Roger’s Rules on NeverTrumpers

Of all the arguments so-called NeverTrumpers offered against supporting Donald Trump, even after he became the GOP nominee, one of the most forceful was that Trump would tear the American conservative movement apart, that he couldn’t be better suited to that task had he been selected for it — assuming he wasn’t actually selected for it.

There were others, however, who while strongly opposing Trump during the primary process — often for the same reasons as the NeverTrumpers — nevertheless decided, after he had won the nomination, to jump on the bandwagon.

Let me be clear about the identity of this second group. I am not talking about Republican partisans who, while disliking the option before them, could not overcome the horrible feeling that a vote for anyone other than Trump was a vote for Hillary Clinton. (Not a strictly logical view, but an understandable one from a human perspective.) Nor am I talking about people who gradually found that the GOP establishment’s influence within the Trump administration made him, in practice, not all that different from any number of other “moderate” Republican presidents whom they would have accepted, though without necessarily being excited about it, such that Trump’s presidency may be supported with the same reluctance with which they might have supported Marco Rubio or even Jeb Bush.

No, the group I am talking about is made up of those erstwhile anti-Trump voices who, the moment he became the GOP’s official choice, turned around at whiplash speed and suddenly became hardcore Trump apologists — and the most dogged critics of their former friends in the NeverTrump faction, as though they had never agreed with any of those arguments, including the ones they had often used themselves.

There are undoubtedly differences among this New Trumper brigade, but one trait they share in common is their desperate need — that’s the only way I can describe it — to destroy and humiliate their arch-nemesis, the NeverTrump faction. They seem to understand that the NeverTrumpers are the permanent thorn in their side, a constant challenge to their political manhood. To the New Trumpers, the NeverTrumpers seem to stand as a walking embodiment of the little devil on their own shoulder who asks: “Why did you cave in to the GOP establishment in the end? Why didn’t you have the courage to hold true to your principles when the going got tough? Are opportunism and enhanced readership really more fundamental to you than the future of America as a constitutional republic?”

This little pang of conscience, which they have denied in themselves while blatantly projecting it onto the NeverTrumpers, has grown in their souls to cancerous proportions. One of the most insidious symptoms of this disease is the New Trumper’s preternatural need to psychologize about the NeverTrumper, to diagnose the latter as deeply conflicted or morally weak, and to demand an answer to the question, “Could Trump do anything to change your mind?” thereby implying that Trump has already done so much to change skeptical minds that anyone who remains NeverTrump now must be relegated to the category of the emotionally immature or mentally blocked.

Some time back, I analyzed the version of this psychologizing argument offered by New Trumper radio host Dennis Prager, in which Prager essentially accused his NeverTrump “friends” of being traitors, fools, and moral reprobates on the grounds that they did not join him in sweeping over the tracks of their previous anti-Trump position to become uncritical sycophants for Trump.

Now, however, I’ve run across an even sadder example of the argument — sadder because the source this time is far more serious and hitherto unassailable than Prager.

It’s painful to accept that someone you’ve long held in the highest esteem has joined a cult, rejected his own past, and falsified his own memories for the sake of an unworthy idol. But in this case that’s the kind interpretation of a New Trumper’s sudden turnaround. The unkind interpretation: he’s sold his principles to the temptations of careerism and popularity.

For years, Roger Kimball was in the pantheon of contemporary American conservatism for me, as one of the few political commentators whose opinions seemed to stem consistently from deeply studied ideas, historical awareness, and sobriety. His regular editorials at PJ Media, under the heading “Roger’s Rules,” were always erudite and refreshing, even when I didn’t fully agree with his conclusions. One of his strengths was staying above the fray of those superficial Republican vs. Democrat food fights which tend to enmesh the participants in mindless partisanship or tribalism of the sort that suffocates thought, particularly among conservatives, who should have learned eons ago that the Republican Party represents their perspective in no substantial way, and aggressively contradicts it in many ways.

During the 2016 GOP primaries, Kimball was one of the few well-known voices, and almost the only one at PJ Media, who stood on principle against the Trump cult juggernaut. I assumed this meant that should Trump actually win the nomination, he would continue to fight the good fight. Perhaps he would vote for Trump as the “only alternative” to Hillary, but he would be honest about not liking it, and use this predicament as an opportunity to join the conservative charge toward creating a new party to counter the worthless and duplicitous Republicans.

But no; within minutes of Trump’s nomination becoming essentially a fait accompli, Kimball was noticeably changing his tune. Suddenly Trump’s vulgarity and stupidity were refreshing directness. Suddenly his lack of consistent or even definable principles was an outsider’s healthy skepticism about business as usual. And suddenly all those people who, like Kimball, had been predicting a disaster for conservatism and the country if Trump should win the nomination were just sore losers and stubborn old prudes.

When I saw that transformation happening, I had a little revelation. I had previously thought that Kimball’s repeated predictions that Trump would not actually win the nomination despite his frontrunner status were a separate point entirely from his criticisms of Trump himself. I suddenly realized, in the wake of Kimball’s rebirth as a Trump apologist, that his previous criticisms had been buttressed by his assumption that Trump could not really win — in other words, that his assumption that Trump could not win was the psychological protection he needed in his own mind to go ahead and trash Trump as he would do to no other Republican presidential candidate. The moment that protective barrier was taken away from him — the moment he realized that this whole episode would not end up as an easy opportunity for him to boast of having been “on the right side of history” when the dust inevitably cleared with someone else as the nominee — he pulled his head into his shell so fast you didn’t have time to see him blush. When he poked back out again, he was a Trump supporter, and those who had refused to make the transformation with him were suddenly petty and short-sighted dogmatists.

And so, inevitably, as with Prager and others, Kimball has become somewhat obsessive about those who refused to join him in pretending they are seeing a different Trump today than the one they saw yesterday, or to join him in claiming to have been “convinced” by something in Trump’s behavior (rather than by something in the tenor of his readers’ comments on his anti-Trump articles). And he has written his own article dedicated to the rhetorical question, “What would it take to persuade the NeverTrumpers to join the cult see Trump’s greatness?”

Kimball not only defends Trump these days, but predicts he will go down in history as a great president. And it doesn’t stop there. A quick perusal of “Roger’s Rules” pieces over the past several months has him describing Trump as “manly” and “brilliant,” lauding his “steady hand,” and repeatedly deferring to the Trump cult catch phrases “fake news,” “Trump Derangement Syndrome” (he has worn that record out), and “deep state” (which Trump is allegedly opposing). He has even had the chutzpah to prop his hero up as the winner in a hypothetical political debate with Immanuel Kant (whose name Trump couldn’t read off a teleprompter)!

And now, in what is apparently a kind of rite of passage for the New Trumper, Kimball has taken direct aim at the evil NeverTrumpers, tearing them down with specious arguments and convenient half-truths of every shape and kind.

(God I hate writing this article. Kimball has been, for years, a force for preserving the intellect as a political instrument, and an advocate for rational disagreement as opposed to vitriol and name-calling. But if I have to read a genuinely thoughtful man spouting childish, thought-obviating bunk about “Trump Derangement Syndrome” one more time, I’m going to puke.)

He begins the main argument this way:

Granted, people disagree about many things. Granted, too, that in the realm of politics our own interests propel us to applaud certain courses of action and deprecate others. Still, I have been amazed by the discrepancy of opinions about Donald Trump’s presidency.

It’s not, I hasten to add, the fact of the discrepancy that puzzles me, but its global, all-encompassing quality.

I think I first became fully conscious of this phenomenon in the aftermath of Trump’s inauguration speech. The speech that I heard seemed to be toto genere different from the speech that NeverTrumpers, on the Right as well as on the Left, heard.

Right, in the realm of politics many people’s opinions are often driven by their own interests. And in the case of so-called conservative commentators writing about Donald Trump, who is going to be the President of the United States for the next few years, which group seems more likely to be expressing a view motivated by personal interests?– Those who support him, knowing that most Republican voters agree and that many of these are hardcore Trump cultists who choose their favorite writers on the basis of who is praising their god most feverishly? Or those who continue to criticize him, though knowing this may well cost them opportunities to publish and the loss of formerly devoted readers?

(Recently, American Thinker published a blog post lambasting Glenn Beck’s recent financial setbacks, mocking him for having chosen wrongly by sticking with his NeverTrump position against the views of many of his old listeners. What does this mean, other than that in the era of Trump, a man is to be mocked for having principles and sticking to them against harmful opposition — in other words, that courage and integrity in the face of personal risk are no longer to be applauded, but rather laughed at? That sounds about right as a crystallization of Trump’s likely legacy in American politics.)

I refer you now to the last sentence of the Kimball passage quoted above: “The speech that I heard seemed to be toto genere different from the speech that NeverTrumpers, on the Right as well as on the Left, heard.”

That sentence gives the game away on any attempts to seem intellectually honest, although apparently when one is trying to appeal to cultists, little things like honesty are peccadilloes indeed. Who are the NeverTrumpers on the Left? Of course, there are none. The name NeverTrump was coined to refer to conservative and/or Republican voters who refused to support a Trump presidential ticket. Pretending that the term encompasses Right and Left subsections implies that a conservative NeverTrumper is inherently selling out his principles, equivalent to “reaching across the aisle” or joining the “Gang of Eight.”

NeverTrump cannot apply to the Left for the simple reason that the Left is “NeverAnyRepublicanOrConservative” by definition. They are not opposed to Trump on the grounds that he was uniquely ill-suited to be the GOP nominee, but on the grounds that they don’t believe there should be a GOP nominee. To align that kind of anti-Trump position with that of self-described conservatives or libertarians who oppose Trump because they believe he is an unprincipled, incompetent quasi-progressive is not just a simplification. It is flat-out dishonest. It is an attempt to paint the NeverTrumpers as sell-outs by association, without need of any rational argument.

Next we come to that part of any New Trumper’s diatribe against their arch-nemesis in which he must establish the credibility of his conversion to the cult the side of reason.

Having once been an active and paid-up member of the anti-Trump brigade, I understand that there are many things to criticize about Donald Trump. I have on several occasions explained why I changed my mind. It boils down to two things: Hillary Clinton on the negative side of the equation, and Trump’s agenda on the positive side.

I think that Clinton would have been a disaster for the country. I would have voted for the Cairn terrier who lives across the street before voting for her. But the more I heard about what Trump wanted to do — about taxes, about immigration, about the U.S. military, about regulation, and about many other things — the more I liked it.

The Clinton argument is basic, and holds true even for many people who would never have supported Trump under almost any other circumstances, but felt obliged to choose the guy with the poorly groomed Cairn terrier on his head rather than accept President Hillary. But those people, the ones who held their noses and hoped for the best with Trump in November, are a far cry from the Dennis Prager and Roger Kimball types, who have spent the past year trying to persuade everyone that voting for Trump was not merely a necessary evil, but has turned out to be the greatest decision in the history of decisions.

Which leads them to waxing poetic about “the agenda.” But this is the same agenda Trump espoused during the primaries. Why didn’t Kimball find it so dreamy back then? Presumably because he didn’t believe it, just as most NeverTrumpers probably heard some things they liked in Trump’s endless blabbering, but, knowing a little about the man’s history, and about megalomania, chose not to believe he meant most of it, or even that it would matter in the end if he did, given his basic incompetence, which would ensure that if he won the nomination he would fall back to relying on his old establishment connections to feed him lines — exactly as he has done.

(That, in fact, is exactly how I analyzed his primary campaign in the spring of 2016: he said some things conservatives could like, but had neither the mental nor the moral stability to be taken seriously on any of it, and when push came to shove, this court jester who wanted to be king would have no choice but to defer to the expertise of the establishment pragmatists who propped him up in the first place.)

Ah, but the proof is in the pudding, the New Trumpers say. Just look at the wondrously conservative, pro-America presidency Trump has produced so far! In their zeal for Trump’s brilliant accomplishments, they sound just like the town leaders in River City, Iowa in The Music Man, who, having heard the traveling salesman’s brilliant pitch for selling them instruments and uniforms for a boy’s band that will never exist, become enraptured boasting of how their town’s band is better than any other town’s — until Marian the librarian wakes them from their reverie by asking, “What band?”

Don’t be tempted to join the reveries of the New Trumpers chasing after dreams sold to them by the spellbinder Trump.

What are these great conservative accomplishments of President Trump? Kimball introduces a dream list of major agenda items — the same list that every GOP nominee would promise — and fudges over the implied idea that somehow the fact that one can name a list of standard Republican platform items proves that Donald Trump is on the verge of becoming a great president. So let’s step away from the fudging and actually look at Trump’s greatness in perspective.

Here’s Kimball’s list, so you can see what I mean when I say it is just the basic GOP platform retitled “Trump’s agenda”:

  1. His judicial appointments. Is he keeping his promise to nominate judges and justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia?

  2. Regulation. Is he keeping his promise to roll back burdensome and counterproductive regulation?

  3. Immigration. Is he keeping his promise to get a handle on illegal immigration?

  4. The military. Is he keeping his promise to upgrade the U.S. military and give it greater flexibility in responding to threats to our national security?

  5. Energy. Is he reversing the Obama administration’s various strictures on America’s ability to harvest its own energy resources?

  6. Jobs. Is he working to create an environment that is job-friendly for American workers?

  7. Obamacare. Is he working to repeal and replace Obamacare?

  8. Taxes. Is he working to cut taxes?

  9. Making American Great Again. This is more amorphous but not therefore indiscernible. What has Trump done about the virus of political correctness and the ideology of identity politics? What’s the mood of the country?

Kimball speaks as though the fact Trump vaguely, inconsistently, and without details, espoused this platform counts as his having virtually accomplished all of it. Without going through each item, let’s take a look at the realities and assess whether they ought to be enough to persuade NeverTrumpers of anything.

Let’s begin by subtracting all those “accomplishments” that may be classified as “givens,” things any Republican president would have been expected to do, such as nominating a Supreme Court justice with a seemingly more conservative judicial philosophy and record than many other possible nominees. (Name a Republican president who didn’t do that.)

Ditto on the energy, taxes, military, and regulations fronts. As for Kimball’s phrase “working to,” as in “working to create an environment that is job-friendly for American workers,” one would have to establish some concrete meaning for this before it would become a sensible mark of praise. Don’t conservatives always say “presidents don’t create jobs — private enterprise creates jobs”? Now suddenly Trump’s attempts to create trade wars with every country on the map, thus reducing the availability of affordable goods and in all likelihood American jobs, are to be applauded as “working to” create a job-friendly environment. The Soviet Union, where full employment was an economic goal, had a very low unemployment rate. They created an environment that was job-friendly for Soviet workers. How did that environment work out in the end?

Next, let’s subtract the accomplishments that are nebulous in nature pending further observation of where Trump’s administration goes on the issue. For example, pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement was all well and good, but this pull-out, according to the terms if the agreement itself, will not take effect until toward the end of Trump’s term as president, Trump has repeatedly shown vacillation on the whole issue of climate change, and after his meeting with French President Macron, the latter indicated that he thought Trump might be persuaded to rejoin the agreement, a suggestion that must have been based on something.

Furthermore, I think it wise not to follow the Trump cult in counting as accomplishments things that Trump supposedly wanted to get done but in which “he was thwarted by the Congress.” Consider Obamacare repeal, for example. Aside from a few stupid tweets, first threatening the House Freedom Caucus and later other individuals, and cheering excitedly for a bill conservatives called Obamacare Lite, what did Trump actually do to get repeal through? It is obvious that he did exactly nothing. Far from counting as a kind of accomplishment-by-intention, this failure might count as a major mark against him — the single most serious and seemingly doable item on the Republican agenda, and Trump contributed nothing but hot air to the effort to make it happen. (Not a big surprise, since apart from wanting to remove the name Obamacare from the lexicon in favor of Trumpcare, Trump has been a longtime advocate of socialized medicine, and therefore had no heart for the fight to truly repeal Obamacare, anymore than his old establishment ally and favorite senator Mitch McConnell did.)

Finally, the fact that Kimball includes “Making America Great Again” — a campaign slogan — as an agenda item, shows how desperate he is to make his case against the NeverTrumpers’ resistance.

And notice how important it is to the New Trumper that Trump’s opponents acknowledge not merely that a particular policy decision was correct — which could be said of any president — but that they follow the New Trumper’s leap from agreeing with a policy to judging Trump himself a good president, as though the one necessarily followed from the other. This is cult reasoning. A question for those who try to use this reasoning against NeverTrumpers: Barack Obama personally gave the green light for the mission to kill Osama bin Laden — does this mean anyone who agrees with that decision must acknowledge that Obama was a good president?

Kimball wishes to suggest that anyone who isn’t on board with Trump at this point is simply entrenched in an emotional vested interest, unwilling to admit that he was wrong — though he provides no evidence that the NeverTrumper has been proved wrong about anything yet. All the proof is prospective: if Trump does these things, and the NeverTrumper doesn’t budge, then isn’t he just being stubborn?

Yes, perhaps. But that assumes NeverTrump is really a thing, in an unqualified sense. But of course it isn’t, and it never was. Nor could it be, if we are being rational.

So my concluding question is this: Is there anything that Trump could do that would sway the NeverTrumpers? To the extent that the answer is “No,” then you may safely conclude that they are blinded by a sclerotic partisanship that is underwritten by the intolerable fact of having been wrong.

“To the extent that the answer is no” makes this whole argument ridiculous. For of course there is no extent to which the answer is absolutely no.

I don’t believe Roger Kimball or anyone else has found a single NeverTrumper on Earth who ever said, or would ever say, “Even if Donald Trump is touched by the hand of God on national television, wakes up speaking like Thomas Jefferson, singlehandedly leads the nation through the aftermath of an EMP attack and invasion by personally riding around the whole country on a white steed reassuring everyone and vanquishing enemies with a sword, saving millions of women and children while publicly renouncing any credit in favor of kneeling humbly before the Creator — even then, I will not support him.”

Thus, when Kimball says that if NeverTrumpers say absolutely “no” to supporting Trump under any conditions, “then you may safely conclude that they are blinded by a sclerotic partisanship that is underwritten by the intolerable fact of having been wrong,” he is really saying that this is his judgment of the NeverTrumpers today. But here we have projection again. Who is “blinded by sclerotic partisanship” — the man who gives up his party when his party leaves him, as Ronald Reagan said of the Democrats? Or the man who defers to the wishes of his party’s leadership regardless of how offensively preposterous those wishes may be, and of how many better choices were deliberately crushed on the way to achieving that wish?

NeverTrump merely meant, and could only have meant, “As long as Donald Trump remains the Donald Trump I see — longtime progressive and establishmentarian, amoral megalomaniac, semiliterate blowhard, flim-flam man and brand-seller without serious accomplishments of any kind beyond making (and losing) money for himself — I cannot allow any political movement I would want to be associated with to be smeared by his crud.”

Kimball, who once seemed to be able to see that same Donald Trump, has made a different judgment. Fine. But let him please spare the rest of the world the sanctimonious attacks against those who don’t want this most unmanly man as their president because they see the potential in him for grave harm to their point of view, their culture, and their nation.

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