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.
Recent history has offered few spectacles more depressing than the acquiescence of leading Republican politicians to the rise of Donald Trump. The selection of a presidential nominee is an act of moral gravity, and party elites have an obligation to exclude figures ethically and temperamentally unfit to wield the presidency’s powers. That so many Republicans, while obviously believing Trump, followed strategic failure with moral abdication and essentially shrugged at his ascent was an indictment of their leadership.
I am less persuaded, however, by the argument that what leading Republicans have done since Donald Trump was elected president has been more disastrous and morally culpable than their original surrender, and that conservatives who declined to vote for Trump but still voted Republican in 2016 should begin voting for 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. Urging a GOP “boycott,” they write that “the Republican Party … 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, and generally regards the GOP as a broken vehicle, I am pretty close to the target audience for the Rauch and Wittes argument. So let me explain why 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, if he followed through on many promises, various disasters could ensue. But vote for us. We will contain him.
There were good reasons to be skeptical. The presidency’s powers 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 Republican agenda, it was easy to see how he could roll over containment efforts.
But now, the project of containment has been much more successful than its critics feared. Here is a short list of questionable moves 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 U.S.; and deporting illegal immigrants in an enormous sweep.
None of these things have happened; few have even been attempted. In almost every case the establishment Republicans crowding his Cabinet or influencing him from the Senate have had a gentling or restraining effect upon Trump’s presidency. You could argue that versions of the last two policies have been pursued — but even there the case is weak, the administration’s behavior less than authoritarian. The White House’s travel ban affected a small fraction of the world’s Muslims and has been easily impeded in the courts. Likewise, immigration enforcement had become more aggressive under Barack Obama — but these arrests have run into a bureaucratic and judicial backlog that will make mass deportation impossible.
So for the kind of Atlantic-reading, Trump-skeptical Republican 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 cases 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. Just consider the following the authors’ caveat:
“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. … But the broader response to Trump’s behavior has been tolerant and, often, enabling.”
Other Republicans 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. But partisan attacks on the probe are not the same as a sustained presidential assault on democratic institutions.
I blame Republicans for enabling Trump’s rise. But their promise of containment became a reasonable approach. So long as he remains weak and conventional in policy, the case that conservatives have a moral obligation to vote like liberals won’t convince.