For many of my Republican friends, Donald Trump is a guilty pleasure.
They well know a steady diet of his chronically combative nature, like fatty food, is bad for them and the country. They wish with everything in them that he'd just be a little more presidential. But notwithstanding his boorishness, is the other side any less combative? Besides, many of the things he says and does are precisely what Republicans are thinking and wanting done.
And like Trump's die-hard supporters, these Republicans disheartened and disappointed by Trump have to admit they see few other politicians, past or present, with that kind of chutzpah.
Many of them barely tolerated him, even at his peak of popularity, because he and his policies on taxes, trade, individual liberty, national security, a dangerously porous border, terrorism, China, Iran and more were the only things standing between us and a dystopian future of American decline. In just the first weeks of the Biden administration they see they were right on almost all counts.
Still, in Trump's speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 28, his first address since the Capitol riot, they heard the same stolen-election rhetoric that helped fuel the meltdown — and which will keep the Republican Party anchored to an immutable past.
And while I enthusiastically support Trump's positions on the policy issues above, here's yet another sign he's problematic: Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, found it necessary to ask the president to tell his extreme-right supporters to stand down Thursday, following credible threats of Capitol violence tied to an insane notion Trump could actually be inaugurated March 4.
So, what to do now? Is Trump the solution going forward or not? Should he run in 2024 or not? This is the central, vital question of a Republicanism and conservatism that are in crisis today.
The problem is, there's no clear answer and no sign of agreement.
The CPAC straw poll illustrates the Trumpian conundrum: an amazing 95% of conservatives at the conference expressed unequivocal support for his policies. But in the midst of what amounts to a Trump rally, only 68% said they want him to run again — and just 55% chose him above the rest of the prospective GOP field.
That's an ominously ambiguous outcome for a freshly former president and conservative leader at a conference of conservatives. They agree wholeheartedly on his policies. On the man, not so much. Moreover, a Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll likewise shows Trump to be a 2024 favorite among just 52% of Republicans.
Alarmingly, but not surprisingly given the polls, my Republican friends seem hopelessly split on whether Trump should run again.
"The Patriotic American in me would love to say yes, because he did more for our country than any president since Ronald Reagan," said one friend. "I miss him terribly because his love for America and the American people is like a light in the darkness of liberalism," another with mixed emotions said. But both agreed too many voters "with tissue paper feelings" would prevent him from winning.
"Even if 100% of registered Republicans vote for him, he won't win. We have to get independent votes," said a third.
Other friends just flat-out said he shouldn't run. "No," remarked one. "He has been allowing his ego to rule his behavior and we need someone that doesn't attract far-right extremists."
Even Adrienne Foster, a candidate for Kansas' 3rd District congressional seat last year and a big Trump supporter, noted that she herself was "unrefined" when she started a political career — first as city council member then mayor of Roeland Park. She recalls rolling her eyes and kicking the mayor in the shin under the table as a council member. Then she took leadership training, where she learned to manage herself.
"It was the best lesson that I ever learned," she said. "I said then, and I still say it today: (Trump) needs to learn managing self."
Agreed. But that begs the question: If he was going to do that, wouldn't he have done so by now?
Successful movements must move beyond founders
One problem Republicans will encounter in trying to resolve the Trump question: Those who don't want him to run again sure seem reluctant to admit it. I couldn't find one Kansas Republican of note — perhaps you're out there — willing to oppose another Trump run publicly.
The conundrum remains. Conservatives and Republicans whom I love and respect are completely and, I fear, unalterably in opposition to each other on the subject of Donald J. Trump.
I find one respected Republican friend's remark to me most compelling, though: One of the definitions of a successful movement is its ability to grow beyond its founder.
This is one of the most urgent questions of our time. One of America's two major political parties is at a critical fork in the road. Which path it takes could be a world-changing decision, and could determine the future viability of the GOP.
Republicans have a few years to sort it out. But doing so will require a courage and candor not on display today.
Michael Ryan is a columnist for The Kansas City Star.