Politics & Policy

Whom Do You Want on Your Side When Trump Is Gone?

President Trump boards Air Force One in Washington, D.C., November 5, 2018. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Before long the Right will need to reunify, so let’s not burn any bridges.

Here’s something that has been on my mind a lot over the past two years, and never more than in the last few weeks, with the gleeful reactions from some quarters at the demise of The Weekly Standard and things like this and this. How is the Right going to work together as a coalition after Trump?

Sometime between 2019 and 2025, Donald Trump will be gone from the political scene. At the least, he will no longer be the leader of the Republican party. Too many people from the Right — Republicans, conservatives, ex-Republicans, and ex-conservatives — don’t seem to be thinking ahead to that day, and who they will still want on their side, fighting side by side with them for common causes.

The post-Trump era should usher in a New Normal for Republicans and conservatives. It almost has to: It’s nearly impossible to imagine a party leader who brings the same level of chaos, disruption, and reality-show circus to the table, and turns so many people against him and each other for reasons having little to do with policy. That doesn’t mean the New Normal will be “back to normal” circa 2014, as if none of this had ever happened. Internal debates over issues such as trade, immigration, and foreign policy will continue, as will cultural and stylistic debates over what conservatism means and how it should be marketed.

A New Normal, post-Trump, also doesn’t mean that the next Republican leader — be it a currently leading figure in the party (say, Mike Pence or Nikki Haley) or someone far off the radar right now — won’t be a divisive figure within the Right in some new ways. Nearly every party leader has some stances, or some aspect of their public persona, that drives some people out of the tent. It’s the nature of the binary two-party system.

But if you have considered yourself part of the wider American Right at some point in the past, and still share the policy and culture goals you believed in before June 2015, then you should want the political and cultural Right to be as broad and unified behind the next Republican leader as possible. You should want everyone who considers himself a conservative — however he may define that word — to feel welcome and to want to belong to the same movement and party you do, broadly defined.

Effective political coalitions can have internal battles over which factions and leaders are in charge, and periodically they do need to purge the occasional person who has proven especially toxic or inept. But on the whole, they succeed by keeping as many people in the tent as possible, by accepting that different groups get alternating turns at the wheel, and by directing the bulk of their energies outward at their political and ideological foes rather than inward at a continual cycle of auto-da-fé.

As a Reaganite conservative, I accept that not everybody in the party is a Reaganite, and that at times even the leader of the party will be more moderate, or more libertarian, or more protectionist, or more hawkish on immigration than I am. Principles are a compass, not a straitjacket, and causes are more easily advanced when we make common cause. Reagan’s famous Eleventh Commandment — “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican” — wasn’t a call to avoid internal divisions; ten years after he declared it, he launched a primary challenge to a sitting Republican president. It was, instead, an argument against letting those divisions blow the party into so many little pieces that it could never win anything.

In short: If you want to win, you need allies. And if you want to survive losses, you need friends. You always will.

And yet, if you look around at how a lot of people in conservative media and activism are treating each other these days — in print and digital media, on radio and TV, and especially on Twitter — you’d think that the only issue that really matters is who can read whom out of the movement. Many of the more bellicose pro-Trump voices seem obsessed to the point of monomania with “Never Trumpers” and “globalists” and “neocons” and whoever else seems insufficiently committed to the Trump narrative of the day, even for the offense of not wanting to do a complete 180 on whatever things their targets have publicly professed over a period of decades. On the other side, too many of the longstanding members of the Right who took a principled stand as Never Trump conservatives in 2016 seem to have dug themselves deep into rhetorical bunkers in which all they ever do is lob grenades at their old comrades and dump on Republican politicians for trying to win elections and advance conservative policy.

Each side seems obsessed in particular with questioning the motives and sincerity of the other, positing conspiracies in which nothing people say is what meets the eye, and painting with the broadest of brushes in the kinds of terms that political writers typically reserve for their ideological opponents. “Who funds you?” is a vastly overused trope as a substitute for argument, especially when directed at people who are writing things consistent with their longstanding views, such as conservatives who are arguing against government interventions in the market or criticizing left-wing suppression of speech.

What happens to all these people if — as is very possible — Trump loses the 2020 election, or is impeached or indicted or otherwise wrecked by scandal, and the party must try to put itself back together around Pence or Haley in 2020 or 2024? Or even if Trump makes it through an eight-year term and is succeeded by Pence or by somebody like Ben Sasse who wants to strike a different tone? Will they still see each other as the main enemy?

In conservative media in particular, there are both professional and political benefits to being on good terms with as many people as possible. Professional benefits may be easy to deride, but they do matter to people who depend on this for a livelihood: having friends and allies means you get your work promoted by other outlets, you get interviewed on radio, TV, and podcasts, you can sell books and speak at conferences, and of course you can move on from one job to another, and maybe even move between the media and public office. You don’t burn your bridges with potential employers, subscribers, donors, and the like. We all burn a few bridges over time for good reasons of high principle, but making a reflex of it is a good way to strand yourself on your own little island, and a bad position to be in if you unexpectedly find yourself in need of a new job.

But let’s say none of that matters to you: There are still tangible political benefits to having allies. It’s a lot easier to organize a drumbeat on some cause or issue or platform or exposé if people don’t hate your guts and see you as someone who would try to get them fired or rage-mobbed at the drop of a hat. Very few of us go into political media for the money; there will never be that much of it. (I was writing politics on the Internet for over a decade before I got anything even vaguely resembling a paycheck out of it.) The reason to do this stuff is to make a difference, to shift the world in our direction even a little bit. You do that with coalitions, and you don’t build coalitions out of people who loathe you.

Now, I grant that there are two groups for whom it is rational to assume a posture of bitter and unreconciled antagonism towards large segments of the Right. One is the people who have truly left the Right, never to return. They no longer want the ends they professed a decade ago and have found gainful employment in the “ex-conservative” field. Whatever else you can say about that sort of complete ideological makeover, at least it means ending up somewhere that has a future and a direction.

The second group for whom there is a rational explanation is those who emerged for the first time as voices in the Trump era, and fear that they won’t be able to continue if a New Normal sets in. Trump was the first leader of the Republican party in my lifetime that a large segment of the conservative commentariat could not stomach at all. Driving a lot of established and talented people into opposition, or at least personal opposition of the party leader, created a vacuum: There were still pro-Trump messages to be carried, and too few people to carry them. As in any era, some of the people who jumped on those opportunities are shrewd folks with something worthwhile to say. But others just got jobs because jobs needed doing, like the NFL replacement players in 1987 who found themselves out of work again when the strike ended.

If you didn’t have what it takes to find an audience before 2015, and have been able to do so only because too few of the leading people in conservative media were willing to say the things needed to defend Trump across the board, then your worst fear will be the end of the internal division of the coalition. If civil war is the only way you can stay employed, you will want it to last forever.

But for those who already had an audience before Trump arrived, acting as if the party and the movement will be eternally locked in the fixed positions of 2016–18 is irrational and short-sighted. Choosing to make personal enemies based on political or strategic disagreements is an unforced error. It is always easier to unmake a bad friend than a poorly chosen enemy. And even outside of politics, it is always wise to live your life as if you may need friends tomorrow. None of us knows when that day will arrive.


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