Conservatism Inc. Is Breaking Up With Trump. Again.
Following a disappointing election night, conservative elites have decided to try to break up with Donald Trump. Which is great. Except that they’ve been here before. After Helsinki, after Charlottesville, and after January 6th. None of these other breakups have lasted. There’s no reason to believe that this time will be different.
At least four pieces on National Review’s homepage explicitly pinned Republicans’ underperformance on the Former Guy. They even published an editorial on the subject, writing that “Rarely has an election had simpler and more obvious lessons” than this year’s main takeaway that the GOP needs to move on from Trump.
Conservatism Inc. even had an answer for how the party should move on: Saint Ron DeSantis.
Nathanael Blake published a piece in the Federalist arguing that Republicans have to choose between Trump and winning elections. Blake wrote that Trump’s impact on the midterms makes it clear that Republicans need to “look elsewhere.” He suggested Florida. Hugo Gurdon, the editor-in-chief of the Washington Examiner, hoped that the Republicans losses would have the “silver lining” of “turn[ing] them decisively away from” Trump. Ben Shapiro crafted a tweet thread analyzing the midterms that included blame for Trump and praise for DeSantis.
And of course many “anonymous Republican sources” took the opportunity to dial up their favorite reporters and commentators (again) to vent their frustrations about how Trump had screwed them over (again).
It’s nice to hope that this time it’ll take. But we’ve all seen this movie before. Many, many, many times before.
The phenomenon is as old as Trump’s political career. Remember National Review’s “Against Trump” issue in 2016? To its credit, National Review never fully endorsed Trump. It just embraced anti-anti-Trumpism: No matter how bad Trump was, Democrats were worse.
The Federalist went from issuing a powerful warning about the dangers of Trump and Trumpism to becoming the “home base” of the anti-anti-Trump movement, as Damon Linker once called them. At first they just defended Trump, attacked his Republican critics, and advanced the ideas and instincts of Trumpism. Eventually they got around to declaring themselves outright “Trump supporters.”
Ben Shapiro did an about face, too. After writing in 2016, “I will never vote for Donald Trump. Ever,” Shapiro voted for him in 2020. Shapiro claimed that he had been wrong about Trump on policy (he hadn’t been) and that while he hadn’t been wrong about Trump’s character, that didn’t matter because “whatever damage he was going to do has already been done.” Oh, and the Democrats are worse. Always.
After Trump’s 2016 primary opponents, most of whom had been highly critical of him, were rejected by voters, they all fell in line, too. Some became loyal Senate lapdogs (Rubio, Cruz, Graham). Others won posts in the Trump administration (Carson, Perry). Chris Christie’s crucial endorsement secured him a vital role in the campaign as Door Dasher and stage prop for Mr. Trump. Later, Christie was given the job of heading Trump’s transition team, and although he was fired from that gig and his work was thrown in the trash, he was able to parlay it into a book that sold nearly 2,300 copies in its first week.
In 2017, when Trump declared that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Republicans with varying degrees of Trump allegiance directly and indirectly pushed back against him.
At National Review the editorial board criticized Trump’s comments and called on him to condemn white supremacy. But they were broad-minded enough to publish dissenting views, with pieces by Andrew McCarthy and Deroy Murdock, respectively, saying that Trump was right. And that Charlottesville was the Left’s fault, too.
When Trump met with Vladimir Putin and then publicly sided with Putin over the American intelligence community, congressional Republicans felt they had enough cover to criticize Trump, or at least his statements. Most of those that were the most forceful in their criticism have since retired. In true turtle fashion, Mitch McConnell levied a flimsy rebuttal to Trump’s comments but then kept his wagon hitched to the Trump Train.
National Review’s Rich Lowry called Trump’s comments “dismaying.” Ben Shapiro, Andrew McCarthy, and Michael Brendan Dougherty joined Lowry in writing National Review pieces that condemned Trump’s conduct in Helsinki. But Helsinki quickly faded into the background. Neither it nor Charlottesville was enough to keep NR from giving a platform to multiple mainstream, intellectual conservative justifications for Trump’s re-election in 2020.
The Washington Examiner’s editors criticized Trump for “caving” to Putin before effectively telling everyone to just calm down about Helsinki a month later. Apparently the Examiner calmed down pretty quickly; just weeks after the summit, they published a column asserting that “No president has been tougher on Russia than Trump.”
The January 6th insurrection evoked even more Republican criticism of Trump. Enough that it seemed like maybe—just maybe—the fever had broken, and Republicans would walk away from Trump for real this time.
From senior figures like Mitch McConnell to “rising star” moderate House freshmen like Nancy Mace and Mike Gallagher, Republican after Republican criticized Trump for bearing at least partial responsibility for January 6th. Yet within days, nearly all of them fell right back in line and voted against his second impeachment.
Of the ten House Republicans who actually held Trump accountable by voting for impeachment, eight will not be returning to Congress next January. Excoriated by their fellow Republicans, they were forced to retire or defeated in primaries.
Apparently, Chris Christie would’ve joined them. When George Stephanopoulos asked Christie if he would vote for impeachment, he said, “If I think it’s an impeachable offense—that’s exactly what I would do, George, but I’m not in [Congress]. . . . I think if inciting an insurrection isn’t [impeachable] then I don’t really know what it is.” But impeachable and disqualifying aren’t the same thing for Christie: He said last November that he’d back Trump again in 2024.
And Conservatism Inc.? The day after January 6th, the Federalist published a piece that sounded almost like a Never Trump screed:
The Republican Party of the future cannot—not tacitly, not quietly, not in the slightest—encourage grievance or stoke anger. It must not aid, abet, or give any credence to wild conspiracy theories stemming from the likes of QAnon, Sidney Powell, and Lin Wood. . . .
What we saw on Jan. 6, 2021, is not a surprising result when people are falsely told their votes are meaningless because the elections are “rigged” and democracy in America is a sham. Nor is what we saw on Jan. 6, 2021, a surprising result when people are falsely told that an all-powerful, nefarious “Deep State” controls every lever of power in America and that a similarly shadowy cabal of “globalists” controls the world. . . .
Yet, if the Republican Party wants to have any hopes of salvaging its image and winning another election, it must move beyond hitching its fortunes to one person, especially if that man is the destabilizing force known as Donald Trump. Let cults of personality belong to other parties and other nations, and let the American presidency rescind to the responsible power level envisioned to the executive branch by the Founders.
The day after that, the Federalist published excerpts of a speech by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem which they titled “The Republican Party Has Failed America, And Here’s How It Needs To Change Now.”
But for Conservatism Inc., Democrats are always worse than Republicans—so it wasn’t long before the Federalist reverted to the norm. One week after the attack on the Capitol, it ran a piece entitled “Democrats Are Using The Recent Capitol Riot To Consolidate Power.” Things only got worse from there. In December 2021, a Federalist piece claimed that “Nancy Pelosi Owns January 6.” This year, Mollie Hemingway wrote that “J6 Hysteria Is How Media And Other Democrats Are Avoiding Accountability For Their Rigging Of The 2020 Election” and called the House January 6th Committee a “Show Trial” that is “Lying About Election ‘Fraud.’” Another piece compared the Jan. 6th Committee to the Chinese Communist Party.
For its part, the Washington Examiner eventually published an editorial declaring that January 6th had proven Trump “unfit for office.” They published this institutional declaration not when it could have been politically meaningful—say at the time of the second impeachment—but on June 29, 2022.
Why does Conservatism Inc. always come crawling back to Trump? Because that’s where their audience is. “Post-Trump” Republicans did not fare well in primary contests against Trump endorsees—just ask David McCormick, Bill McSwain, Karrin Taylor Robson, and Matt Dolan. Why? Because Republican voters didn’t want them.
Conservatism Inc. didn’t want Trump in 2016. It tried to convince Republican voters to support Jeb!, and then Rubio, and then Cruz. Conservatism Inc. tried to tell Republican voters that Trump was unelectable, that he’d hurt the party, that he’d cost Republicans elections. And the Republican voters didn’t care. They chose Trump. And after that, Conservatism Inc. had to either get onboard or make some serious life decisions.
So Conservatism Inc. can talk big about the GOP finally filing for a divorce from Trump to marry their mistress (DeSantis). But for better or worse, it’s Republican voters who get to make that call. And so long as Republican voters still want Trump, then conservative elites will comply. They always have.
Because at the end of the day, for Conservatism Inc., the only non-negotiable tenet of conservatism is that however bad a Republican might be, the Democrats are always worse.
Correction (November 10, 2022, 5 p.m. EST): This article mentions a Washington Examiner editorial that criticized Donald Trump for “caving” to Vladimir Putin; due to a typo, the article originally mistakenly said Trump had caved to Joe Biden.