With the passage of a sweeping tax bill on Wednesday, Donald Trump gets the first major legislative achievement of his presidency and deepens the debt the Republican Party owes to him. Despite a rocky first year, Trump has also delivered on a promise to fill the courts with conservative nominees, and Republicans are repaying him by more vociferously defending him against special consul Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Trumpism and Republicanism once seemed an uneasy fit, but now they are increasingly fused.
This tightening of bonds is causing a rift among a small band of Never Trump conservative intellectuals, who are torn between their revulsion with the president and their desire see the Republican agenda enacted. Some Never Trumpers are becoming alienated not just from the president, but the Republican Party, which they see as complicit in Trumpism. This includes pundits like The Atlantic’s David Frum, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, and The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol. Opposing them are conservatives like Jonah Goldberg and Charles C.W. Cooke, both of National Review, who often swallow their contempt for Trump, the man, and find some saving grace with Trump’s presidency.
This debate, occurring among a small cohort of conservative writers who agree on most issues, runs the risk of being about the narcissism of small differences. But it raises crucial larger questions: Is Trumpism a passing phase on the political right, and thus easily dismissible? Should intellectual conservatives give their fealty to a party that supports a figure like Trump? Ultimately, this is not a question about Trump at all, but rather about whether the alliance between conservatism and the Republican Party makes sense.
The broader philosophical dispute is currently subsumed in individual writers attacking each other. According to Cooke, Rubin has become a knee-jerk opponent of Trump. “Since Donald Trump burst onto the political scene, Rubin has become precisely what she dislikes in others: a monomaniac and a bore, whose visceral dislike of her opponents has prompted her to drop the keys to her conscience into a well,” Cooke argues. “If Trump likes something, Rubin doesn’t. If he does something, she opposes it. If his agenda flits into alignment with hers—as anyone’s is wont to do from time to time—she either ignores it, or finds a way to downplay it.