the national interest

How Donald Trump Outsmarted George Will

Photo-Illustration: Daily Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

On April 29, George F. Will, the high priest of the conservative temple, formally excommunicated Donald Trump from the movement. Will’s judgment was as sweeping as it was certain. Should Trump win the nomination, a still-uncertain prospect at the time, conservatives must work to deny him the presidency, Will declared, ideally via a 50-state landslide. Will expressed his hope that a leading conservative, like Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, would lead a Republican party in exile through the election to defeat Trump. And then, afterward, Will pronounced any Republicans who had supported Trump would be “ineligible to participate in the party’s reconstruction.”

It’s instructive to read Will’s column, brimming with ideological confidence and fervor, six months later. None of his expectations has remotely come to pass. There is no army following behind him. The notion that the anti-Trump wing could cast the pro-Trump wing out of the party is preposterous. The column today currently has less resemblance to the pronouncement of a conservative pope than to Will Ferrell in Old School, proclaiming that everybody is going streaking:

Conservative intellectuals took it as a given that Trump was alien to conservatism due to his history of on-again-off-again support for Democratic politicians and liberalish policies. Many of them referred to Trump as a man of the left — “milquetoast Manhattan progressive,” a “liberal Republican,” etc. — as though it were self-evidently correct that anybody lacking a lifetime commitment to conservative-movement principles must have liberal ones.

Conservative columnist Noah Rothman wrote an essay for Commentary in May describing Trump as the progressive heir to the Eisenhower/Rockefeller tradition. A key piece of evidence for Rothman’s argument was Paul Ryan’s refusal to endorse the nominee, a fact in which Rothman invested enormous significance. “Paul Ryan and his shrinking band of stalwarts appear willing to frustrate the GOP conference in Congress and his party’s primary voters,” he wrote hopefully, “and even to jeopardize their careers and legacies to preserve the conservatism in which they believe.”

Or maybe not. Ryan has since endorsed Trump and reaffirmed his decision repeatedly in the face of numerous revelations that might be considered disqualifying. As Ryan has repeatedly explained, mostly recently again this morning, Trump would sign rather than veto his bills. That is to say, on the issues conservative leaders care about most deeply, like tax cuts for high earners, repealing Obamacare, and deregulating finance and fossil-fuel emissions, Trump is in fact conservative.

It is not only conservative leaders like Ryan (and Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio) who have fallen behind Trump, but the followers, too. A recent Pew survey finds that three-quarters of conservative Republicans believe Trump represents their party’s core principles, while only half of moderate and liberal Republicans agree. It is the GOP’s tiny, withered left flank, not its bulging right one, that has put up the most resistance to the nominee. Among the rank and file, enthusiasm for Trump burns hot. Sean Hannity, who has positioned himself as among Trump’s most obsequious defenders, has seen his ratings soar. Members of Congress like Joe Heck and Jason Chaffetz, who disendorsed Trump, have come crawling back. George P. Bush has declared his support for the man who viciously bullied his father, which is like Marty McFly voting for Biff Tannen. Almost everybody who craves a future in Republican politics has concluded that their career depends on endorsing Trump.

The point is not at all to gloat at the failure of anti-Trump conservatives, but to explain the source of their error. You can’t heal an illness you’ve diagnosed improperly. Anti-Trump conservatives deluded themselves about the source of conservatism’s electoral appeal. Trump’s long list of deviations from party orthodoxy — on health care, abortion, support for the Clintons — would have destroyed a normal candidacy, the way Rick Perry’s support for humane treatment of undocumented immigrants killed his candidacy in 2012.

Why did Republican primary voters forgive Trump’s heresies? Because the power of the charge of un-conservative behavior is the implication that you are not really on our side. Trump proved to the party base he was one of them through his racism, sexism, and blunt nationalism. Those impulses are the essence of conservative political identity at the voting level. Political scientist Matt Grossman has a new poll of Michigan statewide voters. Look at the responses to the question of whether generations of slavery and discrimination have made it harder for African-Americans to rise, sorted by presidential-vote preference. People who like Clinton are the ones who acknowledge that black people face structural disadvantages, and people who like Trump are the ones who deny it:

Illustration: Institute for Public Policy and Social Research

The most important analytical failure of the anti-Trump conservatives is their blindness to the centrality of white racial backlash. They simply cannot imagine how movement conservatism could result in bigoted authoritarianism, and their confusion produces absurdity. Erick Erickson, the conservative pundit who has fiercely opposed Trump, today defends Rush Limbaugh, even though Limbaugh is defending the candidate. Erickson argues that Limbaugh’s brand of conservatism is exactly what the party needed all along. “If Republicans lamenting Trump and hating on Rush had only listened to Rush and taken his counsel that he gives for free three hours a day, five days a week, the GOP would not be in this mess,” he reasons. Yes – Trump’s popularity clearly demonstrates that a racist, misogynist, conspiracy-mongering bully-entertainer has had too little influence.

Rothman’s column, in May, told a story in which Trump was restoring progressive control of the Republican Party, after conservatives had seized it. Rothman correctly equated conservatism with the movement organized around Barry Goldwater. Rothman did concede that Goldwater opposed civil rights legislation, but he dismissed this as ancillary to his beliefs. (“Goldwater’s brand of conservatism — so doctrinaire that he opposed the Civil Rights Act’s Sections II and VII because they would impose on the private sector racial quotas and could not be enforced but through a police presence.”) And so, in Rothman’s mind, Trumpism is the repudiation of Goldwater’s conservatism. But if you acknowledge that Goldwater’s rejection of civil rights was the basis of his electoral appeal rather than an extraneous detail, and that the conservative movement opposed liberal Republicans in the 1960s explicitly because the liberals favored civil rights, then you realize his narrative is upside down. Trumpism is not the revenge of the liberal Republicans against the Goldwater conservatives. Just the opposite: It’s the natural outcome of the conservative movement’s domination of the party (as I argue at more length in the magazine.)

The conservative intelligentsia is right about one thing. Trump is not a committed ideologue but a grifter who decided to use their voters for his own ends. Trump grasped from the outset that the birther issue gave him a connection to the Republican electorate. The conservative intelligentsia ignored the birthers, the freaks, and the transparent racists because they were embarrassing. It was far more flattering and heroic to imagine the whole thing was about the Constitution. The con artist swindled the perfect mark.

How Donald Trump Outsmarted George Will