There is a long list of conservative columnists I have long admired. While they have differed in style, they were usually united in general philosophy, most of them proudly defining themselves as “Reagan conservatives.”
But when Donald Trump came along in 2015 as a serious presidential candidate, many of these writers found themselves on opposite sides of a Trumpian fence. At one point, National Review, the conservative bible, famously published a special edition, the words “Against Trump” splattered across its cover, featuring anti-Trump op-eds from some of the most renowned conservative columnists.
To this day, the hostility toward Trump by some commentators on the right has not abated, as is often clear in opinion pages across the nation.
When I started in newspapers in 1983, I immediately began writing opinion columns. For years, my political philosophy was unapologetically conservative, and I wrote weekly entreaties on why I was right and you were wrong. Sometimes I tried to emulate the more refined style of a William F. Buckley Jr. or George F. Will, but often I went straight for the jugular, Pat Buchanan-like.
In 1996 I left journalism and spent the next 15 years working in Republican politics, often tasked with media relations. Although I was a bona fide conservative, my journalism background had ingrained in me at least some sense of fairness, and I was not always as venomous toward Democrats as expected by my GOP peers in news releases or speechwriting.
I enjoyed the experience and made many good friends. But after several years, I grew tired of the game and weary of the predictable talking points that came from on high (the Republican National Committee or the White House), to be parroted without question.
In 2011 I returned to journalism at my hometown newspaper. I resumed column writing, and readers who had followed me earlier soon remarked on the rather noticeable departure from the columns of my youth. I no longer always espoused boilerplate right-wing dogma, and even gave occasional credit to President Barack Obama and the Clintons.
When Trump entered the presidential field, I gravitated to him immediately. In January 2016, I wrote a column recounting a conversation with a friend in politics who wondered which candidate would win the GOP nomination. “Trump,” I replied. “Trump’s not really a conservative,” came the response. “What’s that got to do with it?” I asked.
I recognized Trump was reaching Americans who had tuned out politicians who seemed — and were — polished, predictable and programmed. They were voters who cared less about old labels of left and right and more about finding someone who would address issues important to their lives. I realized I was one of those voters.
Issue by issue, I still fall to the conservative side most often. But I don’t care to be labeled. I give myself permission to change my mind, even if it means contradicting something I wrote or believed 20 or 30 years ago. I am and will remain a Republican, but I am not bound by someone else’s definition of what that means. I am proud to have been a Reagan conservative, but my calendar says 2018.
I was privileged to participate in a forum a few months ago at the Georgetown Day School in Washington with David Frum, who had recently published “Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.” I asked him during a session what it was about Trump that bothered him most. Without hesitating, he replied, “He’s cruel.”
In his book, Frum cites Trump’s derogatory comments about Megyn Kelly, an unnamed reporter calling Trump “the meanest man I ever met” and his own conclusion that those who work for Trump “must accept that he reserves the right to embarrass or denigrate them at any moment for any reason, or for no reason at all, just impulsive whim.”
Well, it bothers me too how Trump sometimes speaks to and about others, but he’s not exactly breaking new ground here — in my own lifetime, Republican Richard M. Nixon and Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson could each have given him a run for his money. So I’ve sometimes wondered if what seems most cruel to many longtime conservative pundits and party stalwarts is that Trump so suddenly, almost without warning, wrestled the Republican Party from their grasp. Sadly, their conservatism was unable to win in 2008 or 2012, and most certainly would have lost again in 2016. The Trump coalition, new and full of energy, is the future of the GOP.
On a recent vacation, my wife and I visited the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond. As a Poe aficionado, I was reminded that his best-known works reflect tortured men who yearn for long-dead loves and are driven mad by their inability to accept what cruel fate has handed them. Like Poe’s antagonists, today’s keepers of yesterday’s GOP flame plead feverishly for the desire of their hearts to slide open the sepulcher stone and return.
Is my Republican Party there? Can’t you hear it tapping at my chamber door? Do you not perceive its faint whispers from the tomb by the sounding sea? Return to me, my beloved!
Quoth cruel reality — “Nevermore.”