Late on the afternoon of October 7, 2016, I texted an old friend, fellow Wisconsinite Reince Priebus. The Access Hollywood videotape had just been released, showing the GOP presidential nominee describing his approach to seducing and perhaps assaulting women. “You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them,” Donald Trump said on the tape. “It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
In the course of his campaign, Trump had insulted POWs, women, disabled reporters, members of minority groups, and his opponents without derailing his candidacy. But this felt like it might be different, and events were moving quickly.
Trump was due to visit Wisconsin the next day for a rally with Speaker Paul Ryan, their first joint appearance of the campaign. Relations between Trump and Ryan had been fraught, with the speaker accusing his party’s nominee of “textbook racism” while Trump derided the speaker as “our very weak and ineffective leader.” The Wisconsin event was the culmination of Priebus’s peacemaking efforts. Like other members of the GOP mainstream, Priebus had been a Trump skeptic, but as chairman of the Republican National Committee he had embraced Trump’s candidacy with apparent enthusiasm. He was also one of Ryan’s best friends, so the joint event would be a symbol of his efforts to normalize Trump’s candidacy and rally the disparate wings of the GOP behind the erratic billionaire.
But now all of Priebus’s friends and colleagues from Wisconsin would have to stand on stage with their pussy-grabbing nominee. It would be the photo-op from hell, a month before the general election.
Despite our deepening political differences, Reince and I had kept in touch throughout the campaign. At lunch in Milwaukee in September, we had talked about our lives after the election. He wanted to stay on as RNC chair to pick up the pieces before returning to law or perhaps a cable television deal. I told him that I was writing a book; he said we should stay in touch because, unlike Trump’s campaign staffers, he had never signed a nondisclosure agreement.
So that afternoon when the tape was released, I texted Priebus. He wasn’t going to allow Trump to drop a bomb on Wisconsin Republicans, was he?
Priebus responded quickly: “I am the guy trying to fix this!” he texted. “I am in tears over this.”
Within a few hours, Ryan withdrew the invitation to Trump. For a moment, it seemed like a turning point. But it wasn’t, or at least not in the way that I thought it would be. As we later learned, Priebus told Trump he should drop out of the race (for which Trump never forgave him). Across the country Republicans rescinded their endorsements. Ryan announced he would no longer defend Trump.
But one by one, they drifted back. After Trump’s improbable win, Priebus became White House chief of staff. Ryan, who had so often expressed his disgust with Trump’s comments, became his most important ally in Congress. A year after Trump’s election, Ryan declared: “We’re with Trump. That’s a choice we made at the beginning of the year. That’s a choice we made during the campaign; . . . we merged our agendas.”
In retrospect, the Access Hollywood video foreshadowed the degree to which the right was willing to surrender its remaining principles and enable many of Trump’s worst impulses. So it should not have come as a surprise when the GOP stuck with Trump as he became embroiled in a growing series of scandals, fired the FBI director, and tried to obstruct the special counsel’s investigation into his conduct. Nor should it have come as a surprise when evangelical Christian leaders gave the president a pass on reports he had an affair with a porn star and paid her hush money. They were merely reprising the moral compromises they had made during the campaign.
The right’s rolling acquiescence to Trump’s hostile takeover also foreshadowed the metamorphosis of the conservative movement on issues ranging from personal character and public ethics to fiscal conservatism, crony capitalism, free trade, immigration, global leadership, and human rights.
In April 2018, Ryan, who had once been the party’s rising conservative star, announced that he was stepping down as speaker. “Ryan’s departure is not some kind of inflection point,” wrote Stephen Hayes, editor of this journal, “it is an exclamation point.”
It is Trump’s party now, marked not only by the GOP Congress’s rituals of sycophantic abasement but also by poll numbers suggesting the degree to which the conservative base has made itself over in Trump’s image. In February 2018, in the wake of the passage of tax reform, 90 percent of Republican voters told Gallup pollsters they approved of Trump’s performance. The approval of GOP voters seemed to extend beyond his policies to his personal qualities as well. In January 2018, a Quinnipiac poll found that the overwhelming majority of Americans—71 percent of independent voters, 67 percent of male voters, and 68 percent of female voters—had come to the conclusion that Trump was not setting a good example for children. The one glaring exception? Seventy-two percent of Republican voters said they thought that Trump “is a good role model for children.” Even after a year of juvenile taunts on Twitter, 82 percent of Republicans said that Trump shared their values, and four out of five believed he “provides the United States with moral leadership.” The percentage of Republican voters who thought sexual misconduct by a president was an important issue dropped from 70 percent during Bill Clinton’s presidency to just 25 percent under Trump’s.
Since Trump’s election, we have heard the same question again and again: What will it take? What has to happen for Republicans to break with their Mad King? The honest answer is: Who knows?
In early 2016, National Review devoted an issue to essays gathered under the headline “Against Trump.” By February 2018, the same magazine’s cover featured a smiling President Trump and the headline: “A Year of Achievement: The Case for the Trump Presidency.”
Indeed, many Republicans insist that they support the Trump agenda and policies, rather than the man. Tax cuts, they reasoned, were worth ignoring a few tweets, even the ugly ones. They convinced themselves that their cynicism was savvy realism. There was uneasiness about his chaotic style, his management by humiliation, and his penchant for surrounding himself with a remarkable menagerie of misfit toys. But many conservatives rallied around Trump in reaction to media bias and the hostility of his critics and opponents. Anti-anti-Trumpism has proven a powerful glue among conservatives seeking a reason to stick with the president; the more he is besieged, the tighter his supporters cling to him and the deeper they dig in.
Other Republicans told themselves that if you squint hard enough, Trump can look like a somewhat normal Republican president who has delivered a series of conservative wins. Under Trump, they point out, the GOP has been able to pass sweeping tax reform, eliminate the individual mandate for health insurance, roll back the regulatory state, toughen immigration enforcement, fund the military, and install conservative judges throughout the federal judiciary, including, most notably, the Supreme Court. The stock market has gone up, unemployment down. In any case, the choice remains binary; whatever his flaws might be, Trump is still preferable to the ghastly alternative of Hillary Clinton or the progressive left.
In this telling, Trump’s lack of any fixed principles and invincible ignorance on policy means that he is an empty vessel that the establishment GOP can fill with many of its dearest objectives. “Trump has governed so far as more of a Republican and conservative than I expected,” National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote in 2017.
But claims that Trumpism had delivered major conservative wins were undermined by the GOP’s dramatic abandonment of even the pretense of fiscal conservatism, adding trillions of dollars to the national debt. Rather than draining the swamp, they fully funded it.
In a series of votes on tax cuts and spending, Trump and the GOP Congress blew through spending caps imposed during the Obama years. After Trump signed a massive $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill in March 2018, economists estimated that it would add $2 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. Within a decade, debt payments alone could approach $1 trillion a year. The GOP’s abandonment of fiscal prudence was followed by its retreat from free trade. Trump threatened to derail the booming economy and set off a trade war by imposing tens of billions of dollars of tariffs (taxes) on imports. Free-market conservatives denounced Trump’s protectionism, but again the GOP failed to push back in any meaningful way. This, however, has been only part of the story.
Was it worse?
So has the Trump era turned out better or worse than I expected? Back in May 2016, on what I’m pretty sure was my last appearance ever on Fox News, I said:
Nothing that has happened since has changed my opinion one bit. Even so, it has been worse than I thought, but not because of Trump. Nothing he has done as president should come as a surprise to anyone who paid attention to his career or his campaign in 2015 and 2016. He is who we expected him to be; there was never going to be a pivot. Conservatives have, unfortunately, been a different story. The 2016 election dramatically highlighted the role of tribalism in American politics; but since the election we have seen the degree to which conservative politics has become not merely tribal but transactional.
Trump secured the GOP nomination with only a minority of the primary votes. During the general election many conservatives voted for him reluctantly because they saw the election as a binary choice. But the GOP submission since Trump’s election has a different feel: Now that it is in power, the Trumpian right often feels more like a personality cult than a political movement.
It is one thing to support tax cuts (a staple of GOP politics for decades), quite another to cheer his attacks on the special prosecutor, the Department of Justice, and the FBI. The House Intelligence Committee became a virtual extension of the Trump White House, issuing reports that sought to discredit findings of the intelligence community about Russian interference in the election. The Republican National Committee took the lead in attempts to discredit former FBI director James Comey even before the publication of his memoir, setting up a website with the Trumpian title “Lyin’ Comey.” Of course, this had nothing to do with conservative principles or even making America great again, but it has become the new normal for the GOP; Republicans have grown accustomed to the politics of rationalization and a daily diet of codswallop.
The president’s many rationalizers often insist that objections to Trump are merely matters of taste or style or the president’s personality. But that is an obvious dodge because Trump’s presidency is a reflection of his character and his judgment, and the consequences are substantive. Trump did not adjust to the responsibilities of the presidency, so conservatives adjusted to him.
When Trump retweeted racist videos from a British fascist group, Republican leaders ignored it. As Trump’s lies became more flagrant, they shrugged. His conflicts of interest generated little attention, his juvenile taunts and ignorance and indifference to policy hardly a blink.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio was a caricature of law enforcement—living up to every stereotype of a lawless, brutal, racist cop who ignored fundamental rights and reveled in calculated cruelty. When Trump used his presidential authority to pardon him, most Republicans shuffled their feet and changed the subject. Trumpists doubled down. In an appearance in Arizona in May 2018, Vice President Mike Pence gave a shoutout to Arpaio, who was now running for the U.S. Senate, calling him “a great friend of this president and tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law.”
Early in his presidency Trump falsely accused Barack Obama of ordering the wiretapping of Trump Tower and insisted that millions of illegal votes had denied him a victory in the popular vote. There was no evidence for either claim.
At the same time, he bullied critics, attacked and threatened the media, and used his office to enrich himself and his family. Ushering in a new era of crony capitalism, he rewarded his political allies while using his bully pulpit to vindictively attack successful businesses, like Amazon, in part because its owner also owns the Washington Post, which has been critical of his presidency.
As the #MeToo movement gathered momentum, critics noted that he had been credibly accused of harassing or assaulting women. His response has been to call them liars and threaten to sue them. Throughout his first year in office, he stoked racial animosity by picking fights with prominent African-Americans, including NFL players, and suggested that neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville included many “fine people.”
His refusal to sign the G7 summit’s final communiqué, his repeated questioning of the value of NATO, his attacks on the European Union, and his disdain for traditional allies risk isolating the United States while undermining the international order built up on a bipartisan basis over more than seven decades. Trump’s bitter attacks on allies like Canada’s Justin Trudeau contrast sharply with his fawning praise of global thugs like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Perhaps inspired by their example, he has repeatedly suggested prosecuting or jailing his political opponents. In the weeks leading up to Trump’s first State of the Union speech, the man who had begun his campaign by lashing out at Mexican “rapists” derailed negotiations over immigration reform by objecting to refugees from “shithole countries.”
There were dissenting voices, including former President George W. Bush and senators John McCain, Bob Corker, and Jeff Flake, but they found themselves routinely derided by the loudest voices in the conservative media. Flake took to the floor of the Senate to challenge his colleagues. “We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals,” he said. Even though other Republicans shared Flake’s views, few were willing to speak out, and Flake’s decision not to seek reelection highlighted his isolation.
A Total Makeover
By any measure, the makeover was remarkable. Until Trump, Republicans were members of a party that insisted that character matters. But goaded into a tribalism that treats ideas, facts, truth, and basic decency as expendable, the GOP seems a party blanched of any fixed principles. “It’s more than strong; it’s tribal in nature,” Corker told the Washington Examiner. “People who tell me, who are out on the trail, say, ‘Look, people don’t ask about issues anymore. They don’t care about issues. They want to know if you’re with Trump or not.’ ” Republican voters shifted so far that loyalty to Trump in the days after the release of the Access Hollywood tape became a litmus test in GOP primary elections in 2018. Campaign ads excoriated Republicans who had withdrawn their endorsements after the release of the tape.
Because the GOP has cast its lot so thoroughly with Trump, he has succeeded in a remarkably short period in moving the window of acceptability in our politics, especially on the right. As a result, the rules of the game have changed in ways that are still hard to grasp, as conservatives accept behaviors and ideological shifts that would have been unacceptable a few years ago. Although optimists continue to insist that our system of checks and balances is holding up well, many of our norms turn out to be based on an honor system rather than hard and fast rules. And when we no longer have honorable people in power, those norms turn out to be more fragile that we had imagined.
Conservatives ought to have been alarmed by demagogic indifference to democratic norms, and to be sure, some were. But if anything, pressure to get on board the Trump train has grown over time. While some commentators have tried to maintain their independence—mixing criticism with praise—the tightrope has been treacherous. In conservative circles, the failure to go full #MAGA carries the risk of irrelevance and exile. Shortly before my book How the Right Lost Its Mind was published in the fall of 2017, I was fired by a conservative Wisconsin think tank for which I had edited a magazine for 27 years. The group’s president, a longtime friend, had also been a Trump critic, but told me that I was no longer consistent with their “brand.” Others paid a much stiffer price. Friendships have ended and careers foundered.
The consequences of the right’s capitulation are likely to be far-reaching and of long duration. Tainted by association with Trump, Republicans are shedding support among young voters, who disapprove of the president by a margin of more than 40 points in one poll. For many of those voters, the face of conservatism will continue to be ignorant, bigoted, and cruel, and polls suggest that the right could face a generational political tsunami as a result. At the same time, Republicans are embracing hardline immigration policies (travel bans, deportations, a wall) and nativist rhetoric that alienate moderates and drive minority voters away from the party, perhaps for a generation or more.
We do not yet know whether Trump’s presidency will be farce or tragedy, but it is hard to imagine that it will end well. So this might be a good time to remember that in a Faustian bargain you can indeed get your heart’s desire, only to find out that the price is far higher than you imagined.