After Trump Crashes, Will Conservatives and Liberals Understand Each Other Better?

by Neil H. Buchanan

It is fascinating to observe the ongoing breakdown of the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally.  Much has been written about the craven collapse of House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and all too many others as they try to have it both ways with Donald Trump -- backing his candidacy while saying that they might rescind their endorsements any day now, if he says something really, really bad.

Republican officeholders seem to be gravitating to one of two positions, either endorsing Trump with reservations or making vague statements about backing "the nominee" out of respect for the people who voted in the primaries.  People who have taken both of those approaches, however, have never explained why they have no personal limit as to what they could support -- or, if they do believe that they have such a limit, why Trump is not already well beyond that limit.

In any event, the Trump non-rejecters in the party are taking a huge risk, possibly destroying the party by backing a loser who has exposed the party's moral emptiness.  And as I argued yesterday in my new Verdict column, these Republicans are missing a huge opportunity to torment Hillary Clinton by letting her win the presidency.

After all, even the most strident anti-Clinton Republican leaders have never liked Trump, and they do not trust him.  So, they face the choice of losing by trying to win or winning by agreeing to lose.  That is, Republican leaders will do serious damage to themselves (to say nothing of the country and the world) by backing Trump, whether he wins or not.  But they have the opportunity to make sure that Hillary Clinton's presidency could be absolutely miserable for her.

I do not merely mean this in the way that the Republicans tried (largely successfully) to thwart Barack Obama at every turn.  Instead, I mean putting Clinton into an impossible position, by being nice to her and helping her win in a unified anti-Trump campaign.  If Republicans took the high ground and said, "Trump is worse than anyone, even Hillary," Clinton's term in office would have no traction.  Republicans could make the thing that Clinton has fought so hard to win not worth winning, in the sense that she would have to constantly make a show of unity by not doing anything -- Supreme Court nominees being only the most obvious example -- that would seem to be ungracious to her Republican partners.

I am not holding my breath for the Republican leadership to dump Trump.  They are simply too short-sighted and competitive to take this approach, and although they will surely find themselves in a brutal intra-party fight very soon, it is perhaps unsurprising that they are uninterested in facing that ugly scene right now.

In some ways, then, the more interesting Republicans are those who actually have rejected Trump.  Some in this group are doing so simply because they truly see him as an albatross around the party's neck.  For example, a former John McCain campaign advisor and Bush II staffer recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times mocking her fellow conservatives for thinking that Trump will "grow up" and become something that he clearly is not.

Yet although the writer criticizes Trump for "a lurch toward ... isolationism, protectionism and nativism," she nonetheless says that "[i]f he were able to take a break from attacking his former opponents or other Republican leaders, he might accomplish his stated goal of uniting the party," and that "[t]he party would like to be brought along."

This means, however, that her complaint about Trump is ultimately superficial.  She writes admiringly about his recent success in reading "a professionally written speech from a teleprompter," and she suggests that he might do OK if he learns "just a few more things about national security and counterterrorism."

And that, apparently, would be enough to cleanse our palates from everything that has gone before.  Sure, the whole racist, xenophobic thing was embarrassing, but if he would just stay on script, apparently even some Trump skeptics would be satisfied.

True, that particular author does not think that Trump actually will change, but that does not alter the larger message, which is that Trump's accumulated list of outrages could all be forgiven if he were to change his tone.  Similarly, when Maine Senator Susan Collins withheld her endorsement from Trump early in June, she said that she was waiting for him to begin to "change his style."  Collins, moreover, was still holding out the possibility that she would actually campaign for Trump, not merely support him begrudgingly if he would just stop being so loud about his bigotry.

There are, therefore, plenty of anti-Trumpers who are really not particularly troubled by the content of what he says.  All they really need are a few well delivered speeches and a two-week stretch in which Republicans are not answering unanswerable questions about his latest outrage.  In some ways, those are the people who at least ought to be willing to organize something resembling the strategy that I described above, throwing the election to Clinton as a way to taunt her, not support her.

The other category of anti-Trump conservatives is, if anything, even more fascinating.  There are prominent conservatives who have made it clear that they view Trump as completely unacceptable.  These are exactly the people who deserve respect, because they are capable of saying that some fundamental things are more important than party labels.  That they are so few in number is truly disheartening, but it is important to remember that they exist.

In rejecting Trump, these conservatives have sometimes taken a moment to reflect on what they consider to be their core political values.  What I find most interesting, however, is that even these most honorable of conservatives seem to view the conservative-liberal divide as a huge moral chasm that does not actually exist.

Take, for example, Peter Wehner, a veteran of the Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II Administrations who has done great service to the country by attacking Trump relentlessly in occasional op-eds in The New York Times.  In his most recent missive, Wehner says that conservatism is based on three things: "limited government and economic liberty," "moral traditionalism that conserves our capacity for liberty by producing responsible citizens," and engagement in international affairs to "be a force for good in the world."

That all seems pretty familiar, except that it does not actually differentiate conservatives from liberals.  I will leave aside the limited government and international engagement issues for a later date, to make a comment here about "moral traditionalism."  On its surface, that might seem pretty obviously a conservative-liberal fault line, with conservatives opposing gay rights and liberals embracing them, just to take one obvious example.

Yet Wehner then writes this: "Mr. Trump is the very embodiment of the culture of narcissism and decadence that moral traditionalism exists to counteract. Republicans used to argue that character mattered in our political leaders."  If the moral traditionalism that Wehner is talking about is Trump's type of decadence, not the supposed decadence of "the gay agenda" or the women's rights movement, then why does Wehner think liberals disagree with him?  Is Republicans' rejection of Barack Obama based on a belief in his moral decadence?

Similarly, in trying to explain conservatism, Times op-ed writer David Brooks rejects Trump because conservatives believe that "[w]hat happens in the family, neighborhood, house of worship and the heart is more fundamental and important than what happens in a legislature."  Again, I am a liberal, and I completely agree.  What happens in the legislature is ameliorative, and I would be delighted if legislation were to become unnecessary.

I will choose to see this as a reason for optimism.  Maybe Trump's candidacy will force many conservatives to say what really motivates them, and it will become obvious that their implicit accusations about what liberals supposedly believe are baseless.  I am not saying that we would no longer have disagreements about standard policy issues like taxes, foreign affairs, poverty, and so on.  But it would be obvious that the disagreements are about matters of degree, about the prioritization of social goals, and so on.

After all, if conservatives are laboring under the illusion that they have been at war with people who reject "moral traditionalism" of the sort that Wehner and Brooks seem to care about, then maybe Trump's ultimate gift will be in allowing people to see the obvious common ground that already exists between the never-Trump conservatives and liberals.  I am actually not optimistic, but if there is a way forward, this is it.