The marriage between Donald Trump and the Republican Establishment was born of convenience not love. The buttoned-up, Burke-quoting worshippers of Mammon (and/or white patriarchal Jesus) who occupy the commanding heights of American conservatism didn’t get into bed with a gauche, grimy Clinton donor until they saw no better way to move up in the world.
In January 2016, National Review spoke for most of the GOP’s old guard when it declared Trump “a menace to American conservatism.” Once the mogul secured the Republican nomination, most of the party’s donor class and congressional membership reconciled themselves to his candidacy. But the contingent nature of this partnership revealed itself each time the Trump campaign’s fortunes flagged. When America heard Trump’s reflections on the joys of sexual assault — and his poll numbers briefly tanked — then–House Speaker Paul Ryan backed out of a campaign appearance with his party’s standard-bearer, and refused to affirm his support for the mogul’s candidacy. After the American people’s amnesia, and James Comey’s letter, put the Republican nominee back into contention, Ryan found his way back onto the Trump train.
And from November 8, 2016, to April 2020, the bulk of the respectable right rode that locomotive quite contentedly. Trump remained an irksome vessel for the conservative project, what with the protectionist tantrums, embarrassing tweets, high crimes, and misdemeanors. But in other ways, the reality star was actually a more faithful servant of the movement’s cause than an ordinary Republican president would have been. Trump’s dearth of ideological conviction and policy knowledge may have unnerved conservatives at first. But once in office, it enabled the Heritage Foundation and Koch Network to dictate the lion’s share of the administration regulatory policies and legislative priorities — without any interference from presidential pollsters who might wish to balance conservatives’ ideological objectives against public opinion. Meanwhile, so long as the unemployment rate kept falling, the combination of a strong economy, the biases of the Electoral College, and advantages of incumbency looked sufficient to overwhelm the political detriments of Trump’s incompetence and indiscretion — and keep the Executive branch red for another four years.
Thus, this January, National Review’s ex–Never Trump pundit David Harsanyi candidly articulated the conservative old guard’s satisfaction with its own unscrupulous opportunism:
“Aha!” critics will also say, “you’re willing to overlook all of Trump’s behavior in exchange for long-term ideological victory.” Absolutely! There are limits to everything, of course, but if the choice, as many voters rightly see it, is between a group that wants a nationalized health-care system to pay for abortion in the ninth month of pregnancy and one that doesn’t, it’s not a difficult one to make.
Of course, the dominant faction of the Democratic Party (unfortunately) does not support a nationalized health-care system, let alone one that finances third-trimester abortions. But a spoonful of hyperbole makes the complicity go down. Regardless, in the months since Harsanyi published his op-ed, it’s become much less clear that the Trump presidency will redound to the conservative movement’s long-term ideological benefit.
Truth be told, there was reason to doubt that notion even in January. Given that Republicans retained control of the House and Senate in 2016, president Hillary Clinton’s legislative agenda would have gone nowhere, while her court picks would have been blockaded by McConnell’s minions. Which is to say, conservatives could have maintained most of the policy status quo, while demobilizing the Democratic base ahead of the 2018 elections. And since midterms favor the opposition party even when the governing one isn’t dispirited, Republicans almost certainly would have grown their House majority in 2018, while ousting far more of the vulnerable Democratic senators who were on the ballot that year (e.g., Jon Tester and Joe Manchin) than they did with Trump in office. These congressional gains would have made it nearly impossible for Democrats to secure unified control of the federal government for a decade.
Regardless, the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath has enhanced the conservative case for buyer’s remorse. It is all but certain that Clinton’s administration would have handled the COVID-19 pandemic better than Trump’s, but it’s far from clear that it would have averted a major crisis entirely. After all, only a tiny minority of Western governments pulled that off, and many of the flaws in the U.S. response aren’t attributable to Trump per se (if red America resisted federal guidance on masks and social distancing with one of its own in the White House, imagine the scale of its defiance with “Crooked Hillary” at the helm). Assuming America did enter a pandemic-induced recession, there’s no way an overwhelmingly Republican Congress would have supplied a sitting Democratic president with as much fiscal aid as the present Congress has given Trump. Clinton was already an unusually unpopular major-party nominee in 2016. If she had to seek another four years while presiding over a broken economy, the GOP would have likely enjoyed a “red wave” election in 2020. Such a landslide would not only have put the party in position to enact a sweeping agenda at the federal level in 2021, but also to draw the coming decade’s House and state legislative maps in most states.
Of course, these points are moot. Thoughts of what could have been had Trump lost the 2016 election may keep conservative operatives up at night. But the more relevant question facing the party’s old guard is whether to cut bait on Trump 2020.
Federalist Society co-founder Steven Calabresi answers in the affirmative. As the architect of the conservative judicial project explained in an op-ed for the New York Times Thursday, he had long been an unimpeachably obsequious supporter of Donald Trump. When the FBI dared to investigate the mogul’s myriad attempts to obstruct its probe into Russian interference, Calabresi insisted that the real threat to the rule of law was Robert Mueller’s investigation itself. But after Donald Trump took the definitely unprecedented step of saying something authoritarian on Twitter Thursday, Calabresi’s conscience compelled him to endorse the president’s “immediate impeachment.”
Why, precisely, Trump’s proposed postponement of the November election merited his removal from office — even as his calls for the Justice Department to persecute his enemies, or perennial attempts to delegitimize free elections did not — Calabresi does not explain. This makes his piece a lousy column, but a fine weather vane. In at least some previously loyal corners of the conservative Establishment, the positioning for a post-Trump world has begun.
This fact is most consequential for its influence on negotiations over the next coronavirus relief package. If one posits that the Trump presidency can still be saved, then it makes sense for conservatives to put political expediency above ideological scruples and acquiesce to fiscal relief for states and cities, and generous benefits for the unemployed. On the other hand, if one concludes that Trump’s dead in the water either way, it might make sense for conservative true believers to prioritize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to impose austerity on all 50 state governments over maximizing their down-ballot fortunes.
To be sure, the more dim-witted conservative true believers recognize no conflict between their political and ideological interests; they genuinely believe that fiscal transfers will only delay the onset of economic recovery. And others may care more about keeping McConnell at the helm of the Senate than starving state-level social programs. Nevertheless, in the past 48 hours of negotiations, a fault line has opened up between the Trump White House and congressional Republicans, with the former putting a premium on reaching a deal, and the latter on holding the line against liberalism.
Mitch McConnell has declared a liability shield — a provision insulating employers from the threat of COVID-related lawsuits — to be his top priority for the pending bill. Yet administration officials told the Washington Post Thursday that it would be willing to accept a compromise that did not include such a shield. Congressional Republicans have insisted that extending the $600 federal unemployment insurance benefit is a nonstarter; the Trump administration reportedly offered to extend such benefits for at least one week while negotiations continued. And some White House officials ostensibly told Politico that the president would be willing to extend that $600 benefit for four months.
If the congressional GOP has been prioritizing its ideological objectives over Trump’s political interests, Trump has been putting his personal affinities above the congressional GOP’s electoral fortunes. Internal Republican polling reportedly shows that Democrats will win the open Senate race in Kansas if the GOP nominates far-right Trump ally Kris Kobach. Nevertheless, Trump has declined to endorse the Republican Establishment’s preferred candidate in the Sunflower State’s Republican Senate primary, while allowing Kobach to advertise the endorsement he earned from the president during his gubernatorial run in 2018.
It is possible that the present rift between Trump and the Republican old guard will prove as ephemeral as the post–Access Hollywood spat in 2016. If general-election polls start to narrow, conservative movement elites will surely do what they can to push their president over the top. As of this writing however, the Economist’s election model gives Trump an 8 percent chance of reelection. If conservatives come to believe that Trump’s odds are that long, existing tensions between the president and his party could grow more pronounced, as vulnerable Republican senators try to save themselves — and GOP operatives curse the day they mastered the art of the Faustian deal.