Politics & Policy

Bad Excuses for Leaving the GOP

President Trump waves on the South Lawn of the White House, May 2017. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Peter Wehner is willing to sacrifice everything he says he believes in to separate himself from Trump.

Peter Wehner has published an article in The Atlantic titled “What I’ve Gained by Leaving the Republican Party.” The case he builds for abandoning the party of conservatism is not remotely compelling.

Wehner begins by explaining why he has always been a Republican, including the party’s “commitment to human freedom, democratic capitalism, and a traditional social order; to upward mobility through self-reliance; to the dignity of work; to the cultivation of character and respect for the Constitution,” among many other reasons. Wehner does not claim to have abandoned any of these ideas. Moreover, Wehner has not been merely an academic supporter of the GOP; he has held high-level political positions in Republican administrations.

He is, in other words, a sophisticated observer of politics and the political world, and until now he has seen the GOP as his home. So what has compelled him to leave? In a word, Trump.

This reaction is highly atypical even among Trump-skeptical Republicans. Some have joined the Resistance, but few have resigned from the party. Indeed, many NeverTrumpers will readily admit that, as president, Trump has advanced numerous conservative policies.

I did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016 (nor of course for Hillary Clinton). Many of the things Trump said he would do as president during the 2016 campaign were attractive to me as a conservative — especially his policies on cutting taxes and regulations, withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal, and increasing U.S. energy production — but they were enmeshed with so many false statements and narcissistic preening that I had no idea what he might do if elected. I was unimpressed by claims that Trump was a racist — a traditional tactic of the Left for which I saw no significant evidence. Trump was as abusive to his white opponents as he was to those of color.

However, if the election were held today, I would vote for Trump. Despite his disturbing and indefensible attacks on others, the great majority of his policies thus far have been sensible and often both smart and strategically focused. For example, he turned out to be serious about confronting China on trade and reigniting the economy by cutting regulations and taxes.

Other obviously conservative and Republican Trump positions are increasing oil and gas production, forcing our allies to contribute more to their own defense in Europe, forcing North Korea and Iran to the bargaining table when they pose major long-term threats to our country as well as our allies, assisting Ukraine to defend itself against Russia by providing that country with lethal weapons, steadfastly supporting Israel, and last — but certainly not least — nominating judges and justices who will stop the current drift to rule by the unelected members of the administrative state. The list goes on and fully explains Trump’s widespread support both in the Republican party and among his “base.”

But Wehner says that the Republicans are now “Trump’s party.” This is essential to his explanation for why he has abandoned the GOP, but it simply reflects his acceptance of what is little more than another trope of the Left, asserted to diminish the GOP. In reality, if the GOP is anyone’s party, it is still Ronald Reagan’s. Reagan articulated a set of policies — smaller government, lower taxes, individual initiative, conservative jurists, an assertive foreign policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, and many others — that essentially codified the Republican view. Trump, up to now, appears to be following that Republican catechism. Does that make the GOP Trump’s party, or is Trump simply an acolyte in Reagan’s? When Trump disappears from the governmental scene, no matter how successful he may be as a president, he is likely to be seen as a Reagan-restoration figure, but without Reagan’s ability to build a consistently winning coalition.

Yet Wehner now views the party — including the party as it existed before Trump — “through the clarifying prism of Donald Trump, who consistently appealed to the ugliest instincts and attitudes of the GOP base.” In other words, despite the fact that Trump is doing exactly what he promised he would do, Wehner has come to the view that Trump’s allegedly racist words, during the 2016 campaign and today, are the dominant source of his continuing Republican support. This is not remotely plausible.

Indeed, the “clarifying prism” Wehner describes is grossly distorted. He cites no polls or other evidence for generalizing about the attitudes of Trump’s base, much less the GOP as a whole. Of course, Trump has said some harsh and unworthy things about immigrants. For all I know, maybe he himself harbors racist attitudes. But to say that his “base” — whatever that is — and the whole Republican party hold these views, or support Trump because of them, is a scandalously unfounded charge.

Ironically, in the absence of any other support for his assertion about the GOP, Wehner cites George H. W. Bush’s use of the Willie Horton ads in his 1988 campaign as an example of racism, and of a past incident that his new “prism” has brought into focus. While running these ads may say something about Bush 41 — a president in whose administration Wehner ultimately served — they say nothing about the people who voted for him, and certainly nothing about Trump’s base or GOP voters today.

Moreover, Wehner’s withdrawal from the Republican party, and particularly the way he did it, gives aid and comfort to a Democratic party that is increasingly moving mindlessly left. Wehner, familiar with high-level politics, must know this. Weakening the GOP will weaken the opposition to disastrous policies that could transform our country in ways that even Wehner couldn’t approve. Who, other than the Republican party, is going to show the absurdity of the Green New Deal, Medicare-for-all, free college education, tax rates that will stunt economic growth and innovation, government support of people who are not willing to work, partial- (and maybe even after-) birth abortion, and a myriad other insane ideas for which many of the Democratic party’s current presidential candidates have already signaled support? Who, other than the GOP, is going to get voters out to the polls in 2020 to vote against these policies and the senators and representatives who will have endorsed them?

In other words, Wehner is willing to sacrifice everything he claims to believe in as a matter of policy in order to separate himself not only from Trump, but also from GOP.

What’s most disturbing about Wehner’s apostasy is how easily he has accepted the Left’s and the media’s propaganda about the Republicans and conservatives who voted for Trump. It is hard to believe that someone with Wehner’s experience in government and high-level politics could be so easily misled, or that he gained anything by this act other than the applause of the Left.

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Peter J. Wallison is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was general counsel of the Treasury and White House counsel in the Reagan administration.

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