Postmodern Conservative

Make-the-Best-of-It Trump Supporters

The Conservative Response to the Trump-Crisis, Part 3

The first part of this series sketched my schema of four types of Trump supporters and explained the basic Never Trump position; the second gave a full description of the first three types, namely, the Trump-Like, the Blinded, and the Professionally Corrupt supporters.  This post deals with the fourth type. 


Three key signs of a Make-the-Best-of-It Trump Supporter is that a) she doesn’t pretend to believe that Trump is merely an unusual candidate that conservatives are bound to back due to his primary victories, that b) while critical of the Never Trump position, she doesn’t speak of it as a surprising or necessarily corrupt one, and that c) even if she thinks Trump provides a golden opportunity, she doesn’t convey a sense that he is God’s gift to American politics.  The ridiculous pretenses of the Professionally Corrupt Supporter, and the political-faith self-hypnotizing of the Blinded Supporter are not for her.  Nor are the constantly motive-questioning attacks of the all debased types of Trump supporters.

Now, particularly over the last several weeks, Make-the-Best-of-It Supporters are growing exasperated with the Never Trumpers for holding out, but their criticism nonetheless tends to stay upon the subject of the Choice.  I.e., which is the lesser of the two evils—a Hillary presidency, or a Trump one?  People like me, they feel, are blowing that Choice.  That could be the case.  I invite them to keep laying out the best arguments they can.

The Make-the-Best-of-It Supporter admits, and more or less openly, that Trump’s character is a serious problem, but she will often insist there is no disentangling the negative aspects of his character from those which have, given the present situation, stirred up such hope.  That is, it’s not the case that Trump’s the match that happened to light the gasoline fumes already in the room, such that we might try get a hold of a better match.  Rather, for somewhat random reasons of personality make-up, fortune, and 2015-16 campaign dynamics, only he was capable of that ignition.  Hooray, we have a wonderful new political explosive!  But, there is only one ignition-switch for it. 

This suggests you cannot sign onto Trumpism, even in the manner of the fourth type, unless you evince a basic support for Donald Trump the man.  Maybe if he loses the election a Trumpist movement could move on from that imperative, but not before.  Thus, the thinking here is that while one will and must signal a few reservations about him, the adult approach to what an election is, and the adult recognition of how crude democracy really is at bottom, require you to reject the “moralism” of the Never Trumpers, and to seldom say what they say.

That seems to my mind the consistent logic about how a Make-the-Best-of-It Supporter has to comport himself.  I’m not saying everyone who is such a supporter consistently follows that rule.  Indeed, I’m happy that many of them let the mask slip quite a bit, and insist that all of them have to let it slip at least sometimes.  Otherwise, Trump-opposing conservatives will not know that they remain genuine conservatives—we will think they have joined the ranks of the Blinded or Professionally Corrupt sorts of supporters. 

And our being able to recognize that they haven’t is important.  Trump-opposing conservatives have to stay focused on what genuine conservatives still have in common, and not confuse the deep ethical failures of the first three types of Trump Supporters with the Make-the-Best-of-It Supporters’ honest mistake about how to weigh the two evils. They, in turn, have to refrain from lumping most Never Trumpers into some camp of the establishment. 

That is, all genuine conservatives have to find ways in this season of political instability of staying in communication with, and maintaining a level of friendly trust between, one another.  Both genuinely conservative sides of the Trump question ought to know that if he loses, that that sort of mutual recognition is the only thing they can try to re-build the conservative political coalition upon, albeit with greater respect paid to the key differences between now more clearly defined factions within it.   And both ought to know that if Trump wins, they must also stay in close contact, the better to force him to deal.

Here, I will repeat what I indicated in part one of this series, that there are a number of sub-categories to the Make-the-Best-of-It type.  I’ve changed the order, and have added one sub-category (one of Jonah Goldberg’s) but otherwise this is the same list:

4a) those, such as John Hinderaker or Victor Davis Hanson, making the far lesser of two evils argument about why, as regrettable as Trump’s primary victory may be, conservatives must support him now, due to the great damage Hillary will do compared to the smaller amount Trump will.

4b) those who are trying to articulate, without at all waiting for The Donald’s lead, a coherent political platform and philosophy of Trumpism, such as the writers at The Journal of American Greatness.

4c) the politicians who feel the call to offer to serve with Trump, not primarily for personal benefit, but for the “duty to prepare for the worst” reasons offered by James Ceaser and Oliver Ward in their essential TWS essay “Thinking the Unthinkable.”

4d) those Jonah Goldberg calls “the resigned,” who with little enthusiasm have announced their duty to back the GOP nominee whoever he is.  Examples include “Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, and others who’ve said or hinted that they’d still support the nominee, albeit reluctantly and with grave reservations.”  However, substantial overlap with the third type of Trump supporters, the “Professionally Corrupt,” occurs here, so this is not the most stable of sub-categories.

4e) the early-breakers for Trump who have been the most policy focused, such as Senator Jeff Sessions.  I am also uncertain about whether this sub-category is conceptually stable enough.  To the extent these folks have openly excused Trump’s low-blow motive-questioning attacks, and those of his supporters’, upon conservatives hesitant to join the bandwagon, they descend into the class of Blinded Supporters.  

Type-Four Supporters and Never-Trumpers in Dialog:  Disagreements and Possibilities

There is no need to go through these subcategories systematically, as certain shared attitudes are best expressed by the first one.  Here’s John Hinderaker of Powerline, talking back in March about what to do if, as is now the case, Trump wins the nomination primaries.

Some Republicans would disavow Trump. Others—like me, for example—would vote for him, but otherwise not lend him any support (e.g., by contributing to his campaign or promoting him on my web site). But hardly any Republicans would vote for Hillary Clinton, so these defections probably won’t be too important.  …Plus, of course, Trump will draw a lot of votes from Democrats and independents. His appeal is basically non-partisan. …he will most likely defeat Mrs. Clinton if he is the nominee. Even if he loses, it won’t be a catastrophic defeat… So the GOP will not, in that sense, be damaged.

…a Trump presidency would not be as dramatic as most people suppose. He has little in the way of fixed policy positions, and not much knowledge of how the federal government operates. He would be forced to rely heavily on advisers, whom he would probably pick from the middle of the road… I think we would see a sort of compromise administration that, in the end, would be about 2/3 Democrat and 1/3 Republican.

The one prediction of his that really matters now is the one about the shape of a Trump administration.  You can see the basic case:  since Trump will at least give us moderate policies, that’s a better deal than what Clinton will give us.  

From my Never Trump perspective, that argument and prediction is far too abstractly attuned to policy labels, and pays far too little attention to the impact his character will have on his administration.  And, it confines analysis of our voting choice to only the next four years of policy, and totally ignores the fact that Trump is unlikely to want to only serve four years if he wins.  He likely will try to create his own GOP establishment, his own GOP pundits, etc.  A split GOP is more likely with a Trump victory than otherwise. 

That in itself is a very strong reason to not vote for him.  It outweighs the parade of Hillary horribles, because a split GOP, along with the nation’s center-left being fired-up by disgust at Trump, will put us in a much weaker position to deny the Democrats a victory in 2020, by which point the stakes will have grown higher–for one, Congress will be more in play.  Even if Trump loses, a GOP split could occur, and one key purpose of this essay is to suggest how conservatives can prevent that or at least mitigate its harm.

It is interesting that from a broader Trumper perspective, Hinderaker’s brand of grudging support must seem woefully insufficient.  Indeed, he won’t even call it support!  I feel a little sorry for folks like him, as they are in a tough political position that has to take fire from two sides, on one side from Never Trumper conservatives like myself saying “Don’t you dare damage conservatism by pretending to admire the man or to approve of his vile manner!” and on the other, Trump-supporting allies saying “Don’t be an indecisive wimp about following through on your choice—a campaign is a campaign!”

Let’s hear from another lesser-of-two-evils voice, that of Victor Davis Hanson:

Trump is, of course, spring-loaded; he has no safety and can go off at any time. …No one knows how to square the Trump circle of cleaning up his act without ruining it — only that the circle has to be squared. 

Notice VDH being pushed by the bizarre facts of 2016 into an open embrace of paradox there!  But let’s hear his better arguments:   

…There is also a 30–70 chance that Trump might recalibrate his candidacy in the next six months. It may be easy to continue with the Never Trump movement as long as he daily spins his conspiracy theories and tall tales. But what happens to conservative resistance if by August he has reinvented himself into a more sober Trump and announced that if elected he’d like to appoint Ted Cruz to the Supreme Court, John Bolton as secretary of state, Larry Arnn as secretary of education, and General Jack Keane as secretary of defense? Will we say that it is just a ploy to get our votes, or confess that it is a shameless, naked ploy that is still preferable to the likely Clinton alternative?

…And what happens if even his more outrageous promises are reified with not-so-outrageous details: Making Mexico pay for the wall could easily be accomplished by slapping a 10 percent federal surcharge on all remittances sent out of the country by those who cannot document legal residence; rejecting the Iran treaty could be couched in terms of reviewing how Ben Rhodes deceived both the public and the media in unconstitutionally rerouting the treaty around Congress.

As with Hinderaker, I don’t think VDH has his eye on the ball of 2020—i.e., upon conservative prospects after four years of Trump compared with four of Hillary–, but admittedly, these are powerful arguments. 

My response to his suggestion that the conservative Trump-opposing position will become all the more absurd the more Trump—hopefully—makes detailed conservative policy and appointment promises, is that such compromise and self-reform would be a function of those conservatives who are Make-the-Best-Supporters doing what Larry Kudlow and others say all conservatives should be doing—helping Trump to be better prepared to win and to be president.  Such a result would mitigate a real evil, and the achievement of that result would be one which the Never Trumpers ought to applaud, but not as one that changes the fundamentals of the choice.  The is-there-no-lowest-floor? argument concerning the political ethics of backing morally flawed candidates (laid out in part one) would remain nearly precisely the same; so would the what-about-2020? argument sketched above.  

But perhaps one can begin to see in my response an upbeat Larry Kudlow-esque framing of things, whereby we regard the genuine conservatives of different persuasions as both having salutary roles to play:  i.e., if you’re a Make-the-Best-of-It Supporter, you help a Trump administration prepare to function effectively, part of which involves preparing him to work with conservatives, while Never Trump conservatives like myself work to keep the conservative brand less tainted by Trump’s–and a majority of Trumpers’–offenses against elementary decency, the better to fight another day if he loses, or if he wins, the better to remain a force capable of driving hard bargains or to convincingly threaten political punishments.  You do your part, we do ours. There’s something to this, but readers less inclined to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive will see the paradoxes that will bedevil this kind of cooperation, and the likelihood of incidents and dynamics that will aggravate hostility between the two camps.

I stand by my position in the first essay, that for all the characteristics that make the Make-the-Best-of-It Supporters admirable, and which must keep us regarding them as genuine conservatives, their honest mistake about the lesser-of-two-evils question is still serious enough to charge them with being inconsistent about core conservative principles. And perhaps, greater up-front adherence to those principles on their part could have spared us from the disaster of Trump’s nomination. 

And while I insist that it is grossly unfair for anyone to try to smear them as racist, as misogynistic, as generally hate-indulging, or as prone to fall for demagoguery, due to the way some of the worst sorts of Trump supporters really do have those failings, the problem of their alliance with these folks remains a real one.  While alliance with vile and viciously-motivated types occurs to some degree in any political coalition and thus cannot be posed as the decisive reason for why the Make-the-Best-of-It Supporter ought join the Nevers, things are obviously more up-in-the-air with the Trump movement, such that it is possible to imagine the worst types setting its tone and direction.  Thus, it is fair to demand of the genuine conservatives in this (hopefully temporary!) pro-Trump coalition to do what kinds of open purging and distancing they can under the circumstances.

The Politicians (Non-Corrupt Variety)

I am no expert on the field of Republican politicians, so my analysis of the important Make-the-Best-of-It sub-category 4c), namely, the politicians who for reasons more patriotic than self-aggrandizing, step forward to serve in or bargain with a Trump administration, will necessarily be limited.  We can best approach the problems raised by this sub-category by considering what Ceaser and Ward say:

How should we ready ourselves to survive a Trump presidency? The assumption here is that the event will happen and the time for mulling, fretting, and moral agonizing over how to prevent it is over. The issue then becomes one for unemotional analysis. Is it possible to escape the worst outcome that so many have prognosticated and ensure that, in the end, the essentials of the American political system will remain intact with the nation’s basic interests protected?

I.e., Trump really might become president.  Thus, don’t some conservatives have a duty to try to work their way into his administration to keep it from becoming an utter disaster for America?  I agree that some do, on the sorts of terms Ceaser and Ward indicate:

Strategic analysis for the feared political crisis has the advantage of simplicity. …All that is needed is the willingness to examine the possible uses of features of the existing political system, including elements that now lie dormant and would need to be reactivated. The starting point is with our political parties and the selection of the vice presidential candidate.

The Republican convention in Cleveland could well turn out to have more than one ballot for the presidency, which opens up the possibility of reactivating the party’s power to select the vice presidential nominee. …Party officials should accordingly seize the opportunity now to make clear that the convention reserves the prerogative to select the vice presidential candidate. This would not preclude politicking. If the choice of the presidential nominee is not certain on the first ballot, Trump might seek to use the offer of the vice presidency as a bargaining chip to achieve a majority. …Yet no matter what the candidates have in mind, party leaders should stake the claim in principle to the party’s authority over the second place on the ticket. Assuming a Trump nomination, he might then have to consult with the party or perhaps accede altogether to the convention’s choice.

Very interesting.  What Never-Trumpers must notice especially, is that some significant set of party leaders, and most particular, some smaller set of plausible candidates for VP, would have to signal their willingness to “work with Trump,” and sometime soon.  For Ceaser’s and Ward’s scenario to work, everyone in those sets of leaders would have to eschew the Never Trump stance.

So there’s a real tight-rope to walk:  not articulating the genuine conservative’s reasons for opposing Trump so clearly or so regularly that you offend Trump and thus lose the ability to moderate him and to save the American political system from the worst sorts of errors he is likely to make, but likewise not being so silent and cagey about the sins of Trump, let alone being so imitative of the most sinful features of Trumpist rhetoric, that Never-Trumpers like me think you are a Professionally Corrupt Supporter. 

There are other kinds of measures Ceasar and Ward lay out, such as with the Cabinet selection.  And other commentators are suggesting things in the same spirit, such as Paul Kengor with his “Trump Must Have a Contract with Conservatives.” 

Again, I’m not connected enough or enough of a student of the field of politicians to provide much guidance here about what might really be afoot.  I do not know, for example, if Speaker Ryan is up to anything of this kind.  I sure hope he has read his Ceaser and Ward, but I do not know. It is clear that at least one conservative politician I greatly admire, Senator Tom Cotton, is among those positioning themselves to work with Trump in the overall spirit of what Ceaser and Ward advocate. 

I suppose if Trump were to pick, or to submit to the GOP pick of, Cotton as VP, Never-Trumpers like me would definitely be faced with Trump Supporters telling us that now our opposition is futile, posturing, etc., as many of them already did (e.g., Roger L. Simon) merely in response to the SCOTUS nominee list.  And some of the more moralizing political types, particularly in religious circles, and including the dwindling number of old-school liberals and putative moderates I respect, might well say, “You see what an evil man Tom Cotton is, and what an evil thing conservative political calculation can be:  he’s just lent his moral authority to the unsavory business of making peace with the monstrosity that is Trump.”  To that latter kind of argument, however, I would refer back to this sort of reasoning from Ceaser and Ward:

The only response is to consider a kind of cost-benefit calculation: how much Trump’s electability is enhanced by a more credible vice presidential candidate (the amount seems minuscule), weighed against how much this step might add to the prospect of a more survivable Trump presidency (a more considerable amount). Any rational investor sees the merits of hedging. In all likelihood, many commentators’ arguments on this point stem from a moralizing spirit that gives them a clear conscience, rather than from a political judgment about what is best for the country. To continue railing against an outcome that they have been conspicuously unable to influence, simply to signal their impeccable virtue, has begun to reach a point of diminishing returns.

And yet, even with Tom Cotton on board as VP, I would not vote for Trump.  And I continue to think it would be a serious inconsistency for other genuine conservatives, at least those who do not have a duty to play a role like that of Cotton, to vote for Trump or seem to support him.  Again, see part one for the basics of this, and if I can I’ll be saying a little more about the whole “lesser of two evils” calculus soon.

Similar to the narrow tightrope-like path those Republican politicians might have to walk, but with greater width for free expression, is the one that the Make-the-Best-of-It Trumpist theorists, i.e., those in sub-category 4b) will have to walk.  Here I might add that having read Charles Kesler’s very wise CRB piece, which is most powerful in its explanation of Trumpism as a response to the increasingly despotic power of Political Correctness, that I do not yet see Kesler as being a supporter.  No clear call that conservatives must vote for Trump emerges from his essay.  He rather seems to be taking a rise-above-both-sides stance.  Correct me if I’m wrong.

Ethical Tightropes

In 2016, we all have our political-ethics choices to make.  We already know that many in the Trump coalition have failed elementary versions of such ethical tests.  Talk-up the hopes Trump has generated all you want, focus on the legitimate class-oriented or PC-reactive grievances he’s giving expression to all you wish, there is still no denying that his success so far is a disgrace to American democracy, and that it was caused by millions of individual ethical failures on the parts of ordinary Americans.  

But we all have to face the situation as it now exists and make tough choices.  For some of us, perhaps for all of us, those choices involve walking narrow paths with great evils on either side, and the likelihood of being unfairly criticized hanging over our every move, as well as the temptation to lash out unfairly in turn at those who do so criticize. 

So to conclude, I have little to say to the first three types of Trump supporters, other than “REPENT!!!” 

But to the fourth type, the Make-the-Best-of-It Supporters, I do wish you the best with whatever ethical tightrope you believe 2016 is forcing you to walk.  The length of this essay is mostly due to a desire to do Golden-Rule justice to the situation you find yourself in, while still not employing dishonesty in the cause of political peace-making.

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