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the national interest

The Right’s Only Regret About Trumpists is That They Lost

Don’t mistake tactical critiques for moral ones.

Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

The Republican Party is divided between elected officials who vocally endorse Donald Trump’s fantastical claims that the 2020 election was stolen and those who refuse to say. Candidates in the former category suffered numerous high-profile defeats. Supporters of the latter category have seized on these losses to depict them as losers.

“So, the only candidate still left from the America First slate of ‘Stop the Steal’ candidates for secretary of state or governor who hasn’t been defeated is Kari Lake (still being counted),” exulted National Review’s Dan McLaughlin. “Everybody else lost. What an ill-conceived fiasco. Frankly, they all richly deserved to lose.”

The last line was particularly revealing. McLaughlin wrote that the stop-the-stealers deserved to lose — which is to say, their defeat is not an unfortunate by-product of their unpopular branding but normatively good. I found this surprising because, as a regular reader of the conservative media in general and National Review in particular, this conviction was nowhere in evidence before the election.

Lake is a paradigmatic example of a stop-the-steal candidate. Her dedication to the lie was so resolute that Trump urged fellow stop-the-stealer Blake Masters to follow her example. (“If they say, ‘How is your family?’ she says, ‘The election was rigged and stolen,’” he gushed.) National Review does not require every contributor to take the same position, but it does enforce some boundaries, and the debate over stop-the-stealers hovered around a narrow range. NR’s coverage of Lake offers a useful case study for how the mainstream right treated stop-the-stealers.

During the Republican primary, NR strongly urged voters to nominate a different candidate. Lake “is a full-on election truther who is wielding her lurid conspiracy theories as a weapon in the primary,” warned a National Review editorial. And it wasn’t mere electoral pragmatism that weighed against her nomination: “It is often said that such a backwards-looking, conspiracy-fueled obsession with 2020 is bad general-election politics, and it is. But even if it were a way to win over independents, make inroads in the suburbs, and fashion a winning agenda, it’d still be a very bad thing for a state party to submerge itself in the fever swamp.”

Lake, of course, won anyway. From that point on, NR’s editorial line shifted noticeably. An NR story seized on a report that the Arizona Democratic Party had sent out an email thanking Lake’s opponent for past donations to the party. While this email was a rather minuscule gesture, it allowed conservatives queasy with Lake to blame Democrats for her nomination, thereby justifying their own support.

NR editor-in-chief Rich Lowry began publishing a stream of fawning commentaries on Lake. “She’s obviously not my kind of Republican, but I thought her nomination was political suicide, and I was wrong,” he wrote. “Lake is a ‘Stop the Steal’ die-hard and political novice who, one assumed (certainly, I did), would suffer the fate of another Trump-endorsed true believer, the Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee, Doug Mastriano,” he wrote the next day. “To the contrary, Lake has been a surprise … Win or lose, there’s no doubt that a major political talent has emerged.”

The next week, Lowry expounded again on Lake’s emergence:

At the inception, it did seem like a pretty bad idea to nominate Kari Lake. She has no political experience, she’s a stop-the-steal die-hard, running not in a deep red state any more, but what’s a closely contested state, Arizona. I certainly didn’t give her much of a chance. But it turns out she has some pretty formidable advantages.

NR’s moral qualms with Lake’s vocal stoking of election trutherism had disappeared entirely. The issue was now relegated to a mere electoral liability, one that was being eclipsed by admiration for her skills as a talking head. I could not find a single post-primary example of National Review arguing against Lake’s election.

The important thing to note is that this transformation occurred as Lake became competitive. She never even built a solid lead in the polls. If National Review had chosen to weigh in against her, it would have sent a message to Republican regulars in the state. But for that reason, the magazine’s criticisms grew muted.

Liberals watching the conservative recriminations have often misread traditional conservative dismay with Trumpism as a deeper schism than it actually is. Aside from the small wing of never-Trumpers who followed Liz Cheney, the bulk of the party’s non-Trump wing has no principled objection to supporting Trumpists. They are willing to fight the Trumpists over control of the party, but if they lose, they will support them anyway.

This is why Trump’s abuses of power have never caused any serious breach within his own party. Even over the last couple days, new revelations have emerged of Trump ordering the IRS to harass his critics — something conservatives hysterically and falsely accused Barack Obama of doing — and blatantly using the presidency to line his own pockets. The right has not made any stink about these crimes, because its concern has never been that Trump would abuse power, but instead that he would squander it.

They may be angry now that his candidates have gone down to defeat. Don’t mistake the sentiment. Their only regret is that they lost.

Update: National Review has greeted Trump’s candidacy with another of its patented editorials rejecting his candidacy. A number of anti-Trump commentators have greeted this position as a welcome change, given the magazine’s history of either defending Trump or running interference on his behalf.

But the editorial simply articulates the same position the magazine has held all along. NR wants somebody other than Trump to lead the Republican party. But if Trump is leading the Republican party, they will fall in line. The latter part is perfectly obvious if you read all the way to the third-to-last paragraph:

Needless to say, Trump is a magnetic political figure who has managed to bond countless millions of Republicans to him. Many GOP voters appreciate his combativeness and hate his enemies, who so often engaged in excesses in pursuit of him. Once he won the nomination in 2016, they understandably voted for him in 2016 and 2020, given the alternatives. But the primaries won’t present a choice between Trump and progressives with calamitous priorities for the nation, but other Republicans who aren’t, in contrast to him, monumentally selfish or morally and electorally compromised. (And it should be added, won’t be 78 years old if elected and ineligible to serve two terms.)

They think Trump’s lack of discipline undermined his goals. But if Trump does manage to secure the nomination, NR and the conservative party mainstream will once again discover that the horrors of the Democratic party outweigh whatever small misgivings they have with Trump. Disdaining Trump as a probable loser is a very far cry from not wanting him to win.

The Right’s Only Regret About Trumpists Is That They Lost