Politics & Policy

Conservative Criticism of Trump Is Not Deluded

President Trump speaks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, March 13, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
A response to Rich Lowry

One of the more significant frustrations of the Trump era is the lack of precise terminology for the debates required of it. One such term is “Never Trump.” It is vague enough to include a broad spectrum of people who do not share views, tactics, or rhetoric, and it is laden with enough emotional and political baggage that it often provides more passion than precision.

In a widely discussed column titled “The Never Trump Delusion,” our colleague Rich Lowry says how much he admires some conservative critics of Trump, recounts many of the problems with how the president has conducted himself in office — running the White House like a reality show, firing Cabinet secretaries via Twitter, l’affaire Stormy, etc. — and then adds

Yet it doesn’t follow that we should buy into the fantasy either that Trump is going to disappear into thin air, or that Trumpism can be blithely dismissed so the party can return to what some Never Trumpers believe constituted the status quo ante.

Rich’s set-up makes it sound as though he intends to rebuke conservative Trump critics generally. But of course it is possible to be a severe critic of Trump from the right without thinking he is going to “disappear,” or that the pre-Trump Republican party is an ideal to which to aspire. In fact, most Trump critics at NRO and on the Right generally don’t match Rich’s description of delusive Never Trumpism. If he means to criticize only Jeff Flake and maybe John Kasich, he ought to say so — and acknowledge that they don’t represent conservative Trump critics generally. One reason Rich should make this distinction is that his own criticisms of Trump are much more in keeping with the tenor of Trump’s conservative critics than they are with that of Trump’s admirers.

Rich also writes,

A realistic attitude to Trump involves acknowledging both his flaws and how he usefully points the way beyond a tired Reagan nostalgia. By all means, criticize him when he’s wrong. But don’t pretend that he’s just going away, or that he’s a wild outlier in the contemporary GOP.

Let’s take these points in order. Sensible conservative criticism of Trump should not be (and usually is not) based on Reagan nostalgia. But it is not at all clear that Trump “usefully points the way” to a conservatism that addresses today’s challenges or toward the populist-conservative synthesis Rich desires. Republicans have essentially no agenda this year, with the exception of spastic administrative actions against trade. That is not entirely Trump’s fault. But it suggests that he has done more to confuse and paralyze conservative thinking about those challenges than to spur it.

Rich is quite wrong, meanwhile, to deny that Trump is a “wild outlier” among Republicans. With respect to the traits that have earned him the most criticism from conservatives, and his consistently low poll numbers, that is exactly what he is. Paying off porn stars, attacking judges based on their race, and so on should be outliers for any president, Republican or Democrat. Rich concedes that the president is “repellent” to suburban women and Millennials, “perhaps doing long-term damage to the GOP.” This suggests that significant numbers of voters consider him an outlier as well. Republicans should hope they continue to do so.

Another thing conservatives should have learned from the Bush era is that blurring the principles of conservatism with the election-cycle fortunes of the GOP is a mistake.

We take Rich’s point in denying that Trump “will just go away” to be that, for example, a primary challenge to him is unlikely to succeed. At the moment that certainly looks right. Our only caution is that if 2016 taught us anything, it should be the limits of what we can predict. We can recall when George W. Bush was so popular a figure among Republicans that conservative criticisms of him rankled a lot of them. Things change. “Compassionate conservatism” did not carry the day for very long, among Republicans — even after Bush won re-election with the only popular majority his party has attained since the end of the Cold War.

Many of the people who approve of the job Trump is doing are open to criticisms of him, and indeed agree with a lot of the criticisms. People who speak as though Trump can do no wrong are probably a minority even among Republicans and they are certainly one among the public at large.

Regardless, criticisms of Trump can be valid even if he is likely to be the Republican nominee in 2020, and should be voiced when valid. Rich wisely concedes the point; but if it is conceded, pointing to Trump’s strength within the party is no response at all to those criticisms.

Another thing conservatives learned — or should have learned — from the Bush era is that blurring the principles of conservatism with the election-cycle fortunes of the GOP is a mistake. Rich is surely correct that the fortunes of the GOP are somewhat tied to Trump’s (though we think he overstates the case). This was precisely the situation some argued was worth avoiding in the first place. It’s no shock that liberals want to argue that conservatism has always been synonymous with Trumpism. It seems misguided to surrender the point. And conservatism’s fortunes are even more tied up in its retaining the ability to stand apart from any president, and especially this president.

Rich says conservatives should be free to criticize the president, but all too often the response to such criticism is, “Why bother? He’s not going anywhere and this is the man people voted for.” But most Republican voters did not vote to affirm the entire Trump package. They wanted someone other than Hillary Clinton, and conservative judges. Pretending otherwise is to give license to the president’s worst instincts.

— Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru are senior editors of National Review.

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