The sight of conservative Republicans cheering President Trump as a great success in his first year in office tells us much about the state of conservatism and the future of the GOP. There are two components to the reverential treatment of Trump: first, praise for allegedly conservative wins, and second, a willingness to tolerate falsehoods and attacks upon democratic norms and the American creed, as though these are matters of style.
As to the first, “conservatism” these days has become (both in the eyes of liberals who think conservatism is interchangeable with “right-wing extremism” and those claiming the conservative mantle) a cartoon version of itself. A tax cut that grows the deficit and gives disproportionate benefits to the rich is a “win” and “conservative” because, because … why? Because conservatism demands that whatever the needs of the moment and whatever the politics, the first order of business is to starve the government of revenue? Tax cuts unmoored from reasonable ends (e.g. fiscal sobriety, focused help for the working and middle class) are not “conservative”; deficits and widening of income inequality should not be cause for celebration.
Likewise, denying climate change or calling all regulatory repeal “conservative” (is it conservative to allow restaurants to take away employees’ tips?) doesn’t strike us as evidence of truth-based, modest government. In sum, much of the cheering for “conservative” ends skips over the details, disregards the substance and ignores context — none of which are indices of conservative thought. It is not conservative to favor reversing everything President Barack Obama did without regard to changed circumstances or alternatives. That doesn’t make Obama’s political legacy wonderful; it makes those advocating blind destruction without reasoned alternatives anything but conservative.
Moreover, the president’s policies seeking to ban Muslims, break up families, run roughshod over local policing priorities, treat those from poor countries as undesirables and build a useless wall derive from a very unconservative aversion to immigration. Means that do not respect values that conservatives used to hold dear (e.g. free markets, federalism, family unity) are no cause for celebration.
In sum, if conservatives think Trump’s accomplishments are conservative, then conservatism has morphed into something foreign to those who spent decades advocating a governing philosophy rooted in opportunity for all, civility, federalism, the rule of law, free markets and limited but vigorous government. Trump’s “accomplishments” are a dumbed-down version, a distortion of conservative policy prescriptions that require one to overlook the substance of what he has achieved.
Even more than celebrating an extreme, distorted view of conservatism, Trump’s right-wing apologists would have us treat Trump’s racism, attacks on democratic norms, dishonesty and contempt for independent democratic institutions as matters of style. “Well I don’t much like his tweeting but …” “Well, we don’t really agree that there are good people on the neo-Nazi side.” “Well, we all knew he was a bit of a liar.”
Call this the “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” syndrome. If one puts racism so far down the list of priorities that it barely deserves a raised eyebrow — or worse, requires some fudging to cover it up — one has become an enabler of racism. If one brushes off repeated, deliberate falsehoods because they are embarrassing, one becomes an enabler of lying, a handmaiden to attacks on objective truth. These are not inconsequential matters; they are not style issues. Truth-telling and repudiation of racism are or should be top principles both for America and for conservatism.
The “shithole” episode vividly illustrates this. The sentiment underlying Trump’s attack on African immigrants entails a repudiation of the “all men are created equal” creed, a disregard of facts (e.g., education levels of African immigrants) and a rejection of economic reality verging on illiteracy. (We do need skilled and unskilled workers, we do not have a finite number of jobs, etc.) Put on top of that the willingness to prevaricate (Well, if we say it was “shithouse” and not “shithole,” we can say Sen. Dick Durbin was lying!) and you have an assault on principles that are the foundation for our democracy and for conservatism (or what it used to be). It’s not a minor episode. It’s in many ways a defining episode, not only for Trump but, worse, for his defenders.
The assertion that we can disregard everything the president says so long as it does not become cemented in law misconceives the role of the presidency and ignores his oath. It suggests, contrary to conservative dogma, that words and political culture do not matter. The president in our system is not the bill signer in chief, to be evaluated only on the regulations and laws he signs off on (which, as discussed above, if one cares to examine closely are largely unwise and ill-conceived). His oath was not to produce tax cuts or regulatory rollbacks. He swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, including reverence for the First Amendment, an independent judiciary and equal protection under the law. Conservatives should not overlook his daily assault on all of those concepts, unless one wants to reduce conservatism to “getting a 20 percent pass-through deduction” and other ill-designed policy nuggets.
The party and Trump apologists who brandish the conservative moniker, we fear, have lost their way. They’ve ceased to think deeply about the substance of policy and its effects, but worse, they have inverted their once-claimed priorities. What is most important — democratic norms and objective truth — is now for too many an afterthought, and Trump’s evisceration of the same, mere differences in style. We cannot abide by this, and neither should Americans of whatever political stripe.
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