Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Previously he worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
Published February 26, 2017
One of the concerns those of us who are conservative had about the right rallying around Donald Trump is that he would have a degrading effect on conservatism itself. It hasn’t taken much time for those concerns to be realized.
One recent example: In an interview broadcast just prior to the Super Bowl, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly pressed President Trump on his repeated expressions of respect for the brutal, authoritarian leader of Russia. When O’Reilly described Vladimir Putin as a killer, Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” (This was hardly the first time that Trump denigrated America in the context of defending Putin. During the 2016 campaign, when MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said Putin “kills journalists, political opponents and invades countries,” Trump replied, “At least he’s a leader.” Besides, Trump added, “I think our country does plenty of killing also.”)
A second example: A little more than a week ago, Milo Yiannopoulos, a crude and nihilistic figure on the “alt-right,” was invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, America’s largest gathering of conservative leaders and activists. (The invitation was rescinded only after a video tape was circulated showing Yiannopoulos speaking sympathetically of pedophilia.)
Now, a thought experiment: Assume it was Barack Obama, not Donald Trump, who slandered America in an effort to defend Putin; and assume it was a liberal gathering rather than a conservative one that invited a Yiannopoulos-like individual to speak and enthusiastically justified it, which is what CPAC did before the comment celebrating pedophilia went viral. (Yiannopoulos, an admirer of Trump who refers to him as “Daddy,” has among many other things described Joe Bernstein, a media writer for BuzzFeed News, as “a typical example of a sort of thick-as-pig-sh** media Jew.”)
We all know what the reaction would have been. The right, and especially conservative media and evangelical leaders, would have gone ballistic. But Trump and his supporters are given a pass by many of the very same people who would have been (loudly) outraged if this behavior had emanated from the other side.
One explanation for such a double standard is political tribalism; the attitude that whatever is done by “my team” is defensible and that for conservatives to criticize Trump and those who support him is an act of betrayal, a sign of weakness that aids and abets the forces hostile to conservativism. Trump is being harshly criticized by the left, they argue. He doesn’t need those on the right to pile on as well. If Trump infuriates the left, this logic suggests, he is therefore deserving of support on the right.
I understand that the pull of partisanship is strong. But such justifications ultimately underscore the moral and intellectual decay that has spread as a result of Trump and Trumpism. Many people on the right, in choosing to support Trump over Hillary Clinton, began to accommodate themselves to their decision. They began the process of normalizing Trump, and normalization is now giving way to loyalty. They are now following his lead. What they once found unacceptable is increasingly tolerable. Donald Trump is now steering this ship, so why not relax and come along for the wild ride?
A redefinition of the Republican Party and conservatism, then, is well underway. That was clear from CPAC, where Trump and Bannon were dominant and even celebrated figures. (Arguing that Trump’s effort to refashion conservatism is a worrisome thing doesn’t mean that he won’t make good selections and do good things from time to time. Both can happen at once; and he knows the latter will help him achieve the former.)
Events, including the new administration’s own ratio of competence to incompetence, will ultimately determine how successful Trump and his aides, including Steve Bannon and Steve Miller, are in realizing their ambitions. In the meantime, some of us will continue to resist their efforts to transform conservatism into an ethno-nationalist, blood-and-soil movement, one animated by grievances and a Nietzschean ethic. And those on the right who are making their accommodation with Trump might reflect for a moment on the words of Edmund Burke, who wrote that certain means, once tolerated, are soon preferred.