The rise of Donald Trump created a schism in Republican ranks. Most Republicans — including some of those who were most bitterly opposed to his nomination for president — came to terms in one way or another with him either before the 2016 election or afterward once it became clear that in many respects, the Trump administration would advance conventional conservative policies.
But for some conservatives, accepting someone as vulgar, ruthless, and rhetorically excessive was a bridge too far. Some, like the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, reacted not merely by opposing Trump but by shamelessly turning against the conservative positions she had previously supported so as to oppose the president and his supporters on every issue.
Others have not abandoned their conservative beliefs, but think the damage Trump has done to both the country and the Republican party is too great to be endured. They then claim that Trump’s shortcomings leave them no choice but to leave the GOP and stake out a lonely place in no man’s land, from which they survey what they see as the wreckage of a country divided between a morally compromised and corrupt Republican party and the Democrats, who they continue to believe are profoundly mistaken.
Probably no one exemplifies that dilemma better than Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a veteran of the Reagan and both Bush administrations. Though most members of Trump’s faithful base of supporters have showered people like Wehner with the sort of abuse that was dished out to heretics during the age of religious wars, his latest lament in The Atlantic for what he believes are a Republican party and a conservative movement that have lost their soul deserves a thoughtful answer.
Wehner, a former colleague of mine from Commentary magazine, is someone I both admire and like. But while I respect his point of view, I don’t accept the idea that disgust with Trump’s foibles and his attitude is a sufficient reason to completely abandon support of a party, flawed though it might be, that is still effectively advocating the conservative governance that the country needs.
Wehner’s argument is that Trump’s achievements, whether on judges, taxes, deregulation, or even foreign policy — such as moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and withdrawing from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal — are not as significant as the hurt he’s done to our society. In his view, Trump’s disregard for the truth, willingness to divide the nation along ethnic or racial lines, and corruption (by which I assume he means his moral failings rather than a belief that he might be selling out the country) will come to define his presidency.
Wehner is right that the Republican party is now as wedded to Trump and his administration as either political party has been to any incumbent in the last century. So how do Republicans who are uncomfortable with Trump’s style and statements justify continuing their affiliation with the party?
The answer is simple and doesn’t involve the sale of their souls: Politics is a team sport.
Now that he’s outside of the GOP cocoon in which he lived during the course of his adult life, Wehner writes, he’s able to view things with a clearer and less partisan eye. For example, he mentions his retroactive disgust with the “Willie Horton” attacks on Michael Dukakis’s presidential candidacy in 1988. Wehner thinks the GOP is more intolerant and racially insensitive since Trump’s rise, and casts this as the direct result of Republican attitudes, tactics, and polices that date back 50 years to when white southerners began to abandon the Democrats because of their support for civil rights.
There may be some truth to that, as Republican successes since Richard Nixon are to some extent based on the transformation of the old “solid South” controlled by the Democrats to a region that is now deep red Republican as conservatives there crossed the aisle en masse in a process that began in the 1960s. But does that mean we must discount the achievements of men like Ronald Reagan and the elder and younger George Bush, who were elected with the support of some voters whom Wehner now sees as future Trump loyalists?
I don’t think so — and not only because there is a difference between a situation in which good men have flawed followers and one in which a flawed leader has flawed followers. Reagan and both Bushes depended on a coalition that may indeed have included many voters with less than admirable views on race or other issues. But that coalition didn’t compromise them, because, for the most part, they sought to elevate their followers rather than merely pander to them.
Trump has done the opposite. But as much as the president has coarsened our political discourse, the claim that conservatives abandoned their principles in order to back him is only true insofar it refers to their past distaste for personal moral failings of the kind that rightly caused Republicans to decry former president Bill Clinton as a disgrace. In other domains, conservatives who have stuck to their principles have been vindicated.
Most Republicans feel that they can support this administration with a clear conscience thanks to his record in office. It is not they who have changed their views on important issues in order to do so. It was Trump. The president, recall, flipped from being a New York liberal to a supporter of several major conservative policy goals, including on issues such as abortion and religious liberty as well as taxes and deregulation.
Moreover, they also believe that the victories the administration has achieved on judges and other points were possible only with Trump rather than with any of the more “reasonable” GOP candidates he defeated. That’s not just because it’s likely that only Trump’s tactics and willingness to appeal to working-class voters allowed the GOP to capture the White House. It’s also likely that only a recent convert would feel the need to staff his administration with so many conservatives, and that only someone as contemptuous of the Washington establishment as Trump is would have acted as he did on Jerusalem and Iran.
Then there’s the fact that for too long, Republicans ignored the feelings of working-class voters who identify with Trump’s contempt for elite opinion and the good manners of the educated classes. And Trump’s unpresidential and outrageous behavior notwithstanding, his presidency has not posed the threat to democracy that his hyperbolic opponents foresaw.
All parties are coalitions of disparate groups, including some that are at odds with each other. That was certainly true of the Democrats for much of the 20th century, when they were, for all intents and purposes, a coalition of northern liberals and southern supporters of Jim Crow.
Republicans and Democrats have always had to tolerate people they didn’t like — or even despised — to get anything accomplished. That’s because politics is a not a gentleman’s club that cannot tolerate bad sorts such as Trump without undermining its fundamental purpose.
Indeed, to say that conservatives are sacrificing their principles in order to achieve policy goals could be said of any party at any time. If those goals are worthy, then they will require advocates to make some compromises, including difficult ones, to achieve them. If they aren’t, then Republicans might be justified in abandoning the political fray to sit, as apparently Pete Wehner is doing, in splendid isolation untainted by Trump, and watching with Olympian detachment as the Democrats — a party that, as Pete admits, is increasingly under the influence of radicals and socialists and advancing positions on abortion that are tantamount to infanticide — take the first steps toward regaining complete control of the government.
There are far higher callings than the pull of party loyalty. But with such foes and with Trump enabling Republicans to do much that is good — even as he disappoints in other ways — there is plenty of room for principled conservatives to remain fully involved in the political process, in no doubt as to which party is the lesser of two evils.
I have little doubt that Pete Wehner will eventually return to the ranks of Republicans, and, the resentment of Trump supporters notwithstanding, the GOP will be better for it. But until then, those who work for the victory of a Republican party that is tied to President Trump while advancing conservative policies and thwarting the Left have nothing more to be ashamed of than any other group of political activists in this era, or in any other.
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