One of the more interesting political phenomena in recent history has been the mass flip-flop of ideological conservatives in the direction of Donald Trump since they overwhelmingly opposed him in the 2016 Republican primaries. Like religious converts, many of them have gone from being outspokenly anti-Trump before his conquest of the GOP to being very outspokenly — sometimes sycophantically — pro-Trump during his presidency.
There are many famous examples of nationally prominent conservatives becoming more-Catholic-than-the-pope toward Trump, including pols who said abusive things about the mogul as his 2016 rivals, such as Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, and others who supported them (e.g., House Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows, a 2016 Cruz supporter).
But something a bit stranger than a mere flip-flop is happening in North Carolina GOP circles heading toward 2020: a former anti-Trump Republican stalwart has announced he will offer a primary challenge to Senator Thom Tillis on grounds that the incumbent isn’t loyal enough to the president, as the Raleigh News & Observer reports:
Garland Tucker III, the retired chairman and CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation and an author, filed paperwork with the Federal Election Committee to run in the Republican primary on Monday. Tucker wrote “Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Changed America — Jefferson to Reagan” and has served on the board of the John Locke Foundation and the Raleigh-based Civitas Institute …
Tillis, a former N.C. House speaker, defeated Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan to win the Senate seat in 2014. Though he has voted reliably with President Donald Trump, 94.7 percent of the time, according to 538.com, Tillis has earned criticism from some conservatives for his position on immigration, protecting the special counsel and Trump’s national emergency declaration.
Tillis’s public opposition to the emergency declaration really riled up the MAGA folk, even though at the last minute he caved and voted against the resolution that put Congress on record as disapproving it. (Trump vetoed the measure, and Congress did not even attempt to override it.) But he’s hardly a rebel in any way that threatens the president politically. And he’s a bit of a valuable resource to Trump and his party as one of the more vulnerable GOP incumbents up for reelection in 2020.
But without question, he made himself a target by wavering in his loyalty, as Tucker adviser Carter Wrenn, a legendary right-wing political operative in North Carolina, argued (per The Hill):
Wrenn said in a brief phone interview on Monday that Tillis had shown himself to be a typical “Washington politician” who is willing to vote in whichever way is politically convenient.
“When he looks at Tillis, Tillis is a Washington politician, who talks a good game, but when you look at how he votes it doesn’t match up,” Wrenn said, later adding that the first-term Republican senator has “his finger to the air and he flip flops” on the issues.
Wrenn described Tucker, a first-time candidate for public office, as an “old-fashioned conservative,” who “believes in less government, less spending, stronger defense [and] securing the border.”
What makes Tucker an unlikely vehicle for Trumpist vengeance on Tillis is his own background in 2016, as best described by, well, himself when he finally endorsed his party’s nominee in September of that year:
As a conservative and a lifelong Republican, I stoutly resisted Trump’s nomination. First, I was for Scott Walker, then Marco Rubio, then Ted Cruz and finally John Kasich. Hence, my conscience is clear — I am in no way responsible for Trump as the nominee. But, alas, however we got to this point and whatever it means for the future, I’m left with the decision of Trump v. Clinton,” Tucker wrote in September 2016.
Tucker expressed concern, as a Christian, about voting for Trump, whom he described as “a twice-divorced, self-acknowledged adulterer who has, in the course of this campaign, uttered some of the most unkind, disgusting comments ever made by any American politician.”
Now, says Wrenn, Tucker “agrees with Trump on the issues and is now convinced of the president’s conservative credentials.” That isn’t keeping Tillis’s campaign from describing the challenger as an “anti-Trump activist.”
Does more recent loyalty to POTUS’s imperial wishes matter more than the date on which the knee first bended and the furlock was first tugged? That’s the sort of thing North Carolina Republicans must sort out, along with the underlying question of whether the 45th president now defines conservatism.