The dearth of criticism of Donald Trump from Republican politicians and assorted party figures has been one of the great mysteries of this election cycle. Even his actual competitors for the nomination, even now, aren’t nearly as critical of him as you might imagine they would be—not only given how rich a target he is but even just given that he’s the front-runner in the Republican nominating contest and they’re running against him. And other politicians, standing to the side and watching, are often extremely critical and harsh in private in ways they won’t be in public.
I’m sure the reasons vary. Some Republicans of course aren’t critical because they support Donald Trump. You have to assume people mean what they say, and so I suppose some people really think that Trump is another Reagan, as a few Republican politicos have suggested. I can hardly think of a greater insult to Reagan, but obviously these folks think otherwise.
I’ve even heard a few people in Republican circles (and one or two in conservative policy circles) say that they’re not Trump fans personally but they’re supporting or encouraging Trump to make it more likely that he would look to them for advice and guidance if he were to come to power—and that this would make his governance more constructive and conservative. That idea brings to mind Aesop’s fable of the farmer and the viper, a story Trump knows rather well as it happens (though he prefers the Al Wilson version). Everyone should offer their ideas to every candidate and citizen, surely, but that’s not the same as offering actual support to someone you oppose in the hope you will fundamentally change his character. I don’t find the case for such hope persuasive, but I suppose it’s an argument.
Along with these, though, there have been from the beginning of this primary cycle a fair number of Republicans who are adamantly opposed to Trump but have avoided criticizing him. The arguments driving this group have followed a peculiar path over the months. It began with the argument that Trump’s candidacy was a joke and there was no point in treating it seriously since it wasn’t going anywhere. Then it transformed awfully quickly into the argument that Trump was the invincible front-runner and there was no point in trying to stop him anymore. But as it has become clearer that, although Trump is certainly in a strong position in this race, he is not on a steady path to the delegate count he needs and he surely could still be stopped, another argument has emerged: that taking on Trump would only help him.
The idea, as I understand it, is that expressing firm opposition to Trump or support for Ted Cruz would be counterproductive, because it would suggest that the party or the establishment (or whatever) is opposed to Trump and supporting Cruz, and nothing could be better for Trump or worse for Cruz. I’ve heard this now from a number of members of Congress, from a smaller number of conservative activist types, even from one of the people who ran for president earlier in this cycle. The argument presents itself as a kind of exercise in political savvy—as if, well, we all know what voters think of the establishment nowadays and we had better not make it look like the establishment wants to undermine Trump.
If there’s one thing this year has proven, though, it’s that pretty much no one in Republican politics—establishment types, insurgent types, or any other types—can claim to be savvy about what Republican voters think or will do. There has been an awful lot of sophisticated positioning by various candidates and by others in the Republican political class, but essentially none of it has been validated by events. And a crude establishment/anti-establishment theory of Trump doesn’t actually fit those events all that well either.
But my sense is that this form of the argument for silence isn’t really a failed attempt at sophisticated politicking but is rather an expression of an exaggerated form of the hard-earned self-doubt of Republicans in this political season: The last several months have left people feeling like they’re living in some kind of opposite world, where up is down and wrong is right, so maybe criticizing Trump will only help him.
Whatever is behind it, the awfully convoluted theory that the best way to avoid helping Trump is to avoid criticizing him seems pretty ridiculous. There is really not much evidence behind the proposition that Trump is impervious to old fashioned criticism and attack. He hasn’t been subjected to very much of it at all. And the notion that you shouldn’t tell voters the truth about him as you understand it isn’t exactly a show of respect to Republican voters, or a demonstration of any keen understanding of the different types of voters who might be considering Trump.
Meanwhile, the idea that the best way to avoid hurting Ted Cruz is to avoid praising or supporting him is even more common and even more perverse. It is silly on its face, it makes Cruz seem less popular in Republican circles than he now is, and it encourages John Kasich in the damaging delusion that he is doing anything other than enabling Trump by staying in the race.
Most important, though, the case against Trump given all that we have seen in this election cycle and all that we can discern of his character and record, is more than a tactical case. Trump is singularly ill-suited and unprepared for the job he is seeking, and he is making a mockery of what conservatives have argued, accomplished, and sought to achieve in recent decades. He invites the right to succumb to a shallow caricature of itself and to turn its prospects, and the nation’s, over to someone who shows not the slightest inkling of concern for the Constitution, the limits of government power, the freedom of the individual, or the traditions and principles of the American republic—let alone any prudence, discipline, or vision. To those who are angry, he offers only his own anger; to those led to hopelessness by a loss of faith in our institutions, he offers only affirmation that there can be no hope except himself, the maker of great “deals”; to those who feel insecure, he offers only himself as a model of how to pass off insecurity as confidence—and we should hardly be surprised that the example leads some of those around him to violence. Every nerve and sinew of the conservative political tradition in America cries out against the dangers of such demagoguery. And anyone who thinks that voters should be warned against it ought to offer that warning.
That no one is sure what effect one kind of criticism or another will have on Trump’s standing is not a reason to stay silent; it is a reason to offer up your honest assessment forthrightly and do what you can to avert the disaster of a Trump-Clinton election. Maybe that would backfire. Maybe it would not. But surely it is well past time for bank shots.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.