Even conservatives who tell themselves they prize the eternal truths are subject to intellectual fashions, storms of passion, and the irritation that comes from being slighted. Being a coalition made up of human beings, conservatives who normally align with each other but come to different judgements on one war, one presidency, or one policy will usually find their disagreements leaking over into personal slights. Because he is the Republican president and has mostly done the normal things people expect Republicans to do (tax cuts, appointing conservative jurists), most conservatives are united behind Donald Trump now. Some grudgingly. But a few are not. Although most of them have disclaimed the label, they get called the Never Trumpers.
And the remaining Never Trumpers are lashing out at the faults of the movement they were in. They complain of the baleful influence of talk radio. They point to the presence of idiots who learn a little anti-liberal patois and rake in a ton of money. Not so far beneath the surface, they occasionally let a contempt for the masses of conservative voters start to sneak in. They welcome liberal readers to thrill at their denunciations of the Right. Soon, someone, possibly here at National Review, will come along for the kill shot and say of them, “They began by hating the populists. They came to hate their party and this president.”
But all I can think when I read them is, “I know what that feels like.” In 2006, I threw in with conservatives who were against the Iraq War at The American Conservative and who generally had a low opinion of President George W. Bush. We also lamented the state of conservative talk radio. We also poked fun at CPAC. We cared deeply about the lines set by National Review. We cheered that they were against Bush’s comprehensive amnesty, but lamented everything else on foreign policy. Like The Bulwark today, we took dissenting Republican congressmen and senators like Ron Paul and Walter Jones on the right, or Lincoln Chafee in the center, and turned them into tea leaves we used to divine a better future.
Some among us went all the way to become “Obamacons.” Actually, a few among NR’s extended family went that way too. We were frustrated and encouraged whenever conservatives that had better standing in the movement admitted that, privately, they agreed with a lot of our criticisms of it. We had a following among writers for The Weekly Standard that probably would embarrass everyone if it were fully understood. What we disliked most of all, I think, was the identification of political conservatism with George W. Bush himself, a man whose second inaugural contained so much revolutionary ambition, it reminded us of comrade Lenin.
And none of us could have predicted that just eight years after Bush left office, Republicans would elect a man who criticized the Iraq War in some of the exact terms we did. And it is that last point that bears repeating: We could not see around the corner. And perhaps we didn’t appreciate the past enough either. People who feel excluded from a movement in which they had a stake tend to dwell on the slights they were given, the offices for which they were passed over, the figures they admired who found themselves ousted, fairly or not. But you have to see beyond today.
And that would be the caution I give to the members of Continuity Never Trump. Remember our history and remember that many present trends will change whether you push back or not.
It’s hard not to detect the prelapsarian myth that sits behind much commentary from Never Trumpers. As if talk-radio blather, Roger Stone, and trade protectionism had snuck into GOP politics for the first time in 2015, and everything before that had been conducted with the innocence of Dominican nuns praying the chaplet of divine mercy for the triumph of pure Hayekianism. For those who need reminders, Stone was doing the whip books for Reagan in 1976. Reagan and George W. Bush had both used trade protection of certain industries ahead of re-election campaigns. And conservative talk radio has been filling the airwaves with occasionally bilious populism for decades.
The influence of Murdoch’s media empire and the cult of celebrity have been problems for true conservatism as well. Recall that in California’s infamous recall election, figures like Sean Hannity flocked to the moderate (but famous) Arnold Schwarzenegger over the rock-solid Golden-State conservative Tom McClintock.
While defending his fellow Never Trumpers from conservative criticism, Charlie Sykes recently asked, “What does the endgame look like if the GOP continues to alienate women, young people, Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, Asian-Americans?” But the abysmal performance of the GOP among racial minorities predates Trump by a long way. Writers like Henry Olsen, whom Sykes wants to ostracize, argue consistently that Trump’s aspiration for a Republican “worker’s party” is the best way to reach out to minority voters.
So, yes, I would urge members of Continuity Never Trump to get their history right, and to account for their own failures of judgement in it too. But, we shouldn’t leave it there. These men and women should also have hope for the future. Returning things to just as they were in 2012, or 2004, or 1984 is impossible. But we won’t be stuck in 2019 for long either. Many have remarked in the last week that the presidency of George W. Bush seems to have been erased from the collective memory of CPAC attendees. In that observation there may be a reason for optimism for the die-hard Never Trumpers. If the Trump presidency comes up looking like a dud by the end, conservative voters will put him out of mind.
Continuity Never Trump should consider that the presidency itself may be too big to succeed. Any intellectual faction of the Right too closely identified with a president is likely to suffer in the long run. Some may recall this truth with bitterness. The sheer number of political appointees that it takes to assume control of the executive branch, the incredible remit of power that is given to the president because of the abdications of Congress, the way people assume the president leads his political party and charts a course for the intellectuals and policy-thinkers who are attached to it practically guarantee failure and disappointment.
One of the European conservatives who they think we shouldn’t read anymore said that all political lives end in failure. So it will be with Donald Trump. Another man whose conservative ideas have pre-Lockean roots cautions us: Put not thy trust in princes.
Looked at a certain way, Trump has liberated conservatives. Not just from a few outdated and unpopular agendas, but from the presidency itself. Everyone knows that conservative intellectuals had a complicated relationship with Trump. And in fact, if you get beyond some of the personal sniping, you’ll find that at the highest level conservatives are engaging in their most interesting, and searching, debates in years. It gets better.