The empty calories of the anti-Trump movement

Enough of this aristocratic self-congratulating

President Donald Trump speaks at CPAC.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Another week, another few Never Trump conservatives denouncing the collapse of the Republican Party into know-nothing bigotry, tribalism, cronyism, and corruption, and receiving plaudits from their peers in the pundit class for their truth-telling bravery.

The latest examples are Mona Charen's combative remarks at the CPAC conference in Washington, her follow-up column about it in The New York Times, and then Max Boot's amplification of both in his latest anti-Trump broadside in The Washington Post.

Now, don't get me wrong: The GOP has in fact collapsed into know-nothing bigotry, tribalism, cronyism, and corruption, and it is indeed a delightful thing to hear this truth spoken by people who used to identify and associate with the conservative movement. But such admirable gestures of defiance are getting old very fast. They're the political equivalent of empty calories.

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Condemning the Trumpification of the American right simply isn't a viable politics — at least for those who are most fond of it.

A fair number of Never Trump pundits appear to think otherwise. Foremost among them is Benjamin Wittes, whose website (Lawfare) thoughtfully covers the Trump administration's assaults on the rule of law and shredding of political norms in the executive branch, especially as it touches on the intelligence community and the Mueller investigation.

Wittes first suggested before the 2016 election that partisans on both sides of the ideological divide should come together to oppose Donald Trump. He's since elaborated on the proposal, and fleshed it out in an essay in The Atlantic (co-authored with Jonathan Rauch). The case can be summarized as the conviction that partisan differences should be set aside in favor of a unified front of anti-Trumpism in the name of honor, integrity, and the upholding of liberal democratic norms.

The problem is that this is just a more high-minded form of the negative partisanship that increasingly prevails in our politics — and a particularly desiccated form at that, since it abstracts from any policy content at all. Instead of saying, "vote against the Trumpified GOP because its pursuit of policies x, y, and z is bad," people are urged, instead, to vote against the Trumpified GOP because the administration, and especially the president himself, is supposedly doing politics wrong. This is a process message focused almost exclusively on the how of government instead of the what.

Unfortunately, there is only a tiny constituency for such a message — at least outside of opinion journalists and those who work in the federal government. That's because the message about the importance of norms and formality is, at bottom, an aristocratic one. Recognizing this is imperative, because it helps us to see that what's really been going on in the GOP since President Trump rose to top of the field of candidates in the run-up to the 2016 primary contest is a democratic insurgency against the entrenched elites who've been running the party and the conservative movement since the time of Ronald Reagan.

This doesn't mean that Trump is a genuine small-d democrat. Far from it. He's an oligarchic demagogue. But the demagoguery worked because Trump set himself up as the tribune of rank-and-file GOP voters (the Republican demos) who had had enough of the rule of the institutional party's movers-and-shakers — people very much like, well, Charen, Boot, and Wittes.

Ever since the modern right came together in Barry Goldwater's campaign of 1964 and Richard Nixon's largely successful effort in 1972 to court the disaffected whites who had voted for George Wallace in 1968, there's been a tense alliance between ordinary Republicans and the party's elites. From Nixon on, the leadership of the party has tacitly proposed the following deal: Vote for us, and we'll run the show in your name, using our power and expertise to benefit both you and the country as a whole.

This arrangement held steady through the Reagan administration. The demos became restive under George H.W. Bush, especially after he broke his "no new taxes" pledge. Then it went nuts, with elite encouragement, under Bill Clinton. Things settled down under George W. Bush, especially after 9/11, when all levels of the party closed ranks around the president. But then the demos lost it again under Barack Obama, with more elite encouragement — only this time the furor never died down, in part because Trump stirred it up more effectively than anyone since Wallace, and directed it against the leadership of both parties.

With Trump's implausible and extremely narrow Electoral College victory in November 2016, the Republican demos finally overturned the old division of labor in the party. Many of the same old party elites were allowed to keep their jobs (in return for demonstrations of loyalty), but a new crowd was now calling the shots. They were gruff, unschooled in public policy, and indifferent or openly hostile to the "norms" of governance that have prevailed across Democratic and Republican administrations going back decades. Republicans who have refused to make amends or play by the new, looser rules have found themselves frozen out of power entirely.

Those are the remaining Never Trump Republicans. Their political stance is aristocratic because it amounts to saying that the country was better off when virtuous people like themselves were running the show, instead of the corrupt and ignorant peons currently calling the shots.

Even if that's true — and I think it is — it's obviously not an especially compelling political message. The fact is that it's only in comparison to the uniquely loutish and mean-spirited ineptitude of the Trump administration that the well-meaning but nonetheless bumbling incompetence of the last Republican administration looks like a model of good governance. Can anyone in 2018 seriously believe that the path forward for the right involves giving power back to the paragons of political wisdom who devised or cheered on the world-historical debacle of the Iraq War and presided over the economic collapse of 2008?

The battle's been lost. The GOP has been Trumpified. And one reason why is that the very same people currently enjoying widespread acclaim for their outspoken criticism of the president failed so miserably when they were the ones in charge.

One needn't think that those who come out on top in a revolution deserve their victory in order to recognize that the deposed deserved their fall.

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