By Victor Davis Hanson
Rarely in the last half-century have so many elite conservatives and intellectuals been so estranged both from a Republican administration and from those who voted for it—neither have they become so animated in their antipathy and disgust for a sitting president.
During the 2016 election, and the current Trump presidency, there have appeared four implicit tenets to the conservative “Never Trump” position that, we are supposed to understand, justified not voting for him, actively opposing him, or voting for Hillary Clinton:
1) The character flaws of the inexperienced and uncouth Trump would eventually nullify any positive agenda that he might enact; not opposing such a boorish character undermines one’s reputation as an empirical and fair-minded conservative;
2) Trump is a liberal wolf in conservative sheep’s clothing; at any given moment he will break his campaign promises and revert to his 1980s New York Democratic self. Or, Trump has no ideology and is an empty vessel willing to embrace almost any ideology he finds efficacious to his ambitions of the moment. Either way, he will do the conservative cause real damage;
3) Trump’s base supporters, while not irredeemables and deplorables, are prone to nationalist extremism and embrace certain prejudices that are antithetical to conservative values;
4) Clinton’s progressive agendas would not do as much damage to the nation as would Trump’s uncouth character. Thus the defeat of the Republicans in 2016, or the failure of an ensuing Trump presidency, would be cathartic. Only a Trump implosion would teach Republicans never again to allow such an untried and dangerous populist nationalist without political experience to highjack their party, while cleansing the movement of some odious figures and unpalatable ideas that have no business in it—or both.
How true have these nightmares so far played out?
#1 Character is Armageddon?
Trump, the president, certainly has continued his erratic and mercurial behavior in the manner of Trump, the candidate. His tweets are often incoherent (and yet also prescient in odd ways) and pursue the trivial. His habits—largely living alone in the White House, short on sleep, tweeting in the early hours—add to his irascibility. The White House operations reflect Trump’s own impulsiveness.
But all that said, Trump’s character defects have not so far derailed his conservative agenda, in some part because many of those who hate him—the media, academics, and the progressives—have acted so unhinged that they themselves have lost all credibility and now seem to belong in the pages of the National Enquirer.
Never Trump cadres rightfully object to the invocation of the classical logical fallacy of tu quoque. While liberal hypocrisy does not excuse evaluating Trump on his merits, in a world of flawed politicians, the media and critics nonetheless focus rarely on Trump’s accomplishments and almost always on Trump’s sins. And they do so in such an unbalanced manner that similar treatment of Obama (daily focusing on Rev. Wright, Tony Rezko, and Bill Ayers; late night comedy about presidential ignorance that the Maldives were in the South Atlantic, or that corpsmen was pronounced with a hard p; daily emphases on serial untruth from the Benghazi disaster to the ACA to the Iran Deal, while mired in scandals that tarnished the VA, IRS, NSA, and Justice Department) would have caused hysteria.
Trump, it is rightly said, is his own worst enemy. The Never Trump mantra that “character is destiny,” and thus Trump in Nixonian style is doomed, may one day prove true. But for now the media is reduced to obsessions with Trump’s daily portions of ice cream (two scoops instead of one?) or peddles fake news that his wife was once an escort or that Trump frolicked in sick sexual antics in Moscow, and on and on. In the grand scheme of things these obsessions are far less important than the resumption of the Keystone and Dakota pipelines, a 70 percent drop in illegal immigration, and the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
In the case of Never Trump, a week of relative Trump quiet and good economic or foreign affairs news earns either a minute of quiet, or a begrudging nod, while a media frenzy over another Trump crudity brings out the inevitable “I was right all along.” More glee arises from an unsourced Washington Post rumor than news of new energy development or ongoing restoration of deterrence abroad. All this begs the question of whether the Never Trump group ever remembered why and how such a polarizing figure won the election and the presidency instead of another sober John McCain or judicious Mitt Romney, or what would be the consequences of a failed agenda for the country at large?
Introspection is not advice to withhold criticism when Trump exhibits his character flaws, but a call to at least appreciate the tragic situation that half the country finds itself in: a flawed character has a better chance of enacting key conservative correctives than did his occasionally moral superiors—a paradox to be explored by reasoned conservative audit rather than through hysteria or self-referential snark.
#2 Backsliding Conservative?
Assumption #2 is mostly already refuted.
True, Trump is a volatile figure and without a long conservative pedigree, but so far he has kept to his word in nominating conservative and highly competent judges to the federal courts. His executive orders on deregulation, energy production, and illegal immigration are likely more conservative than those of any Republican president since Ronald Reagan.
The ongoing effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act and scheduled tax reform are antithetical to the entire Obama-Clinton agenda. Trump has assembled the most impressive and capable national security team (James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley, etc.) since the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Other appointments like Tom Price, Scott Pruitt, Jeff Sessions, and Ryan Zinke are the sorts whom Republican presidents of the past might nevertheless have passed on as unnecessarily polarizing in their true-blue conservatism.
The pre-presidential fears about a populist nationalist rather than conservative Trump (e.g., that he would erect punitive tariffs, dry up global trade, start an unnecessary war, or crash the economy) have not materialized. Very preliminary statistics concerning economic growth, labor participation, energy production, the stock market, and business and consumer confidence are all positive. In just three months, Wall Street has concluded that Trump is most interested in growing GDP and with it good-paying jobs.
Illegal immigration is reportedly down some 70 percent while executives in the steel, coal, and manufacturing industries report a new confidence not seen in years. While it is possible that in the future a volatile and unpredictable Trump will become frustrated with an ossified Republican congress and turn to Democrats, as yet there is simply no evidence that Trump is not following a conservative agenda.
There may well be widening fissures ahead in the conservative/Trump divide, as establishment Republicans find no need for a wall on the southern border. They may worry about Trump’s jawboning of private companies that have a right to outsource/offshore as they please. Trump’s tax cuts and refusal to address entitlement spending will acerbate already swollen deficits and debt. Yet, these are still not existential differences—at least not yet. So far Trump’s first 100 days are more conservative than the policies that both John McCain and Mitt Romney ran on.
#3 Nuts, Bigots, and Assorted Unhinged Populists?
The third worry of Never Trumpers about the dark strains and elements within the Trump movement has also proved so far groundless. The smears against the Make America Great Again crowd were more media-generated narratives that spun and exaggerated Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
So far Trump’s working class, populist supporters have been behaved and focused on the Trump energy and jobs agenda, as well as his refreshing lack of political correctness. Trump has made no racist or anti-Semitic appeal to gin up enthusiasm, but rather has gone out of his way to try to win over minorities and women with promises of economic growth.
Even Trump’s poorly prepared first immigration order did not target Muslims per se, but instead echoed Obama’s earlier apprehensions about unvetted refugees from seven volatile Middle Eastern nations (a small fraction of the world’s Muslims). Its subsequent and improved version (that did not target green-card holders, for example) will eventually pass Supreme Court muster.
So far all the political violence associated with the election of Trump, from Inauguration to the latest campus rioting, has been on the Left. No pro-Trump crowds don masks, break windows or shut down traffic. The crudity in contemporary politics—from the constant sick jokes referring to First Family incest, smears against the First Lady, low attacks on the Trump children, boycotts of the Inauguration, talk and dreams of killing the president—is on the liberal/progressive side. The entertainment industry’s obscenity and coarseness have been picked up by mainstream Democratic officials, who now routinely resort to profanities like s–t and f–k to attack the president. Almost every ethical code—television journalists do not report on air private conservations with their guests during breaks, opposition congressional representatives do attend the Inauguration, Senators do not use obscenities—have been abandoned in efforts to delegitimize Trump.
When Hillary Clinton assumed the mantle of the “Resistance,” she was deliberately using a metaphor to convey the idea that she is analogous to a French patriot under occupation and Trump is a veritable foreign Nazi belligerent.
#4 A Preferable Clinton Agenda?
From the opposition to Trump’s first 100 days, we can sense where the Clinton agenda was headed: a Supreme Court pick further to the left than Merrick Garland; expanded race/class/gender themes across cabinet offices; a likely single-payer health system; higher taxes and more regulations, a radical climate change menu, and increased identity politics.
Any presidential election is a zero-sum game; a Republican staying home was a vote for Clinton in the fashion of a Sanders supporter sitting out 2016 was a vote for Trump. Far from a Clinton victory being a catharsis, it would have green lighted more illegal immigration, expanded the themes of the Eric Holder/Loretta Lynch Justice Department, and lost the Supreme Court for 20 years.
As far as a catharsis, it has already occurred though perhaps in ways not anticipated. A reported 92 percent of Republicans voted for Donald Trump, even if in some cases on the low-bar assumption that 51 percent of something was better than the alternative.
A Never Trump movement, I think it is fair to say, had absolutely no influence on the 2016 election. In theory, elites may have convinced a few key Republican voters in swing states to stay home or to vote for Hillary Clinton; but in reality they were far outnumbered by huge numbers of new Republican voters who saw in Trump hope that they did not in far more experienced and sober men of character.
Like it or not, a Rubio or Cruz nominee likely would have not won these swing voters and thus likely would have lost the election, and with it ensured at least 12 and likely 16 years of a hard progressive government.
Finally, there was something deeply wrong in the Republican Party that at some point required a Trump to excise it. The Republican Party and conservative movement had created a hierarchy that mirror-imaged its liberal antithesis, and suggested to middle class voters between the coasts that the commonalities in income, professional trajectories, and cultural values of elites trumped their own political differences. How a billionaire real estate developer appeared, saw that paradox, and became more empathetic to the plight of middle-class Americans than the array of Republican political pundits is one of the most alarming stories of our age.
Trump was not so much a reflection of red-state Americans’ political ignorance, as their weariness with those of both parties who ridicule, ignore, or patronize them—and now seek to overturn the verdict of the election.