The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Volokh Conspiracy

Staying true to principle in the age of Trump


Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, a prominent conservative opponent of Trump, recently noted that he is now more popular on the left than in the past, but despised by many of his former fans on the right:

Watching this process unfold has been particularly painful for me as a conservative columnist. I find myself in the awkward position of having recently become popular among some of my liberal peers-precisely because I haven't changed my opinions about anything.

By contrast, I've become suddenly unpopular among some of my former fans on the right-again, because I've stuck to my views. It is almost amusing to be accused of suffering from something called "Trump Derangement Syndrome" simply because I feel an obligation to raise my voice against, say, the president suggesting a moral equivalency between the U.S. and Vladimir Putin's Russia.

The most painful aspect of this has been to watch people I previously considered thoughtful and principled conservatives give themselves over to a species of illiberal politics from which I once thought they were immune.

As a libertarian strongly opposed to Trump's agenda, I have had a similar experience. I too find myself more popular on the left, and less so on the right. Liberal academics and intellectuals occasionally even praise me for my "courage" in opposing Trump (even though I don't think it actually requires much courage to do so when you are a tenured professor with no aspirations to serve in government). On the other hand, I occasionally get hostile e-mails and Tweets from conservatives accusing me of selling out to the left, or—in one amusing case—of being "a liberal law professor who spreads liberal lies about Trump."

Because I am far from the only libertarian opposed to Trump and libertarians generally have strong reason to be suspicious of Trumpist nationalism, I don't think I have lost much support in that community. But I clearly have among more conventional conservative Republicans.

All this, despite the fact that my positions on the major issues I write about are the same as they were before 2016. The same views on immigration, free trade, civil liberties, federalism, religious freedom, and the evils of Vladimir Putin's aggression, that led me to oppose much of Barack Obama's agenda, are also the ones that lead me to oppose Trump.

For example, I oppose Trump's cruel order banning refugees from seven Muslim nations for many of the same reasons as I previously attacked Obama's cruel policy reversal on Cuban refugees. Similarly, my commitment to constitutional federalism and strong judicial enforcement of limits on federal power led me to oppose both the Obamacare individual health insurance mandate and Trump's executive order targeting sanctuary cities. The experience of the last year did lead me to change my views on a few issues. But these shifts are not what has stimulated either my new fans' praise or my new critics' ire.

People like Stephens stand out because they have put principles ahead of partisan bias. Even before the rise of Trump, growing partisan bias and hatred of the opposition led many people to excuse behavior by their own party's leaders that they would never tolerate from the opposing party. Many conservative Republicans are falling prey to such bias under Trump. But numerous liberal Democrats did the same under Obama, as when they tolerated or even supported his starting two wars without congressional authorization.

It is to some extent understandable if politicians trim their sails to whichever direction their party's wind blows. After all, they want to stay in power and are afraid of being ostracized within their party. But intellectuals, activists, and ordinary voters often behave in much the same way, even though most have far less to fear in the way of tangible personal costs. Being a loyal member of Team Red or Team Blue is such an important part of many people's identity that it often takes precedence over other, supposedly more fundamental principles.

Unlike Stephens, who is a longtime Republican, I can't claim any special virtue in resisting this tendency. Because I was never a committed partisan in the first place, it isn't psychologically difficult for me to oppose either the GOP or the Democrats on the many occasions when they do things that run counter to the principles I espouse. Things are much tougher for the many people who (often for understandable reasons) do see themselves as loyal Democrats or Republicans, or at least have a deep hostility to whichever party they oppose. In the latter case, "partyism" can lead them to avoid criticizing their own party, lest it give ammunition to the opposing one (which, by assumption, is much worse).

The good news is that we don't have to behave this way. Even politicians sometimes rise above partisanship. For example, libertarian Republican Rep. Justin Amash stands out as a principled opponent of Trump, and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine was highly critical of the unconstitutional wars initiated by Obama.

Those of us who aren't politicians have even less excuse for indulging partisan bias. Before reflexively following the party leader wherever he wants to go, we should ask whether his course really is consistent with the principles we espouse. And before condemning dissenters from the party line as sellouts, we should consider the possibility that they are actually the ones staying true to their principles.

I am not optimistic that we will overcome the dangers of partisan bias anytime soon. Far from it. Even if we do, there are a lot of other ways in which voters and intellectuals' political views are influenced by ignorance and illogic. But the beginning of wisdom is to at least recognize that we have a problem, and try to reduce it.