Anti-Trump Conservatism Is Politically Dead

Jeff Flake is the latest Republican figure to split with his constituents over Donald Trump, transforming both the party and the American mainstream.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

In his speech on Tuesday announcing that he won’t seek reelection to the Senate, Jeff Flake denounced the “reckless, outrageous and undignified” behavior coming from “the top of our government.” Earlier the same day, Bob Corker—also retiring—said Donald Trump “debases the country.” In the days to come, George Will will likely say something similar on MSNBC. Charlie Sykes may do so on public radio. Bret Stephens may pen an anti-Trump column in The New York Times.

Notice a pattern? Plenty of high-profile conservatives still passionately denounce Donald Trump. But few still rely on conservative voters, conservative readers or conservative listeners for their livelihood. Anti-Trump conservatism has become a brain without a body. Intellectually, it remains alive; politically, it’s almost dead.

Eight months ago, I suggested that on the subject of Trump, you could divide conservative commentators into three categories. Category one were the Trump loyalists: Breitbart, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter.

Their base is talk radio. They pride themselves on speaking for those plainspoken, dirt-under-the-fingernails conservatives who loathe not only Hillary Clinton, but Paul Ryan. Their chief enemies are globalism and multiculturalism, which they believe infect both parties, and are destroying America from without and within. Their ideological forefathers are Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace and Pat Buchanan, who claimed that America’s cosmopolitan, deracinated ruling elite had betrayed the white Christians to whom the country truly belonged.

Category number two were Never Trump intellectuals who worked for non-conservative publications: David Frum, David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Jennifer Rubin.

For them, conservatism is about prudence, inherited wisdom, and a government that first does no harm; they see none of those virtues in Trump. They see themselves as the inheritors of a rich conservative intellectual tradition; Trump’s ignorance embarrasses them. And they believe America should stand for ideals that transcend race, religion and geography; they fear white Christian identity politics in their bones.

“In between,” I suggested, “are the conservatives who will tip the balance. Unlike Breitbart and company, they generally opposed Trump during the campaign. Unlike Brooks and company, they serve a conservative audience that now overwhelmingly backs him.”

We now know what has happened to this third group. It has all but disappeared.

The conservative commentators who could not stomach Trump have largely left conservative media. Last October, Charlie Sykes announced he was leaving his long-running conservative radio show. In January, he announced he was joining public radio. That same month, Megyn Kelly left Fox News for NBC. In January, Fox News announced that it was not renewing George Will’s contract. In May he joined MSNBC. In April, The Wall Street Journal’s most vehemently anti-Trump columnist, Bret Stephens, jumped to The New York Times. Now ensconced in liberal institutions, these commentators are free to condemn Trump with little fear of retribution.

Flake and Corker are their congressional analogues. Their criticism of Trump made them unpopular among conservative activists. And realizing that such opposition undermined their chances of renomination, they opted to retire, which now leaves them free to criticize Trump without worrying what Steve Bannon thinks. “There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate,” said Flake in explaining his retirement. Keep your eye out for him on MSNBC.

If Flake, Corker, Will, Stephens, Kelly, and Sykes have chosen their principles over their constituents, a different set of conservatives have done the opposite. Take Ted Cruz. At last year’s Republican convention, he famously failed to endorse Trump. Now he’s so tight with the Trumpians that Steve Bannon has declared him the only GOP senator he won’t try to challenge in 2018. Paul Ryan has largely stopped criticizing Trump, too. The House speaker, who last June accused Trump of “textbook” racism for attacking Judge Gonzalo Curiel, on Tuesday told reporters to “forget about” Corker’s attacks on Trump. According to Ryan, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman accusing the president of leading America “towards World War III” isn’t worth discussing.

Cruz and Ryan may be cowardly, but they aren’t dumb. They know that 80 percent of Republicans approve of Trump while less than 40 percent approve of Republican leaders in Congress, which means that continuing their previous criticism of Trump would likely cost them their jobs.

Many journalists and media personalities appear to have followed their constituents as well. Since the election, they’ve toned down their criticism of Trump. Last October, radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt called on Trump to exit the presidential race. But last month, Hewitt rendered a dramatically different verdict: “All in all, Trump has had a pretty good eight months.”

During the campaign, Glenn Beck compared Trump to Hitler and called him an “extinction-level event” for American democracy. Now Beck’s criticisms of Trump are fewer and milder. On October 24, he told his readers that, “The threat from Russia is real. But it has absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump.” On October 20, after George W. Bush attacked the “nativism,” “casual cruelty” and “outright fabrication” sullying American politics, Beck declared that, “I don’t think [Bush’s comments] were directed at Trump.” Beck still tweaks Trump. But not in the thundering language he used during the campaign. He reserves that for liberals.

National Review has softened its criticisms, too. Yes, the magazine publishes condemnations of Trump, some of them incisive and eloquent. But its editors have shied away from some of the toughest accusations they made during the campaign. In its January 2016 editorial urging conservatives to oppose Trump, the magazine’s editors warned that his brand of populism contained “strong-man overtones.” But on Sunday, its editor Rich Lowry declared that the Trump presidency has brought “no budding authoritarianism.” He wrote this two days after Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared that it was "highly inappropriate" to contest White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s attack on Representative Frederica Wilson because he is a retired four-star general.  And 11 days after Trump, attacking NBC for a negative story about him, tweeted, “at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License?” And five weeks after Sanders demanded that ESPN fire host Jemele Hill for calling Trump a “white supremacist.”

Flake and Corker’s attacks on Trump as they prepare to depart the Senate are part of a larger transformation. Trumpism has taken over the Republican Party and the conservative media, making them less intellectual, more nationalistic, and more bigoted. And that takeover has sparked an exodus of more intellectual, less nationalistic, and less bigoted conservatives into the liberal political and journalistic mainstream. How they remake that mainstream—and are remade by it—will shape American public life in the years to come.