movement more broadly. On one side are those like Ben Sasse and many of my National Review colleagues — men and women with unquestioned commitment to conservative principles who don’t believe you should sacrifice virtue, honesty, or integrity to raise or lower tax rates or excuse conduct on your own side that you’d condemn in your opponents. On the other side are the unabashed Trump apologists like Sean Hannity and his allies on talk radio and online — people who hunt “deep state” bogeymen and find no Tweet too silly/shocking/offensive/inflammatory to excuse. They bathe in “liberal tears” and gleefully “fight fire with fire.”
For the Left, the equivalent fight rages more on campus, where an increasing number of liberal professors and administrators are expressing alarm at the intolerance and even violence of the #Resistance. But it extends beyond the academy, too: Just today a New York Times staff editor published a brave and searing condemnation of the “progressive hate” that corrupts the Women’s March.
Conservatism’s foreseeable future will be defined by a choice: Pursue conservative ends through virtuous, constitutional means or succumb to Trump apologism. Some on the left will scorn conservatives regardless of which option they pick. After all, to many liberals, conservatism is the original sin, and nothing else really matters. Some on the angry populist right will scorn those conservatives who choose to maintain their integrity as “weak” or naïve. After all, to the angry populist Right, winning is everything, and nothing else matters.
But conservatives should ignore the radical Left and the angry populist Right. When it comes to values and vision, our mandate is clear: We must always choose both.