I almost feel sorry for the anti-Trump-but-more-anti-anti-Trump conservatives.
I know—you had to read that sentence twice. I’ll explain.
These are right-wingers who oppose Donald Trump—because of his efforts to overthrow the 2020 election, or his often-incoherent policies, or his utter lack of decency, or his destructive influence on the right, or all of the above—but who devote more energy to decrying liberals for overreacting to and for persecuting Trump. I’m not referring here to Never Trumpers like neocon Bill Kristol or the gang at the Lincoln Project—those onetime Republicans who have readily joined forces with Democrats and progressives to oppose Trump. This is a different group of conservatives who strike a rather complicated stance. They see Trump as bad for the republic, but they cannot yield that age-old position (or reflex?) that the greatest threat to the nation is from the left. This can tie an anti-Trump-but-more-anti-anti-Trumper into knots. As I witnessed just the other day.
I was invited to appear on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to discuss the New Hampshire election results. The other guest was Rich Lowry, the editor-in-chief of the
National Review, which was once the flagship publication of the conservative movement. I like Rich. Years ago, we used to tour college campuses debating each other on policy and politics. He’s a smart fellow who’s fun to argue with. In the Trump Era, his NR, which was founded in 1955 by William F. Buckley Jr., has had a tough time maintaining its central role in the conservative cosmos, as it has resisted the urge to MAGA-fy.
Prior to the 2020 election,
NR could not bring itself to endorse Trump, noting he threatened “to drag conservatism down to a consequential and avoidable defeat.” But it also could not bring itself to state that right-leaning voters should reject this narcissistic, unprincipled autocrat-wannabe by voting for a Democrat. After Trump tried to subvert American democracy and incited the January 6 riot, the
National Review held him culpable and concluded he had “disgraced the office of the presidency”—though it still managed to blame “past Democratic misconduct [that] helped to set the stage for the riot.” That was rich, but clearly a sop to its readers.
So now what do these anti-Trump-and-anti-libs conservatives have to say about Trump’s crusade to regain the White House? Earlier this month—days before the Iowa caucuses—the editors of the
National Review urged Republican voters to pick either Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley over Trump. They reminded their readers that Trump lied about the 2020 election results, attempted to bully his vice president “into violating his oath,” and then did little or nothing when his brownshirts attacked the Capitol. “These were infamous presidential acts and represented serious offenses against our constitutional order,” the magazine observed. “Nothing can justify them, and it’s wrong to simply pretend that they didn’t happen.”
With Republican voters overwhelmingly not heeding the wisdom of the
NR sages—that is, with DeSantis bounced from the race and Haley likely soon to be—these conservatives have a dilemma on their hands. Can they countenance the return to power of a lying thug who committed “serious offenses against our constitutional order”? To protect the nation, will they have to put ideological preferences aside and support the reelection of President Joe Biden? This was the question I had for Lowry. On C-SPAN, here’s how it played out:
Corn: A few weeks ago, [your National Review
] did an editorial basically saying vote for anyone but Trump in the Republican primary. And [it] said that Trump had committed “serious offenses against our constitutional order.” If it’s going to be Trump [as the GOP nominee], I’m wondering where constitutional conservatives like Rich are going to end up here. Will they advocate, in a race against Biden, [that] voters and American should put into office a man who, on their own terms, committed “serious offenses” against our constitutional order?
Lowry: Obviously, we wanted anyone else. [Trump’s] conduct after the 2020 election was disgraceful. It was literally infamous. I don’t think it was a crime, in the way [special counsel] Jack Smith is alleging in that January 6 case, which I think is a disgrace…But Joe Biden has legislated on his own in an unconstitutional manner with the [student] loan forgiveness program [and] engaged in serious dereliction of duty at the border. The black-and-white letter of the law says, you come into this country illegally, you should be detained until you’re removed or your case is settled. He’s just letting people in, and he’s doing it deliberately. This is a crisis he totally made out of whole cloth by just ripping up all the Trump policies that were working for no reason. And if he had the votes in the Senate, would he pack the Supreme Court? Of course, they would. These are people who believe the Constitution is an endlessly living document that can be totally ignored or reinterpreted to your own reference. So Joe Biden has committed and would commit, if he had the power, serious offenses against the constitutional order.
You see what Lowry is doing here, right? I did, and the exchange continued:
Corn: Are you comparing these things to inciting a riot? This is the biggest case of what-aboutism I’ve ever heard. One guy incited violence that you even note in [the NR
editorial] put the vice president’s life at risk to try to pressure him to do something he should not have done. And [with Biden] you’re talking about policy disputes. There are constitutional disputes all the time. That’s why we have a Supreme Court.
Lowry: It’s the basic foundation of our system that Congress legislates. The president doesn’t legislate on his own. That’s the whole point of things. Joe Biden did it with the loan forgiveness program.
Corn: But is that the same thing as inciting a riot?
Lowry: No. They’re both bad. And [Trump] didn’t literally incite a riot. I don’t defend his behavior. But if you defend the Constitution, do you oppose what Joe Biden did on the loan forgiveness program? Or is it okay because he violated the constitutional crisis in the way you like?
Corn: With every president, basically on the War Powers Act and much else, you can find an argument they violate the Constitution. That’s why we have the Supreme Court, and things get resolved there. None of this rises to the level of doing nothing while your own people are attacking the US Capitol. Come on.
At this point, our always-diplomatic host John McArdle politely cut us off, noting, “This debate could go on for a while.” That was fine by me, for I figured this back-and-forth had fully revealed the weak gameplan of Lowry and his comrades. They’re going to push a false and absurd equivalency between Trump and Biden, dubbing each a threat to the Constitution. Yes, Trump attempted to mount a coup and propelled an attempted violent insurrection with his lies. But, but, but…Biden tried to alleviate a portion of the student debt burden for up to 43 million Americans through executive action!
On a 6-to-3 vote, the Supreme Court last June said federal law did not authorize Biden to order such a move. And this is enough for Lowry to proclaim Biden a danger to the republic as is the inciter-in-chief. This indicates how desperate these folks are to justify a vote for Trump—or to not endorse a vote for Biden—and to not acknowledge that the left is correct to warn that Trump directly imperils American democracy. I get it:
NR can never admit that the conservative movement, with its support (and adoration) of Trump, has brought the nation to a dangerous precipice and that lefties (and independents and the Never-Trumpers) who view Trump as an existential threat who must be kept out of power have it right.
In the mythology of the
National Review, Buckley in the 1960s boldly and courageously excommunicated the John Birch Society from the conservative movement. The Birchers were hyper-paranoid conspiracy theorists who saw commies under every bed and at every PTA meeting—and who claimed there was a Russian weather machine in the sky. They were led by a nutball who even believed Dwight Eisenhower was a Soviet plant. These conservatives were the QAnoners of their day and discredited the anti-communist right. But, as I chronicle in
American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, the story was far more complicated. For a long stretch, Buckley declined to fully denounce the Birchers, in part because Sen. Barry Goldwater needed these extremists for his 1964 presidential bid. (And the publisher of the
National Review at the time fretted a full-throated assault on the Birchers would cause the magazine financial losses.) Consequently, Buckley initially soft-peddled his criticism of the group. Only after Goldwater crashed, did he adopt a more forceful stance against these far-right kooks.
I suppose Lowry and the
NR do not want to go too far in breaking with Trump and MAGA. (A magazine needs subscribers!) Given that they—and the rest of us—are essentially facing a binary choice (Biden or Trump), I expect these smarty pants will find a way to elude the logical conclusion of their own anti-Trump view that he cannot again be trusted with the power of the presidency. They will concoct phony calculations that equate the perp of 1/6 with a fellow who, according to six justices, went too far in trying to help millions escape the burden of student loans. If such a scenario does transpire, it will be just another of the many debasements of the right brought about by Trump.
How to address the prospect of another Trump presidency is a defining question for these self-proclaimed constitutional conservatives. What will motivate them more: their concern for the future of American democracy or their antipathy toward the left? I’m pretty sure I know the answer.