On January 21st, before a single vote had been cast in the presidential primaries, National Review, long a loud voice on the American right, published an issue titled “Against Trump.” In that issue, the magazine’s editors and dozens of well-known conservative writers made the conservative case against President-Elect Donald Trump’s candidacies. The right-wing critique of Trumpism became a kind of background noise throughout the whole 2016 campaign as more and more party grandees and conservative writers declared that they simply could not support the man who eventually became the Republican nominee. Anti-Trump conservatives found themselves cautiously embraced by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which touted endorsements from Republicans and traditionally conservative newspapers.
The wisdom of seeking conservative support as a campaign strategy can be debated. I tend to believe that the Clinton campaign and the press made the mistake of assuming that the never-Trump conservative politicos and pundits brought a much larger base of voters with them than they actually did. Now that the election has ended, the anti-Trump Republicans who were a constant presence in press coverage of the campaign have largely disappeared from view. Even before Trump has taken office, many of the conservatives who had warned that he was a historical threat to the republic have begun reconciling themselves to him.
The conservatives who opposed Trump during his campaign will not be part of, or allies to, the political forces that oppose his administration. Their opposition was always to Trump. Trumpism, the type of conspiratorial ethnic nationalism that defined his campaign, on the other hand, has been a fundamental part of American conservative politics since its inception. The coalition that opposes Donald Trump, both in government and outside of it, must be broad. It should not, and will not, include people who agree with his policies but dislike him as a person. Though #nevertrump conservatives may have been mainstays of cable news during the campaign, it has become clear in the days following the election that for many conservatives, “never” doesn’t really mean “never.”
National Review’s editorial condemning Trump was published after he had claimed that Mexican immigrants were rapists who had been sent by their government and after he had repeatedly refused to apologize for decades of racist and misogynistic remarks. These comments, and the racist ideology that underlies them, do not merit condemnation in National Review’s analysis of Trump. These principled opponents of Trump chose rather to attack him on the grounds that he might not be entirely serious about the promises he made. Of his immigration policies they wrote, “Trump says he will put a big door in his beautiful wall, an implicit endorsement of the dismayingly conventional view that current levels of legal immigration are fine.” In the end, on issue after issue, National Review criticized Trump on the grounds that he wasn’t actually conservative enough, or that he couldn’t be trusted to actually enact the policies he proposed. His plan to ban muslims from entering the U.S was never even mentioned.
The anti-Trump conservative movement (as much as a group of cable news pundits, columnists and congressman can be considered a movement) produced its own mini-celebrities. People like Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, columnist and former Bush administration speechwriter David Frum, Mitt Romney and even (briefly) Ted Cruz all found themselves saluted by Democrats for their supposedly principled opposition to the man who became the Republican nominee.
If it was indeed principle that animated the anti-Trump conservatives, it seems to have suddenly disappeared now that the campaign is over. Ben Sasse, who had written in a widely praised open letter that he was “unwilling to support any candidate who does not make a full-throated defense of the First Amendment a first commitment of their candidacy,” reacted to protests against the President-elect with a tweet wondering “Why don’t we have more reporting on paid rioting?” He was only one of many Trump opponents to make the quick transition from staunch defender of constitutional principle to Breitbart commenter. Mitt Romney, who condemned Trump as a “phony” and a “fraud” travelled to Trump Tower to give the President-elect advice and is apparently in the running to serve as Secretary of State.
David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and writer for The Atlantic, has been one of the most outspoken of Trump’s critics on the right. In an article titled “The Conservative Case for Voting for Clinton,” he excoriated Trump as a unique threat to American democracy, citing his lack of commitment to NATO and his potential use of government power to advance his own private business interests. Amidst the criticism, though, Frum takes time to note that “I more or less agree with Trump on his signature issue, immigration.”
Frum’s case for Clinton wasn’t about racism, sexism or islamophobia. It was rather solely an argument that Trump was an unqualified and incompetent man. Frum’s style of anti-Trump politics is one that outlines the fundamental problem with his conservative opponents. Though they may find him personally distasteful, or believe that his personal style harms the Republican Party, there can be little doubt that his extreme positions on the rights of Muslims, immigrants and women are well within the Republican mainstream in America.
The speed with which critics of Trump began mirroring his talking points and volunteering to serve in his administration underlines the degree to which their opposition to him was exaggerated in the heat of a contentious campaign. It was easy to forget, in the midst of Mitt Romney’s fiery rhetoric disagreeing with Trump’s plan to build a wall on the southern border, that he won the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 by positioning himself as the most anti-immigrant candidate (no easy task in a field that contained candidates like Rick Perry and Rick Santorum). During the 2012 campaign, he refused to condemn Rush Limbaugh for calling Sandra Fluke a “slut.” Though he may have decided that Trump went too far with some of his ideas, it’s clear that Romney, and the party that embraced and promoted him, have no real objection to the kind of ideas and constituencies Trump represents.
It is understandable that many conservatives would want to understand Donald Trump as a kind of extra-historical phenomenon, a vulgar candidate who perverted true conservative principles to win votes in what would be, because of his incompetence and unlikability, an example of why certain trends in right-wing politics must remain the realm of innuendo rather than outright declaration. That position was tenable before his election, when it appeared that he could never win. Now that candidate Trump has become President-elect Trump, anti-Trump conservatism has faded as quickly as it appeared.
In the end, there was simply too little ground practically separating Trump from those who opposed him. There is a tendency in the press to view Donald Trump as somehow independent of normal conservative politics in America. It was this tendency that vaulted the anti-Trump conservatives to prominence in the world of cable news and newspaper opinion pages. Unfortunately, though, Donald Trump did not appear out of nowhere, and he harnessed an established conservative infrastructure that has long used racism and sexism to motivate its base. The Trump presidency will see (and indeed already has) many of his former conservative critics become defenders of his agenda. Though Trump’s conservative critics could attack him as a secret liberal or an unqualified presidential candidate, they cannot articulate a coherent anti-Trump conservatism.
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