Lessons for anti-Trump conservatives — from an anti-Bush conservative
How conservatives can express their opposition to Trump — without sounding like liberals
Almost a year into his presidency, Donald Trump is still causing a conservative crack-up. In office, he has exhibited the behavioral tendencies many of us feared, while at the same time governing as a more normal Republican than we expected, for both good and ill.
The tensions over how to deal with all this while remaining faithful to conservative principles recently boiled over into a Festivus-like airing of grievances. It started with National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke publishing a detailed takedown of Washington Post conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin, arguing that her animus against Trump has overtaken her conservatism. The Atlantic's David Frum defended her by way of claiming too many #NeverTrump conservatives have caved to their largely pro-Trump audiences. Erick Erickson and other conservative bystanders just laughed.
It's tempting to weigh in on which conservative writers are cashing in on Trump's presidency and which are selling out. But I was a conservative critic of George W. Bush and began my journalism career at an anti-Bush conservative magazine. Therefore, I see this debate from an unusual vantage point. On an issue-by-issue checklist, I agreed with Bush much of the time. I nevertheless thought the questions on which he was wrong were more important, and he would be a net negative for conservatism. Sound familiar?
In our binary political culture, it is very difficult to oppose a Republican president without sounding like a liberal. This is especially true when that president isn't doing something that most other conservatives oppose, like when George H.W. Bush signed a tax increase, but something most them support, like when his son invaded Iraq.
Not only did the whole Iraq project seem counterintuitive and ineffectual as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the ideas undergirding it, expressed for example in Bush 43's second inaugural address, didn't seem very conservative. The three most important conservative columnists in the country — William F. Buckley Jr., Robert Novak, and George Will — all came around to this viewpoint, though unfortunately only Novak did so before the Iraq war started and only Will was still alive when it (more or less) ended. Most other conservatives thought our objections to Bush were peacenik gobbledygook, if not outright "unpatriotic."
To oppose a president of your own party for the first time in your life and to have so few people in your ideological movement agree with you is an inherently radicalizing experience. Suddenly, the people cheering your words are mostly from the "other side." It challenges your assumptions.
Some of the anti-Bush conservatives were already pretty radical to start with. #NeverTrump was dominated by people who were respectably mainstream, which in some ways makes the rejection of the grassroots even harder to take. It is therefore easy to start out fancying yourself as being to the right of movement conservatism and end up sounding like bitter ex-conservatives. Reagan-era supply-sider Bruce Bartlett is my favorite example, an erstwhile conservative columnist radicalized by both Bush and Trump. He has gone in short order from Bush being a liberal to Barack Obama being a conservative to calling people whose views he once substantially shared "wankers."
Similarly, The Washington Post's Rubin has previously gone from excoriating Mitt Romney in 2007 to extolling his virtues by 2012, then moving in the opposite direction on Rick Santorum over the course of one campaign. But there was always continuity in her underlying policy preferences: She supported the most hawkish viable candidate for the GOP nomination, with occasional praise for also-rans who made similar arguments, and criticized the challenger who most jeopardized that candidate's chances. Under Trump, her writing has been more reminiscent of when some antiwar conservatives supported the pro-war liberal John Kerry for president in 2004 to protest Bush.
It is fair game for Rubin to decide railing against Trump, who is in power, is a better use of her platform than criticizing Democrats, who are mostly out of power. But it is understandable that people are going to object to her opposing policies she would almost certainly support under a different Republican president while being marketed as The Washington Post's conservative voice.
You can change your mind about your basic political affiliations, or you can keep those affiliations and try to change your erring brethren's minds. It is difficult, if not impossible, to do both.