Conservatism Can't Survive Donald Trump Intact

As reflexive support for the president redefines their movement, most conservative commentators have caved to pressure, following along.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

On Monday morning the conservative-media world woke up to a savagely personal attack in National Review on the Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin. The outburst might seem a textbook case of the narcissism of petty differences within the conservative world. Both the author of the denunciation, Charles C. W. Cooke, and its target, Rubin, are right-leaning skeptics of Donald Trump. What on earth could they be arguing about? And does it matter?

I think it does—a lot.

Cooke criticizes Rubin—a friend of mine, but one with whom I’ve from time to time tussled—for taking her opposition to Trump too far. “If Trump likes something, Rubin doesn’t. If he does something, she opposes it. If his agenda flits into alignment with hers—as anyone’s is wont to do from time to time—she either ignores it, or finds a way to downplay it. The result is farcical and sad.”

Thus, in the past Rubin praised Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney when they pledged to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; when President Trump pledged to do it, she was unmoved. Where once she followed the generic conservative line on taxes and guns, she now criticizes Trump for following that same line.

The core of Cooke’s indictment is this: Rubin’s universal distrust of Trump should be seen as the inverse of the mindless praise for Trump’s vagaries elsewhere in the conservative world.

Since the summer of 2015, the many acolytes of ‘MAGA!’ have agreed to subordinate their true views to whatever expediency is required to sustain Donald Trump’s ego. Out has gone their judgment, and in has come their fealty; where once there were thriving minds, now there are just frayed red hats. During the same period, Jennifer Rubin has done much the same thing.

What should Rubin do instead? She should, Cooke insinuates, follow the high example he set himself. Although Cooke spoke fiercely of Donald Trump before the election, he has since mostly avoided the uncongenial subject. Where news is too ominous to be ignored—the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, the accumulating evidence of collusion with Russia—Cooke has urged conservatives to withhold judgment. They should be “skeptical but not hysterical” about the firing of Comey. In the Russia matter, conservatives should bide their time and keep their mouths shut. “If you aren’t sure that there is a big scandal looming, you’re likely to be circumspect and happy to watch it play out as a process.”

Above all, every day should be treated as a blank slate, an opportunity for the truly independently minded to bestow a tip of the hat or wag of a finger. As Cooke wrote in December 2016:

Now that the election is over, I am going to treat Donald Trump as I would any other political figure: skeptically, fairly, and with the presumption that men are not angels. To the bottom of my boots, I hope that Trump will overcome his many flaws and do a competent and honorable job. If he doesn’t, I shall say so. If he does, I shall admit it.

Rubin’s crime is that rather than waking up every morning fresh for each day’s calling of balls and strikes, she carries into her work the memory of the day before. She sees patterns where Cooke sees only incidents. She speaks out even when Cooke deems it prudent to hold his tongue.

In this course, Cooke is following the Republican leadership in the House and Senate and the more presentable of the conservative commentariat: Hope for the best. Make excuses where you can. When you can’t make an excuse, keep as quiet as you can. Attack Trump’s critics in the media and Hollywood when all else fails. That has also become the working position of many conservatives who in 2015 and 2016 called themselves “Never Trump.”

In the spring of 2016, National Review published its “Against Trump” issue. Twenty-one prominent conservatives signed individual statements of opposition to Trump’s candidacy. Of those 21, only six continue to speak publicly against his actions. Almost as many have become passionate defenders of the Trump presidency, most visibly the Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell and the National Rifle Association’s Dana Loesch.

As a survival strategy, this is viable enough in the short term. But let’s understand what is driving it.

The conservative intellectual world is whipsawed between distaste for President Trump and fear of its own audience. The conservative base has become ever more committed to Trump—and ever less tolerant of any deviation. Those conservative talkers most susceptible to market pressure—radio and TV hosts—have made the most-spectacular conversions and submissions: Mark Levin, Tucker Carlson. With reason. The same day that Cooke launched himself into Jennifer Rubin, another contributor to the National Review special issue, Erick W. Erickson, announced that he had lost his Fox News contract. Erickson had precisely followed Cooke’s advice, conscientiously seeking opportunities to praise Trump where he could. That halfway support did not suffice for his producers.

It is half of my family's income and is needed. But I also, if I am being honest, was largely being paid without working. I am a firm believer that if one is to be paid there should be work, but it has been harder and harder to put me in the appropriate contributor box. I am neither anti-Trump nor pro-Trump, but a conservative who does not think he is, but thinks he is advancing some things commendably. All news shows on all networks tend to favor a straight R v. D panel and I'm not in those boxes anymore.

But it’s not merely cable news that insists on those boxes. So does the conservative think-tank world. So does the conservative public-speaking circuit. So do the passengers on National Review’s lucrative cruises. After one such cruise, back in the spring of 2016, one National Review editor, Jonah Goldberg, wrote about the pressure exerted even then by conservative audiences upon conservative writers.

NR Cruises are special things. They are filled with friends of National Review, often lifelong friends. No one who hates the magazine plunks down that much hard-earned money to spend a week drinking, eating, and touring with its writers and editors (and other passengers who are fans of the magazine). As a result, nearly all disagreements are like family disagreements. And so it was an interesting focus group, a kind of microcosm of what is happening across the conservative movement. There were some true Trumpers and anti-Trumpers, but there were many more people who simply think supporting Trump is making the best of a bad situation. I understand that position and I have sympathy for it.

So much so, in fact, that:

During a panel Q&A, a passenger on the cruise made a strong case for voting Trump. He ably argued that we know Hillary will be terrible, while we can only suspect Trump will be. Trump will probably do some things conservatives will like—Supreme Court appointments, etc.—while we know for a fact Hillary will not. And here’s what I said: I agree. If the election were a perfect tie, and the vote fell to me and me alone, I’d probably vote for none other than Donald Trump for precisely these reasons.

Researchers at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center have quantified how dramatically far-right media sources such as Breitbart News have overtaken and displaced traditional conservative outlets such as National Review. By tallying links, citations, and other indicators of influence, they found:

The center-left and the far right are the principal poles of the media landscape. The center of gravity of the overall landscape is the center-left. Partisan media sources on the left are integrated into this landscape and are of lesser importance than the major media outlets of the center-left. The center of attention and influence for conservative media is on the far right. The center-right is of minor importance and is the least represented portion of the media spectrum.

Rubin stands on that embattled center-right. She is not quite alone. Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations stands there, as does the true-hearted remainder of the National Review 21: Mona Charen, Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz. You’ll find others at the Niskanen Center (Jerry Taylor, Brink Lindsey), and holding the faith from the Evan McMullin–Mindy Finn independent presidential ticket. A few brave the adverse comments on social media: Tom Nichols from the academic world; Seth Mandel at the New York Post’s editorial page; veteran broadcaster Charles Sykes. Joe Scarborough keeps the faith on morning TV. There are more, and I do not mean to slight anyone by omission. Others would wish to stand there if they economically could.

But if Cooke fears that very many conservatives are at risk of following the Rubin trail to consistent anti-Trumpism, I can set his mind at ease. The vast majority of those in the conservative world who do not admire Trump—and who cannot safely divert their feelings into anti-anti-Trump fulminations against the detested liberal media—are carefully treading his own prudent path, not Rubin’s hazardous one.

As the scandals about Trump worsen, pressures on right-of-center people to conform will only tighten.

It’s a paradox, but it’s true: Trump gains a huge measure of support within the conservative world precisely because of how guilty he looks. Trump supporters may insist, “There’s no there, there.” They sense—as we all sense—that in fact so many “there”s lurk beneath Trump’s White House that even the most maladroit digger is liable to find something terrible: If not collusion with Russia, then perhaps tax evasion. If not tax evasion, then maybe bank fraud. If not bank fraud, then sexual assault. Or all of them.

Luminaries of the conservative academic world—including a fellow at the august Hoover Institution—are now repeating Sean Hannity–style character assassination of James Comey and Special Counsel Robert Mueller:

Mr. Mueller’s ever-widening scrutiny of the Trump campaign exhibit a tenacious and nearly unconstrained search for persons and crimes to prosecute. In contrast, Mr. Comey’s investigation of Mrs. Clinton reflects a determination not to prosecute systematic and obvious unlawful conduct.

Both excesses threaten the rule of law—but the dogged search for persons and crimes to prosecute poses the graver threat to constitutional government.

That appeared in the formerly Trump-skeptical Wall Street Journal, now the message board for the vociferous “shut down the Russia investigation” crowd. The Journal’s Washington columnist Kimberley Strassel wrote on December 7, 2017:

Some want Attorney General Jeff Sessions to clean house, although this would require firing a huge number of career Justice Department lawyers. Some want Mr. Trump to fire Mr. Mueller—which would be counterproductive. Some have called for a special counsel to investigate the special counsel, but that way lies infinite regress.

There is a better, more transparent way. Mr. Sessions (or maybe even Mr. Trump) is within rights to create a short-term position for an official whose only job is to ensure Justice Department and FBI compliance with congressional oversight. This person needs to be a straight shooter and versed in law enforcement, but with no history at or substantial ties to the Justice Department or FBI.

The urgency to defend Trump will accelerate should Republicans lose one or both chambers of Congress in November 2018. At that point, Trump’s veto and executive orders will become the chief political resource that conservatives have. They would not dare risk losing it.

Charles Cooke arraigned Jennifer Rubin for being dragged to new political positions by her resistance to Trump. She is not alone. Bill Kristol quipped on Twitter: “The GOP tax bill's bringing out my inner socialist. The sex scandals are bringing out my inner feminist. Donald Trump and Roy Moore are bringing out my inner liberal. WHAT IS HAPPENING?”

Good question, and here’s the answer: What is happening is the revelation that politics is dynamic, that new facts call forth new responses. Cooke touts these alterations as deviations from principle. But really this is a game that can be played by anyone who has access to Google. For example, the same Cooke who produced a sharply personal attack on Rubin in 2017 condemned, back in 2014, “partisan post-rationalization, decorated with insecure-albeit-amusing ad hominem attacks.” We all change our minds, apparently.

Just as many anti-Trump conservatives find themselves pulled in new directions by their revulsion against Trump’s corruption and abuse of power, so too is the conservative mainstream being altered by its determination to remain on terms with Trump and his supporters.

The most revealing thought in Cooke’s essay is his explanation for why he feels it is safe to go with the Trumpian flow: “Conservatism in this country long predated Trump; for now, it is tied up with Trump; soon, it will have survived Trump.”

This is something many conservatives tell themselves, but it’s not even slightly true. Trump is changing conservatism into something different. We can all observe that. Will it snap back afterward?

You can believe this only if you imagine that ideologies exist independently of the human beings who espouse them—and that they can continue unchanged and unchanging despite the flux of their adherents. In this view, millions of American conservatives may build their political identities on enthusiastic support for Donald Trump, but American conservatism will continue humming in the background as if none of those human commitments mattered at all.

This is simply not true. Ideas are not artifacts, especially the kind of collective ideas we know as ideologies. Conservatives in 1964 opposed civil-rights laws. Conservatives in 1974 opposed tax cuts unless paid for by spending cuts. Conservatives in 1984 opposed same-sex marriage. Conservatives in 1994 opposed trade protectionism. Conservatives in 2004 opposed people who equated the FBI and Soviet Union’s KGB. All those statements of conservative ideology have gone by the boards, and one could easily write a similar list of amended views for liberals.

Conservatism is what conservatives think, say, and do. As conservatives change—as much through the harsh fact of death and birth as by the fluctuations of opinion—so does what it means to be a conservative.

The Trump presidency is a huge political fact. Donald Trump may not be the leader of American conservatism, but he is its most spectacular and vulnerable asset. The project of defending him against his coming political travails—or at least of assailing those who doubt and oppose him—is already changing what it means to be a conservative. The word conservative will of course continue in use. But its meaning is being rewritten each day by the actions of those who lay claim to the word. It is their commitment to Trump that etches Trumpism into them. And while Trump may indeed pass, that self-etching will not soon be effaced.