On Tuesday, Dennis Prager – a man I consider a good friend and political mentor – penned a column in which he derided conservative “purists” for killing President Trump’s American Health Care Act. As one of the people in favor of killing that misbegotten piece of legislation, which re-enshrined the central principles of Obamacare while exacerbating the private health insurance death spiral, created a new entitlement program, and was wildly unpopular to boot (17 percent approval rating), I feel compelled to respond to Dennis’ piece in the spirit of respectful debate. I don’t believe it required purity to oppose the bill – only political common sense and a cost-benefit analysis. The Republican Party was unanimous in its dedication to repealing Obamacare; that political promise bought them complete control of the federal government. This bill broke that promise.
But Dennis’ main argument is that conservative purity makes the perfect the enemy of the good. Dennis writes, “what we have here is another conservative example of purism and principle damaging another major opportunity to do good.”
Dennis then returns to the old Never Trump vs. Pro-Trump argument, stating that purism risked making Hillary president. He says that there were “no valid reasons” to oppose Trump in the general election, and that Trump’s policies have validated him “beyond my wildest dreams.”
Dennis doesn’t acknowledge the basic argument of the Never Trump conservatives or those who agonized over whether to support him – not that Trump wouldn’t do some conservative things, but that he would inevitably soul-suck the conservative movement to the point where they would celebrate bad policy and blame actual conservatives for failing to go along with the program. It wasn’t that Never Trumpers and doubtful Trumpers were purists – I voted for both John McCain and Mitt Romney, both of whom I opposed ardently in the Republican primaries. It was that Never Trumpers and even many who agonized over Trump were afraid that conservatives would become Trump purists – people who considered Trump the be-all, end-all of conservatism, the last best hope of humanity, the root and branch of the movement. We were afraid that Trump’s obvious discomfort with conservatism would eventually convert conservatives themselves from their philosophy in order to assuage their cognitive dissonance. Trump purism, in short, would corrupt conservatism.
The Freedom Caucus went a long way toward assuaging those fears, though: they showed that many Trump supporters would not stand for bad policy with Trump’s name on it. Remember, the Freedom Caucus is dominated not by Never Trumpers, but by people who campaigned openly and diligently for Trump, from Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) to Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX). They stood tall for conservatism, keeping their unspoken pledge to stand for conservatism above Trumpism.
But then Dennis says that these people are the problem, reinvigorating our fears once more.
Dennis seems to suggest that anyone with any significant criticisms of Trump thus far is a purist. He calls Trump a “conservative dream,” citing Trump’s good works – works I have cheered with alacrity! – including the pick of Judge Gorsuch for the Supreme Court and his executive orders curbing the overreaching EPA. But he neglects Trump’s Twitter meltdowns, which have damaged both his credibility and that of the Republican brand; he neglects Trump’s plans for infrastructure boondoggles, his deep and abiding hatred for free trade, his willingness to attack fellow conservatives, his walkback of the movement of the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, his consistent undermining of NATO. I agree with 70 percent of Trump’s policy, but he’s crippled much of that policy with bad rollout and shoddy rhetoric. Much of what Trump has done is praiseworthy. But to state that Trump is “essentially everything conservatives would wish for in a president … almost too good to be true,” as Dennis does, is ignoring any countervailing evidence.
For example, Dennis states that President Trump “worked so hard” to pass Trumpcare. How hard did Trump work, exactly? He worked for 17 days on a bill he clearly hadn’t perused, mentioning the entire time that if the bill went down, that would probably be best so that Obamacare could implode; he then issued a needless ultimatum for an immediate vote, and attempted to bully conservatives into support without any serious concessions to them; finally, he took his ball and went home and then blamed the Freedom Caucus while saying he wanted to work with Democrats in the future. President Obama worked on pushing Obamacare for well over a year. Trump couldn’t be bothered for three weeks.
In the end, Dennis concedes that the bill had serious problems – but he says that the question is irrelevant. Why? Because the most important question wasn’t whether the policy was good, but “What will happen if the Republicans don’t pass a bill favored by all but 25-30 Republican Congressmen and, most important, by President Trump?”
But the two questions are related. Passing bad bills backed by Trump isn’t good for Trump, it isn’t good for Republicans, it isn’t good for conservatism, and it isn’t good for the country. The only reason to draw a sharp distinction between the quality of the bill and the effect it will have is pure allegiance to Trump personally. Trump wanted it, he needed it politically, so he should have gotten it.
Again, this is Trump purism, not conservative purism. Here’s the fact: if Trump had made even a few key concessions to the Freedom Caucus, they would have backed the bill, and so would I. But for the Trump purists, even if the bill had been far worse, they would have supported it and demanded conservatives do the same. After all, it would have been the lesser of two evils. By that logic, principle disappears as a concern completely – just so long as Trump proposes something better than the ghost of Hillary Clinton would have, conservatives have an obligation to support it. And in fact, Dennis basically says this:
Conservatives who voted for Trump believed that defeating the Left is the overriding moral good of our time. We are certain that the Left (not the traditional liberal) is destroying Western Civilization, including, obviously, the United States. The external enemy of Western Civilization are the Islamists (the tens or perhaps hundreds of million of Muslims who wish to see the world governed by Sharia), and the internal enemy of the West is the left ... Passing even a tepid first bill to begin the process of dismantling the crushing burden of Obamacare would have been an important first step in weakening the left – not only by beginning to repeal Obamacare but by strengthening the Trump presidency and the president’s ability to go forward with tax-reform and other parts of his conservative agenda. The president is now damaged, and the Republican Party looks ludicrous – what other word can one use to describe the party that passed 60 resolutions in seven years to repeal Obamacare and then can’t pass a bill to repeal or replace Obamacare when it is given the House, the Senate, and the presidency? Make no mistake, ye of pure heart, this may well be the last time in your lifetimes that Republicans control both Houses of Congress and have a conservative president.
“Purism” is one reason movements die. But another reason movements die is that they are co-opted by the notion that temporary power, generally through allegiance to a Great Leader, is more important than eternal principle. If Dennis truly believes that those who opposed Trumpcare – people like Meadows and Gohmert – don’t think Islamic radicalism is a threat to our civilization or that the Left threatens the base of the West, he’s prettifying his own perspective at the expense of demonizing others. It turns out that there are many conservatives who believe – rightly, in my opinion – that the conservative movement will die not because the Left destroys it, but because conservatives will give up, assume that whatever Trump and Republicans put on the table is the best we will ever get, and turn that standard into the new conservatism. When Dennis poses the specter of “the last time in your lifetimes” that Republicans will ever dominate Congress and the presidency, why then would he settle for half a loaf? This logic only works if Trump is always right, and his opponents are always wrong, even on conservatism – a philosophy Trump has always disdained in favor of pragmatic central power.
Buying that logic is the true threat to conservatism. Slapping a Trump label on Obamacare 2.0 and saying that conservatism has been saved is an obvious step toward the destruction of the movement altogether. This isn’t a speculative argument – it’s precisely what happened during the Bush years, when we had a Republican Congress and president, and blew out spending dramatically, bringing about the Obama age. And Republicans resisted Bush in a way they aren’t resisting Trump.
The worship of Trump as unerring and infallible is more of a danger to conservatism than conservatives demanding that Trump and Republicans actually do as they promised. And it was that danger that so many conservatives feared during the election cycle. Trump purists decrying conservative principle undermine any argument that conservatives ought to follow Trump as the great conservative protector.