The Corner

Politics & Policy

Trump Enabling 101

This morning I heard my friend Hugh Hewitt put the Flake-Corker developments into perspective. (Let me say up front, the reason I often publicly disagree with Hugh is that I not only like him but also think that he, unlike some other radio hosts, is worth listening to and engaging even when he’s wrong.)

Hugh argues Flake and Corker couldn’t get reelected in the current climate, and that’s most of what you need to know. (It’s possible I missed other portions of the show, so I am open to correction.)

He unfairly, by my lights, dismisses Flake’s criticism of Trump going back to Flake’s book as nothing more than a “Hail Mary” play. Flake “bet” the country was anti-Trump and he lost, argues Hugh. The country isn’t anti-Trump, Hugh insists.

Whether the country is anti-Trump or not is, I think, a far more live question than Hugh suggests. (See Trump’s approval rating, for instance.) But that’s irrelevant. If Flake’s criticisms of Trump were miscalculated, it wasn’t because he misread the country; it’s because he misread the GOP-primary voters of Arizona.  Being crosswise with Arizona primary voters is not necessarily being crosswise with the country, or even with the GOP or conservatism generally. Saying the country is behind Trump is a much cheerier way to frame the situation than to say the GOP base can no longer stomach traditional conservatives — at least not if they dare object to the president’s behavior. After all, Flake and Corker (and Strange, and McCain et al.) vote with the president on almost everything. They are unacceptable largely because they don’t play into the fiction that Trump has got everything in hand and is doing a great job on all fronts.

Which brings me to my real objection. Hugh, with palpable exasperation, calls for everyone to stop the “drama.” But from Hugh’s version of events, it seems the sources of the “drama” are Flake and Corker. Hugh went on to explain that if somebody in a corporation behaved the way Flake and Corker have, they’d “lose their job.” And, Hugh explains, that’s what’s happening to Flake and Corker here.

Well.

I think it goes without saying that if a CEO of a corporation behaved like Trump, he’d lose his job too. And Trump may lose his in 2020. Some would like it to be sooner. But that’s a rabbit hole for the purposes of this discussion. The more important point is that all of the drama Hugh decries has a single prime mover and that is Donald Trump. Trump loves the drama. He feeds the drama and feeds off it. And to excoriate Flake and Corker for their drama while remaining silent about Trump’s is the very definition of enabling. It’s a bit like telling the family of an abuser to stop being so hysterical about the abuse.

Now, I suspect that Hugh’s response would be something along the lines of “Trump’s the president. We have only one president at a time. Voters knew what we were getting. We have to make the best of the situation. Let Trump be Trump. Etc.”

I get those arguments. And in some contexts they have some weight with me. But voters also elected their senators. Trump has no more political or democratic legitimacy than senators do, as members of a coequal branch. Flake and Corker — flawed as they may be — have simply been responding to the drama machine in the Oval Office. That is where all the drama is coming from. The fact that Trump won’t and can’t change doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for the slow transformation of the GOP into a burning river of sewage. The fact that it’s easy to criticize the downstream victims of that fecal inferno for their response to it and hard to criticize the source of it doesn’t make that criticism right — or rightly aimed.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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