Just a few days before Christmas, National Review’s Rich Lowry — easily one of my favorite writers — penned a sober analysis titled, “The Right’s Post-Constitutional Moment,” in which he laments that, “Trump has captivated a share of the Tea Party with a style of politics utterly alien to the Constitution.” This is especially vexing, Lowry continues, in light of a movement which in 2010 produced “… a class of constitutional obsessives, such as Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee, who were focused not just on what government shouldn’t do, but on what it couldn’t do, and why.”
Interesting turn of phrase there, using the designation, “constitutional obsessives,” to describe people who took a solemn oath of constitutional fidelity. I suppose I could be described as “matrimonially obsessive,” since I took a solemn and sacred vow of fidelity to my wife, but the term seems a bit quirky somehow, underscoring the Republican view of these upstarts and the voters who sent them, as borderline fanatics. In any event, Lowry goes on to describe Donald Trump in terms that strike this observer as disconcertingly accurate:
Donald Trump exists in a plane where there isn’t a Congress or Constitution. There are no trade-offs or limits. There is only his will and his team of experts who will figure out how to do whatever he wants to do, no matter how seemingly impossible. The thought you can’t do that doesn’t ever occur to him.
Trump is a reaction to Obama’s weaknesses, but also to Obama’s exaggerated view of executive power … For some on the right, clearly the Constitution was an instrument rather than a principle. It was a means to stop Obama, and has been found lacking.
Here, I think, is where the analysis begins to derail, and so it is here that I respectfully tender the first proposition:
Through its serial Faustian deals with the radical left, combining a toxic blend of political ineptitude, tenacious timidity, and an endless capacity for moral equivocation, the Republican Party has compromised its soul, reducing conservatism itself to little more than an academic exercise — all but paralyzed physically, though of some residual intellectual comfort.
Back in 2010, well before Donald Trump stepped on the political stage, Republicans vowed that big changes were on the way if only we would support them. The GOP unveiled a plan that “puts forth a new government agenda that reflects the priorities of the American people — priorities that have been ignored, even mocked by the powers-that-be in Washington — and can be implemented today.” Page after page of promises were offered, promises based on constitutional principles, no less, from which I glean just a few:
To provide Stability, we will require congressional approval of any new federal regulation that has an annual cost to our economy of $100 million or more.
Cut government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels.
Cut Congress’ budget.
Hold weekly votes on spending cuts.
Establish a hard cap on new discretionary spending.
Impose a net federal hiring freeze of non-security employees.
Repeal the costly health care takeover of 2010.
We will fight efforts to fund the costly new health care law.
Permanently prohibit taxpayer funding of Abortion.
We will ensure that bills are debated and discussed in the public square by publishing the text online for at least three days before coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives. No more hiding legislative language from the minority party, opponents and the public. Legislation should be understood by all interested parties before it is voted on.
Advance legislative issues one at a time. We will end the practice of packaging unpopular bills with “must-pass” legislation to circumvent the will of the American people.
Keep terrorists out of America. We will prevent the government from importing terrorists onto American soil.
Require tough enforcement of sanctions against Iran.
Establish operational control of the border.
Conservatives generally — and Tea Partiers in particular — responded by installing Republicans in a historic majority in the House of Representatives. Expecting promised results, since the agenda was advertised as one that “can be implemented today,” conservatives watched in dismay as one opportunity after another to flex constitutional muscle was surrendered, always because the task was too daunting, and always with the stipulation that the good fight would be waged next time. Only next time never came.
Capitulation, like success itself, becomes a habit. In short order, those who promised to repeal and defund a perfectly awful health care law — and one that barely survived judicial scrutiny thanks to the linguistic gymnastics of a Republican nominee to the Supreme Court — look at us askance, incredulous that they should be held to their word. They only controlled one half of one branch, which was less than a full third of something or other. That they had neglected to mention all those caveats and conditions when asking us to give them the majority was somehow our fault, dontcha know? But even with majorities in both chambers, the results were the same.
Contrary to Mr. Lowry’s either/or proposition, the Constitution is both a principle and an instrument, designed to thwart the usurpation of its tenets. But we the people — who expected constitutional fidelity from those who promised as much — were derided as “purists,” constitutional troglodytes, too thick-headed to realize that principles are, in reality, mere expedients to be jettisoned as the cost of reaching across the aisle, and “getting something done.”
Yes, we are indeed in a post-constitutional era, but that process began long before Donald Trump’s first campaign event, over the vehement objections of some Tea Partiers who — having watched for several years as their representatives repeatedly and preemptively surrendered — have learned their lesson perhaps too well and decided to emulate the moderate’s emancipation from conservative orthodoxy, for the sake of getting something done, of course. In fact, they might even be forgiven if they answer the RINO’s belated and uncharacteristic concern for constitutional adherence with a wry smile and the single word, “purist.” Conservatism used to be made of sterner stuff before the apologists for Republican inaction and capitulation emasculated it. It’s adherents still make a coherent and persuasive philosophical case for it in these and other pages, but inaction has caused it to atrophy, and a weary and beaten citizenry are looking elsewhere for help.
It wasn’t the Constitution that was found lacking. It was Republicans who lacked the courage that the Constitution’s Framers expected from the representatives of a people whose very liberty was born of courage. One can argue over exactly when it was that the Right began making peace with extra-constitutional government, but when you fully fund an agenda you swore to oppose, and spend more time belittling those who voted for you than you spend keeping your word in the first place, you’re complicit in the results.
And it all happened before Donald Trump ever set foot on the political stage, which will bring me to the second proposition, in the next installment.
This post was originally published on Jan. 14, 2016.