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I have deep respect for Ramesh Ponnuru, one of the sharpest and most knowledgeable of conservative commentators. Nevertheless, I disagreed almost totally with this recent column at Bloomberg View, in which he suggests that anti-Trump Republicans have rendered themselves futile and irrelevant through their inability to get on the same page. I can summarize the column most efficiently by quoting the final paragraph first:
The major point of agreement among Trump’s conservative critics is an important one: They think that he doesn’t have the character to lead the country well. But that agreement is not a substitute for having a clear and unified sense of where they want the Republican Party, and the country, to go. They don’t have that, and they don’t even seem to see how quixotic it makes their dream of wresting the party back from the man who is their common enemy.
Everything before that, as you might expect, is a sketch of the wildly diverse views of anti-Trump commentators, who disagree about gun control, immigration, tax reform, and even how to refer to themselves.
Obviously, Ramesh is right that Trump-opposed conservatives have a wide range of views on other issues (and even on the question of why Trump rose in the first place). But I don’t see why this should be regarded either as a failure or as a problem.
Anti-Trump Republicans cannot wrest the party back from Trump. His consolidation of the base is, at the moment, much too strong. I think that’s very unfortunate, not only because he’s corrupt, unfit for office, and an embarrassment to the nation, but also because he’s really not that popular. Trump can’t easily be ditched because a substantial portion of the base adores him, and those are unpromising conditions for a revolution, especially when the majority of its politicians and pundits have already invested in his slimy brand. But he’s distasteful enough to the rest of America that he could easily be the millstone that drags the GOP down. Bummer.
Before we despair though, we should note that populist politics is volatile. Trump himself is very volatile. Also, the man is old. This moment will pass. In the meanwhile, I’ve always found the wilderness to be rather a good place for hashing out important arguments and developing ideas. Parties in power are forced to focus most energies on the practicalities of the present moment. If you aren’t (for the present moment) empowered to do much anyway, the pressure to perform is lifted, and you can afford to think in wider circles. That’s why to me it seems like potentially a good thing that the “wilderness-dwellers” of the present moment are in disagreement on several topics that could really use a good hashing-out.
So, for instance, Ramesh points out that anti-Trump conservatives are in disagreement over gun control. Bret Stephens, Max Boot, and Charlie Sykes are pressing for more sweeping gun control measures, while David French and Erick Erickson are totally opposed to that. To me, this division seems rather intriguing. I myself think an intra-conservative gun control discussion could be rather fascinating. There are some very deep moral questions at the heart of it. On the one hand, our Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, and personal self-defense holds a significant place in our rugged-individualist, anti-nanny-state American tradition. Also, the practical difficulties of confiscating hundreds of thousands of firearms are daunting, to put it mildly. On the other hand, I think it’s hard to deny that Americans are considerably more likely to die violently in comparison to citizens of other equally-developed countries, mainly because we own so many guns. In light of that, it’s not strange that many Americans would really prefer at this point to step back from that element of our tradition. Setting all of that on the table could be beneficial, even if there aren’t any ready-to-hand solutions at the present time.
Then there is immigration. In mainstream Republican circles, the immigration hawks are strongly ascendant, but anti-Trump conservatives are more divided. Again, I see this as potential fodder for a fascinating and (maybe?) fruitful debate. I myself think the amnesty-plus-enforcement track pretty clearly the right way to go in general, but of course, that doesn’t really clear up all the deeper questions. I sometimes think that the arguments of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam (who we might call moderate immigration hawks) make pretty good sense. But I also think their presentation tends to exaggerate the objective significance of this issue while underplaying the extent to which immigration hawkishness is really driven by nativist angst far more than any objective appreciation of the impact immigrants have on American life. I understand why that offends writers like Stephens and Jennifer Rubin, who are repulsed by the ugliness of some of those currents. Nativism is not one of our prouder American traditions. Underneath all of this is still a further question: how do we balance our nation’s “melting pot” history against the realities of a world in which travel and communication are much easier than they used to be (making border control far more necessary)? It seems to me like the stage is set for some great discussions.
At some point, you have to come out of the clouds (or wilderness) if you hope to have a real impact on national policy. But considering the dramatic and shocking nature of the Trumpian take-over, I think it’s a little much to expect anti-Trump conservatives to have drawn up a counter-platform already. For the present, there’s something to be said just for articulating Trump’s defects from a conservative perspective. These last few weeks, as the Democrats have been working through their regrets from the Clinton years, I find myself wondering: Would it have mattered if there had been a more significant contingent of anti-Clinton Democrats who refused to sanction the corruption and turpitude of the Clinton White House?
Perhaps not. Maybe our major parties have such tremendous momentum at this point that dissenters will inevitably be assimilated, or else marginalized into insignificance. On the other hand, maybe it would have been helpful to have a stubborn contingent of NeverClintons on the left. Maybe such a group could have salvaged a bit of the honor of the Democratic Party, explored some new ideas, or groomed a few interesting candidates for further down the road. Maybe if liberals had been planting more seeds back then, the left wouldn’t have found itself rolling into 2016 with the baggage-laden, tone-deaf, geriatric Hillary at the helm. We all knew she was a dreadful candidate, but still, they ran her, because the Democrats had long since given up fighting Clintonian corruption, and frankly, they didn’t have anyone else.
As Ramesh correctly points out, “no to Trump” is not a substitute for a full political platform. An interesting starting point, though? It could be.