Conservatives and the Cult of Trump

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A young boy holds a cutout of President-elect Donald Trump prior to Trump taking the stage in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Before joining the administration, current White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah called Donald Trump “deplorable” and described the leaking of audio of him boasting of sexual assault “some justice,” Olivia Nuzzi reports. Shah is far from alone. Not long ago, a report surfaced that Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt warned that, if elected, Trump would take “unapologetic steps to use executive power to confront Congress in a way that is truly unconstitutional,” and in another interview, called him “a very blunt instrument as the voice of the Constitution.”

What should we make of the fact that these men who voiced such fundamental opposition to Trump’s political character have since become his loyal servants? The easy reaction is to brand them hypocrites who have traded their beliefs for career advancement. But that is probably unfair. The truth is that most conservatives who have swallowed their doubts and come to support Trump are working to advance their truest and deepest beliefs about the public good.

As the insider tip-sheet Politico Playbook notes, the two-faced behavior of a Shah or a Pruitt is actually quite typical among the Republican elite: “[M]ost people in and around politics know that many of the people who work for Trump have dogged him even worse than this. Spend a day on Capitol Hill and you’ll hear Republican elected officials who publicly say they adore Trump spit unthinkable invective off the record.” The personal contempt Republican professionals developed for Trump during the campaign has never abated. The presidency has probably intensified it, as Trump’s lazy, erratic persona has been on display to a much wider array of figures than it was during the campaign.

And yet, somewhat paradoxically, the alliance between Trump and his party also stands at a current apex. Senator Orrin Hatch declared in December, “We’re going to make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever.” (Trump upgraded this extraordinary praise to a flat statement that Trump had already attained greatest-ever status, forcing Hatch to gently note that Trump had not quite yet achieved this level, a mere quarter of the way through his first term.) The overall assessment that Trump has achieved greatness is a matter of general consensus within the party, and Republicans now find themselves grasping for superlatives to describe it. At a meeting of the Republican National Committee earlier this month, at least one member went so far as to suggest Trump has surpassed their most sacred icon: “Reagan was my all-time favorite in my lifetime,” said Iowa Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler. “At least until now.” After the State of the Union address, Washington Times columnist Charles Hurt concluded, “President Trump has officially transformed himself from merely a great American president into a historic world leader keeping lit the torch of freedom for all people around the world.”

In a column titled “The Cult of Trump,” Jonathan Swan recently noted that the president has managed “to bend an entire party to his will.” (“We are all MAGAs now,” a source close to the GOP congressional leadership told him.) The bending works both ways. Trump has done very little to advance the populist proposals that once set him apart from his party. He has remained in Nafta, vacillated on immigration policy, declined to allow the importation of prescription drugs, ceased his attacks on Wall Street, and given up his promises of universal health care. The conservative Heritage Foundation recently calculated that Trump has indeed surpassed Reagan in supporting Heritage-endorsed policies.

Republican elites who opposed Trump during the primary, as most of them did, had different reasons for their opposition. But a central rationale for conservative opposition was the belief that Trump would deviate from conservative policy. The keystone editorial in National Review’s celebrated “Against Trump” special issue revolved around the candidate’s lack of ideological consistency:

Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones … Trump’s political opinions have wobbled all over the lot. The real-estate mogul and reality-TV star has supported abortion, gun control, single-payer health care à la Canada, and punitive taxes on the wealthy. (He and Bernie Sanders have shared more than funky outer-borough accents.) Since declaring his candidacy he has taken a more conservative line, yet there are great gaping holes in it … Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism.

The key phrase here is the last one, “menace to American conservatism.” It is distinct from, say, a menace to the republic. Non-conservatives may have read into conservative anti-Trumpism a set of shared, small-d democratic concerns. But the major fear that stalked the right was the specter of higher marginal tax rates and bipartisan health-care legislation. To the extent that conservatives raised concerns about Trump’s ignorance and authoritarianism, it was harnessed to his lack of ideological commitment. Conservatives could imagine Trump as an American Perón, catering to the masses with a populist agenda while sidelining the conservative elite.

What did not especially trouble them was the prospect of Trump as an American Pinochet. (Augusto Pinochet was the Chilean general who overthrew a democratically elected socialist government and implemented free-market policies, with the advice and enthusiastic support of American conservatives.) And while Trump has proven every bit as ignorant and instinctively authoritarian as his worst enemies feared, he has vanquished nearly all right-wing doubts about his ideological bona fides (or, at least, his malleability to the same end).

The idea that Trump’s anti-democratic qualities per se would alienate him from his party is a fantasy that rests upon a deep misunderstanding of conservatism. The Republican Party is attracted to anti-democratic means, so long as they’re used for the correct ends. Look at North Carolina, where Republicans designed a vote-restriction measure that, a judge found, would “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” and then greeted the election of a Democratic governor by stripping him of his powers before he could assume office. Or look at Pennsylvania, where the party is so determined to lock in a voting map that allows them to rule as a minority that, when the State Supreme Court ruled its anti-democratic scheme unconstitutional, the party first defied the court’s authority, and is now working to impeach the justices. None of these maneuvers has provoked any significant intra-party dissent.

Against this chilling backdrop, the president’s frequently stated intent to make federal law enforcement a weapon to protect his party and investigate his opponents hardly even registers. Indeed, Trump’s routine authoritarian bluster nestles comfortably into a party where panic about unfriendly demographic changes has curdled into deep suspicion of the principle of majority rule. Trump as an individual is surely a grotesque outlier. But the overall direction of his presidency is an outgrowth of the party’s long-standing direction. Conservatives once feared Trump as a blunt instrument. Now they recognize and appreciate that the blunt instrument is a weapon of their cause.

Conservatives and the Cult of Trump