It happened first with Neil Gorsuch. And now, in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, NeverTrumpers have been asked again whether they can finally admit they were wrong and join their brothers and sisters on the Right who support the president.
As I hope I’ve shown in Part 1, there’s an awful lot that can hang on that word support. And answering whether or not those who don’t support Trump as a matter of conservative principle were mistaken depends entirely on what question is actually being asked. Charlie Cooke, the editor of nationalreview.com, recently addressed why this question is a little off:
“I can see why it made sense when the question was filtered through a choice…there was a choice in the primary. But now, he’s the president…and yet there is this odd call all the time—are you going to support him? Do you support him?—that is divorced from any sort of choice; and I never know what it means to support him…so when people say will you support him now? Do you think you were wrong? It reminds me of this sort of odd medieval view of one’s relationship to someone in power. Essentially, they are asking, will you pledge fealty to him? Will you pledge your life? And, I’m not quite sure what that means in practice—I mean, certainly I’m not going to die for him. But also, I’m not going to lie for him; and I’m not going to lie against him. If being opposed to Trump means I have to pretend he’s wrong when I think he’s right, I’m not doing it. And if supporting Trump means I have to pretend he’s right when I think he’s wrong, I’m not doing it either.”
The focus of this series is primarily exploring the dangers in morphing support for president Trump into the sort of fealty Charlie Cooke describes above. But let’s take a brief digression to answer the question another way around: does are you going to support Trump now? mean do you believe you made a mistake in not voting for Trump back then?
I chose to abstain from voting for president in 2016 because I felt the Republican and Democratic nominees were uniquely and almost equally unqualified and unfit for that office. In that sense you might say I was a NeverTrumper. But I want to be clear that I in no way believe I speak for the NeverTrump movement. The movement was comprised of so many varied groups and interests it wouldn’t be practical to speak on their behalf and—since the election—Trumplicans have largely succeeded in mischaracterizing the movement as exclusively RINO Republicans who secretly wanted Hillary Clinton to win all along.
But I can speak for myself. So, since hindsight is 20/20, in what ways was I wrong about Trump? And if I could do it all over, would I vote for (“support”) him?
How was I wrong about Trump?
One of the advantages of blogging is that I have a permanent record of my thoughts. In returning to some posts I had written in the runup to the 2016 elections, I can see that I had many concerns about Trump that did not—or at least have not yet—panned out. Here are three that stood out:
First – I was wrong about Trump’s motives for running
Attempting to discern someone’s motives for running for office is problematic from the outset, but Trump was such an unusual candidate that the political pundits were eager to speculate on what he was actually up to. Guesses ranged from this is all a big joke to he truly believes he’s the right guy for the job on down to he wants to be an American Mussolini. My concern in 2016 was that it was more the latter—that Trump had an authoritarian itch.
Unlike many on the Left or the so-called Resistance, I in no way thought Trump was Hitler-lite. I didn’t compare Trump with the likes of a Hitler or a Mussolini, or even a more benevolent dictator such as Francisco Franco. He simply didn’t have a history of ruthlessly seeking political power and seemed too much a buffoon to take seriously as a potential tyrant. Nevertheless, his insistence that our leaders are losers and morons and that he alone can Make America Great Again!, his complete disregard for constitutional restraints, his slandering of vulnerable ethnic groups, his calls for jailing, lawsuits, and physical violence on dissenters, his utopian promises of a bright tomorrow, and his admiration of dictatorships all pointed to the underpinnings of authoritarian ideas, even if a well-organized ideology or detailed agenda is lacking.
What I feared was someone seeking to be president out of an ambitious thirst for power. Trump may have no appreciation for constitutional limits, but he also appears to have no sinister plans for undermining the Constitution. The speed with which he successfully grafted in much of the Republican party’s platform seems evident that he’s more motivated by praise than power. He’s less interested in the steak than he is the sizzle. That’s hardly ideal in a leader, but it’s also not nearly as dangerous as electing an actual demagogue who seeks power for the sake of power.
Second – I was absolutely off base thinking he’d renege on his promise to appoint solid justices
With Trump’s penchant for changing his mind and breaking his word, I never expected him to appoint solid justices to the Supreme Court or lower courts. During the debates he’d openly boasted that his sister, who ruled in favor of giving constitutional protection to partial-birth abortion, would make a phenomenal Supreme Court justice.
It would appear Trump has been well pleased with the chorus of resounding praise from his base and the howls and shrieks of outrage from his opponents whenever he selects another name from the list of prescribed judges provided by the Heritage Foundation. I do not believe Trump is carefully selecting justices that best reflect his strong penchant for judicial restraint and constitutional originalism; but I do believe he’s willing to outsource that work to a think tank that does prefer that type of justice. Again, not ideal, but not as disastrous as I’d feared.
Third – I thought Trump would revert to courting liberals and pursuing liberal policies once elected
Having misjudged his motives and tendency to renege on the right-of-center policies he’d newly adopted during the campaign, I suspected him to be a liberal in sheep clothing and his radicalized populism on the right to be a ruse. I don’t mean that I supposed him to have had some grand scheme in which he wooed the hearts of the Republican base to get elected only to work hand in hand with the Democrats, but that, when push came to shove, he’d revert back to the sort of liberalism he’d happily contributed to in the past.
Generally speaking, none of that came true for most of the policies advanced by the president. The Trump administration is, arguably, the most “conservative” administration we’ve had since Ronald Reagan—at least from a policy perspective. And, while much of Trump’s rhetoric remains questionable, inconsistent, infuriating, or anti-conservative, much of his governing has been—happily—quite the opposite.
So…did I make a mistake in not voting for Trump?
Broadly speaking, I had four fears about a Trump presidency:
He would be an authoritarian who did irreparable harm to our civic institutions
He would advance a mostly liberal agenda
He would redefine conservatism into something it was not (trade wars/abandoning NATO)
He would further divide the nation as Obama had done and poison the national conversation
In retrospect, I was very wrong about his potential authoritarian motives, though I do believe he’s inadvertently inflicted damage to the health and respect of our civic institutions (#1) and I was mostly wrong about #2. However, my fears that he’s redefined what conservatism means in the minds of most Americans and that he’d further poison the national conversation and widen our political divide have mostly come to fruition. So as not to needlessly lengthen this post, I’ll just direct the reader to prior blog posts here and here, should you want to learn more about what I mean by that.
Whether a NeverTrumper now believes they should have voted for Trump probably depends on whether they shared my concerns above, and—if so—how they’d rank those concerns. Certainly, there are those who have been pleasantly surprised with how conservative-friendly the administration has been and now say they would vote for Trump if given the opportunity again. If your chief concern was the Trump would revert to his liberal past, then you’d certainly be justified in seeing clearly to vote for him now.
But that was never my chief concern, and I would not change my vote now if given the chance. Not out of spite, but because some of my fears—fears that prevented me from being able to support Trump in the first place, even if that meant Hillary Clinton might win—have come to pass. In the next two parts to this series I will delve a little deeper into what I mean. In Part 3 we’ll be looking at what support means for different things—our country, our faith, our leaders—and how important it is not to confuse one with the other. And then in Part 4 we’ll conclude the series with a look at how repulsive things can become when we do confuse one with the other. I hope that, whether or not you fully sympathize with my thinking, by the end of this series you will at least be able to see why you should never support Trump.