Upon hearing the news that President Donald Trump bowed to pressure from congressional Republicans and reversed his decision to hold next year’s G-7 summit at the Trump National Doral Miami, my immediate response was, “Ah, what might have been.”
No, I’m not wistful about the missed opportunity for taxpayers to throw a lifeline to Trump’s struggling resort. Rather, I’m a bit misty-eyed about what the last three years might have looked like if Republicans had shown this kind of spine all along.
There is an interesting consensus among the fiercely pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces on the right. For simplicity let’s call them Never Trumpers and Always Trumpers. Among the Never Trumper Republicans, it’s a given that Trump is not only unfit for the job but unteachable. No amount of on-the-job training will help.
For the Always Trumpers, the Trump they got was the Trump they wanted all along. They’re like the person who deliberately set the bull loose in the china shop. They look upon the shattered vases and listen to the caterwauling of the shop owners and grin at a mission accomplished.
In other words, both camps agree that Trump can’t change. They only quarrel over whether that is a good thing or bad.
Obviously, I am much closer to the Never Trumper position on this. As I’ve written many times, I believe “character is destiny,” and waiting for Trump to act “presidential” is like waiting for bears to stop using our woodlands as toilets. Still, I don’t think that means Republicans should take a hands-off approach.
Most of the Always Trumpers who dominate Fox prime time and conservative talk radio voted for Trump not because they liked him but because they disliked Hillary Clinton more (though don’t expect them to admit that). And even though most conservatives won’t say this to pollsters, in private conversations they will generally acknowledge that Trump is often his own worst enemy.
Most conservatives try to focus on Trump’s results rather than on the president himself. Republicans like his judicial appointments, tax cuts, deregulation. And his support for culture-war priorities like the Second Amendment and abortion have also kept conservatives on board. They simply tune out the price the party and the country has paid for these “wins.”
But there’s a part of the equation that has been forgotten. Thanks in part to the polarized climate, the near-banishment of critical voices from pro-Trump media outlets and the psychological need to defend the leader of their “side,” conservatives forget that many of these wins are the result of Trump’s hand having been forced in a political transaction. Until Trump launched his hostile takeover of the GOP, he was pro-choice, pro-gun control and utterly unconcerned about fidelity to the Constitution. He became pro-life and pro-Second Amendment because that was the price of widespread conservative support. He agreed to outsource his judicial appointments to the Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation precisely because no one trusted his judgment.
Once elected, however, Trump used his ability to influence his core supporters — who have outsize power in primaries to punish GOP critics. By taking the scalps of politicians such as former GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Trump also took the spines of countless others. As a result, the GOP lost control of the House in 2018 and may be on the cusp of losing the Senate and the presidency in 2020.
In a self-pitying tweet over the weekend, the president said he reversed his decision on Doral because “the Hostile Media & their Democrat Partners went CRAZY!”
This is a dangerous admission. Trump’s popularity with Republicans is sustained by the fact he drives the Democrats and media “CRAZY!” His supporters don’t want to hear about him caving to the demands of liberals. But admitting the truth would have been worse; too many Republican legislators couldn’t or wouldn’t defend his indefensible decision, and they let the president know he’d gone too far. Normal presidents feel constrained by the political needs of their party, and it turns out even Trump isn’t immune to pressure from his team.
Of course, he feels more constrained by GOP congressional support now that he’s staring down the barrel of impeachment. But if Trump had cared more about reciprocating the loyalty he so often demands from the party, he might not be looking at impeachment in the first place. And if the GOP had worked harder at constraining Trump from the beginning, they might not be looking at the implosion of their party.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.