Politics & Policy

At Year’s End, Conservatives Are Winning the GOP Civil War

President Trump waves as he boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Md., December 22, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
But character is still destiny, and storm clouds are on the horizon.

In the days after Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States, a number of friends asked me what concerned me the most about a Trump presidency. The answer was comprehensive. I had concerns about Trump’s character, his associates, and his policies.

Those concerns were well-founded. Our temperamental, impulsive, and inexperienced president began his his first term taking advice from the likes of Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn. His ideologically incoherent campaign had at various times cast doubt on our NATO alliances, advocated withdrawal from Afghanistan, argued that U.S. forces should commit war crimes, advocated an economically ruinous form of protectionism, and promoted a starry-eyed view of Vladimir Putin that was utterly at odds with reality and American interests.

Indeed, when elements of the Trump coalition said “burn it all down,” they truly meant “all” — not just the Obama/Clinton Democratic establishment, not just the McConnell/Ryan Republican establishment, but the post–World War II economic and military order. They wanted a revolution, and Trump was the man they chose to bring it about.

What a short, inglorious revolution it turned out to be. Fast-forward eleven months. Flynn’s out. Bannon’s out. Our NATO alliances are firm. We’ve rushed missile-defense batteries to South Korea. We’ve reinforced Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Though elements of ISIS endure, we’ve defeated its caliphate in conventional combat without resorting to any war crimes. We’ve seen Trump’s first major legislative victory, a thoroughly Republican tax plan that delivers on long-desired hopes for cuts in corporate rates. Obamacare’s individual mandate is effectively gone. Judicial nominations are heavily influenced by the conservative Federalist Society, and they’ve been breezing through the Senate at a historically fast clip. Fears of a Russophile foreign policy have been eased by the delivery of lethal aide to Ukraine — a step the Obama administration wouldn’t take.

Yes, there have been Trumpian flourishes in foreign policy, but some of them have been positive. (I wonder how many Republican presidents would have actually pulled the United States from the Paris climate accords or formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?) Moreover, the Bannon wing of the Trump movement has demonstrated that it possesses the reverse Midas Touch: Everything it touches turns to lead. Trump pursued Bannon’s strategy in rushing out the first version of his so-called “travel ban.” The result was a political disaster. Trump followed Bannon’s advice in responding to the horror and evil in Charlottesville with equivocations. The result was the low point of his presidency so far. Bannon was ushered out of the White House and then backed Roy Moore, playing a key role in losing Republicans a previously guaranteed Senate seat.

In short, if there is a GOP civil war, conservatives are winning it. Good thing, too, because the fate of the Republican party matters. This isn’t just a meaningless contest between elites, a battle over which talking heads get the most airtime and the best speaking gigs. A better tax structure has a chance to extend and amplify America’s ongoing economic recovery. Better judges can safeguard core American civil liberties and preserve America’s constitutional order. A strong and sensible foreign policy can ease the catastrophic refugee crisis of the Obama era and preserve a global system that has prevented great-power conflict for an impressively long time.

This is why the vast majority of even “Never Trump” conservatives engage with the Trump administration. This is why we applaud its virtues as vigorously as we condemn its vices. Sycophancy is toxic. It encourages an inexperienced, impulsive, and often malicious president to believe that he can do no wrong. Total resistance is toxic as well. The idea that there is no reward for doing right is as corrupting as the notion that there’s no consequence for doing wrong. Human beings — even presidents — respond to incentives.

As we approach 2018 and the midterm elections, advisers and policies will only carry us so far.

But while conservatives can look back at 2017 and take no small measure of satisfaction in vanquishing (at least for now) the worst of the nihilistic, populist revolutionaries and restoring — through the defeat of the abominable Roy Moore — at least some regard for character in politics, there are storm clouds on the horizon. There are no indications that Donald Trump has fundamentally changed, and as my colleague Jonah Goldberg rightly points out, “The president is this presidency’s worst enemy.” Character is destiny.

There are an immense number of Americans who look at Trump, read his tweets, observe the never-ending drama, and quite reasonably recoil in disgust. They don’t see the choice — nor should they see the choice — as proper presidential character or peace and prosperity. They would like to see proper presidential character and peace and prosperity.

It’s popular for conservatives to blame the media for focusing more on Trump’s personality than on his policies and accomplishments. Would they shrug in apparent indifference at the fall of the ISIS caliphate if Hillary Clinton were president? Likely not. But it’s hard to fully blame the media when the president himself practically demands that everyone follow his petty personal conflicts and adjudicate his longstanding professional vendettas. No one made him fire James Comey. No one made him mislead the American people about the reasons. He’s famously and fiercely independent, unwilling to be told what to do. He owns his mistakes. He owns his countless false statements and deceptions.

On December 9, the day the Iraqi prime minister declared victory over the caliphate, Trump was picking a fight with a Washington Post reporter over the crowd size at one of his rallies. Poll the average voter about Trump’s actions in office, and how many will know even a fraction of the concrete developments I’ve discussed above? It’s easy to blame the media for this ignorance — until you remember how the president has misused his bully pulpit.

At the end of this year, let’s return to where we started: Trump’s character, Trump’s associates, and Trump’s polices. The latter two factors are tilting conservatives’ way, and America is better off for it. But as we approach 2018 and the midterm elections, advisers and policies will only carry us so far. There’s still the matter of character, and if character is indeed destiny, then the GOP may need to prepare for a defeat.

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