Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

The ‘Never Trump’ Construct

by Victor Davis Hanson// National Review

 

The president’s fiercest critics still do not grasp that Trump is a symptom, not the cause of the GOP’s internal strife.

For all the talk of a Civil War in the Republican party over Donald Trump, 90 percent of Republicans ended up voting for him.

 

Bitterness Over the 2016 Election?

So a vocal Never Trump Republican establishment had not much effect on the 2016 election. Voters do not carry conservative magazines to the polls. They are not swayed much by talking heads, and on Election Day they do not they print out conservative congressional talking points from their emails.

 

John McCain and Susan Collins are as renegade now as they were obstructionist in 2004. If in 2016 it is said that John McCain cannot forgive President Trump for his 2016 primary statements, it was also said in 2004 that John McCain could not forgive President Bush for how he won the 2000 primaries. Trump is called a Nazi and a fascist. But so was George W. Bush in 2006. Reagan in the campaign and during his first few months as president was slandered as a pleasant dunce as often as Trump is smeared as a mean dunce. If neocons are now on MSNBC in 2017 trashing a Republican president, paleocons were doing the same in 2006 over Iraq. Parties always have dissidents.

 

Donald Trump got about the same percentage of the Republican vote (about 90 percent) as John McCain won in 2008 — slightly less than Mitt Romney’s supposed 93 percent in 2012. If Romney’s 93 percent is the standard of party fealty (Obama usually pulled in about 92 percent of the Democratic vote), then it is hard to know whether the 3 percentage points fewer of Republicans who could not stomach McCain were about the same as the 3 percentage points fewer who were Never Trump. In either case, 90 percent party loyalty was not good enough for McCain, and even 93 percent did not win Romney an election. Both, unlike Trump, lost too many Reagan Democrats and Independents in the swing states of the Electoral College.

 

So the present civil war did not translate into much in 2016. United or divided, the Republicans have lost the popular vote in four out of the last five national elections — 2000, 2008, 2012, and 2016 — not because large numbers of Republicans voted for the Democratic candidate, but because there are not enough Republicans to begin with. And their candidates were not able to capture enough Independents and Democrats, or to motivate enough first-time or lapsed Republicans to register and turn out to vote, or to flip new demographic groups to conservatism.

 

Trump won no more of the voters who turned out and who identified as “conservative” than did Romney. But again, Trump apparently did get Democrats, Independents, and lapsed and previously uncounted Republicans to vote in key states in a way that Romney and McCain did not. The few Republicans that Trump lost were more than made up by others who were won over. (This raises the question of whether there was a cause-and-effect relationship between the two phenomena. But I doubt that the reason working-class voters turned out to vote for Trump was that most writers at National Review and The Weekly Standard were against him.)

 

There should not be any bitterness over the successful 2016 election, unless the pro-Trump side believes that they could have won the popular vote or more Senate seats if they’d had Never Trump support, or unless the Never Trumpers wish that more Republicans had stayed home or voted for some else. Otherwise, the civil war of opinion makers changed few opinions in 2016.

Ideological Fissures?

Among the voters themselves, the populist-nationalist wing is said to be irreconcilable with the establishment mainstream. But it is hard to see where too many of the lasting irreconcilable differences lie — other than the same old gripe over politicians who get entrenched in Washington and the “mavericks” who want to take their place and likely turn into what they once damned.

 

Both sides in the civil war favor increased investment in defense and especially missile defense. Both are mostly now foreign-policy realists in the sense that McMaster, Mattis, Kelly, Haley, Pompeo, Tillerson, and most of the cabinet could work in a Marco Rubio administration. Both factions are strong on the Second Amendment. Both favor bans on most forms of abortion. Both like Trump’s judicial appointments. Both oppose identity politics. On illegal immigration, the establishment opposes a wall and likely strict enforcement, but in any national election (see Romney’s 2012 positions), their view sounds no different from Trump’s. On Obamacare, the mainstream is a bit more reluctant to repeal rather than reform, but both sides may end up supporting either.

 

On security issues, there is not much Republican infighting over Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord or UNESCO, or referring DACA and the Iran deal back to Congress. Interventionists and even neocons are not damning Trump for not landing troops in Syria or not sending enough reinforcements to Afghanistan.

 

Trump’s views on deregulation, tax reform, and energy production are not controversial among Republicans and conservatives. Trump says he opposes optional wars, but he bombed Syria, empowered U.S. forces to emasculate ISIS, sent a few more troops to Afghanistan, and is not shy about confronting North Korea and Iran.

 

Immigration and trade are certainly the two chief divides, but in comparison with past Ford-Reagan, Bush-Reagan, or McCain-Bush fights, the differences are not all that great, at least in theory. Trump will probably end up staying in NAFTA and NATO and seek to renegotiate rather than reject most existing trade deals. So far, he has not been as eager to slap on tariffs as was George W. Bush. The wall will likely be built and with eventual establishment congressional support. Many Never Trumpers would privately concede that an honorable man like Jeb Bush would have lost handily to Hillary Clinton.

 

Perceptions?

Instead, apart from establishment figures, there is a split in perceptions between the vast 90 percent majority of Republicans who voted for Trump and the small 10 percent minority who did not — and it is largely over Trump himself and not his message.

 

Never Trumpers now see the Trump base as prone to demagogic frenzies on immigration and trade; too monolithically white; often-angry blame-gaming losers of globalization; naïve rather than self-critical about so-called white pathologies; and in their populism too dismissive of the importance of political experience, impressive education, and the changing demography of the U.S.

 

The far more numerous Trump base voters see the Never Trumpers as too self-important; predictably bicoastal careerist; too quick to judge and write off their supposed ethical inferiors; too eager to get along with liberals within their own bubble; too wedded to traditional definitions of political qualifications and success; and more worried about decorum than winning.

 

But all that said, most Republicans were in neither camp, and just voted for their party’s nominee, explaining a 90/10 percent split among Republicans on Election Day, which is proof of party unity.

 

Do Never Trumper hold Trumpers in contempt more than vice versa? Each side counts its hate emails and claims to be the more aggrieved party and the more victimized. Each thinks voting for or against Trump revealed a darkness not noticed before in supposedly well-known colleagues and associates. Certainly friendships have been strained and lost, and invective and accusations leveled. Much on a personal level cannot be repaired. But more unites than divides. If one side is civil and respectful to the other, the other usually reciprocates — unlike what’s going on now in the streets and campuses of the progressive, Democratic left.

 

The Future

If a Senate populist such as Tom Cotton had run on Trump’s identical platform, but without Trump’s tweets and bombast, most of the Never Trumpers would have sighed but voted for him. And if an earthy working-class sort had run — a man who felt at ease with the masses but, like a Romney or Reagan, held many orthodox GOP positions, the Trump base would probably have reluctantly supported him, too.

 

We are essentially left with just one cultural and class divide that characterized three groups within the Republican party: 1) new voters turned on to Trump by his attitude and brashness, 2) old voters turned off on Trump by his attitude and brashness, and 3) the vast majority that voted for Trump because they perceived him as at least marginally better than Hillary Clinton and what she represented.

 

Again, Trump is a symptom of widespread disgust, not the head of a carefully crafted ideological movement with a checklist of issues. What created him was furor at a smug, entrenched Republican political establishment. In a bout of virtue-signaling, this cadre had deliberately conflated opposition to illegal immigration with supposedly racist resistance to legal immigration, while damning principled conservatives as “nativist” and “xenophobes” simply for wanting existing laws enforced. It had preached free-market economics without worry for the losers of globalization, while many of its megaphones cashed in on the government-corporate-media nexus. And its prior presidents and presidential candidates had been reduced to mushy punching bags, strangely bragging about their own virtue in not responding to invective while their own supporters and defenders were left to be smeared and defamed. Worse yet, they caricatured the base voters who used to defend them while they themselves went on to defend, even if indirectly, their erstwhile critics.

 

In conclusion, we should again remember three general principles: First, neither side has yet published policy manifestos that transcend Donald J. Trump or radically contradict the general protocols of past Republican presidents. There is no “Contract with America” that defines Trumpers or Never Trumpers. For now, it is all nebulous and boils down to whether one believes that the controversial messenger trumps, or does not trump, the mostly shared message.

 

Second, the war is mostly infighting among politicos, pundits, politicians, and media people and so far does not necessarily change the realities of the voting public. We saw that reality in 2016 when the thunderous damnation Trump received from his own party had no profound effect on his candidacy.

 

Finally, the economy and the avoidance of war will determine Trump’s popularity, as they have for most other presidents. If we achieve a 3 percent GDP growth rate over the next six months and a principled pushback to Iran and North Korea that does not result in war, then Trump will do well in the midterms and probably be reelected. But if the economy or stock market tanks, or we enter into an existential and messy war, then Trump will fail, regardless of what either his supporters or detractors say.

 

Meanwhile, the administrative state expands, the debt is headed for $21 trillion, crass identity politics tear the nation apart, the effort to restore deterrence abroad grows ever more dangerous, and the campuses, Hollywood, the NFL, and the media are reminding us that progressive politics are now our culture’s orthodoxy, vital for success in nearly all fields. And dealing with all that is the only conservative fight that counts.

 

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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