Published January 22, 2016
What if the real problem is defeatism? The Republican establishment has been spooked for some time by a media that puts every objection to Obama’s agenda in the worst possible light, as well as by the narrative of irreversible demographic and cultural change. Despite favorable off-year contests, Obama’s reelection in the face of expectations to the contrary has taken its toll. Undoubtedly, serious differences of interest and conviction play a role in Republican divisions, and politicians will always tend to run from risky battles. But the abject surrender of congressional Republican leaders goes well beyond ordinary political caution to defeatism pure and simple.
The emerging view that Trump’s supporters are “populists” who were never really particularly conservative to begin with is only partly right. Plenty of Trump’s supporters are long-time conservatives. I know some of of them. These folks are not unaware of Trump’s belated and not entirely reliable conservative conversion. Yet they’re willing to take what they view as the modest risk of policy betrayal because of their utter frustration at repeated Republican surrender. These Trumpites have a sense that conventional politics is so bankrupt — so complete a failure at resisting Obama, the cultural Left, and a quasi-liberal Republican donor class — that only a bold roll of the dice has a chance to work. These folks are also tired of losing and they believe that Trump can win, which is more than they think any conventional conservative can do. In a word, quite a few Trump supporters are conservative defeatists, and thus mirror images of their establishment foes. They despair of conservative victory through ordinary means.
Within minutes of the announcement of NR’s anti-Trump symposium, even sympathetic conservatives were saying it was all a waste of time. Populist Trump supporters, we’re told, don’t care whether he’s conservative or not, and don’t listen to pundits anyway, except maybe to do they opposite of whatever all those pointy-headed intellectuals have to say. Well, maybe that holds for some Trump supporters, but Trump really does draw from all camps. Many of his backers are conservatives in despair, conservatives who’ve otherwise given up. These voters are not immune to a concerted conservative drive against Trump.
The old conventional wisdom was that Trump is a clown not to be taken seriously. The new conventional wisdom is that Trump is immune from all criticism. There are no guarantees, and certainly Trump may win. But acting as though his nomination is foreordained and his supporters immune to persuasion is just as foolish as all those early dismissals. As I say, a surprising number of Trump supporters are serious, if frustrated, conservatives and open to persuasion, especially if the Donald begins to deflate just a bit.
The utter failure of the initial assault on Trump by many of NR’s leading lights has fueled the sense that Trump is simply immune to conservative criticism. I don’t buy it. The first wave of attacks on Trump peaked too soon, before the Trump phenomenon fully took off. Many voters are only just tuning in, and they haven’t even heard the conservative case against Trump. Even Ted Cruz has only barely begun to make that case.
If you were an occasional Fox News viewer looking at the channel over the holidays, what would you have seen? There would have been few concerted attacks on Trump’s conservatism. On the contrary, if you watched on New Year’s Eve, you’d have seen Trump, and no other candidate, featured live for quite some time at the height of the celebration, right through to the dropping of the ball. Your reasonable inference would have been that Trump was the leading conservative candidate, or at least not particularly unconservative. Maybe that story will now begin to change a bit. No guarantees, but it’s silly not to try.
Looking around, we see defeatism by the Republican establishment, defeatism by Trump’s conservative supporters, and defeatism even by those who agree with the conservative attack on Trump. Yet with Obama unpopular, Hillary weakened on multiple fronts, an unelectable socialist now threatening to take the Democratic nomination, and very solid non-Trump Republicans in the running, there is no justification for defeatism.
Trump is immune . . . until he isn’t. Hillary is inevitable until, well, several months ago. Obama’s executive overreach is easily reversible with a Republican win, precisely because it isn’t enshrined in law. Victory would likely give the GOP control of the presidency, Congress, and most states. The public is alarmed by terrorism and a world spinning out of control, while Democrats have tripled and quadrupled down on dovish denial. No one is happy with the economy. The country is yearning for change.
Trump is a desperation bet that needn’t be made when smart, persuasive, and authentic conservatives are ready and willing to serve. Say no to conservative defeatism. Say no to Trump.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.