Donald Trump is a dominant presence in our public life, although one that his adversaries have trouble accepting and processing.
The left is still looking for scapegoats for his 2016 victory, and the coterie of critics on the right – loosely referred to as Never Trump – often sound like they are in denial.
I’m friends with many of these Never Trumpers, admire most of them and have been numbered among them.
It’d be much better, obviously, if the president didn’t conduct his administration like a reality TV show run by a mercurial and cruel executive producer. Indeed, most of the fears of how Trump would act in office have been realized (everyone would have thought Jeb Bush was crazy if he had predicted a President Trump would fire a high-level Cabinet official via Twitter, and not even using direct message).
Yet we shouldn’t buy into the fantasy either that Trump is going to disappear into thin air, or that Trumpism can be blithely dismissed so the party can return to what some Never Trumpers believe constituted the status quo ante.
A serious primary challenge is not in the offing. For that to change, it would probably take a smoking gun revelation in the Mueller probe or some other jaw-dropping scandal, plus a significant political betrayal. And if Trump crashes and burns, it is doubtful the 2020 nomination would be worth having. This means that Trump’s welfare is inextricably caught up with the party’s.
The hold that Trump has on the GOP has a lot to do with his mesmerizing circus act, but it’s more than that. He’s been loyal to his coalition on judges, social-conservative causes and gun rights. His desperation to get a border wall speaks to his genuine desire to deliver on a signature promise. The same is true of his tariffs this year.
The last two items underline Trump’s heterodoxy, although he isn’t as ideologically aberrant as Never Trumpers would have it.
Republicans have never won running on a textbook libertarian economics denuded of any populist appeal, or an idealistic foreign policy devoid of a hard-headed focus on the national interest and a Jacksonian element (if the Iraq War had been sold at the inception as entirely a democratizing enterprise, it would never have gained sufficient political support).
In his 1965 mayoral campaign, Bill Buckley found his constituency among outer borough Archie Bunker-type voters, a preview of Reagan Democrats; if Donald Trump’s father Fred voted in that race, it’s easy to imagine him pulling the lever for Buckley.
Reagan wouldn’t have been the potent figure he was in the late 70s if he hadn’t pounded away at the premier populist-nationalism issue of the time, resistance to giving up the Panama Canal: “We bought it. We built it. We paid for it. It’s ours.”
Even George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988 not as a WASPy establishmentarian, but on the strength of the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance and crime, especially the emotive Willie Horton case.
We can argue about what role populism and nationalism should have in conservative politics, but that they have a place, and always have, is undeniable.
Trump’s presidency so far has been a shotgun marriage between the off-the-shelf GOP agenda and his own impulses on immigration and trade, when, ideally, there would have been a more fully thought-out and integrated conservative populism. Trump is not seriously engaged enough to drive this himself, while congressional Republicans lack interest in immigration restriction and oppose Trump on trade. But make no mistake: On immigration and China trade, Trump is closer to the national Republican consensus than his conservative detractors.
A realistic attitude to Trump involves acknowledging both his flaws and how he usefully departs from a tired Reagan nostalgia. By all means, criticize him when he’s wrong. But don’t pretend that he’s just going away, or that he’s a wild outlier in the contemporary GOP.