One of the recurring narratives being deployed by queasy Republican boosters of Donald Trump is that conservatives and libertarians who fret about his preference for big-government domestic policies, spending programs, anti-free market endeavors, and ideas that are deeply out-of-sync with core tenets of America’s system of civil liberties need not worry ourselves because he’ll never be able to actually do any of the problematic things he pledges to, should he be elected.
Vote Trump, they say, and you preserve the possibility of a decent Supreme Court going forward, without a risk of any of the left-of-center, authoritarian-tinged nonsense Trump has spent anything from months to decades espousing ever actually occurring because, hey, Congress won’t allow it.
Specifically, a Republican-dominated House won’t let him do things like move the health care system toward something more government-heavy and single-payer-esque, or push for higher taxes, or pursue liberal-friendly cronyist policies benefiting favored special interests, or decimate trade relationships, or round up and deport millions of people, or push the military to commit war crimes, and so on and so forth. They would stand up to Trump, we are told, and block his most objectionable schemes, making him a de facto lame duck from day one on numerous topics.
The narrative feels tempting to embrace, but it is inherently flawed—and it should be dismissed from the collective imagination of conservatives and libertarians post haste.
Let’s set aside the fact that matters touching on foreign policy are traditionally much more the purview of the executive branch than the legislative—and many of Trump’s more objectionable ideas fall within the foreign policy remit. Let’s also set aside the fact that courtesy of George W. Bush and Barack Obama and their pushing of supposed restraints on executive power (combined with Congress’ unwillingness to do much about it), the next president will have a lot more latitude for throwing his weight around than the electorate may think. Let’s set aside the fact that no one knows definitively what the Supreme Court will look like, into the future, or therefore how it might respond to such things.
The truth is that congressional Republicans—the ones we’re told will say “no”— are highly unlikely to stand up to a President Trump in any substantial measure, as a matter in and of itself. We know this because during both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations, these same congressional Republicans have shown an amazing willingness to wimp out and do little-to-nothing to push back on overreaching executives from both parties, or their unlimited government, anti-free market ideas. Their relationship with Donald J. Trump, with his ample reputation for bullying and throwing his weight around, is unlikely to be different—and their behavior toward him is already proving the point.
While it’s true that conservative and libertarian resistance to Trump remains more extensive than the presumptive nominee would like, and sits at a level that could potentially be very troublesome for him, electorally, many #nevertrump supporters have been astounded with the rapidity that prior vociferous critics of the Donald have jumped on board the Trump Train. That list now includes Speaker Paul Ryan, one of a few major names in the GOP that has previously shown some testicular fortitude vis a vis both Trump and other powerful bullies in politics. Many had hoped that elected Republicans and party leaders would, en masse, respond more the way that a Ben Sasse, a Mitt Romney, or even a Lindsey Graham has.
But for us cynics, those names predictably proved to be outliers. This was easily to be anticipated, given the Republican Party’s lengthy history of wussing out at a moment’s notice, while trying to claim some sort of proverbial cojones by virtue of clever phraseology or little-understood and zero-impact legislative maneuver. “Support but not endorse” is the new “held a non-binding protest vote, and then let the crappy piece of legislation through unimpeded,” and don’t be fooled into thinking otherwise.
Talk to any rock-ribbed conservative, and they’ll complain of congressional Republicans having wussed out when it came to actually getting rid of Obamacare, federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and a host of wasteful spending items (though they did technically eventually do away with earmarks). Some of the votes needed to accomplish these goals were arguably easier to take politically than, say, votes against TARP or the auto bailout. So, presumably, would have been votes against things like Medicare Part D. But go look at the tallies, as well as the public positioning and statements—congressional Republicans have not been as good as they want you to believe in opposing big government. Not even close. They can be cowed, and have been cowed—and if Obama and Bush could do it, you’d better believe Trump can and will.
Talk to any libertarian, and this critique will be worse: Congressional Republicans also show minimal interest in standing up for limited government when it comes to things like civil liberties, the Department of Homeland Security and various of its “security” endeavors, engagement abroad, or reining in the executive branch when it appears to get too big for its (strictly construed) constitutional britches. Yes, Republicans like Rand Paul will fight tooth and nail on all of these topics, but Paul is hardly exemplary of your average congressional Republican or even your average Republican power-broker in Congress—and there’s not much reason to think that November’s election returns will double or triple the power of the Paul types in the federal legislative branch, which would be the best way of preventing bad policy demanded by both Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The former Secretary of State, for her part, would be a disaster for the country, at least viewed from a right-of-center perspective. But so would Trump, especially given the Republican Party’s demonstrated wimpiness, as seen throughout the Obama and Bush 43 years.
Conservatives and libertarians need to recognize this reality before they decide how they will vote this fall, and Trump boosters should cease trying to argue with a straight face that people need not trouble themselves over his more outlandish proposals. The truth is far different—and the truth hurts.