If we’re going through the five stages of grief over Trump, we’re in the bargaining stage right now. Moderates on both sides of the aisle are begging for a return to the pre-Trump era of principled and respectable politics, without the division, the contempt for civility, and the vulgarity of Trump’s America. But the United States is nothing if not divisive, contemptuous and vulgar. Our president has just stripped away the niceties that we’ve come to expect from the leader of the free world. Coming to terms with President Trump requires an honest look at him, his party and his politics.
The courageous, doomed #NeverTrump movement spent the summer of 2016 begging for someone, anyone, to save the GOP from the brash and unelectable Donald Trump. Someone had to save the conservative movement from the baying masses of Real Americans who had rejected the wisdom of the Constitution-worshiping and sensible conservatives. Bill Kristol, the father of neoconservatism, chose David French, an Iraq War vet literally no one outside of DC had ever heard of (I do sorta wish French had run, because French thinks physical strength is an essential aspect of manhood, and we could’ve had some really fun national conversations about masculinity). We’ll never know how French (or Mitt Romney) could’ve changed the outcome of the election, but I’d guess they would have failed too, just like the other Sensible Republicans that Trump annihilated in the primaries.
French would’ve been the most embarrassing abortive White House hopeful, if not for Evan McMullin, a Utahan ex-CIA operative and Goldman Sachs banker. As we all know, the only thing that inspires people more than unapologetic nationalism is boring Mormons. But beneath Evan’s sad, lifeless eyes lies the Principled Conservative, the exact kind of politician that the serious and important people in Washington and New York want to be their president. We should note that McMullin cracked 20 percent in his home state. But the other states where McMullin got on the ballot mostly ignored his name.
Many are speculating that McMullin will vie for Utah’s Senate seat in 2018. But why should anyone on the left prefer the Principled Conservative to the conservatism of Trump? Is there any worthwhile difference between a principled conservative and Trump, save the amount of hand-wringing they induce among the people who wax poetic about civility and democratic norms? Transphobia and the enforcement of Victorian gender roles are important ‘principles’ for David French, while Evan McMullin cares very strongly about starting a proxy war with Russia in Syria. Meanwhile, Republican statehouses have spent the last six years suppressing minority votes and doing everything they can to stand in the way of abortion rights. Nebraskan wonder boy senator Ben Sasse, who called on Trump to drop out of the race after the “pussy-grabber” tape came out (so brave), voted for every one of Trump’s cabinet nominees. Sasse, to his credit, issued a statement opposing Trump’s Muslim ban, and called for ‘wisdom’ in ‘our generational fight against jihadism.’ Thanks, Ben, but you don’t sound like someone who can be counted on to stand up against Islamophobia and American militarism.
John McCain has forcefully spoken out against Trump on a number of issues. Senator McCain, however, has actual political power as a senior member of the majority party. If he opposed Trump’s agenda, we would expect him to do something with that power. So far, the only Trump nominee that McCain has said no to is Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s pick for budget director. It wasn’t because Mulvaney wants to raise the retirement age, or slash Medicare, but because Mulvaney wants to rein in military spending. McCain’s main sticking point with Trump’s agenda (to extent that Trump has an agenda) isn’t healthcare for seniors, it’s keeping our military as wasteful and as monstrous as possible.
Principled Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are spending most of their time attacking Putin and defending the importance of the free press, but these are hardly the most pressing issues facing Americans right now. In their joint statement on the Muslim ban, they expressed consternation about the logistics and implementation of the ban, and wished that Trump had done the ban in a way that “upholds all that is decent and exceptional about our nation.” When will they express their anger about any of Trump’s actual policies? They share liberal’s distaste for the President, and might be more willing to strike small bargains than the party’s hardliners, but that’s where common ground with the left ends, and the establishment Republican begins.
Over a month after the inauguration, many conservatives are still standing strong in opposition to Trump. In a piece published the day after the inauguration, Peter Wehner, a grown-up paid intern at the Ethics and Public Policy Center explained why he, a lifelong conservative, still refused to support Trump. Explaining his reluctance, Wehner wrote:
“[I]t’s worth keeping in mind that my chief worries about Mr. Trump were never strictly ideological; they had to do with temperament and character.”
“This isn’t to say that I didn’t have worries based on Mr. Trump’s deviations from conservatism, a political philosophy he seems to have no real interest in or acquaintance with.”
While Wehner tries to separate Trump’s vulgar conservatism from his more dignified and intellectual conservatism, he gives the whole game away. If Trump was nicer to John McCain, didn’t call Mexicans rapists and wasn’t a sexual predator (if he just had a little more “character” ) Wehner would have happily fallen in line behind the leader of his party. Meanwhile, the American voters, the ones who voted for both Bushes, McCain, and Romney before Trump, had no problems with Trump’s “deviations from conservatism.” Does it really matter where Trump deviates from conservative orthodoxy if America’s right-leaning electorate voted for him?
A month into his presidency, Trump is sitting at a historically terrible 42 percent approval. Among Republicans and right-leaning independents, he’s at 88 percent. Eighty-eight! That’s ahead of both Bushes and Reagan in their first months on the job. This should make us question the idea that there is a silent-er majority of moderate Republicans who would prefer a Romney or a McMullin over the pedal-to-the-metal jingoism of Trump. And, because partisanship is a hell of a drug, plenty of them will probably be with him for the long haul. The loyal GOP voter is exactly who we thought they were.
First month approval ratings are probably meaningless, but even if Trump was unpopular among the Republican voters, why would we want Republicans to stand up to him? Internal divisions within the GOP are noteworthy, but they’re nothing to get excited about. There’s no reason for people who calls themselves liberal to wish for Republicans to propose their slightly less cruel alternatives to President Trump’s agenda. And odds are they won’t, especially if his approval ratings remain this high.
To clarify, I’m condemning most of the GOP, not all of it. There are certainly some people having buyer’s remorse, but don’t expect this on a large scale. And obviously Democrats deserve plenty of criticism for the dismal political landscape we’re living in right now. I focused on Republicans because there’s a strange idea that educated Americans have about the moderate Republican, the family man who wants to curtail voting rights and wants coal companies to have free rein over the lives and livelihoods of miners, but manages to do it without Trump’s aberrant behavior. This has been part of the Republican Party’s platform for quite some time now, and we would be wise to remember that in these strange times. Moderates will ask him to tweet less, but they will not grow a spine to fight him on any worthwhile cause, especially if his approval ratings stay this high. It should be clear that any differences between Trump and your platonic idea of a Republican you could have a beer with are differences of degree, not of kind. Even with all of its internal disagreements, the Republican Party is the party of Trump just as much as it is the party of Reagan or Lincoln.
Trump faces pushback on budget priorities and tax returns but very little real opposition from his party on the rest of his reactionary platform. It seems like the major players in the GOP have few concrete policy differences with the president, or at least ones that they’re willing to take action on. The Romneys, McMullins, and Manchins of the world seem better than Trump, but they offer little help in pushing back against his plans. It is tempting to look to Washington for the solutions to the problems it has created, or to hope for a return to a more seemly brand of partisan politics, or to think ‘the enemy of Trump is my friend.’ As always, hope for the best, but don’t expect the Republican Party to stand in unison and proclaim ‘we are not this.’