The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How conservatives rationalize their surrender to Trump

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) insisted the Mueller report cleared president Trump of wrongdoing during a hearing on May 1. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Former FBI director James Comey has published in the New York Times the most insightful analysis I have read of how President Trump corrupts those who work for him — such as Attorney General William P. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. “Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from,” Comey writes. “It takes character like Mr. [Jim] Mattis’s to avoid the damage, because Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites.”

This reminded me of something I wrote in USA Today on Feb. 29, 2016, while Trump was still one of many candidates seeking the GOP nomination: “This is, in general, a moment of testing for Republicans. It is a character test. Do you believe in the open and inclusive party of Ronald Reagan? Or do you want a bigoted and extremist party in the image of Donald Trump?”

We know now that almost all Republicans have failed this character test. If any further proof were necessary, it could be found Wednesday in watching Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R.-S.C.) spout pro-Trump conspiracy theories from his perch as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and berate FBI agents for expressing opposition to Trump in 2016 — while conveniently forgetting that he himself called Trump a “kook,” a “bigot,” “crazy” and “unfit for office.”

A similar metamorphosis has occurred not only among other conservative politicians but also conservative commentators. National Review, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Daily Wire editor in chief Ben Shapiro, RedState founder Erick Erickson, New Criterion editor Roger Kimball and too many others to cite have all gone from opposing to supporting Trump. As Gabriel Schoenfeld noted at the Bulwark, the lone remaining bastion of #NeverTrump conservatism, Kimball has transitioned from comparing Trump rallies to those of the Nazis (“he encouraged a whipped up crowd to extend their right arms in Nazi-like salute while pledging allegiance to the Great Leader”) to calling Trump “a salubrious and morally uplifting"president.

The surrender by conservatives outside the administration has proceeded through a gradual process of compromise and corruption similar to that on the inside. The most important factor driving this process, I believe, is fear of the professional consequences of opposing the vengeful occupant of the Oval Office.

Members of Congress have seen what happened to former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and former representative Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who had the temerity to occasionally criticize the great Trump. From the standpoint of a political careerist (someone like Graham, who has held elected office for the past 26 years), they have suffered a fate worse than losing their lives: They have lost office.

American journalist Austin Tice is missing in Syria. It's time to bring him home. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Joshua Carroll, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

Members of the right-wing media and think tanks have seen what happened to radio host Michael Medved, a conservative who has been critical of Trump; he was replaced on the Salem Radio Network by Trump sycophant Sebastian Gorka. Or cartoonist Rob Rogers, who was fired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for criticizing Trump. Or the staff of the Weekly Standard, which was shut down just before Christmas because its Republican owner wanted to put his money behind a more pro-Trump publication. Or pundits critical of Trump such as George F. Will and Stephen Hayes, whose contracts with Fox News were not renewed. Or television and radio personality Glenn Beck, who lost most of his audience in part because of his anti-Trump stance; he finally donned a “MAGA” hat and announced, in desperation, that he would support Trump in 2020.

The fear of economic extinction is a powerful inducement to see Trump in the best possible light — to focus on things you like (tax cuts, judges, Israel) while ignoring or excusing things that are hard to defend, like blatant xenophobia, attacks on the media as the “enemy of the people,” demands to lock up the opposition, declarations of “love” for Kim Jong Un, etc.

You begin by saying “I don’t like Trump but …” and then you explain why you have to support him to save America from Hillary Clinton. Now it’s to save America from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). There is always some villain on the horizon far worse than the one in the White House.

You excuse his outrageous utterances — “those are just tweets.”

When you can’t actually defend him, you instead attack his critics, claiming they are suffering from “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”

The more that critics attack you for your support of Trump, the more you dig in. The more Trump misconduct you defend, the more you feel compelled to defend. In for a penny, in for a pound. No going back now.

You tell yourself that only by staying loyal to the president can you check his worst excesses and channel his instincts in a more constructive and conservative direction. You are convinced that you are too valuable to America in your current position to risk losing it — and that whoever replaces you will be far more of a Trump enabler than you are.

Eventually you end up excusing the most blatant assault on the rule of law since Watergate and saying that Trump is the best president ever.

“And then,” as Comey wrote, “you are lost. He has eaten your soul."

Read more:

Dana Milbank: Let’s impeach Trump for being such a great president

Eugene Robinson: Trump’s rhetoric stokes hate. He never thinks of the consequences.

Patti Davis: Dear Republicans: Stop using my father, Ronald Reagan, to justify your silence on Trump

Greg Sargent: As new questions on Trump’s corruption emerge, his lawless threats escalate

Megan McArdle: If #NeverTrumpers don’t have an endgame, maybe it’s because to them politics isn’t a game