Bomb squad

Anti-Trump conservatives want to reverse the GOP’s destruction. But they helped light the fuse.

Bomb squad

Anti-Trump conservatives want to reverse the GOP’s destruction. But they helped light the fuse.

It is a requirement of the political exile to write a book decrying the forces that drove you away. The task becomes a bit awkward, however, when you’re exiled not from your old country but just your old green room; when your former comrades are not in hiding but in power; when you insist that you’re the same while everyone else has suddenly changed, even if the changes began long ago and you chose not to notice.

Outlook • Book review
Carlos Lozada is the nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post. He has also served as The Post’s economics editor, national security editor and Outlook editor. He received the 2015 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing. Follow @CarlosLozadaWP
Illustration by Pete Ryan for The Washington Post

When, that is, you’re a Never Trump conservative trying to survive in Trump’s America.

The Never Trumpers — that dwindling band of conservative intellectuals, journalists, campaign hands and elected officials who’ve opposed Donald Trump since the 2016 race — have earned the right to name names. They assail the president’s values and impulses, and they pillory his Republican enablers for discarding their long-held, or at least long-proclaimed, conservative principles. Though they worry about Trump’s impact on democratic norms and the rule of law, the Never Trumpers are especially concerned about the fate of their party and movement. Their book titles give it away: “The Corrosion of Conservatism” by Max Boot. “Everything Trump Touches Dies” by Rick Wilson. “How the Right Lost Its Mind” by Charles J. Sykes. “Conscience of a Conservative” by Jeff Flake.

It’s not an easy perch. Trump supporters loathe them, anti-Trump liberals don’t trust them, and the pressures to give in are real. In their books, the Never Trumpers express both outrage and disillusionment; they revel in their excommunication and bemoan their newfound isolation.

Yet they often falter when reckoning with their own role, witting or not, in what came to pass. If conservatism has been hijacked by Trump, as they argue, who left it so vulnerable? These writers pose the question, but their answers feel like mere feints at accountability, more meh culpa than mea culpa. The Never Trumpers hold everyone culpable for the appeal of Trumpism except, in any worthwhile way, themselves.

President Trump is the embodiment of a culture that’s more Real Housewives and less Shining City on a Hill, writes GOP strategist Rick Wilson, who in his book also insults Trump's voters and advisers. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

‘For me 2016 was a brutal, disorienting, disillusioning slog,” Sykes, a former longtime conservative radio host, writes in the introduction to his 2017 book, among the earliest of the genre. “There came a moment when I realized that conservatives had created an alternative reality bubble and that I had perhaps helped shape it . . . Did we — did I — contribute to this prairie fire of bigotry and xenophobia that seemed to grip so many on the Right?”

This dramatic query proves largely rhetorical, however, with Sykes faulting himself mainly for benign neglect. “For years, we ignored the birthers, the racists, the truthers, and other conspiracy theorists,” he writes. “We treated them like your obnoxious uncle at Thanksgiving . . . whose quirks could be indulged or at least ignored.” Sykes did so hoping that “the center would always hold, things would not fall apart, and principled conservatives would rise to the occasion. Except they didn’t.” Now he denounces the abandonment of gradualism, civility and expertise, and he worries about the “repudiation of the conservative mind” — a repudiation that transpired while respectable, indulgent conservatives such as him waited for someone else to yell, “Stop!”

Wilson, a veteran Republican campaign strategist, cops to “a stirring bit of guilt” for his role in creating the “Frankenstein monster” that became the Republican base in the Obama years. “We fed the monster and trained it,” he acknowledges in his book’s introduction. “Then Trump came along. We lost control of those tools, the party, and the movement. The monster is out of its cage.” A true first-person, insider account of the creation and unleashing of the base could have made for a stirring read. But beyond noting that he should have seen it coming — “let’s get this mea culpa out of the way,” Wilson writes — he spends nearly all 300-plus pages of his book blaming everyone else for the outcome of his experiment.

And he does so in the crudest terms. First there is Trump, whom Wilson never ceases to insult. “A monster from the laboratory of a jackass mad scientist . . . the living, s—-y embodiment of a culture that’s more Real Housewives and less Shining City on a Hill . . . a self obsessed Narcissus in a fright wig” with a “Liberace-meets-Saddam decorating style” — and all that’s just on Page 86. He also trashes the Trump fans within the base he helped shape: “I know you’re in an oxy stupor much of the time, so I’ll try to move slowly and not use big words.” Wilson attacks Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz and Mike Pence, and he says Newt Gingrich “started twerking [for Trump] faster than a five-buck stripper.” Such sexualized put-downs abound in Wilson’s book. White House adviser Stephen Miller “needs to spend a week getting laid.” Wilson finds Trump campaign adviser Carter Page “reeking of late-stage virginity.” And the white-nationalist alt-right movement is a bunch of “pudgy white boys from lower-middle-class suburbs who couldn’t find a woman’s clitoris with a GPS and a magnifying glass.”

By Max Boot. Liveright. 260 pp. $24.95
By Rick Wilson. Free Press. 327 pp. $27
By Charles J. Sykes. St. Martin’s Press. 267 pp. $27.99
By Jeff Flake. Random House. 1400 pp. $27

Maybe some people find this funny or edgy, perhaps on Twitter, where @TheRickWilson has nearly 450,000 followers. But it’s just revolting, even more so at book length. Oblivious, Wilson then laments the “fashionable cruelty” of the Trump era, with its “endless stream of dick-joke-level insults.” Write what you know, I suppose. He concludes that our outrage politics are “juvenile, repellent, and self-limiting.” So is his book.

More thoughtful, but still confusing by turns, is Boot’s “The Corrosion of Conservatism,” published shortly before the recent midterm elections. “Did I somehow contribute to the rise of this dark force in American life with my advocacy for conservatism?” the author asks in his prologue, looking back on his career as a Wall Street Journal opinion editor and foreign policy adviser to presidential candidates John McCain and Marco Rubio. The election of Trump sent the author on “a painful and difficult intellectual journey.” During that journey, he comes to regret his stubborn advocacy for the Iraq War and decides that his free-market ideology contributed to the economic troubles of Trump supporters.

Yet Boot, who now writes for The Washington Post’s opinion page, is caught in a contradiction he seems not to notice. He spends chunks of the book criticizing GOP leaders “willing to discard their principles” to strengthen their power and avoid Trump’s Twitter wrath. Congressional Republicans now represent a party with few defining conservative values, he writes, other than promoting Trump’s compulsion of the moment. House Speaker Paul Ryan (“a pathetic appeaser”) and Sen. Rubio (“I thought he was a man of principle”) come in for particular grief. “How could all these eminences that I had worked with, and respected, sell out their professed principles?”

Except Boot also argues that grand conservative principles are all tainted, anyway. “Upon closer examination, it’s obvious that the whole history of modern conservatism is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, ignorance, isolationism, and know-nothingism,” he writes. With the convert’s zeal (Boot switched from Republican to independent the day after the 2016 election), the author now glimpses conservatism’s dark side. “It’s amazing how little you can see when your eyes are closed!” he writes. Boot, who began subscribing to National Review at age 13, admits here that he had never read Barry Goldwater’s “actual words,” and now that he has, he has decided the late Arizona senator and conservative luminary was an extremist. (I hear that Goldwater may even have given a speech to that effect.) It’s a remarkable admission for a self-described movement conservative and “sophisticate.” Boot confesses to have undergone a decades-long “brainwashing,” at times having simply parroted standard conservative views without grasping the underlying issues.

“I have spent most of my life as part of a political movement that has revealed itself to be morally and intellectually bankrupt,” Boot writes. “This is a chastening lesson about the price of loyalty.” It is also a revealing lesson on the insularity and posturing of the conservative intellectual community. The author concludes his book professing his reasonableness in a series of arenas: pro-environment, pro-gun-control and pro-immigration, as well as pro-free-trade, pro-fiscal-conservatism, strong on defense. Boot now realizes he is a “Rockefeller Republican,” which is to say an extinct one.

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona has certainly read his Goldwater, and he takes the title of his eloquent 2017 manifesto from Goldwater’s 1960 book. He worries that the Republican Party, once the “party of ideas,” has suffered a crisis of confidence, embracing instead the politics of incoherence. “Never has a party so quickly or easily abandoned its core principles as my party did in the course of the 2016 campaign,” he writes. “We conservatives too often didn’t have the courage of our convictions. Call us willing accomplices. The instant a flashy new novelty act came along, shredding conservative orthodoxy in the name of ‘telling it like it is,’ we bailed.” He says this conservative collapse happened “seemingly overnight,” though he notes that the broader governance failures afflicting Washington date far before the 2016 race, including to the Gingrich era in Congress. “We poisoned the civic fountain from which we all drink,” he writes, “with predictable results.”

Flake, who has frustrated supporters as well as opponents of the president by criticizing Trump in high-profile speeches while usually voting in line with his positions (the senator is a conservative, after all), calls for renewed introspection on the right. “We must never shirk our obligation to examine ourselves,” he admonishes. Yet throughout the book, Flake relies heavily on the “we” pronoun, which serves to diffuse responsibility as much as assign it. “We all but ensured the rise of Donald Trump,” Flake writes. Who is we?

The lone instance in his book where Flake reconsiders a specific action of his own involves his 2008 House vote against the massive Troubled Asset Relief Program. He opposed the TARP bailout package to showcase his fiscal prudence while privately hoping it would pass. “At a moment of national and global crisis, that vote was an abdication of my responsibility,” he now writes. It’s a valuable insight — that maintaining ideological purity to score political points is a sham — but a single, decade-old anecdote seems to stop short of the courageous soul-searching Flake considers obligatory.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has spoken out against Trump while generally supporting his policy positions. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Like Boot, Flake mourns the “collapse of conservative principles” and worries that the movement has become compromised by xenophobia and celebrity. He admits he has no quick plan to rebuild it (“there is no gimmick, no shortcut,” he writes) other than a reassertion of past verities. “If this is a call for a new conservatism — and it is — then it is just as well a call for the old conservatism, too.”

But what kind of conservatism can survive, let alone thrive, in American politics today? The question hangs over the Never Trump volumes, and the answer depends in part on whether the authors regard the Trump presidency as a conservative outlier or the endgame of a movement in decline.

Flake, who did not seek reelection and is departing the Senate after a single term, keeps the faith. “With hard work . . . and maybe a little luck, we will right this ship,” he writes. He calls for “a conservatism of high ideals, goodwill, and even better arguments.” Boot, by contrast, no longer claims the conservative label. And while he admires some of the Never Trumpers who stay and fight to retake the Republican Party, he deems the battle lost. The GOP has become “the stupid party,” one that “does not deserve to survive.”

Wilson regards the future of conservatism with a mix of honesty, generality and banality. There was always “a whiff of bulls—” about Republican calls for fiscal conservatism, he acknowledges, much as how “we talk a good game about putting Main Street before Wall Street, but talk is all it’s been.” Nonetheless, he contends that Trumpism will someday be deemed a temporary aberration, as long as conservatives can (deep breath here) purge the conspiracists, recruit ethnically diverse candidates, impose strict ethics rules for lawmakers, kill off crony capitalism, respect the Constitution, reduce the size of government and uphold the rule of law. Oh, and stop hating. “We need to start telling Americans we believe in them again . . . Teach them we believe we can lift people up.”

Sykes calls for “restoring the conservative mind,” yet he admits there may be little audience for it. “Despite [conservatives’] insistence that America was a center-right country, there has never been a strong constituency for the kind of tough budget cuts that would either limit the size of government or reduce the national debt.” He urges conservatives to step back from win-at-all-costs politics in which opponents are demonized and the stakes are exaggerated to apocalyptic dimensions. “We simply should not care about politics as much as we do,” he writes, “because it should not be as important as it has become.” Now you tell us.

With these books, the Never Trumpers are engaging in a worthy exercise, even if it’s one they are executing with varying degrees of consistency, clarity and introspection. Yet it took the nomination and election of Donald Trump to make it happen. In a sense, the Never Trumpers are also the Only Trumpers. Only with the rise of Trump did they even think to interrogate the conservative dogma they’d long defended. Only with Trump did they begin to reconsider their roles in feeding a frenzied base. Only with Trump did they see the need to reach for higher ideals.

Had Trump come close but failed to win the 2016 Republican nomination, had the GOP establishment and donor networks eked out one more mainstream nominee while still capitalizing on the angry, conspiratorial base to run against the Democrats, these books would not exist. The conscience and corrosion of conservatism, the mind of the right, would remain unexamined.

Only with Trump. Maybe they should thank him.

Credits: By Carlos Lozada.