White House

Yes, There Is a Never Trump Delusion

President Trump greets supporters at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, June 21, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Disentangling a disagreement

Jonah and Ramesh have written a response to my column last week titled, “The Never Trump Delusion.” It always pains me to disagree with them. But the good news is that, judging by their response, we don’t disagree much. The bad news is that we are apparently talking past each other.

I made several points in the column: I. Trump deserves to be criticized in many ways; II. That there is unlikely to be a serious primary challenge, and that Trump’s welfare at this point is caught up with the party’s. III. He has delivered for his coalition and achieved some significant conservative policy victories; IV. We need to take account of his populism and nationalism, which have very often been part of a successful Republican politics. Not wanting to acknowledge points II. and IV. is what I call “the delusion.”

Jonah and Ramesh dwell a lot on I., address II. somewhat glancingly, ignore III., and even more glancingly address IV.

Forgive me for being pedantic and quoting a lot, but it’s necessary to disentangle some of the agreements that are presented as disagreements or corrections, and clear up some misunderstandings.

First, there is the definitional issue. Jonah and Ramesh say that Never Trump is hard to define. I agree and that’s why I said this coterie of critics is “loosely referred to as Never Trump.” I could have spent more time delineating who they are and distinctions among them, but as Jonah and Ramesh know, space goes fast in a column, even a longer one of 950 words.

The lines are obviously a little fuzzy. I’d say Never Trumpers tend toward a totalist critique of Trump, are very reluctant to praise him for anything, and give a sense — perhaps unfairly — of being emotionally committed to their opposition. Never Trump gave us Jennifer Rubin and Max Boot.

Yes, there are many judicious critics of Trump out there and some who are fully aware of the need for a more populist direction in the GOP (I’m colleagues with many of them, obviously), but it’s not true that it’s only Jeff Flake and John Kasich who exemplify the attitude I was criticizing in the column, as Jonah and Ramesh imply. I direct you, for instance, to George Will’s columns, Morning Joe, and Bill Kristol’s Twitter feed, for starters. None of them, nor do many former Bushies who are anti-Trump, give much of a sense of wanting to take Trump’s populism seriously and learn anything from it.

Personally, I’ve never embraced the label Never Trump, even during the most intense days of the primaries. It sounded too absolutist. I prefer Trump skeptic, meaning I’m skeptical of him for obvious reasons, but I’m not hostile to his presidency or invested in his failure—I’m happy to be proven wrong, and would actually prefer it.

Now, back to Jonah and Ramesh. They take issue with my contention that Trump “usefully points the way” to a post-Reagan conservative populism. They note that “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.”

This is one of those instances where Jonah and Ramesh state something slightly different than I do and make it sound like more of a disagreement than it is. Yes, Republicans are confused, and yes, both Trump and congressional Republicans are responsible. The way I put it in the column is that the party lacks “a more fully thought-out and integrated conservative populism,” and “Trump is not seriously engaged enough to drive this himself.”

I don’t believe that Trump is going to think through this problem for us, but if we simply dismiss him and his populism, rather than bothering to learn from them, no one else is going to think it through, either. That’s the point.

Ramesh and Jonah then say that I’m wrong to deny that Trump is a “wild outlier,” and proceed to make the sort of criticisms of his conduct and character that I had already made earlier in my column. What I meant was that he isn’t a wild outlier in terms of his positions on immigration and trade with China (the phrase “wild outlier” comes in the last line of the column, where I briefly restate points II. and IV. — I wasn’t suddenly and with no explanation contradicting myself by blessing all his personal conduct).

On the politics, Ramesh and Jonah write, tentatively, “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.”

Yes, indeed. I hope I was pretty clear about this:

A serious primary challenge is not in the offing, if anything like the current situation obtains. Trump has an 80 percent approval among Republicans and an ironclad hold on the base. For that to change, it would probably take a smoking gun revelation in the Mueller probe or some other jaw-dropping scandal, plus a significant political betrayal (say, nominating a moderate Supreme Court justice).

And if Trump crashes and burns, it is doubtful the 2020 nomination would be worth having. If he somehow left office before January 2021, it would have meant there was some disaster that fractured and dispirited the party. If he were beaten in a primary, the GOP would likely be in a similar state and festooned with a deeply wounded incumbent president. Neither would bode well.

This means that Trump’s welfare is inextricably caught up with the party’s. Every point his approval rating ticks up means fewer House seats lost in the midterms. It’s quite possible that in 2020 his prospects will be the difference between Republicans controlling one or more of the elected branches in Washington, or unified Democratic control.

In reply, Ramesh and Jonah say that circumstances can change. Of course. This is why I stipulated as much. I assume we agree, though, that the scenario where John Kasich jumps into the primaries, defeats Trump, unifies the party, and sweeps to victory in November 2020 is highly unlikely.

I think it was right to fight for some other nominee in 2016, but we lost that battle two years ago.

Jonah and Ramesh cite the experience of “compassionate conservatism,” which quickly disappeared, as an example of how fast things can change. True, but I believe, for instance, Trump’s immigration restriction has much deeper roots and much more staying power than compassionate conservatism. Again, on this issue, Trump is not a wild outlier in the GOP.

Jonah and Ramesh go on to explain in more detail why it’s appropriate to criticize Trump, which I have never contested.

One point they make is that “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.”

This is true as far as it goes, but how far does it go? 2008 was a debacle for the GOP and a debacle for conservatism. Is it better for conservatism if Republicans hold the House this year or lose it by 40 seats? If we consider it in the interest of conservatism to have politicians in power who want to try to pass conservative policies, which would seem to be of some relevance to our enterprise, it is clearly the former. In which case, it would be much better if Trump’s approval rating were 50 percent rather than 40 percent.

Regarding the last point, Jonah and Ramesh concede that I am “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.”

This gets to something I wanted to say in my column but couldn’t because I ran out of space. I think it was right to fight for some other nominee in 2016, but we lost that battle two years ago. And here we are — not only was Trump the nominee, he is president of the United States. There is no undoing this, and we shouldn’t ignore how Trump’s populism played a role.

In sum, I’ll restate what I said at the end of the column: By all means, criticize Trump when he’s wrong, but don’t pretend he’s going away or that he’s a wild outlier in the contemporary GOP.

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