Why Do People Still Care About Never Trump?

After President Trump won the election, we were told, Never Trump died.

That was true.

But the body of Never Trump is still wandering around in the minds of many of the most pro-Trump advocates on the Right.

This is rather puzzling. Never Trump wasn’t a movement but a statement of what some voters would do about the election (not vote Trump, and almost universally, not vote Hillary); when the election was over, Never Trump was over. Now Never Trump conservatives were just American citizens waiting to see what Trump would do, conservatives skeptical of Trump’s abilities but optimistic that perhaps he could overcome their skepticism. Most Never Trumpers used the same calculus to evaluate Trump that we always had: would he be of net benefit to conservatism, or would he be a net detriment? Were his actions good or bad?

This meant that most of those who didn’t vote for Trump on the Right celebrated his pick of Neil Gorsuch, but lamented his botched rollout of his travel ban executive order; celebrated his pullout from the Paris Accord, but thought his Twitter stupidities about wiretapping were distracting and misguided; praised Scott Pruitt’s regulation cutting at the EPA, but criticized his failure to actually appoint most of the executive branch.

We call balls and strikes.

We’re not Never Trump. We’re Sometimes Trump, because Trump is only sometimes useful and conservative.

Yet Never Trump has remained top of mind for many Trump advocates — even though, as stated, it doesn’t exist outside of full-time Trump-rippers like David Frum. Why? Because many of the people who declared that they would hold their nose and vote for Trump also stated that they would go back to holding his feet to the fire after the election. Once Hillary had been defeated, they could treat Trump just as they’d treat any other Republican.

But some of those people haven’t.

Instead, they’ve found every excuse to praise his good actions in overweening fashion, while ignoring, downplaying, or outright misrepresenting his bad actions. Unable to handle the cognitive dissonance of voting Trump as a lesser-of-two-evils, they embraced the notion of Trump as savior, and now they can’t escape that notion. They’re not Sometimes Trump. They’re Always Trump.

But beyond the election, Always Trump doesn’t make any more sense than Never Trump. Trump hasn’t been a savior so much as a basket of disparate reactionary knee-jerks. He’s a mixed bag.

What, then, can Always Trumpers do to fulfill their ideological commitment?

Resuscitate Never Trump, and pretend that we’re once again in a world of binary decisions: We’re at war! If you don’t support your general, we’ll all die! The fiery pits of hell will open, and Hillary Clinton’s devilish laughter will spew forth, ushering in a new era of flame and brimstone! Trump is better than Hillary! And only you Never Trumpers think differently!

Now, Hillary has been vanquished. But in the minds of those who worship Trump, Hillary can never be vanquished, because then they would be forced to treat Trump like a president rather than a candidate. Instead of evaluating Trump’s actions on a case-by-case basis as we would Bush or Reagan or Nixon or anyone else, Always Trump thinkers insist we evaluate Trump in overall terms: would you rather have Hillary? Overall, isn’t he more good than bad?

There is a time for “overall.” It’s in 2020. We’re not there yet. Right now, we can still impact how Trump governs. Trump may be more good than bad overall. But good and bad are separate concepts, and good actions and bad actions are separate actions. We should all be Sometimes Trump.

Sometimes Trump means supporting him when he’s right and opposing him when he’s wrong. Sometimes Trump means reminding our “general” from time to time that it’s not good strategy to light yourself on fire and run into the mouth of the media cannon. Sometimes Trump means realizing that if we are engaged in a culture war — and we are — that we’re going to require some actual 4D chess to win, and that labeling checkers 4D chess doesn’t make it so.

Sometimes Trump is the only way to make Trump better. It is the only way to separate from Trump if he does non-conservative things, so as to preserve both the brand and the principle. It is the only way to honestly cover Trump or even to root for him. Good parents are not Always Child with regard to their children’s behavior. They are Sometimes Child, regardless of how much they love their children, because sometimes children should not be praised or rewarded. And good citizens are not Always President. They are Sometimes President, regardless of the president.

But there are some conservatives who are so invested in Always Trump that they’ll ignore his foibles, justify his heresies, and pretend away his character flaws — not just his past adulteries, but the very character flaws that are currently eating away at his administration: his lack of curiosity and understanding, his incapacity to take advice, his unwillingness to consider forethought, his Joker-style administrative organization (“We’re going to have tryouts!”). The only way to do this is to keep the Ghost of Never Trump alive.

But Never Trump is dead. And there are no such things as ghosts.

There is, however, a president who certainly requires some honest feedback rather than sycophantic cheerleading.

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