It is a convenient but false narrative: “Squishy” Republicans are capitulating to Donald Trump; “real” conservatives are not. It is the kind of false dichotomy, ironically, that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) specializes in: Opponents are sellouts. Our troops are the true patriots.
In fact, some very moderate Republicans — people Cruz despises — have been leading the charge against Trump, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeb Bush — remember him? He was the one pummeling Trump day in and out. (A lot of good it did him in the primary.) Oh, and let’s not forget Mitt Romney (whom Cruz has mocked for painting in pastels rather than bold colors). They are as devoted to the #NeverTrump cause as are more conservative figures such as former Texas governor Rick Perry and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). All of them believe in high standards and conservative principles; they just may differ on specifically what those are or how they are addressed.
You see, “moderate” and “somewhat conservative” Republicans are principled, too; ignoring and ridiculing them leaves one with a sliver of a base, which is precisely Cruz’s current dilemma. He now needs principled but more ideologically diverse support; he’s not getting it, both because of his personal failings and his own difficulty in presenting an overarching message that attracts Republicans of all stripes.
Likewise, there are some uber-conservatives (or at least that’s what they claim to be) who are cheering the Trump parade, or even leading it. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Newt Gingrich, numerous members of the Freedom Caucus and apologists in the right-wing media are all rock-ribbed Republicans, or so they say. They are all cheering Trump, along with party insiders who have fallen prey to fatalism.
So what to make of this? Cruz actually has it very wrong. There are Republicans with intellectual integrity, devotion to limited government, faith in free markets and a commitment to civility who do not see issues precisely Cruz’s way. They have different priorities, see trade-offs and evaluate consequences of actions differently. But they do not approve of Trump’s irrational, know-nothing politics or his intolerant, mean persona. They should be Cruz allies, but they’ve been told that they are sellouts, squishes and disloyal conservatives, so they struggle to give him their support. Cruz, from all appearances, has been at war with them for four years; it’s not so easy to vote strategically for him in order to stop Trump. (If only there was a place on the ballot for “Don’t give Trump the delegates.”)
In attempting to define the division between Trump and #NeverTrump, too many commentators proceed with the erroneous assumption that ideology is the be-all and end-all of politics. Not counting the sheer opportunists who hope to ride the Trump train to wealth and power, the Trump and not-Trump division is between the bitter and the hopeful; the blame-mongers and the solution-seekers; the know-nothings and the policy wonks; the atavistic and the optimistic; the crass and the respectful. Those divisions defy neat ideological categories.
Arthur Brooks put it succinctly, as he dismissed the notion that we would ever round up and expel millions of people: “I don’t think it’s a good idea. It’s probably not constitutional for a lot of different reasons, but beyond that I think that it doesn’t pass the test of basic morality.” More generally, he explained, “I think the way I want conservatism to look in this country is very humanistic.”
That, by the way, is the only way conservatism is going to survive — by focusing concern on the lives of fellow Americans, tolerating cultural differences, shouldering America’s unique obligations in the world and respectfully making the case that conservative solutions are better than the alternative. Whatever you want to call that — Reform Conservatism, Humanistic Conservatism, Paul Ryan conservatism, Opportunity Society — it begins with a commitment to simple decency and civil dialogue. It eschews made-up issues and rewritten history. Those voices are increasingly incompatible with Trumpkins who engage in emotion-laden conspiracies, authoritarianism and a Malthusian battle for a bigger share of a fixed pie.
Whether Trump wins the nomination or not, there must be a reckoning and most likely a divorce. Trumpism must be left to wither and die, just as the John Birchers were left to stew in their own venom so that the modern conservative movement could succeed. If he wins, Trump can have the old Republican Party to himself (the isolationists, nativists, xenophobes, misogynists and soulless Republican National Committee bureaucrats); the rest will search for an alternative candidate and eventually a new political organization. If that’s what it takes, so be it.