For Conservatives, a Break from the Trump Monopoly
Today is a day of dread, as executive power passes to people who aim to bend American government against everything that conservatives hold dear. But for conservative thinkers, planners, advocates, and policy-makers, it is also a day of liberation. For the first time in five years, it is possible to think, propose, plan, and promote conservative ideas without having to go through or around Donald Trump. They’ll no longer risk being held hostage to whatever he was personally interested in on a particular day, or whatever he kicked up in opposition to himself either. Trump’s influence will linger to an extent that is yet to be tested, but unless and until he returns to win another presidential nomination, his monopoly over the Republican Party — over its access to power, its communications with voters, its reputation and ideals — is broken.
Much was made of the notion that Republicans and conservatives made explicit or implicit bargains with Trump to gain power. That is true of some, but in many cases, it is not precisely right. Yes, some did so in order to obtain office, or privilege, or fame. Some did so in order to gain the power to advance good causes over bad ones: life, liberty, the Constitution, economic opportunity, individual choice, civil liberties, national strength and security, among others.
But the problem of a man like Trump in the most powerful job the party can hold is not simply that working with him offered, to those who believe in such things, an avenue to power to implement them. The temptation to do good deeds by making common cause with bad men is one thing. The problem is that, for five years, Trump stood as an obstacle to power to anyone seeking to advance such causes. He made it affirmatively impossible to pursue right over wrong unless you were willing, to at least some limited extent, to play ball with him or avoid directly confronting him. And he emphasized this obstacle by vindictively going after anyone who criticized him or even anyone who wished to stand on their own apart from him. It was this negative aspect — his ability and willingness to exclude from power — that gave him such sway. After eight years in the wilderness, conservatives as a group could not simply abstain from doing anything good for the country for another four while waiting to lose power again entirely.
Trump’s hold on the world of conservative ideas was in some ways more insidious. Again, there were those who actively sought to ingratiate themselves with the president. But by standing as a roadblock, Trump also deterred a fair amount of thinking. In opposition, one may develop good ideas in the hopes of implementing them in power. But persuading Trump of things was so often a lost cause that it was frequently pointless to tend the garden of conservative policy ideas, knowing either that the president would not pursue them or that the political maelstrom he generated around him would make it impossible to market those ideas. The effect was most pronounced in the area of spending, where nearly everybody gave up as hopeless the task of getting Trump to rein in the size of the federal government.
Then there is the broad field of conservative civics, constitutional norms, and ideology. Most of us did not give up on the pre-Trump ideals of conservatism, which we had defended from the Left for many years before 2015. But defending them from fire from the Right was a much more wearying job, as was explaining to people that we stand for certain things, when our party’s leader so openly flouted them. And of course, every time Trump did something bad or controversial, his enemies on the left were sure to exaggerate it or lard their accounts with falsehood. The task of defending daily against that, when the beneficiary was neither innocent nor grateful, was a necessary one for any honest conservative, but all the more exhausting nonetheless.
For five years, even keeping one’s sanity and perspective was a daily battle. Being faced with a constant conflict between one’s own beliefs and one’s own side is no fun. Knowing what things to defend and what things to denounce often required the hard work and introspection. If there is a positive intellectual legacy for the Right, it is that we were all compelled to retrace a lot of steps that had been worn into our mental carpets since 1980.
It is always better to have power than to lack it. But opposition can be liberating in its possibilities. That is true now, more than ever. Of course, there will still be a need to fight the Left’s endless temptation for revisionist histories, but for now, we are free from Trump. We should enjoy that liberation, and defend it. Because America will need us once more not only to oppose, but eventually, to propose again.