Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Tired Argument That NeverTrumpers Are to Blame for Trump

Published in The Bulwark on January 8, 2019


It has become a common refrain on the left that “NeverTrump” conservatives are all very well, but they refuse to accept responsibility for the incubus they helped to gestate. Ezra Klein framed it grossly, in a tweet marking the demise of The Weekly Standard: “Trumpism is conservatism now. Perhaps the lesson of this is that it always was.” Carlos Lozada was only a bit more subtle, declaring in the Washington Post that “Anti-Trump conservatives want to reverse the GOP’s destruction, but they helped light the fuse.”

What is he talking about? In his review of four so-called Never Trump books, he does not support his case. Lozada finds fault with Jeff Flake’s The Conscience of a Conservative because it lacks examples of how Flake personally abetted the rise of Trump. But what if there aren’t any? Flake displayed admirable honesty by acknowledging that he voted against TARP to maintain his libertarian credentials while secretly hoping it would pass. Lozada writes: “A single, decade-old anecdote seems to stop short of the courageous soul-searching Flake considers obligatory.”

It’s not clear what Lozada thinks Flake should apologize for. A conservative philosophy? His candor about TARP is notable, but honestly, it’s highly doubtful that Flake’s bailout vote contributed a molecule to Trump’s success. And Lozada gives Flake no credit for defying his party and giving up a U.S. Senate seat, dismissing this principled act as a mere “reassertion of past verities.” Lozada implies throughout that conservatism itself birthed Trump – though he fails to say what aspect. Advocacy of free trade? Skepticism of government regulation? Commitment to human rights?

Lozada quotes Charlie Sykes’s acknowledgment in How the Right Lost Its Mind that “For years, we ignored the birthers, the racists, the truthers, and other conspiracy theorists. We treated them like your obnoxious uncle at Thanksgiving . . . whose quirks could be indulged or at least ignored.” This is not the mea culpa Lozada is hoping for. He faults Sykes for standing back and waiting for “someone else to yell ‘Stop!’” (Disclosure: Sykes is the editor-in-chief of The Bulwark.)

But that is precisely wrong. As more and more callers to his radio program began to spout conspiracy theories, “alternative facts,” and Trump fervor, Sykes pushed back, first gently and then increasingly firmly. By the fall of 2016, when most right-leaning radio hosts had jumped on board with Trump, Sykes continued to plead with his listeners to consider the damage this would do to conservatism and the country. By December 2016 he was out of the show he had piloted for 24 years.

Lozada suggests that Sykes somehow helped to create Trump by not taking on the kooks within the conservative ambit. But it’s not at all clear that ignoring them was the wrong approach before 2016. Rebutting wild speculations and crazy rumors can serve to elevate and dignify them. It is sadly the case that virtually the whole Republican Party has been captured by the fever swamp, but no one saw that coming.

Besides, kooks and conspiracy theorists are hardly the exclusive province of the right. Has Lozada ever listened to C-SPAN callers or scrolled through the comments sections of left-wing publications? Left-wingers have indulged conspiracies for decades. In the 1980s, a story circulated that Ronald Reagan had secretly conspired with the Iranian mullahs to delay the release of American hostages, thereby preventing President Carter from springing an “October surprise.” It was groundless. In the 1990s, the claim that the CIA had funneled crack into inner cities to destroy black communities was popular. A 2006 poll found that nearly half of Democrats believed President Bush might have had advanced knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. In our time, websites like The Palmer Report and Twitter ravers like Louise Mensch traffic in wild rumors. As with the right-wing fringe speculations and whispers that are often repeated by supposedly mainstream figures, former Obama officials and other Democratic luminaries frequently lend credibility to innuendo and gossip. In 2017, Senator Ed Markey embarrassed himself by repeating one such story on CNN – that a grand jury had been empaneled to investigate Trump’s collusion with Russia.

Even when it comes to Max Boot, who has changed his mind on many questions, Lozada remains unsatisfied. Boot wrote: “I have spent most of my life as part of a political movement that has revealed itself to be morally and intellectually bankrupt. This is a chastening lesson about the price of loyalty.”  Lozada chides, “It is also a revealing lesson on the insularity and posturing of the conservative intellectual community.” Really? How so? I may not agree with where Boot has wound up, but his intellectual honesty is as plain as can be. Boot now calls himself a “Rockefeller Republican.” Lozada sneers “which is to say, an extinct one.”

That’s an odd jibe. Boot’s Republicanism may be unfashionable at this precise moment, but popularity is hardly the measure of integrity, is it?

Lozada provides no examples of how NeverTrumpers “lit the fuse” of Trumpism because he can’t. Yes, Trump’s success and the capitulation of such a wide swath of the Republican Party to him has caused Never Trumpers to do some soul-searching. I, for example, now regret some of my past excessive partisanship when I see the blind hatred of liberals and Democrats among so many conservatives. But what critics forget is how many conservatives fought off Trumpism’s cousin three decades ago when we condemned Pat Buchanan. Jack Kemp, William Bennett (sadly now in the Trump camp), William F. Buckley, and many more anathematized him.

Lozada and other critics of NeverTrumpers from the left should follow their own advice. Of Flake, Lozada writes: “Flake relies heavily on the ‘we’ pronoun, which serves to diffuse responsibility as much as assign it. ‘We all but ensured the rise of Donald Trump,’ Flake writes. Who is we?”

Who indeed? Does the left ‘scape whipping’ entirely? Who, if not the liberal news directors at major networks gave candidate Donald Trump an estimated $2 billion in free media? Did Candy Crowley’s (false) fact check in support of Obama during a 2012 presidential debate not sow bitterness? Or Harry Reid’s baseless claim that Romney didn’t pay taxes? Liberals in the press lodged accusations of racism at John McCain, Paul Ryan, and George W. Bush. Might they want to reflect on their own role in crying wolf so often that conservatives tuned them out?

New coalitions will emerge out of this clownish yet sinister moment. Some of us are more open to across-the-aisle alliances than ever before. But it does no good to insist that Trumpism is the natural endpoint of conservatism, or that Republicans alone owe apologies.

Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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