Magazine January 27, 2020, Issue

‘Never Trump’ Revisited

President Trump gives a thumbs up at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Ariz., August 22, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Where I was right, where I was wrong

One of the most irritating things about being a professional pundit is having random strangers hold you accountable for every column, tweet, and post you’ve ever written. Needless to say, I’ve accumulated plenty of bad takes over the past 20 years. An industrious critic with lots of time on his hands could, no doubt, rifle through millions of my words and unearth a number of contradictions. 

These days, a popular way that Trump critics try to embarrass former “Never Trumpers” such as I is to point out that we’ve failed to embrace an appropriately adversarial attitude toward the presidency of Donald Trump. There’s an expectation — often, a demand — that “movement conservatives” be all in or all out on the Donald Trump presidency. Why aren’t we “against Trump” anymore, they wonder? 

With the 2020 election season approaching, I figured it was time to revisit the numerous critical pieces I penned about Trump during his first campaign and take inventory of my alleged moral failings. As it turns out, I’ve remained consistent in my basic political beliefs. I wish I could say the same of my critics. 

At the time, I harbored three major trepidations about a Trump presidency: 

The first concerned Trump’s political malleability — perhaps a better way to put it would be that I feared he lacked political convictions. I was convinced that Trump wouldn’t govern like a conservative, either ideologically or temperamentally. I was skeptical that he would uphold his promises to appoint originalist judges, exit the Iran deal, cut regulations, defend religious liberty, and overturn his predecessor’s unconstitutional executive decisions — and that he would do much of anything I regarded as useful. 

I was convinced that the billionaire would govern like a latter-day FDR, which, let’s face it, might well be what many Republican voters were really looking for all along. 

On this question, I was largely, although not completely, wrong. Trump, certainly a big spender, has failed conservatism in much the same way that Republican presidents typically fail conservatism, with a complete disregard for debt. Though in some surprising ways — his steadfast support of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh even in the face of massive media pressure, or his insistence on moving the American embassy to Jerusalem in the face of foreign-policy groupthink — Trump’s obstinacy seems to have made him less susceptible to the pressures that traditionally induce GOP presidents to capitulate. 

Through much chaos and incompetence and numerous self-inflicted wounds, Trump’s policy record is turning out to be a mixed bag: more moderate than his opponents contend, less effectual than his supporters imagine, and definitely more traditionally conservative than I predicted. I’m happy to have been wrong. 

Granted, for me, a less energetic Washington is a blessing. Contemporary American political life features a series of unbridgeable divisions. Gridlock on a national level is a reflection of our intractable political differences. Frustrating as it may be, the system is working as it should. The nation is too big, too diverse, and too divided for the kind of centralized and efficient federal governance that many seek. 

Whether we like to admit it or not, many of the most significant political victories of modern conservatism have been achieved by simply getting in the way. Trump, certainly, has been an obnoxiously effective impediment to an increasingly radicalized Democratic party. In the meantime, he has also taken a cultural rearguard action by helping fill the courts with constitutionalists. 

Trump antagonists will dismiss this as a “but Gorsuch” argument. But ensuring that the judicial branch serves its purpose as a bulwark against government overreach — rather than being an unaccountable enabler of it — is nothing to sneer at. It’s a strategy that conservatives have long supported, and I don’t see why Trump should lead them to abandon that position.

“Aha!” critics will also say, “you’re willing to overlook all of Trump’s behavior in exchange for long-term ideological victory.” Absolutely! There are limits to everything, of course, but if the choice, as many voters rightly see it, is between a group that wants a nationalized health-care system to pay for abortion in the ninth month of pregnancy and one that doesn’t, it’s not a difficult one to make. 

My second concern about Trump revolved around fears that his administration would mainstream protectionist trade policy and anti-market populism, already a staple of the progressive Left. This change, sadly, has happened. 

Perhaps Trump’s rhetoric on trade is merely a reflection of the growing grievances of many voters. Either way, trade wars are still raging, and high-profile conservatives such as Marco Rubio and Tucker Carlson feel perfectly comfortable railing against the market economy. The debate over capitalism within the conservative movement has only just started. 

My third big fear was that Trump’s boorish and impulsive behavior would undermine his presidency. On this, the president hasn’t failed me, acting with all the grace, civility, and humility I expected. 

While civility is an imperative in a decent society, we can’t ignore that Trump’s coarseness has also helped reveal the liberal establishment’s incivility and disdain for anyone who refuses to adopt its cultural mores. I’m sorry, I have a hard time taking etiquette lessons from people who can’t raise any ire over the Virginia governor’s casual description of euthanizing infants but act as if every Trump tweet should trigger his removal from office through the 25th Amendment. 

So while I don’t like Trump any better today than I did when writing those critical pieces, I do live in the world that exists, not the one I wish existed. And that world has changed. What I didn’t foresee when writing about Trump’s candidacy was the American Left’s extraordinary four-year descent into insanity. 

My own political disposition during the past four years has hardened into something approaching universal contempt. When I defend the president — as far as I do — it is typically in reaction to some toxic hysteria or the attacks on constitutional order that Democrats now regularly make in their efforts to supposedly save the nation from Donald Trump — whether they’re calling for the end of the Electoral College or for packing the Supreme Court, or they’re embracing shifting “norms” that are wholly tethered to a single overriding principle: get Trump. 

Recently, for example, New Yorker editor David Remnick, the kind of high-minded, sane person we’re expected to take seriously, argued that removing President Trump from office was not merely a political imperative but a necessity for the “future of the Earth.” Four years ago, we might have found such a panic-stricken warning absurd. Today, such apocalyptic rhetoric is the norm in media and academia. 

As the Democrats’ allies in the media stumble from one frenzy to the next, it has become increasingly difficult to believe any of it is really precipitated by genuine concern over Russian interference or improper calls with a Ukrainian president or dishonesty or rudeness. The president has become a convenient straw man for all the political anxieties on the left, which have manifested in an unhealthy obsession and antagonism toward the constitutional system that allowed Trump to win. 

Many of us would prefer a more articulate and chaste classical liberal as our president. I don’t have any special fondness for Trump, either, but I also don’t hold any special antagonism for him. Political support is a transactional arrangement, not a religious oath, and Trump has done much to like. I support policies, not people. If Trump protects the constitutional order, he deserves to be praised for it. If not, he doesn’t. But the notion of some Trump critics that conservatives have a moral duty to uniformly oppose the president for the sake of principle or patriotism — or because they once opposed him during a GOP primary — is plainly silly. 

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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