As Peter Suderman has noted, Mitt Romney has weighed in on Donald Trump, mustering all the nastiness a Mormon can summon without resorting to cursing in public. "Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud," declared the one-term governor of Massachusetts and failed 2012 GOP presidential candidate. "His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University."
To which Trump responded thus:
Failed candidate Mitt Romney,who ran one of the worst races in presidential history,is working with the establishment to bury a big "R" win!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 3, 2016
The easy rejoinder to Romney is to say he's accurate but his timing is too late to matter. Indeed, as Trump's march to the Republican nomination proceeds, this is fast becoming the conventional wisdom among GOP activists, whether they are part of the #NeverTrump crew or are coming to terms with having the guy at the top of their ticket. As longtime Republican consultant, no in-the-tank Trump loyalist Alex Castellanos recently wrote
Donald Trump whipped the establishment and it is too late for the limp GOP establishment to ask their mommy to step in and rewrite the rules because they were humiliated for their impotence.
If Trump is going to be our nominee, as I believe he is, it is our mission to support Trump and make him the best nominee and president possible.
What both sides—conservatives who say they will NEVER vote for Trump under any circumstances and conservatives who will grudgingly fall in line—misunderstand is that Trump isn't a fraud perpetrated on the Republican Party, nor on the throngs of Republican primary voters who have propelled him to victory all over the place.
Put simply, Trump is the distillation of conservative Republican politics for all of the 21st century. He's not the cause of a GOP implosion, but the final effect of an intellectual and political hollowing-out of any semblance of commitment to limited government, individual rights, and free markets. He is what happens when you fail to live up to your rhetoric and aspirations again and again.
Yes, as Romney stated, The Donald has shifted positions on all sorts of issues over the years (immigration, outsourcing, abortion, whatever). As if that isn't a clearer indictment of the Republican Party when it ran both houses of Congress and the White House in the early part of this century. Winning the most-contested election in the history of the United States, George W. Bush campaigned on reducing the size, scope, and spending of government—and then proceeded to kick out the jams on constraints on government outlays.
Leave aside massive increases in defense spending and the scope of foreign policy ambitions for the moment (we'll get to them). With help of "conservative" and "establishment" legislators (it's far from clear what either of these terms really means, except to the GOP Mensheviks and Bolsheviks tossing them at each other like Molotov Cocktails), the Republicans pushed No Child Left Behind, the single-biggest expansion of the federal government into education in decades, and the creation of a budget-busting prescription-drug entitlement for seniors. They signed off on Sarbanes-Oxley, a dumb regulatory response to the Enron scandal and bursting of the tech bubble, which helped push IPOs to London and foreign capitals. Bush and the GOP signed off on protectionist measures against foreign steel and timber when it suited them while completely bungling federal responses to natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
Then there was the Republican response to the 9/11 attacks. The Republican Congress signed off on The Patriot Act, which vies with Hillary Clinton's latest memoir for the title of least-read (even by the authors) doorstop of this century. They created not just the demonstrably useless Transportation Security Administration but an entirely new and sclerotic cabinet agency, The Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And now as conservatives and Republicans whine about Donald Trump's authoritarian desire to "open up the libel laws," recall what Republican Attorney General John Ashcroft said to anyone who dast dissent from Total Information Awareness:
"Those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty," he inveighed before Congress, "your tactics only aid terrorists."
When it came to actually prosecuting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the GOP was anything but fiscally responsible or part of what used to be called the "reality-based community." Rather, Republicans deliberately funded (still) ongoing activites via "emergency supplemental" spending procedures, so they didn't really have to fully explain to the public how much loot they were spending. That underhanded process only stopped once Barack Obama took office, in the brief moment when he and the Democrats deigned to actually produce and write budgets. Having succeeded with passing tax cuts, the Republicans—despite constantly bashing the Democrats as big spenders and deficit whores—never bothered to discuss how to pay for massive increases in military spending. Or Medicare spending. Or any other sort of outlay that ballooned under Bush and the Republican Congress. But don't you see? It's Obama and the Democrats who are to blame for everything—even when the GOP controls Congress?
Who created TARP and which party's 2008 candidate suspended his campaign so that he could race back to Washington to bail out the big banks and, eventually Chrysler and GM? On his way out the door (and after a last-ditch $100 million stimulus plan that is largely forgotten to all but the nation's debtors), George W. Bush actually said, "I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system." Like much of what Donald Trump says today, of course, this is a lie, or at least an exaggeration, to the extent it pretends that George W. Bush, whose greatest business deal involved family connections and eminent domain, ever embodied free-market principles.
But what's past is past, right? And today's conservatives all hated Bush and the GOP Congress, right, even if they did endorse George W. and company (except when he tried to privatize Social Security or, even worse, pass immigration reform).
In 2008 and 2012, the Republican Party ran such paragons of principle and consistency as John McCain and Mitt Romney for president. What was notable about McCain, besides his reflexive war-mongering, was that he ultimately flipped from being actually kind of open-bordersy to cutting TV commercials demanding that we "complete the danged fence." As for Romney, who now sits in smug judgement of Donald Trump, he was that GOP guy who "evolved" on abortion and gay rights (even though Republicans don't believe in evolution) and, oh yeah, created the program that became the model for Obamacare.
But let's not just look at the top of Republican tickets to see the ideological rot and hypocrisy that hollowed out the conservative Republican "brand" like a wet log teeming with termites. At least since Barry Goldwater and certainly since Ronald Reagan's success, the GOP has always billed itself as the party not just of "limited" government but of small government—or at least smaller government than whatever the Democrats were yapping about. What was it that St. Reagan used to say? "Government isn't the solution, it's the problem."
Consistently though, conservatives and Republicans translated that slogan into a standing demand to increase military spending regardless of actual threats to America or demonstrated outcomes of interventions abroad (the government is incompetent at everything, don't you know, except for rebuilding civilizations in central Asia and the Middle East). Also, conservatives, like their left-wing hero George Orwell, praise plain language, except when it comes time to describe torture (by which I mean "enhanced interrogations") and they want power taken away from the White House (as long as a Democrat is living there). Otherwise, welll you know the drill.
When it comes to personal responsibility and following the law, conservatives are all for it, unless you want to smoke a joint rather than drink whisky, or if you're Scooter Libby or Conrad Black or some famous conservative type who gets caught doing something he shouldn't have been doing.
We hear this all the time, don't we: Conservatives just hate it when Democrats and liberals divide us into groups based on race or sex or class, but how dare you claim that foreigners, especially Spanish-speaking mestizos, who are uniquely incapable of assimilation, be allowed to work legally in this country! Kim Davis, the great gay-marriage refusenik was feted by Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee and became a conservative hero for refusing to do her government job. Why, because the state should discriminate against individuals…when conservatives want it to. Oh and the 47 percent? Screw 'em, they won't vote for us anyway or anyhow.
Because—and this is very important to the rise of Donald Trump—conservativism and Republicanism have no real fixed definition or even ultimately a coherent set of principles. Sometimes they are for limited government, sometimes they want a maximal state. They're against the individual mandate for Obamacare, except when they invented the concept (thanks Heritage Foundation). They are for small, tiny government except when they are not. They are for FREEDOM (all caps), except when they believe opening up the borders or letting women wear pants or giving ex-felons the right to vote will destroy EVERYTHING. They are against political correctness (like Trump!) because it allows a "hate group" such as Black Lives Matter besmirch the reputation of police, but WTF Donald Trump, you're just vulgar and a bully! How can you suggest that Megyn Kelly is on the rag while the dread menace of transgender bathrooms and the "social decay" caused by Caitlyn Jenner proceed apace. Next thing you know, you'll be denying that men and women are different or that ladies can fight in combat.
If all of this is kind of confusing and contradictory, well, welcome to the conservative Republican treehouse.
As Natonal Review's Jonah Goldberg has written,
Conservatism isn't a single thing. Indeed, as I have argued before, I think it's a contradictory thing, a bundle of principles married to a prudential and humble appreciation of the complexity of life and the sanctity of successful human institutions.
Maybe it's just me, but when I think of high-profile professional conservatives, the last word I think of is humble. Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Sean Hannity are anything but humble, either in their demeanor or their willingness to speak Truth with a capital T. But Goldberg has put together a pretty good working definition, especially the part about conservatism (and by extension, the Republican Party) being a "contradictory thing." You add partisan politics into the mix and what you get is a huge mess of contradictory things that ultimately make no sense, at least if you prize philosophical or systematic consistency in any way, shape, or form (oh, the curse of the libertarian mind!). The key thing about conservatives and Republicans is that they have created an identity from which they can deviate whenever the hell they feel like it.
So bailouts and stimulus spending are good or at least defensible when George Bush wants them but bad if Barack Obama wants them. The state shouldn't discriminate, except against gays, or weed, or whatever. As Ted Cruz can tell you, federal officials should enforce ALL THE LAWS against immigrants, but Kim Davis is a hero for refusing to do her job. Mitt Romney was for abortion before he was against it, so fuck you Donald Trump, you're no conservative (we know this because you used to be very into abortion). Don't you realize that Donald Trump presents a unique threat to the Constitution when he denounces birthright citizenship but it's OK when Ted Cruz says exactly the same thing, or suggests that Supreme Court justices should face "retention elections"? Do I contradict myself, asked the famously gay (and racist) poet Walt Whitman. Verily, indeed. What's the problem?
Having situational ethics and situational public policies makes it easy to change your stance on this or that (and let's not pretend that liberals and Democrats don't do the same thing). But unless you're part of the shrinking tribes of conservatives and Republicans, the effect is profoundly alienating. And it's even more boring than watching that episode of the old, original Star Trek where Frank Gorshin and the other guy with half-black/half-white faces hate each other until you realize…they're faces are mirror images of one another.
People—even or especially Trump supporters—aren't idiots. They know political grandstanding when they see it, and they fully understand that conservatives and Republicans don't really believe in the things they talk about. Or, same thing, that everything can and will change in the blink of the eye or in ways that just don't make sense. Didn't Mitt Romney beg Donald Trump for an endorsement a few years ago? Romney, whom every conservative news org endorsed and approved, ran for president by attacking Obamacare and the incumbent for spending too much money. He also promised to keep the parts of Obamacare "he liked" and refused to name a single big-ticket spending program he would cut or even trim. Upon becoming Speaker of the House after a million years in waiting, John Boehner was incapable of naming a single program or department he would get rid of.
You can hear it already: But…but…but…Romney and Boehner and all the rest aren't real conservatives or Republicans or whatever. No, that would be Paul Ryan, whose first big act as Boehner's replacement was to sign off on a deal that increased spending on defense and social programs. Whatevs, buddy, whatevs. Conservatives and Republicans have wielded total power and partial power and haven't just failed to do anything with it; they've actively undermined their rhetoric and their credibility. And then tell you that you're nuts for noticing.
And now they are just coming across as bitter losers (Trump's language infects us all) who are seeing a businessman come in and buy up their company at a fraction of its former valuation (hey, isn't that a good thing when Bain Capital does it? Shouldn't we have let Honda do that to GM?).
In equating Mexican immigrants with rapists and drug dealers and calling for mass deportations, Trump brought xenophobia back to the forefront of U.S. politics but National Review assails him for being soft on immigration (really: Trump obviously buys into "the dismayingly conventional view that current levels of legal immigration are fine," say the editors). When not agitating for military intervention, The Weekly Standard has spent much of its existence denouncing China as a rogue state whose trade policies are on a collision course with U.S. interests. But when Trump runs with that argument, well, he's got it all wrong!
In the 2016 election season, Trump alone among the Republican candidates has brought energy and a sense of invicibility. For those of us who actually believe in limited government, reducing federal spending and debt, and getting the government out of people's lives, this is not good. But for all the darkness of his despicable vision of immigrants ("They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."), he is also optimistic even as modern-day millenarians and xenophobes such as Ted Cruz only promise endless fights on the edge of the lake of fire. He wants to make America great again, while most conservative Republicans have shown themselves more comfortable with just blaming everything on Obama, or Harry Reid, or Elizabeth Warren, or the left-wing media, or those Marxists at Harvard.
To the extent that conservatives and Republicans are mostly complaining that Trump isn't a real Republican or a real conservative, they are simply acknowledging that his policy positions (such as they are) are mostly in line with whatever Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich are selling (and whatever Mitt Romney offered up in 2012). Nobody is pretending that Trump would be doing as well in the Democratic primaries, are they? And to the extent that Republican critics say he's a "contradictory thing" who changes his position from one day to the next, well, they're just admitting that maybe he is a real conservative after all.