I wrote Tuesday about the clash between the conservative movement’s need to keep its principles intact even when President Trump trashes them, and the reality that the conservative voting base (including those who preferred other candidates in 2016) is generally not ready to abandon Trump. Here are my specific suggestions about where that should lead us on three particular questions, and why.
One of the major divides among those who took up the “Never Trump” banner in 2016 has only sharpened since then: between those who could live with empowering liberal Democrats in order to defeat Trumpism within the Republican party and the conservative movement, and those who could not. The former group includes people such as Bill Kristol, Tom Nichols, Charlie Sykes, Rick Wilson, and Tim Miller — all people I respect, all of whom I’ve disagreed with on this point on Twitter. Let’s explore three immediate, practical questions.
Question One: Should we want Democrats to take over Congress in 2018? There are those who argue this point from the perspective of anti-Trump conservatism. The first argument in its favor goes like this: (1) Trump is unfit to be commander in chief, head of the executive branch, or leader of the Republican party (so far, no argument); (2) Mike Pence, who would replace him if removed, would be better in all three roles (no argument there, either); (3) Republicans would not vote to impeach and remove Trump from office, while Democrats would; therefore, (4) conservatives who agree with the first three points should want Democrats to control Congress in 2019.
The problem is that the math makes no sense. Yes, it’s true that a Republican House is currently uninterested in impeaching Trump, and that it would take some extraordinary new facts to change this. It’s also true that a Democratic House would take office under great pressure to impeach, and would be likely to do so. But as the events of 1998 and 1868 remind us, impeachment is only the first step — and conviction in the Senate (resulting in removal from office) is a lot harder.
If Democrats win every single Senate race in 2018 — two seats in Mississippi and two in Minnesota, plus one each in Utah (beating Mitt Romney), Texas (beating Ted Cruz), Wyoming (beating incumbent John Barasso, who pulled 76 percent of the vote in 2012), West Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, Nebraska (beating incumbent Deb Fischer, who pulled 58 percent of the vote in 2012), North Dakota, Missouri, Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine — they will have 58 senators, and will still need to convince another nine Republican senators to remove Trump from office. (That drops to eight if John McCain leaves his seat before May 30, triggering a second special Senate election in Arizona, and a Democrat wins there, too.) This is a prayer, not a plan.
The second argument is that sure, Congress isn’t going to remove Trump, but the effort of trying, plus a blizzard of investigations (and, in all likelihood, investigations of the responses to investigations), plus blockading his nominees, will restrain Trump. This is also deeply misguided if your goal is something other than helping liberals at the expense of conservatives.
It is true, of course, that historically the House in particular has almost never investigated presidents of the same party that controls the House, while presidents of opposing parties come in for loads of investigation, whether merited or not. It is also true that there are areas where more congressional oversight could be helpful to the cause of good government. But it is a big leap, unwarranted by anything we know today, to assume that more investigations or impeachment would lead to less of the sorts of things that conservatives find aberrant or unacceptable about Trump.
Will the Trump administration do less, on policy, if it has no legislative allies in Congress and is spending all its time and political capital on investigations and resisting impeachment? Surely, yes. But it is likely that the administration’s support for mainstream conservative policy would be the first to go while the White House circled the wagons around brute tribalism, self-interest, and unilateral executive actions on immigration and trade. Why try to get conservative judges confirmed, roll back taxes and regulations, or advance American interests abroad when the only use of your energy that yields any results is slagging the reputations of investigators? If you think a Trump White House under siege would be more, rather than less, respectful of good government and the rule of law, you slept through not only 2016–18 but also 1997–99 and 1973–74. This is not how cornered animals behave.
Finally, there’s the third argument: that conservative leaders such as Paul Ryan haven’t done enough to stand up to Trump, and that the GOP will learn to do so only if its candidates are defeated at the polls by voters angry at Trump. There is a kernel of truth to this analysis of the incentives — elected Republicans will not truly turn on Trump until they suffer more for not doing so than they will for doing so — but it’s ultimately just as unrealistic.
Anything anchoring Trump to mainstream conservatism will be severed, sending him adrift with nothing but his own impulses to guide him.
However much you may be disappointed that some mainstream, normally non-Trumpy Republicans have settled into a modus vivendi with this White House on policy and averted their eyes from his Twitter circus and other failings, the fact remains that they aren’t the problem; at most, they are not enough of a solution. In reality, Ryan has been more publicly critical of a president of his own party than any speaker in memory; he just hasn’t been willing to set aside his legislative agenda in order to wage a futile battle to get Trump to stop tweeting.
But what happens if Republicans lose the House and Senate and a lot of mainstream Republicans from competitive states and districts go down? The answer is obvious: A lot more power within the party flows to the White House, just as happened to the Democrats in 2011–15 and 1995–99. Trump gets to paint himself as the party’s last hope, while his mouthpieces on cable TV and talk radio blame 2018 on those awful Establishment Republicans who just weren’t Trumpy enough. Anything anchoring Trump to mainstream conservatism will be severed, sending him adrift with nothing but his own impulses to guide him. I, for one, do not find that a reassuring prospect.
All that is before we get to the policy negatives outside the party — just as in the 1974–76 period, Democrats would likely take the opportunity to enact all sorts of policies (as they did in restructuring the budget process in 1974, still in place today) to prevent conservative policies from even being considered in the future. Count me out.
Question Two: Should we want good people to refuse to work for Trump? A second line of criticism by some Never Trump conservatives is that good people should refuse to work for Trump, and that those already in the administration should resign in protest over this or that outrage, and that the Senate has a duty not to confirm further Trump appointees. There are, again, valid reasons why people would decide not to work for a man who seems to glory in humiliating his subordinates and continually undercutting their credibility, but the choice of whether to endure that in exchange for the chance to serve the country and promote good public policy is a personal tradeoff; the broader question is whether a person who wants to do those things has some duty not to.
I suppose if you really think Trump is Hitler, you can argue for the view that nobody should collaborate with him — but then, if you really think Trump is Hitler, you ought to be taking up arms to overthrow the United States government. Which, obviously, is a step I do not recommend.
If you accept that the United States government ought to continue to exist — and serves a public purpose — even with Trump in office, then you see why it’s unduly nihilistic to argue that it ought to go unstaffed by decent people and disabled from performing its functions between now and January 2021. While the Senate does have a duty to shut down particularly bad nominees, I’ve never favored mass roadblocking of executive-branch nominees, nor have I ever argued that it was bad for good people to help bad presidents — for example, Bob Gates staying on as defense secretary under Obama was a positive good for our national security.
Moreover, the conventional public servants have won a lot of the policy and turf battles within the Trump administration, which is why a lot of them are still there after Steve Bannon and his circle are mostly gone. We can see specific examples of this working to restrain Trump, such as when White House counsel Don McGahn reportedly talked the president out of firing the special counsel. If principled conservatives cede the field to the Bannonites, none of that happens.
Question Three: Should we want a primary challenge to Trump in 2020? The third way in which some Never Trump conservatives are pursuing a deluded course of action is the blind willingness to tout 2020 primary challenges to Trump entirely without regard to whether they are serious. Now, there is value at times in casting a futile protest vote to make a point; I voted for Newt Gingrich after Romney had effectively sealed up the 2012 nomination, and if there’s a protest-vote primary challenge in 2020, I probably will cast another such vote. But fundamentally, the two candidates typically bandied about as challengers to Trump — John Kasich and Jeff Flake — are not serious, and promoting them is a primal scream, not a plan.
By “serious,” I mean actually running with the objective of winning and a plausible plan to do so, something far too few of the many 2016 contenders were doing. The best evidence that neither Kasich nor Flake is serious is that both of them passed on chances to run for the Senate in 2018. And in Kasich’s case, there is his 2016 conduct and performance as well.
To Jeff Flake’s credit, his decision not to run for reelection to the Senate is almost certainly in the best interests of the party, as it increases the GOP’s odds of holding his seat and preventing the nomination of a Trumpier fringe candidate such as Kelli Ward or Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The replacement mainstream candidate, Martha McSally, has her work cut out for her, but she seems at least a good candidate to win the nomination and a better bet to hold enough Ward/Arpaio voters in the fall to make the best possible defense of Flake’s seat. But Flake’s retirement from the Senate is an admission that he cannot even win a primary in his own home state running as an incumbent. The idea that he could unseat Trump in a national contest is pure fantasy.
Kasich, by contrast, remains relatively popular as a term-limited governor of Ohio, with approval ratings of 52 percent in a late 2017 Morning Consult poll and 57 percent (five points ahead of Trump) in a January 2018 Fallon Research poll. Kasich is viewed with so much suspicion among Republican activists that even his own lieutenant governor doesn’t want his endorsement in the race to replace him, but his organizational muscle and relative popularity with the general Ohio electorate would still probably make him a stronger candidate to unseat Sherrod Brown than anyone else the Ohio GOP (starved for a replacement after Josh Mandel bowed out owing to his wife’s health) could nominate. And a successful Senate run that charts an alternative path for non-Trumpish Republicans in a critical battleground state would serve as a great launching pad for a serious presidential run. But Kasich has chosen to sit on the sidelines, suggesting that he is not all that confident that he could win this race.
Which, again, tells us how well Kasich would fare nationally, since Ohio is his home turf. In 2016, as a sitting governor two years removed from a landslide reelection, Kasich won the Ohio primary 47–36 over Trump — with the help of rivals such as Marco Rubio, who publicly urged their supporters to vote Kasich to stop Trump. But other than a second-place finish to Rubio in D.C., Kasich was a consistent flop everywhere else in the country: Vermont was the only other state where he hit 30 percent of the vote, and in the other 31 contests through Wisconsin he cleared 20 percent in just one other state (Michigan). He finished in single digits 19 times in 42 contests. He finished behind Ben Carson ten times in 15 tries. When the field was crowded, he frequently got trampled: eighth in Iowa, fifth in South Carolina, fifth in Nevada. When it was narrower, he often finished dead last, as he did in three-way races in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Wisconsin and in four-way races in Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Idaho, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. In Arizona, he finished fourth in a three-man race, running behind Rubio even after Rubio had dropped out. Where he finished second to Trump (mostly in the Northeast after Rubio quit), it was almost always a distant second — 19 points back in New Hampshire, 30 in Massachusetts, 34 in New York, 40 in Delaware, 39 in Rhode Island, 29 in both Connecticut and Maryland.
Anyone who is talking up unserious challengers such as Flake and Kasich is choosing delusion over the hard work of playing to win back the party.
Moreover, the core of any campaign to oust Trump in 2020 needs to be built around not just the 14.2 percent of primary voters who voted for Kasich in contested primaries and the 1 percent who voted for Jeb Bush, but also the 40.6 percent who voted for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Those voters not only passed on Kasich once, but many of the most committed have not forgotten that Kasich’s presence in the race through Indiana (dropping out only immediately after Ted Cruz threw in the towel), long after it was obvious (from at least South Carolina on) that Kasich had no plan to win the nomination himself, only thwarted Trump’s opponents and helped Trump. Without Kasich, Cruz likely would have won Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Illinois, and North Carolina, with Rubio taking Virginia, changing the complexion of the race. When he had the chance, Kasich conspicuously backed down from confronting Trump on the debate stage, even when Cruz, Rubio, and Jeb were going after him directly.
And these days, Kasich downplays talk of any of the things that would attract Republican primary voters to his banner, like his solid record on life issues. People who want to win elections try to appeal to the people who vote in them and might be potential supporters, and Kasich has lost interest in doing that, pursuing instead a strategy of being every Democratic voter’s least-unfavorite Republican.
A serious primary challenge to Trump in 2020 — on the model of Reagan in 1976 — is a weighty thing to organize and launch, and many of us would welcome the opportunity to support one. But anyone who is talking up unserious challengers such as Flake and Kasich is choosing delusion over the hard work of playing to win back the party.
We cannot rid the Republican party of Donald Trump by burning down conservatism around him or backing frivolous, purely symbolic opponents. That leaves answers that are a lot less glamorous but no less important: engage in Senate, House, and gubernatorial primaries to support mainstream conservatives; criticize Trump for his words and oppose and obstruct his specific misdeeds; build strong institutions (intellectual and grassroots alike) loyal to genuine conservative principles; and remember that no fight worth winning is ever permanently won.