Just as September 4, A.D. 476, is the somewhat arbitrary date many historians choose as the end of the Roman Empire, March 28, 2018, could be picked as the moment of the final collapse of conservative opposition to Donald Trump. The symbolic equivalent of the last Roman emperor being deposed by Odoacer is a column by National Review editor Rich Lowry. Two years ago, Lowry’s magazine famously published a special issue denouncing Trump. Now Lowry acknowledges Trump is, and is likely to remain, a conservative Republican in good standing, and that “the coterie of his critics among writers and activists on the Right—loosely referred to as Never Trump—often sound like they are in denial.” It is the final surrender after a long decline.
Lowry argues that, contrary to the predictions by Never Trump conservatives that Trump would betray the movement in office, he has hewed tightly to doctrine as president. Trump has, indeed, deviated less from conservative orthodoxy than any president in postwar American history. George W. Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, increased federal oversight of education, and, like Trump, imposed tariffs on steel. Ronald Reagan was practically a liberal by modern standards, repeatedly breaking with the right to increase taxes, liberalize immigration, sign an arms control pact with the Soviets, and sign a progressive tax reform, among other things.
As Lowry notes, previous Republicans have always used some elements of nationalism and populism to sell their program. It’s no longer credible for conservatives to “pretend that he’s just going away, or that he’s a wild outlier in the contemporary GOP,” he acknowledges.
While the case that Trump is a legitimate conservative is persuasive on its own terms, what is missing from Lowry’s analysis is any reckoning with conservatism itself. National Review’s editorial in 2016 suggested that, if conservatives ever did accept Trump — at the time such an outcome was merely hypothetical — it would reveal some deep sickness in the movement. “If Trump were to become the president, the Republican nominee, or even a failed candidate with strong conservative support, what would that say about conservatives?” National Review lamented. “The movement that ground down the Soviet Union and took the shine, at least temporarily, off socialism would have fallen in behind a huckster.”
It is impossible to deny that Trump is a huckster — since his election, Trump has, if anything, accelerated his lifelong habit of grifting and constant lying. But it is also true, from the conservative standpoint, that Trump is their huckster. That editorial’s bracing conclusion — “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself”— seemed only to contemplate the damage he might do to conservative doctrine, as opposed to the country as a whole. Both the original NR anti-Trump editorial and Lowry’s most recent effort share an unstated premise that fealty to conservatism is the only standard by which conservatives should judge a president.
In 1980, The New Republic published a cover editorial endorsing John Anderson for president. The blown-up version of the cover hung on the wall opposite my door when I worked there for many years, so I remember it well. “What liberals want from government includes what everybody else wants—security, prosperity, personal freedom, honest and efficient governance,” the editorial began. “But liberals also want more—an active remaking of society along more equitable lines, and promotion of humane values in the world.”
One of the ways in which this editorial was misguided was in its assumption that only liberals had ideological criteria for a president. It made sense, at the time. Since the New Deal, Republican presidents had largely stood pat or advanced progressive domestic goals too slowly, while Democratic presidents advanced them rapidly. Starting with Reagan, that changed, and the Republican Party began using its power to roll back social welfare, progressive taxation, and business regulation. From the standpoint of 1980, it made sense to imagine the opposite of an effective liberal president was mere stasis.
But the editorial also took for granted that everybody, right and left, demanded some ideologically neutral baseline standard of performance in their government. It rejected Carter not only for his failure to advance liberal ideological goals but for competence and honesty. Of course, the Carter scandals that seemed so concerning at the time would barely register in Trump’s administration, where mass chaos is the norm and revelations of what used to be a career-ending scandal pop up daily.
In 2015 and 2016, when Republicans still had the chance to choose a different nominee, conservative critics leaned heavily on their belief that Trump had disturbing authoritarian tendencies. “Putin supports Donald Trump. The two men are authoritarian kindred spirits,” warned one column in National Review in March 2016. “Trump assures voters that he will use authoritarian power for good, to help those who feel — with good reason — ignored by both parties,” wrote Ben Domenech. “But the American experiment in self-government was the work of a generation that risked all to defeat a tyrannical monarch and establish a government of laws, not men. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people is precisely what the Constitution offers, and what is most threatened by ‘great men’ impatient to impose their will on the nation.”
Nothing in Trump’s presidency has quelled these fears. Trump has repeatedly expressed, in word and deed, his belief that federal law-enforcement power must be personally loyal to him. He threatens policy retribution against the owners of news media whose reporting displeases him. He is using state power to enrich himself and his cronies in a way that far surpasses the standard of what used to be considered discrete “scandals,” and instead resembles the kind of oligarchies found in Russia, China, and the Middle East — governments that have not coincidentally won favor in Trump’s Washington.
A handful of anti-Trump conservative intellectuals have remained in a state of open revolt. But they no longer see themselves as the leaders of a Republican Party in exile, who will return to their positions of authority after the storm passes. They have grasped that their differences with Trump are also differences with conservatism. The base belongs to Trump so thoroughly that every Republican primary is a contest of which candidate more deeply loves, and is loved by, Trump.
And the conservatives who warned that Trump’s authoritarian instincts made him unfit for the presidency of a great republic have mostly withdrawn the accusation, even as new confirming evidence appears every week. It is almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that “authoritarianism” simply meant to them the fear that Trump would abuse his power in the service of an agenda other than their own. Trump has dispelled every fear that he would fail to uphold the conservative agenda, while confirming every fear that he does not respect the Constitution. They have revealed that conservatism has no neutral or abstract standards of good government. What was clear only to critics of conservatism before the election is now clear to conservatives themselves: An authoritarian can be a Republican in good standing.