A lot of these "Never Trump" conservatives remind me of Krusty the Clown's lament that he accidentally "said the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet." Even Republicans who dislike Trump are often comfortable with the underlying Trumpism.
Consider the reaction when Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) announced yesterday that he won't seek reelection in 2018 because it's impossible to win a Republican primary without embracing Trump.
"FACT: Flake was one of the most unpopular senators since 2013," the right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro tweeted after Flake's announcement. "His decline was not purely Trump related."
But the forces that helped propel Trump to the top of the 2016 Republican field weren't unleashed by Trump when he announced his candidacy in June 2015. He merely exploited them.
Shapiro developed his argument about Flake at The Daily Wire, pointing out that Flake became an unpopular senator early on in his term after trying to work on a bipartisan effort to reform immigration. "Many immigration reform Senators have fallen askance of the base," Shapiro noted.
Yes. That's the problem.
It was little more than a decade ago that President George W. Bush's efforts at comprehensive immigration reform failed. Since then, the GOP establishment has largely embraced the faction of the party that torpedoed reform.
Rather than making the economic case for immigration, as Republicans of days gone by did regularly, much of the party was content to exploit voters' economic ignorance and fuel their anxieties.
"Complete the dang fence," John McCain implored in a campaign ad before turning around to complain how nativism had taken over his party.
Some on the left are upset by the warm reception Flake, and particularly his comments on the Senate floor admonishing Trump's flaunting of American political norms, have received, pointing out he and Trump line up on such issues as tax cuts, deregulation, and labor.
But it would be hard to argue these were the issues that motivated most Trump voters. They certainly weren't issues Trump put at the center of his presidential campaign. Instead, he focused on immigration and trade, precisely the policies where many conservatives were already pandering to the base.
The left has a similar problem: Candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have to pretend to be skeptical of or hostile to free trade to allay their base while nudging and winking to international trade partners. On immigration, Democrats have lost the current debate in large part because they're unwilling or unable to make the economic case for liberal immigration policies, instead relying on emotional appeals that only contribute to the hyperpartisan divide.
The Trump difference is that Trump has mostly stuck to his rhetoric after the election. Establishment Republicans have long been comfortable cultivating economic ignorance and racial resentment among their base in pursuit of electoral victory and then pursuing other priorities in Washington. But eventually the base clues in to the bait-and-switch and seeks out candidates who seem less likely to compromise. What set Trump apart wasn't his ideas so much as his perceived authenticity: He seemed like a guy who would actually follow up on that Trumpist rhetoric once in office.
Trump is crass, abrasive, and toxic? Well, so are the policies embraced by a base that mainstream conservatives cultivated but have now lost control of. But not Flake. Those on the right who are upset at Trump for what he revealed about Republicans and establishment conservatism won't like Flake either, because from a different direction he's revealing much the same thing.