In his first State of the Union address, Donald Trump spoke of his desire to bring about unity in a polarized nation. But so far, his presidency has promoted bitter divisions on his own political side, in Republican and conservative ranks — and that’s unlikely to change.
In some ways, the Trumpists have been remarkably successful at solidifying their dominance in the Republican Party. Establishment Republicans in Congress have been mostly loyal to the White House; one of the most vocal dissenters, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), has chosen not to seek re-election.
Many conservative activists who were once solidly anti-Trump also have rejoined the fold. The network of conservative megadonors led by Charles and David Koch, who lean libertarian and have sharply criticized Trump on immigration and other issues, has more recently struck a conciliatory note toward the administration, as reported by Politico. Despite enduring differences, the Kochs will throw their efforts to help maintain Republican control in Congress in this year’s midterm election, which helps Trump. (Especially with the ongoing Russia investigation, a Democratic Congress would make things much more difficult for him.)
The pro-Trump drift is partly explained by the fact that it’s difficult to argue against a status quo that keeps your political tribe in power. Besides, quite a few conservatives who continue to find Trump’s personal qualities appalling believe he has done fairly well policy-wise. They like the tax cuts and the deregulation. They cheer Trump’s judicial appointments, including that of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. They also believe that, while Trump’s media-bashing is unseemly, left-leaning media bias is real and at least some of Trump’s bad press is unfair.
And yet, in the ranks of conservative opinion, the anti-Trump core remains strong. It still includes such renowned pundits as columnists George F. Will and Mona Charen and radio host Charlie Sykes. Some anti-Trump conservatives, such as Washington Post opinion writer Jennifer Rubin, have moved leftward in general, repelled by a Trump-dominated Republican Party. Others, such as The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, remain solidly on the right but regard Trump’s presidency as essentially unsalvageable because of his recklessness, unreliability and lack of decency.
Still others occupy an uncomfortable, ever-shifting middle ground, praising Trump for specific actions and policies and defending the administration against what they regard as unfair media attacks while remaining sharply critical of Trump’s overall conduct and character.
The anti-Trumpers will be proved right. One might like specific actions by the White House and still believe that Trump’s presidential — or unpresidential — persona nullifies any credit normally due the president. (How meaningful were Trump’s lofty words in the State of the Union speech about the bravery of North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, an amputee who escaped on crutches, when he heaps scorn on people fleeing terrible regimes who seek refuge in America?) And, given the revelations of Trump’s attempts to thwart the Russia probe, his defenders almost lapse into dishonest partisan excuses.
Given the volatility of the political situation, it’s difficult to say what the fortunes of the Republican Party look like a year from now. Perhaps the Roy Moore debacle in Alabama, which resulted in Democrats winning a Senate seat against the odds, will be a harbinger for 2018; perhaps, by November, it will be ancient history. But for now, “never Trump” conservatives who warned that Trump’s victory would be a much greater moral and political disaster for Republicans than his loss certainly look prescient.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.