Internal debates about “whither conservatism?” are one of the reasons for this magazine’s (and webzine’s) existence, and a more urgent one than ever with Donald Trump occupying — in the minds of many inside and outside the conservative tent — the position of leader of the conservative movement in 21st-century America. In that vein, there are serious stakes in Rich Lowry’s column on “The Never Trump Delusion” and Jonah Goldberg’s and Ramesh Ponnuru’s joint response, “Conservative Criticism of Trump Is Not Deluded.” Allow me to offer my own two cents.
First, it’s crucially important to remember that, when we talk about American conservatism, we are talking both about conservative ideas and philosophy and the conservative political movement in practice. (As I read Rich’s column, he’s really talking mostly about the latter, whereas Jonah and Ramesh are talking mostly about the former). Theory and practice can never be wholly separate in political philosophy (indeed, as I’ve often written, the essential element of conservatism is practical experience), but there is nonetheless more to conservatism than “it’s whatever people calling themselves conservatives do.” Most conservatives in America voted for Nixon in 1972, but there was still great value in keeping the torch lit for the ideas of Buckley and Goldwater rather than redefining the movement around détente, wage-and-price controls, burglary, Harry Blackmun, and so forth. Conservatives could and did learn lessons from how Nixon appealed to enough people to carry 61 percent of the vote and 49 states, and more than a few conservative politicians survived their support and defenses of Nixon, but there was nonetheless value in National Review endorsing Nixon’s primary opponent in 1972.
For those of us engaged in the contest of ideas outside the electoral system, therefore, it’s enormously important to stand up for conservative ideas, principles, philosophy, and experience especially when the man holding the reins of the Republican party diverges from them. Our movement’s internal debates survived Eisenhower, Goldwater, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bushes, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney; they will go on after Trump as well. When that day comes, we will want to see the torch still burning, and not have extinguished it because the light reflected unflatteringly on the billionaire from Queens whose third marriage has been going longer than his current status as a registered Republican.
But very few political commentators can or should stay hermetically isolated from the day-to-day realities on the ground. We are often engaged not only in debating what is theoretically desirable but what is politically practical, and the unspoken hope of almost every op-ed piece is that somebody in a position of official power will be influenced by it. We opine, inevitably, on questions of who should run for office or win primaries, who should be nominated or confirmed, what bills should be passed or vetoed, which controversies are legitimate and which are nonsense. The direction and health of the Republican party, which for better or worse is still the only practical vehicle for American conservatives to accomplish anything in public policy, remains a matter of urgent concern if conservatives are to be anything besides an amusing and esoteric debate society. Conservatism survived Nixon, but it did not survive entirely unchanged, nor will that be true (unfortunately) of Trump.
It is true and still important, as Jonah and Ramesh note, that many people in the Republican party did not want Trump as the nominee in 2016; and that many who voted for him in the general election did so in spite of aspects of Trump’s persona and platform. A few examples from the election returns:
- As of May 4, 2016 (when his last opponents dropped out of the race), 60 percent of GOP primary voters had cast their ballots against Trump;
- The combined vote for his top two conservative opponents (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) exceeded Trump’s vote in 25 of the first 35 contests, by double digits in 17 of them;
- Voters in only one state (Indiana) chose Trump by a majority vote in both contested primary (or caucus) and general elections;
- Millions of Americans voted for Republicans for the House and Senate but not for Trump, who ran behind the GOP Senate candidate in 22 out of 32 states and behind GOP House candidates in 22 out of 30 large and/or battleground states; and
- Close to 10 percent of the general electorate voted for Trump despite having an unfavorable opinion of him.
But it is also true, as Rich notes, that as 2016 fades into the rear view mirror — and quite likely due to the combined gravitational pull of Republican voters and elected officials — Trump has governed closer to orthodox conservative Republican policy on a lot of issues than many of us anticipated. As I noted in my three-part review of Trump’s first year, if you set aside his mouth and his Tweets and looked only backwards at his policy record and not inward at his character or forward at the risks he is sowing, you can make a case for Trump-on-paper as a pretty good conservative Republican president. That’s a lot to set aside, but it has been enough so far, combined with the hysteria of his enemies, to keep the bulk of the Republican voting base on his side — just as it was enough for Nixon until just about the bitter end.
Moreover, Rich’s other main point is also easier scoffed at than disproven: However much we might like Trump to just disappear, there is as yet no critical mass of support among Republican voters to either remove Trump from office or replace him as the nominee in 2020. And because there is no such support among the voters who elected them, there is likewise little appetite for such actions among elected Republicans, and plenty of market for pundits and mass-media outlets who defend Trump against his critics.
What this all means is that when conservative commentators move out of the realm of “is this thing Trump said/did/proposes good?” to practical questions like “what do most conservatives believe or want these days?” or “how should conservatives appeal to voters through the Republican party?” or “what should Republican voters and officials do about” this, that, or the other Trump thing, we have to deal with practical reality and not just theory. That means it’s necessary to include in our calculations the facts on the ground of Trump and his political support and its implications for the conservative politicians we still like and respect. And we should have some sympathy for the difficult position in which this places leaders who choose to remain in the arena while trying to stay true to what they thought they were signing up for when they became conservatives years before Trump. And eventually, those of us who declared ourselves “Never Trump” in 2016 are — more likely than not — going to face another agonizing dilemma in 2020 of whether to say never again.