I’ve been saying for a long time that conservatives who insist Trump isn’t really One of Them, but merely a rude interloper pretending to be conservative, are full of shit. Which Trump policies do they oppose? His hard anti-immigration line? His hatred of Obamacare? His bellicose foreign policy? Even casual observation shows these commentators are mainly worried that, like the recently rejected Roy Moore, the grotesque Trump will make conservative ideas look bad by not being dainty about promoting them.
This was never clearer than last week when the GOP tax bill passed into law. This jury-rigged payoff to rich people and corporations — bought with corrupt deals, hated by voters, cloaked in mystery till the last minute, and triggering a trillion-dollar-plus deficit increase that makes a mockery of an alleged conservative prime directive — was as Trumpian a grift as can be imagined, yet it was cheered even at conservative venues where writers still make anti-Trump noises.
Among themselves, these conservatives defended the tax bill for its wealth transfers — for example, a cut in the corporate tax rate “from an oppressive 35 percent to a much more competitive 21 percent,” cheered Matthew Vadum at FrontPage Magazine. “A thoroughly Republican tax plan that delivers on long-desired hopes for cuts in corporate rates,” huzzahed onetime NeverTrumper David French at National Review.
As for its deficit-busting aspect, the brethren were sanguine: “Republicans will have to figure out a way to cut,” shrugged Ben Shapiro at the Daily Wire. But did you see those corporate tax cuts!
They knew nonconservatives wouldn’t understand and, rather than try to win them over, dismissed them as ignorant. Longtime right-wing propagandist Ami Horowitz did the dummy-on-the-street thing where he went to “the ‘liberal Mecca’ of New York City’s West Village,” as reported at Glenn Beck’s the Blaze, and told a few alleged passersby about certain features of the bill made to sound progressive — for example, “the more you earn, the more you pay in taxes” — telling them these details were from “the ‘Bernie Sanders’ competing tax plan.” Tricky!
The passersby liked the more-you-earn, more-you’re-taxed idea, which Horowitz said proved “that when the magic word ‘Bernie’ is uttered in lower Manhattan, the clouds part and angels join together in song.” Silly liberals! The story was also carried by the Daily Wire (“Liberals LOVE The Republican Tax Plan — If They Believe It’s ‘The Bernie Tax Plan’ ”), the Daily Caller, and other right-wing outlets.
At Conservative Review, Rob Eno insisted that the voters who disapproved of the bill had been misled by the mainstream media, whereas “when you look at the actual policies, there is broad support” — for example, a November survey showed “55% support [for] reducing the number of tax brackets” — you remember, that postcard we were all going to be able to do our taxes on, which gimmick only Ivanka Trump still thinks was part of the actual bill.
The passage of the bill was accompanied by many warm hymns of praise to Trump at conservative outlets that once made a show of denouncing him.
It is true that there are a few conservatives of note who are still what used to be called “NeverTrump.” The bigger ones — David Frum, Anne Applebaum, Jennifer Rubin, et alia — were profiled last week at Esquire by Sam Tanenhaus, who told how these diehards balked at the ascension of grifters like Sarah Palin and Trump, only to be condemned and excommunicated by their more flexible comrades.
You might expect these refuseniks to get support, or at least sympathy, from conservative flagship National Review, which ran a heroic “Against Trump” issue back in January 2016. But things have changed, and last week editor Charles C.W. Cooke blasted both Rubin and Frum, calling the former a “Trump-obsessed zealot,” only “ostensibly conservative” and “schizophrenic.” “Everyone knows what ‘team’ Jennifer Rubin is on, just as they know what ‘team’ David Frum is on,” Cooke wrote — and it wasn’t the “team” of true conservatives like Charles C.W. Cooke, whose “lonely position,” Cooke sighed with the back of his wrist pressed to his forehead, “takes its adherents all over the place in skeptical pursuit of the truth.”
Cooke’s lonely-skeptic position as regards the tax bill, other of his posts revealed, was that it was fine, notwithstanding its grifter baggage. “It looks to me like a pretty standard Republican effort,” Cooke shrugged earlier this month; when it passed last week, Cooke wrote that while Trump is of course “unfit for office,” the new law he signed was good; sure, it blows a trillion-dollar-plus hole in the deficit (and Cooke remained “worried” about that, in his own quiet way), but “this bill has the government making fewer, not more, claims upon the contemporary voters” — hence smaller government! That’s conservative, right?
Also, whatever negative effect it might have on the economy is moot, wrote Cooke, because “I don’t think ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ is true any more. It’s not the economy that drove Donald Trump into office, and it won’t be the economy that yields the backlash.” That is, America is voting for the War on War on Christmas and the National Anthem at football games, and against Mexican rapists — so party on, big donors, in the long run we’re all dead!
Meanwhile, Cooke’s National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg — whom Trump once directly insulted — declared that “Refusing to Be Reflexively Anti-Trump Isn’t Selling Out” and defended Cooke’s anti-Trump bona fides (“I heard Charlie say Trump was ‘unfit for office’ on The Editors podcast”). As to Trump’s policies, Goldberg did not name any he opposed (spoiler: there are none), though he did boast that he had “spoken out against the excesses of Fox.” I bet that too is a lonely-skeptic-conservative position.
Other recent NR articles include Rich Lowry’s “Give Trump Credit Where It’s Due” (“Whatever next year brings, though, Republicans aren’t leaving this one empty-handed” — in Bob Corker’s case, literally!); Larry Kudlow’s “With This Tax Cut, Trump and the GOP Are on the Side of the Growth Angels”; Ben Shapiro’s “Trump’s Good Month,” etc. In fairness, there was one article by Kevin D. Williamson that called it a “Dessert-First Tax Bill” and prescribed as “spinach” “some combination of cuts to military spending, reform of Social Security and Medicare, and tax increases.” (Guess which one is most likely to actually be adopted!)
In his year-end roundup at the Federalist, Robert Tracinski freely admitted conservatives had gotten most of what they wanted from Trump: a right-wing Supreme Court justice, wreckers like Scott Pruitt in the cabinet, a foreign policy with “some elements borrowed from George W. Bush” (which, experience teaches, are bound to be positive!), “the removal of ‘global warming’ from the official list of national security threats,” etc. Even the incomplete repeal of Obamacare Tracinski generously judged “not entirely Trump’s fault.”
But Tracinski did have an issue with Trump: that he was making conservatism look bad with “the damage [he] has done to standards of behavior and decency, particularly in his raw appeal to a kind of tribalistic partisanship.” Why couldn’t Trump do this stuff with his pinky raised?
Similarly, at National Review, performative NeverTrumper David French celebrated all the Trump achievements that he liked — and named none that he disliked, apart from the vulgar “Trumpian flourishes” that accompanied them; that un-upraised pinky again! But French insisted that it was pressure from what he still sentimentally called “ ‘Never Trump’ conservatives,” and not commonality of philosophy or interest, that made Trump do everything conservatives wanted. “Human beings — even presidents — respond to incentives,” he wrote. They weren’t able to stop Trump from getting nominated, but “Never Trump” conservatives have sure gotten powerful since then!
French also claimed Trump wouldn’t have the poor approval ratings he has if voters only knew how much David French agreed with his decisions: “Poll the average voter about Trump’s actions in office, and how many will know even a fraction of the concrete developments I’ve discussed above?” French lamented. “It’s easy to blame the media for this ignorance — until you remember how the president has misused his bully pulpit.” Isn’t that just like Trump, to hide his light under a bushel! Maybe French can do a goodwill tour for him.
It wasn’t just pundits who praised Trump from an anti-Trump perspective; so did mainstream Republican politicians with a reputation for independence (that is, raised pinkies). GOP heartthrob Tom Cotton, for example, who occasionally slaps Trump’s wrist for his crudities, did a tweetstorm (on Christmas Eve, yet!) about how Trump’s immigration crackdowns, plainly racist and frequently judged by courts to be illegal, were in fact all-American: “It’s not a ‘nativist view’ to say immigration policy should be crafted to benefit American citizens, not foreigners,” wrote Cotton. “Slandering ‘white working-class Americans’ with that term is an example of the closed thinking that helped Trump win.”
Yes, the old This Is Why Trump Won shtick — not just a fallback for lazy mainstream media editors scared of looking biased, but also something conservatives can sputter when their defenses of Trump get too embarrassing even for them; Trump may be disgustingly, obviously crooked, and no more patriotic than a hungry jackal in a field of dead soldiers, but he sure did win an election. The question is, with conservatives telling him every day that his new clothes look fantastic despite the polls, can he win any others — and what happens to them when he doesn’t?