NeverTrump Conservatives In a Futile Search For Relevance

by Neil H. Buchanan

One of the depressing parlor games of the post-November 8 era has been trying to explain how the presidential election was even close enough for Donald Trump to wriggle his way through the eye of the Electoral College needle.  The game always involves a writer offering some theory or other and ends with: "And that's how you get Trump!"

Everyone has played the game, and I am no exception.  In some ways, it is a necessary and healthy response to a shocking electoral outcome.  We really do need to know how a patently unqualified con man, a habitual liar who disqualified himself from the presidency many times over, somehow rode his needy narcissism and ignorance into a most unlikely and disastrous presidency.

What we do not need are the pat answers that essentially boil down to each commentator seizing on his favorite issue and saying that Trump's victory proves whatever he has been saying all along.  This is the post-Trump equivalent of former House Republican Leader Tom DeLay's infamous declamation after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that "[n]othing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes."

For people who are interested in doing more than riding hobbyhorses, the post-election discussion can be interesting and important.  And it can change minds.  Many people on the left (including me), for example, have spent much of our lives decrying the dog-whistles of racism on the right, but we truly did not believe that the country was as racist (or misogynistic or xenophobic) as it turned out to be last November.  It was an unpleasant surprise, but we need to update our views in the face of new evidence.

But there still are plenty of people who are trying to shoehorn everything that they have always believed into the effort to explain why Trump is now president.  In small ways and large, their efforts are revealingly empty.  NeverTrump conservatives are an especially rich source of examples of failed attempts to use Trump's rise to somehow justify the unpopular ideas that they have been pushing for years.

There was, for example, the moment this past January when Meryl Streep -- who is beyond all doubt the greatest actress of her generation -- tried to explain that "the arts" are important to society and should be supported, lest people end up with only "football and mixed martial arts" as entertainment options.  All too predictably, the conservative grievance train barreled out of the station.

The most ridiculous version of the right-wing response was when Senator John McCain's daughter Meghan tweeted: "This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won."  As I noted at the time, there was a too-easy retort based on the simple fact that Streep's speech had been delivered months after Election Day; but the idea that the younger McCain was most likely trying to express was that Streep's attitude was emblematic of the condescension that had soured the general mood of Trump's supposedly "forgotten" people.

I continue to find even that more generous explanation to be nonsense, but at least it constitutes an effort to try to paint a larger picture: People feel alienated; they feel the sting of "elite" disdain; so they vote for the outsider.  Were it not so obvious that Trump is a charlatan (and not at all a man of the people), that story might have gone a long way toward explaining the puzzle.

But especially after Trump's response to the neo-Nazi/KKK/white supremacist insanity in Charlottesville last month, it has become more and more difficult for people like me to continue to hope that Trump's remaining supporters include well-meaning people who were misled by a demagogue.

Even so, some might continue to argue that accumulated cultural grievances can explain some people's responses to Trump.  Do those grievances really add up to a case for non-bigoted people to vote for (and continue to support) Trump?  Not at all.

Trump repeatedly disparages so-called political correctness -- a usefully undefinable term that the right has used as a weapon for decades -- as a catchall category of derision, a tool to separate Real Americans from the despised denizens of The Swamp.

During the post-election transition period, Trump won Time magazine's "Person of the Year" award.  Trump, of course, wanted to brag about that dubious accomplishment (joining Adolph Hitler and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, among others), so he brought it up at his next victory rally.  In so doing, however, he inadvertently showed that there was no content to the idea that people were "tired of political correctness."

As is his wont, Trump veered into a stream of consciousness and mentioned that Time had changed the name of its annual award from "Man of the Year" some years before.  Without telling his adoring crowd which he preferred, he asked people to applaud if they preferred "Person of the Year" versus "Man of the Year."

Without knowing what answer was expected of them, Trump's crowd was split, with roughly equal amounts of tepid applause for both choices.  Only when Trump told them that he liked "Man of the Year" did they realize what answer he wanted from them.

The point is that there was no wellspring of angst -- among even the truly dedicated Trump devotees who drive to his rallies and shout "Lock her up!" and "Build the wall!" -- about this particular example of what is supposedly political correctness (but is actually a matter of simple accuracy).

Again, the reason that I have been thinking about all of this is that commentators continue to rack their brains to find non-bigoted reasons for people to have supported Trump -- and, much more to the point, to continue to support him, even in the face of everything we have seen since Election Day.  The only story that even begins to make sense is that Trump supposedly tapped into a general sense of unease about accelerated social change.

Apparently, the non-bigoted Trump supporter says to himself or herself: "I don't hate gay people, but I just don't feel comfortable with them, and now I'm not only supposed to like them but be okay with their getting married and using anyone's bathrooms.  And all these refugees from terrorist countries want in, and there are 11 million illegals here, and now black people don't respect cops.  And now it's 'Person of the Year.'  And I can't call women 'girls' or mention that someone's a Jew.  At some point, it's all too much!"

Again, that is a supposedly non-bigoted version of the inner monologue that we are supposed to imagine, with a person who is not hateful at his or her core essentially melting down because of too much change.  The punchline: "And that's how you get Trump!"

The problem with this explanation is that there is simply too much bigotry mixed into the supposed non-bigot's thought process.  There might well be people who are thinking along those lines, but those same people are probably also including complaints about how Mexicans are rapists and murderers and that all Muslims are terrorists.  At the very least, they are not repelled by the candidate who says those things out loud.

As I stated above, however, it is the NeverTrump conservatives who have been busily building narratives that justify their own policy preferences and end with: "And that's how you get Trump!"

I noted in a column last week that two of the conservative columnists at The New York Times had recently argued in separate columns that Trump's non-majority electoral win was caused by former President Obama's purported overreach in issuing guidance to colleges and universities to combat campus rape.

The argument is frankly too silly to recount in full here, but the basic idea was that Trump's voters supposedly recoiled when the Obama Education Department issued rules that tilted on-campus disciplinary proceedings in favor or accusers in rape cases.  All together now: "And that's how you get Trump!"

Let us leave aside for a moment the simple fact that the entire discussion about Trump supporters has been correctly built around the notion of "low information voters" who barely follow the news.  Fox News does push an anti-intellectual agenda by vilifying campus "liberal culture," but campus rape has hardly been a core element of that false narrative.

Even so, imagine that there are people who are "just good folks" but who simply needed one more straw to break the camel's back and turn them into Trump voters.  Is the story that they finally turned toward Trump because of Obama's Education Department's rules on campus rape?

We can, in fact, imagine even some not-so-very-good folks' thought processes as they morph into Trump voters:  "First I can't call the blacks coloreds or the Asians orientals, then the fairies get to marry each other and use whatever bathrooms they want, and the Jews already ruined Christmas.  I'm voting for Trump."

As ugly as that is, it is easy to imagine all too many Americans following something like that line of thought.  What is nearly impossible to imagine, however, is such a person saying, "All of that would have been fine, but now college boys don't get to rape the coeds?  OK, that's my breaking point!"

But let us be as generous as possible here and say that the conservative duo from The Times was really saying that Trump's voters included people who are generally appalled by the overreach of the government and would thus see the anti-rape initiative as a symptom of liberals' good intentions gone awry.

I honestly think that a fair reading of their op-eds does not justify such a move, but just to go the extra mile, we can see where this leads.  In the end, the story never really gets off the ground for the same reason that these supposedly principled conservatives lost control of the Republican Party last year: The self-styled conservative intellectuals do not have a constituency.

Conservatives were amazed when voters did not hate "entitlements" in the way that right-thinking people are supposed to hate those big-government programs like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid.  It turns out that people -- even, or especially, people who have cultural and racial grievances that push them into Republican politics -- genuinely like big government.

As we learned again this year during the debate over health care, people do not like regressive tax cuts or cutting people off from health insurance.  Even many Republican voters are happy that Medicaid exists and is not just an anti-poverty program but also helps middle class retirees after their assets have all been spent.

And if these ground troops of the Republican Party are not ultimately motivated by these high-profile matters that drive the true believers in the right-wing think tanks crazy, then why should we expect voters to view Education Department guidance about campus adjudications of rape to set off alarm bells about "kangaroo courts and star chambers"?

The fact is that the NeverTrump right is on solid ground when they look at Trump and his supporters and say that the world is in danger.  But so-called principled conservatism has never actually been popular.

It is therefore ridiculous to see self-described conservative intellectuals imagining that a narrow (albeit highly important in its own context) skirmish over the appropriate limits of administrative procedure is an excuse to say: "And that's how you get Trump!"

No, that is how these conservative writers have long believed their party's voters think.  That was always a fantasy, and it is becoming ever more absurd for them to cling to it.