Column: Why I’m still a #NeverTrumper

Published December 29 2017
Updated January 2 2018

Tax cuts. Deregulation. More for the military; less for the United Nations. The Islamic State crushed in its heartland. Assad hit with cruise missiles. Troops to Afghanistan. Arms for Ukraine. A tougher approach to North Korea. Jerusalem recognized as Israelís capital. The Iran deal decertified. Title IX kangaroo courts on campus condemned. Yes to Keystone. No to Paris. Wall Street roaring and consumer confidence high.

And, of course, Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. What, for a conservative, is there to dislike about this policy record as the Trump administration rounds out its first year in office?

Thatís the question I keep hearing from old friends on the right who voted with misgiving for Donald Trump in 2016 and now find reasons to like him. I admit it gives me pause. I agree with every one of the policy decisions mentioned above. But I still wish Hillary Clinton were president.

How does that make sense? Can I still call myself conservative?

The answer depends on your definition. Hereís one Iíve always liked: "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society," said the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. To which he added: "The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

Conservatives used to believe in their truth. Want to "solve" poverty? All the welfare dollars in the world wonít help if two-parent families arenít intact. Want to foster democracy abroad? Itís going to be rough going if too many voters reject the foundational concept of minority rights.

And want to preserve your own republican institutions? Then pay attention to the character of your leaders, the culture of governance and the political health of the public. It matters a lot more than lowering the top marginal income tax rate by a couple of percentage points.

This is the fatal mistake of conservatives who have decided the best way to deal with Trumpís personality ó the lying, narcissism, bullying, bigotry, crassness, name-calling, ignorance, paranoia, incompetence and pettiness ó is to pretend it doesnít matter. "Character Doesnít Count" has become a de facto GOP motto. "Virtue Doesnít Matter" might be another.

But character does count, and virtue does matter, and Trumpís shortcomings prove it daily.

Maybe you think the Russia investigation is much ado about nothing. Yet Trump brought it on himself every step of the way, from firing James Comey after the former FBI director wouldnít swear fealty, to (potentially) admitting to obstruction of justice with that tweet about Mike Flynnís firing.

Look at every other administration embarrassment (Scaramucci) or failure (the wall, and Mexico paying for it) or disgrace (the Charlottesville equivocation). Responsibility invariably lies with the presidentís intemperance and dishonesty. That puts Republican control of Congress in play. It also risks permanently alienating a millennial generation for which the GOP will forever be the party of the child-molesting sore loser and the president who endorsed him.

Now look at the culture of governance. Trump demands testimonials from his Cabinet, servility from Republican politicians and worship from conservative media. To serve in this White House isnít to be elevated to public service. Itís to be debased into toadyism, which probably explains the record-setting staff turnover of 34 percent, according to an analysis from the Brookings Institution.

In place of presidential addresses, stump speeches or town halls, we have Trumpís demagogic mass rallies. In place of the usual jousting between the administration and the press, we have a president who fantasizes on Twitter about physically assaulting CNN. In place of a president who defends the honor and integrity of his own officers and agencies, we have one who humiliates his attorney general, denigrates the FBI and compares our intelligence agencies to the Gestapo.

Trump is normalizing all this; he is, to borrow another Moynihan phrase, "defining deviancy down." Conservatives may suppose that they can pocket policy gains from a Trump administration while the stain of his person will eventually wash away. But as a (pro-Trump) friend wrote me the other day, "presidents empower cultures." Trump is empowering a conservative political culture that celebrates everything that patriotic Americans should fear: the cult of strength, open disdain for truthfulness, violent contempt for the Fourth Estate, hostility toward high culture and other types of "elitism," a penchant for conspiracy theories and, most dangerously, white-identity politics.

This wonít end with Trump. It may have only begun with him. And Trumpís supporters may wind up proving both sides of Moynihanís contention: not just that culture is what matters most, but that politics can still change it ó in this case, much for the worse.

Bret Stephens, a conservative opinion columnist who now writes for the New York Times, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in commentary when he was deputy editorial page editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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