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DOUTHAT: The taming of a demagogue

Published on February 8, 2018 7:32PM

Recent political history has offered few spectacles more depressing than the acquiescence of leading Republican politicians to the rise of Donald Trump. The selection of a nominee for president is an act of moral gravity, and party elites have an obligation to resist and exclude figures who are ethically and temperamentally unfit to wield the presidency’s powers. That so many Republicans, while obviously believing Trump unfit on both counts, followed strategic failure with moral abdication and essentially shrugged at his ascent was an indictment of their leadership and a reason to root for their defeat.

I am less persuaded, however, by the argument that what leading Republicans have done since Donald Trump was elected president has been somehow more disastrous and morally culpable than their original surrender, and that conservatives who declined to vote for Trump but otherwise still voted Republican in 2016 should look at what’s happened since and begin voting lock step for the Democrats.

You hear this argument implied by liberals of all stripes, but it’s brought to a sharp point in The Atlantic this month by Ben Wittes and Jonathan Rauch, both writers who generally deserve the label “centrist.” Urging a “boycott” of the GOP, they write that “the Republican Party, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy,” and that it therefore makes sense not only for swing voters but even for principled conservatives to cast ballots for the Democrats at every level until the danger of Trumpist authoritarianism has passed.

As a conservative who opposed Trump, attacked the party for nominating him, argued that he could reasonably be removed from office for unfitness, and generally regards the GOP as a broken vehicle for serious policymaking, I am pretty close to the target audience for the Rauch and Wittes argument. So let me explain why — for now — I think their case falls short.

Basically, Republican politicians who accommodated themselves to Trump during the 2016 campaign offered the following reassurance to their more Trump-wary voters: Vote for us, and we will contain him. Yes, the Republican nominee indulged in wildly irresponsible and authoritarian rhetoric; yes, if he followed through on many of his promises, various disasters could ensue. But vote for us, and we will contain him.

There were good reasons to be skeptical of this promise. The presidency’s powers (over foreign policy especially) have waxed as Congress’ have waned, the bully pulpit belongs to the White House, and since Trump’s populist ideas on economics were more popular than the existing Republican agenda, it was easy to see how he could roll over efforts at containment.

But a year later, the project of containment has been much more successful than its critics feared. Here is a short list of moves — some authoritarian, some just destabilizing — that Trump promised or threatened during the campaign: reinstating waterboarding and allowing torture, even over military objections; shaking up NATO and striking a deal that abandons American allies to a Russian sphere of influence; pulling the United States out of NAFTA; changing libel laws to make it easier to bankrupt his critics in the press; launching a major trade war with China; pulling the United States out of the Iranian nuclear deal; installing cronies and relatives in high judicial posts; banning Muslim entry to the United States; and deporting millions of illegal immigrants in an enormous sweep.

A year later none of these things have happened; few have even been meaningfully attempted. In almost every case the establishment Republicans crowding his Cabinet or influencing him from the Senate have had a gentling or restraining (or, from an alt-right perspective, cucking) effect upon Trump’s presidency. You could argue, if you squint, that versions of the last two policies have been pursued — but even there the case is weak, the Trump administration’s behavior less than authoritarian. The travel ban the White House put forward affected a small fraction of the world’s Muslims and has been easily impeded in the courts. Likewise, interior immigration enforcement has become more aggressive and punitive than under Barack Obama — but this increase in arrests has already run into a bureaucratic and judicial backlog that will make mass deportation impossible unless Trump actually short-circuits the judicial process ... which, to date, he conspicuously has not.

So for the kind of Atlantic-reading, Whole Foods-shopping, Trump-skeptical Republican whom Wittes and Rauch are addressing, the trend in Trumpian policy offers considerable evidence that their elected representatives’ promise to constrain the president’s actions (if not his words) is actually being kept.

So, too, with the specific cases that the Atlantic essay focuses on: Trump’s insouciance about Russian interference in the last presidential election, and his continuing attacks on law enforcement professionals over the probe into his campaign’s possible involvement with that interference. Just consider the following caveat that Wittes and Rauch append to their brief:

“We don’t mean to deny credit where it is due. ... Last year, pressure from individual Republicans seemed to discourage Trump from firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and probably prevented action against Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Moreover, Republicans as a group have constrained Trump on occasion. Congress imposed tough sanctions on Russia over the president’s objections. The Senate Intelligence Committee conducted a serious Russia investigation under the leadership of Richard Burr. But the broader response to Trump’s behavior has been tolerant and, often, enabling.”

Now it’s quite true that other Republicans, especially in the House, have run interference for Trump’s attacks on Mueller’s probe, and encouraged rank-and-file conservatives and frequent “Hannity” viewers to believe the worst about the FBI and other “deep state” organs. But partisan attacks on a special counsel’s probe are not the same thing as a sustained presidential assault on democratic institutions. Nor are angry presidential tweets that lack any sustained follow-through: If the president yells about his persecutors and little or nothing happens — the Mueller probe continues, Rod Rosenstein keeps his job, etc. — what’s undermined is presidential authority, not the rule of law.

I wish that Trump were not the president; I blame Republicans for enabling his rise. But once his election was accomplished, their promise of containment became a reasonable approach. And so long as he remains weak and trammeled and conventional in policy, the case that conservatives have a moral obligation to vote like liberals won’t convince.


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