Conservatives Are Having the Same Old Arguments over Trump

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with fellow Republican senators, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill, January 23, 2018. (Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)

Steve Schmidt, George Conway, Rick Wilson, and John Weaver have jointly authored a New York Times column in which they lay out their plan to defeat Donald Trump and purge the Republican party of Trumpism. As prose it is insipid (“a higher calling than mere politics,” etc.) and as a political strategy it is not obviously plausible, given that, as the authors themselves note, Republican voters and officeholders are in the large majority enthusiastic about Donald Trump.

They write:

The American presidency transcends the individuals who occupy the Oval Office. Their personality [sic] becomes part of our national character. Their actions become our actions, for which we all share responsibility. Their willingness to act in accordance with the law and our tradition dictate [sic] how current and future leaders will act. Their commitment to order, civility and decency are reflected in American society.

. . . National Republicans have done far worse than simply march along to Mr. Trump’s beat. Their defense of him is imbued with an ugliness, a meanness and a willingness to attack and slander those who have shed blood for our country, who have dedicated their lives and careers to its defense and its security, and whose job is to preserve the nation’s status as a beacon of hope.

About that ugliness, meanness, and lowness there is can be no argument among intelligent and mature people. But, like Adlai Stevenson, we must admit that that alone won’t do — we need a majority.

The line of criticism offered by Schmidt, Wilson, et al. is likely neither to persuade admirers of Donald Trump, who do not give much indication of being persuadable, nor to rally his conservative critics and opponents, a slim majority of whom are represented in the byline of that four-author column.

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To the extent that there is a debate within the Right about Trump — and, yes, there is one — the debate is between those who believe the president’s conduct to be unseemly and embarrassing (or only norm-violating, which many of Trump’s admirers welcome and celebrate) and those who believe that his actions are destructive, corrosive, or positively criminal. It is not very difficult to imagine Trump’s being indicted upon his reentry into private life. Never mind “high crimes,” the president just paid millions of dollars to settle a lawsuit over his misuse of money from a charity he controlled for personal gain.

Consider that telephone conversation with the Ukrainians. In principle, bribery covers any exchange of official action for something of personal value, including something of personal political value. Construed broadly enough, that moral principle would cover ordinary legislative horse-trading and deal-making: “I’ll vote for your Boeing subsidies if you vote for funding for my cowboy-poetry festival” is in shape and substance not terribly different from what Trump is accused of in the Ukraine matter. Trump’s supporters understand this and are inclined to interpret his actions in the most indulgent way possible, even when that requires suspending certain mental faculties. Trump’s critics are not so inclined.

Trump’s critics have the better case, because Trump is habitually corrupt (recall that he boasted about using donations to corrupt elected officials in New York), entirely unable to rise above narrow self-interest, and generally incompetent, to boot. His character is such that it is impossible to extend to him the benefit of the doubt in almost any morally questionable situation.

But, in a sense, we are still having the argument from 2016: That Trump is awful is, in my mind, a pretty easy case to make; that Trump is so awful that the alternative is preferable is, as the polls suggest, a much more difficult case to make, and one that some anti-Trump conservatives tried and failed to make effectively in 2016. The Democrats’ hysteria and their abusive handling of the impeachment and other nakedly self-serving investigations have provided a kind of moral lifeline to Trump.

I do not believe it to be the case, for the most part, that Donald Trump has distorted and perverted the Republican political apparatus. I believe it to be the case that Donald Trump simply has revealed the Republican political apparatus for what it is. Given their characterization of the Republican machine, I wonder why it is that Schmidt, Wilson, et al. believe that it can be rehabilitated or that the effort is worth it. Wilson’s most recent book promises in its subtitle “A Plot to Save America From Trump and Democrats From Themselves.”

Good luck with all that.

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