The ‘To Be Sure’ Conservatives

Some commentators are bending over backwards to make excuses for the president.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Donald Trump’s brazen violation of principles American conservatives were once thought to cherish—from free trade to family values to a hard line against America’s foes—has split right-leaning pundits into three camps. At one extreme are the pure sycophants. For them, conservatism is whatever Trump says it is. Many, like Sebastian Gorka, were unknown until Trump’s presidency, which means they can applaud whatever he does without worrying that people will notice they’ve abandoned principles they formerly held. At the other extreme are anti-Trump conservatives like George Will, Bret Stephens, and David Frum, who frankly acknowledge that Trump has desecrated conservative principles—along with liberal democratic ones—and as a result denounce him in the harshest of terms.

Then there’s the middle group: The “to be sure” conservatives. They want to remain faithful to principles they once championed. But they also want to be as faithful as possible to a president who enjoys near 90 percent approval among Republican voters. Thus, their writing includes “to be sure” paragraphs that breeze by Trump’s blatant assaults on long-held conservative values in their rush to find something, anything, to congratulate him for.

The reaction to Trump’s performance at this week’s NATO summit nicely illustrates the phenomenon. Perhaps the most common conservative critique of Barack Obama’s foreign policy was that he bashed America’s allies (Israel, in particular, but also countries in Eastern Europe) and appeased America’s foes (Iran, in particular, but also Russia). “Obama has been hell on allies,” wrote the National Review editor Rich Lowry in 2009. “The more pro-U.S. a country is, the more it can expect scolding or neglect from the president of the United States. It's our enemies and the authoritarian big powers that Obama wants to woo.” In his book, How The Obama Administration Threatens our National Security, the National Review contributor Victor Davis Hanson declared that under Obama, governments “previously deemed hostile to the United States earned more attention than staunch allies” who the president enjoyed “hectoring.”

How inconvenient for Lowry and Hanson, therefore, that Trump this week berated America’s longtime democratic ally, Germany, as a “captive of Russia” while predicting that his meeting with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin would be his “easiest.” These weren’t slips of the tongue. Since he launched his presidential candidacy, Trump has called NATO—America’s premier alliance—“obsolete,” suggested he might not defend its members from Russian attack, and reportedly threatened to withdraw from it altogether while repeatedly praising Putin and calling for a closer relationship between Russia and the United States.

So how did Lowry and Hanson respond? By leaning heavily on the “to be sure” paragraph.

On July 10, Lowry devoted his column to the NATO summit. Who did he finger as its villain? Germany, which he claimed should be “embarrassed” by its lack of defense spending. Think about that for a moment. One can debate whether Germany—whose military budget increased by 6 percent last year—should be raising it even faster so it meets the 2 percent of GDP threshold pushed by recent American presidents. (I’ve argued that Germany is better off spending its money on the diplomacy and development that might ease the migrant crisis that is undermining liberal democracy across Europe). But even if you think Germany should be spending more, its military budget isn’t the reason NATO is in crisis. It’s simply Trump’s latest pretext for assaulting an organization he’s been bashing since he began running for president. During the campaign, remember, he called NATOobsolete” because it wasn’t doing enough to fight terrorism. At the summit, when NATO’s secretary general said members were moving toward the 2 percent figure that Trump had demanded, Trump suddenly upped his ask to 4 percent.

I suspect Lowry knows this. But since openly acknowledging it would require openly confronting Trump, he tries to breeze by Trump’s hostility to NATO in his “to be sure” paragraph (actually, two paragraphs):

Donald Trump has made the German chancellor one of his favorite rhetorical targets, especially over Germany’s anemic defense expenditures. This has led to worries about the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance, and to reflexive support for Merkel among the American political elite.

Trump shouldn’t openly mock Merkel or suggest that Germany has failed to pay its annual dues to NATO. Trump tends to view foreign countries like contractors trying to scam him in a development deal. This scants history, geo-strategy, and the national pride of other countries — as usual, Trump would benefit from at least a gesture toward statesmanship.

With that out of the way, Lowry returns to his main point: “Yet Germany’s defense spending, or lack thereof, is a disgrace.”

Notice the technique. First, Lowry races by the core issue. He says the president’s behavior “has led to worries about the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance”—but won’t acknowledge that those worries are justified because doing so would require acknowledging that Trump is a far greater threat to America’s alliances than Obama ever was. Second, he suggests Trump’s main offense is stylistic: Rather than “openly mock Merkel,” he should display more “statesmanship.” As if everything would have been fine had Trump threatened to withdraw from NATO more politely.

Lowry’s not alone. His National Review colleague, Victor Davis Hanson, in his response to the summit, uses similar gimmicks to evade challenging Trump’s assault on principles that Hanson once held dear. The real message of the summit, Hanson argues, is Trump’s overdue demand for “reciprocity” from both America’s “partners and allies” and its “would-be enemies.” That’s a strange argument given that “reciprocity” suggests mutual obligation and Trump has made it abundantly clear—from his pullout from the Paris climate change agreement to his pullout from the Iran nuclear deal to his threatened pullout from NAFTA—that he feels no obligation to meet America’s past commitments to other countries. But like Lowry’s focus on German military spending, Hanson’s focus on Trump’s demand for “symmetry” allows him to tip-toe past the big story: Trump’s threat to NATO.

“Trump is said to be undermining NATO by questioning its usefulness some 69 years after its founding,” Hanson notes. Then he dismisses the concern by declaring that, “unlike 1948, Germany is no longer down. The United States is always in.” Always in? At the summit, Trump reportedly threatened that the US would “go its own way” if NATO members didn’t pay up. And in large measure because of his antics, a plurality of Germans now want the U.S. to withdraw its troops.

But since acknowledging that Trump genuinely threatens key alliances might require Hanson to choose between his affection for NATO and his affection for Trump, he instead suggests—like Lowry—that Trump’s offense is merely aesthetic. “Did Trump have to be so loud and often crude in his effort to bully America back to reciprocity?” he asks. It’s like focusing on whether someone charged with a felony has paid all her parking tickets. The answer doesn’t really matter because you’re asking the wrong question.

Now comes my own “to be sure” paragraph. Lowry and Hanson aren’t unique in trying to avoid choosing between their stated principles and their political tribe. Most commentators do that at some point, to some degree. I’m sure I have, too.

But berating Obama for muddying the distinction between allies and foes and then looking the other way when Trump does so far more dramatically is particularly egregious. And some conservative publications seem to recognize that. Unlike Lowry and Hanson, The New York Post, a newspaper with a conservative editorial bent, squarely faced Trump’s threat to NATO. “We get that President Donald Trump wants serious changes in the Atlantic alliance,” it editorialized, “but he began the Brussels summit looking like he’s out to ‘save’ NATO by destroying it.” The Weekly Standard endorsed Trump’s call for greater German defense spending but concluded that what was “most important” about the summit was that “Trump’s rhetoric on NATO reveals yet again his deep misunderstanding of America’s role in maintaining a rules-based global order.”

Maybe Lowry and Hanson’s apologetics will go over better among conservative readers than the Post and Weekly Standard’s criticisms, given Trump’s popularity on the American right. But once upon a time, National Review seemed proudly unconcerned with popularity contests. “Some conservatives have made it their business to make excuses for Trump,” the magazine declared in January 2016. “Count us out.” Now, it appears, Lowry and Hanson want back in.