Nearly every day, President Donald Trump displays some of the traits that made most voters in 2016, including a substantial chunk of the people who voted for him, doubt he was qualified and temperamentally fit for his office.*
A case in point is his recent jagged zigzag of irresponsibility about a border wall. First he said he would shut down the government over it, then his aides said he wouldn’t and he said the border is secure without the wall, and then he told congressional leaders he won’t sign a bill to keep the government fully operational unless he gets money for the wall. Trump’s own defense secretary, meanwhile, has strongly implied that the president’s foreign policy is undermining our “security, prosperity and values.”
In search of something more edifying than the spectacle at the White House, I tuned in to a conference of some of the president’s leading critics on the right. The Niskanen Center gathered them together in mid-December under the label of “Starting Over: The Center Right After Trump.”
Much of what the participants had to say made sense. Pete Peterson, the dean of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, made the case that Trump’s opponents should reclaim rather than reject nationalism. Commentator David Frum pointed out how an outdated Republican economic agenda had left the party vulnerable to a demagogue. Syndicated columnist Mona Charen suggested that the decline of religion and marriage contributed to the bitterness of our politics.
Still, I could not help feeling that there was a Trump-shaped hole in the group’s analysis — that a lot of Trump’s opponents still don’t have a solid grasp of how he so quickly climbed to the top of the Republican Party.
Peter Wehner, a veteran of the George W. Bush White House, put Trump’s rise in the context of the Tea Party’s attack on the party establishment during the administration of President Barack Obama. Republicans, he said, came to dislike Republican leaders such as former Speaker John Boehner at least as much as they detested Obama. In the grip of this fever, and egged on by right-wing talk-radio hosts, the base of the party went for Trump over all of his rivals in the primary field.
It’s a widely shared assessment. Around the time of the conference, George Packer wrote in the Atlantic that Trump was the culmination of the conservative movement’s ideological takeover of the Republican Party and purging of its moderates.
But this story does not fit the exit polling we got during the 2016 primaries. That polling consistently showed that Trump had substantial support from Republicans who considered themselves “moderate.” In Indiana, where Trump clinched the nomination, he had significantly stronger support from them than he did from voters who considered themselves “very conservative.” In New Hampshire, site of the first primary that Trump won, he did equally well among the half of Republican voters who felt betrayed by their party’s leaders as among the half that did not.
Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, also at the conference, suggested that Trump’s success had proven that she, like other Republicans, had underestimated the “Dixiecrat” or “bigoted” segment of the party. It turned out, she said, to be about 35 to 40 percent of the party’s voters — which is roughly Trump’s total share of the primary vote during much of the 2016 nomination contest.
It’s certainly true that a lot of Republican voters either liked, or were not seriously bothered by, Trump’s birth-certificate nonsense, his attack on a federal judge for having Mexican ancestry, and so on. It’s entirely reasonable for Rubin to reconsider her past assessments of Republican voters as a result.
But it’s a mistake to ignore the other bases of support for Trump, including voters’ perception that he was a successful businessman and that he had more concern for blue-collar workers than other Republicans did. Legitimate concerns about the impact of immigration on the country, which Rubin tends to view purely in terms of racial animosity, also played a role.
Bill Kristol, the conservative pundit, alluded to that point by saying that while he himself largely favors high rates of immigration, it creates some strains for the receiving country. He made a virtue of disagreement among Trump’s center-right critics. It would be “crazy,” he said, if they all agreed on everything at a time of such political flux, and judged it “very healthy” that they don’t.
But Kristol has also been arguing that Trump should be challenged in the Republican primaries and denied renomination in 2020, and disagreements among anti-Trump conservatives are likely to be a serious obstacle to that already-uphill effort. If a challenger runs to Trump’s left on guns, will conservatives who dislike Trump but support gun rights back him? If that challenger takes a restrictionist line on immigration, as Frum does, how much grief will he get from commentators such as Rubin who strongly disagree?
It’s to the great credit of Trump’s conservative critics that they have been willing to call out his bad ideas and his character flaws when so many of their old allies are ignoring or excusing them. They have moral clarity. What they lack, at the moment, is supporters, a sense of how they got here, or an idea of how to move forward.
* According to the exit polls, around a tenth of the electorate thought he was unqualified and temperamentally unfit but voted for him anyway.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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