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What’s the Endgame of Trumpism?

Not everything turns on the next political cycle.
February 25, 2019
What’s the Endgame of Trumpism?
President Donald Trump. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Abraham Maslow (channeling his inner Mark Twain) once observed that it “is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Likewise, to a pollster, every problem is matter of data; and to political operatives everything looks like the next election cycle.

On their own terms this makes perfect sense. But perhaps, the frame needs to be widened; and the full scope of the problem addressed. For the moment though, the conservative elite seems to be coalescing around a consensus that it is the embodiment of foolishness for conservatives to continue to resist Trumpism and its works.

So we got a long (and thoughtful) tweet thread from Real Clear Politics’s Sean Trende asking, essentially, what Never Trumpers (specifically those of us at The Bulwark) could possibly be thinking by resisting the Trumpifaction of the GOP.

As Trende sees it, Trump skeptics in the GOP have only three options: leave, sit quietly, or fight back. 

Leaving aside that it is the Trumpists who are the new “establishment,” Trende’s argument is that the rational choice for dissenters is either to abandon ship altogether or bide their time for four to eight years. In other words, we should be the “cucks” we are accused of being.

The third choice, which Trende calls a “kamikaze strike” makes people mad and reconciliation harder and leads Trende to ask the pointed question: What is the endgame for Never Trumpers?

In immediate electoral terms (the 2020 cycle), it is not an easy question, but I think Sarah Longwell does a masterful job of providing an answer.

Trump defenders often like to say that history did not begin in 2016. And that’s true. But by the same token, history will not end in 2020. The effects of a primary challenge to Trump, and Trump’s ultimate victory or loss, will continue to ripple out into the future. Some of those effects might be congenial to conservatism. Some of them might not. But you cannot simply say… that any loss for any Republican, anywhere, will forever be a net loss to conservatism.

That’s not the way politics works.

She also points out in terms the GOP elites surely understandthe poll numbers suggesting Trump’s short-term and long-term weaknesses. A primary challenge doesn’t make Trump weak, but rather reflects his pre-existing weakness. The fallout could be ugly.

Yes, there have been some conservative policy gains under Trump… But if the price of those gains is a Democratic party so ideologically radicalized and electorally empowered that it winds up handing unified control of government to someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will those gains have been, on balance, worth it?

I would argue, no.

This also suggests that we should shift the time frame and then re-evaluate the possible endgames.

What is the endgame of embracing exclusionary policies that traffic in nativism, and xenophobia and also provide oxygen for toxic white nationalists? What does the endgame look like if the GOP continues to alienate women, young people, Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, Asian-Americans? What will allegiance to Trumpism mean for the GOP in 2024? 2032? 2040?

What if the challenge facing conservatism is not simply winning the next election, but also winning the struggle of ideas? Of hearts and minds? Of winning over the next generation? And what if we replace the hammer of electoral politics with other instruments that measure things like character, morality, and ethics? After all, not everything turns on the next political cycle.

What is the endgame of accepting mendacity, deception, and corruption as a routine part of our lives? What would that mean for our culture and our souls? Does anyone think that if those battles are not fought out now that we can wait for eight years and then simply clean up the mess then?

Civil wars are messy things and critics are right to point out their dangers. But there is a long history of intraparty battles that actually strengthened the party. In his answer to Trende, Jonah Goldberg pointed out:

From the Taft-Dewey fights of the 1950s to the Goldwater-Rockefeller-Nixon battles of the 60s, to the Reagan-Ford conflicts of the 1970s, there were times when sticking to your principles and duking it out with your intramural opponents would seem very un-strategic. Newt Gingrich’s bomb-throwing antics in the late 1980s and early 1990s made him reviled by the GOP leadership. They also worked.

Inevitably Trumpists insist that the choice we face is binary. But it isn’t. What if the face of the party was not Donald Trump, but rather, say, Nikki Haley, or Ben Sasse, or James Mattis? If you’d like, make the case that conservatism would be worse off with a fresher face.

We’ve also learned that avoiding certain fights can end quite badly. Back in 2016, Ben Howe noted all the times we looked away or simply rolled our eyes when one of our “allies” suggested that Obama was from Kenya or that liberals wanted to impose Sharia law on the country. “People would say outlandish things and I would find myself nodding my head and awkwardly walking away, not calling them out for their silliness,” Howe wrote, because there were more important issues at stake. So, he said, he lied to himself about who they were. He avoided picking uncomfortable fights.

I chose peace over principle. I chose to go along with those I disagreed with on core matters because I believed we were jointly fighting for other things that were more important.  I ignored my gut and my moral compass.

The result is that, almost to a man, every single person I cringed at or thought twice about, is now a supporter and cheerleader of Donald Trump.

So the question now is whether we should continue looking the other way, as one conservative “thought leader” after another makes his or her peace with rationalization and defends the indefensible? Trump vs. Bernie Sanders may turn out to be a binary choice, but does also mean that we should not continue to police the borders of conservatism?

Trende and others suggest that it is very bad form to stigmatize certain thinkers on the right. But shouldn’t there be a stigma attached to those who traffic in white nationalism? Or who write for publications that promote it? Or who use their platforms to offer excuses for the president’s character? Or who peddle conspiracy theories and hoaxes?

Is conservatism really better off without a vigorous effort to maintain its intellectual hygiene in a time of rampant toxic swampiness? What is the endgame of ceding the debate to the grifters and trolls? (Trick question. The answer is CPAC.)

It is also worth remembering here that William F. Buckley Jr. founded National Review, not merely to combat what he saw as the dominant leftism of his era, but to combat what he called “the parasitic cant that defaces” conservatism “and repels so many of those who approach it inquiringly.” Not only did he famously ex-communicate the Birchers and fellow cranks, but launched withering attacks against other Republicans who were taking the party in the wrong direction. In 1965, he mounted a third-party campaign for New York mayor against GOP establishment darling John Lindsay. His criticism of Richard Nixon was sustained and deadly.

For much of his career, this was lonely and unpopular work, perhaps even “irrelevant,” in the political short-term. Without it, however, there would have been no modern conservative movement.

As I suggested to McKay Coppins the other day, maybe Trump critics will end up like the Japanese soldiers in the caves who didn’t realize the war was already over.

But I prefer Jonah Goldberg’s description of us as “happy warriors in what they see as a good and rebellious cause. It’s always more fun to be the underdog.”

Indeed it is.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.