The Task Now for Conservatives: Hope for the Best, Assume the Worst, Rebuild Our Movement
The voters spoke. I was wrong. I still think Trump’s going to be a disastrous president. Real conservatives will need to pick up the pieces.
Let's get the mea culpas out of the way.
I said Donald Trump could never be elected, confidently fueled by the empirical data of professional polling, a certainty in the vital necessity of field operations, and the knowledge his own campaign team (even on the night of the election) was ratting out the shambolic train wreck his campaign had been. I was wrong.
I believed that the numbers and processes of modern campaigning that revolve around the meticulous use of data would matter in 2016. I believed Trump was merely a spectacle, a political sideshow who would be dispatched by the well-funded and the well-staffed major campaigns.
I believed the media would find the courage to cover the seamier opposition research hits on Trump, which were as compelling as they were revolting. I believed that people of faith, particularly the professional evangelical class, would find Trump's lifelong behavior, his prior embrace of abortion, his professed serial abuse of women, his proven adultery, the scuzzy low-rent casinos that made his fortune, and only notional Christian faith to be disqualifying.
I believed the kompromat tapes, thoroughly known and discussed in the U.S. and European intelligence communities, would emerge, and Trump's deep, long-denied ties to Russian interests would convince national security voters that the Bewigged Manchurian would present Putin with the greatest intelligence coup in history, and put our nation at risk.
As Trump mainstreamed racial animus, shrugged at David Duke, embraced the alt-Reich's support, attacked Muslims with unbridled ferocity, and promised mass roundups and deportations of Latinos, I also believed Americans of all races and creeds would be repulsed by his behavior.
I believed conservatism's future was driven by principle, not by celebrity. I believed that a majority of the conservative movement and the conservative media would recognize the authoritarian, statist and anti-Constitutional nature of both Trump's beliefs and his stated policies. I foolishly believed that conservative media figures with the deepest reach, the biggest audiences and the loudest voices would use their power responsibly. Wow, was I wrong.
Donald Trump has been elected by the American people. Democrats—who from pure incompetence richly deserve their fate—are facing a tough electoral road in 2018, have a thin field for 2020, and a future where the federal courts will be reshaped in ways that mitigate their strategy of achieving through litigation what they cannot through persuasion. As a conservative, I find this to be a thin reed to grasp in the era of Trump, but reeds are pretty rare right now.
The Democratic coalition, too long reliant on the dynamics of stunt casting, just didn't love Hillary Clinton passionately enough for a win. Her field and turnout operations couldn't replicate Obama's, and she never could grow out of being, well...Hillary. James Comey halted her progress in the closing two weeks of the campaign, but she was easily the worst possible Democratic candidate since Mike Dukakis. On Earth 2 right now, Joe Biden is out doing donuts on Mar-a-Lago's meticulously manicured lawn in a rented Corvette.
Trump fans convinced of his strategic genius are welcome to their view, but they're wrong. His own campaign team was utterly convinced that they would lose, and were blame-storming with reporters so until the numbers rolled in. The revisionism of this week (“We knew it all along!”) is just that—revisionism. At the Electoral College level, the historic collapse of Democratic turnout was more consequential than Republican turnout, and no one—not the pros, not the media, not the Clinton campaign, and not the Trump campaign, saw it coming.
Rather, Trump's team proves the old terrorist adage, “You have to be lucky every time. We only have to be lucky once.” For all that, lucky he was, and he's the President-elect of the United States and in January of next year will take the oath of office.
It no longer matters if Trump is corrupt, mentally unstable, or lacks the moral character and intellect to hold the office. The voters have spoken. Like many, I hope for the best but am obliged to plan for the worst, not only for the nation but for the conservative movement.
The delta between party and principle has never been wider than in 2016. A large plurality of the Trump electorate believed the definition of “conservative” was simply “Not Hillary.” The monetized right's media cheerleaders gave Trump every ideological pass in the book, and for those of us who care about free markets, free speech, and the constitutional principles of liberty, equality, and opportunity now view the Trump Republican Party warily, if not fearfully. His shoddy intellect, child's temperament, and judgment are all on constant and horrifying display. The ugliness and internal bickering of transition are just a preview.
If he allows nationalist populism to outweigh American values, and for the Bannon/Spencer/Duke wing of the Trump party to thrive and grow with his tacit approval, he'll bend the long arc of history toward something dark and shameful. If Trump keeps his promises – mass deportations, the wall, national-stop-and-frisk, broad new economic regulation, shredding trade deals, bans on religious minorities, the abrogation of the free speech rights and the rest – the country faces economic, political, and moral hazards driven by the Oval Office like no administration in memory.
Trump is prepared to push not only a trillion-dollar stimulus, a massive tax cut and a military buildup, but promises to do so without touching entitlements. And he'll do this while wrecking international trade agreements that power millions of American jobs. He continues to hold a set of economic principles and a view of international relations that will terrify markets and allies alike when he takes the reins of power.
If he appoints the rogues' gallery of characters who are touted as his Cabinet picks, prepare for four years of dark comedy, Carteresque incompetence and an eventual wave of special prosecutors as Scamalot unfolds. Past a few marquee names at the top, Washington's panic is rising that Trump will sweep in a wave of business associates and family members into key government positions.
Many of the men named as potential Cabinet picks to date have, to put it mildly, less impulse control than one might hope. The mere possibility of a Newt Gingrich or a Sarah Palin in the Trump Cabinet is already peaking lulz detectors worldwide.
His dynastic aspirations are becoming clearer by the day as Trump has pushed to have his family embedded in the core of government. In the minds of his fanatics, the Trumps are a royal family with everything but titles of nobility, and I imagine he'll have the White House Counsel looking hard at Article I, Section 9, once he's sworn in. Last time I checked, Clause 8, which bars titles of nobility, doesn't have a Trump exception.
While a Trump who keeps his promises is dangerous, a Trump breaking some of them—particularly the ones that stoked his base—is inevitable. If Trump does as he has with literally every other major relationship and transaction in his personal and business life, he'll happily abandon the promises he made to the people he successfully conned. When he fails to build a big, beautiful wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, leaves huge chucks of Obamacare intact, or when his hokey, half-assed economic nostrums fail, and America doesn't turn into a coal-extractin' steel-makin' manufacturin' lily-white 1950s economic superpower, the monster he raised will bite back. I expect that while many of the Trump cult will never, ever abandon the Dear Leader, there is a vast, economically-terrified percentage of his electorate who will lose it when his con is revealed.
They'll find Trump's walk-backs on his key promises, the friction of Washington, and the realities of governing less glamorous than big rallies, inchoate anger and red hats. They voted for Trump because he stoked their fervid revanchism, and was the furthest person from a politician. The purity of their belief that he was telling the truth is going to make the crash harder than the Monday after a weekend oxy-and-tequila binge.
Nonetheless, he's President-elect. The fight to stop him was worth every effort and every moment but it was a fight that failed at the ballot box. The fight to save center-right conservatism is the new battlefield, and one worth even more effort.
Conservatives will be tested severely and constantly in the coming years. It's up to us to hold Republicans to account when they deviate into the comfortable "but he's a Republican, so it's okay" mindset. During the Bush Administration, that led us to the ideological and electoral disasters of 2006 and 2008: vast expansions for federal power, new entitlements, wild spending, and bank bailouts which led to disheartened and defeated Republicans in the House and the Senate.
It's up to a new conservative movement to provide stronger voices for the better values that have defined this nation's long journey and to offer a smarter, more human, and more modern path than the grubby, racially-inflected nationalism that too many of Trump's supporters have embraced. Center-right conservatism is on fire with ideas; it's incumbent on a new conservative movement to fight for them.
Good and bad leaders all pass, with either great consequence or great danger to the fabric of the Republic. Trump is not the end of America, just as Obama wasn't. Those of us who revere the Constitution are obliged to respect the decision of the electorate, and we will pray President Trump will be granted more wisdom and probity than Citizen Trump has ever displayed.
As my friend Ben Howe noted, a core premise of the Never Trump movement wasn't simply that he'd lose; it was that he'd be a bad and dangerous President, not only for conservatives but for the nation. We're about to test the latter part of that theory.