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When Pragmatic Politics Goes Bad: An Apology to the Never-Trumpers

I have awakened on too many days with gratitude on my lips for the blessing of living in a peaceful, orderly, democratic, and free society to see such hard-won advances thrown away for political ambition. Those who realized our inheritance was at risk saw more clearly than I did.

I am writing to offer an apology. The short version is this: I severely underestimated the threat posed by a Donald Trump presidency. The never-Trumpers—who never seemed to stop issuing their warnings and critiques—struck me as psychologically and emotionally weak people with porcelain-fragile sensibilities. It turns out their instincts were significantly better attuned than my own.

In 2016, conservatives went through varying stages of disbelief, rejection, and/or acceptance as it became clear Donald Trump would become the presidential nominee for the Republican party. Because of his celebrity and the signal he was able to project through the usual political noise, he defeated a gifted field of candidates who divided support among themselves until it was too late. Ted Cruz, as the last man standing, encouraged Republicans to “vote your conscience.”

After initially rejecting Trump, National Review took a divided stance. Eventually, Jonah Goldberg and David French would leave to start The Dispatch as an anti-Trump outlet. The Weekly Standard went out of business as Bill Kristol became maybe the strongest never-Trumper of all. He founded The Bulwark, while Steve Hayes joined Goldberg and French. First Things and the Claremont Review of Books largely backed Donald Trump, seeing him as an important disruptor with the potential to form a new, larger coalition with the capacity to resist secular liberalism. Christianity Today also, eventually, forcefully rejected Trump.

 

Some were with Trump from the start, but the rest of us who identified with conservatism or who feared the left had to arrive at some sort of decision. I, like many, took a transactional view of Trump. In the middle of a debate, he suddenly announced he had become pro-life (something Rudy Giuliani refused to do in 2008, which derailed his campaign). He also adopted a list of potential judicial nominees that accorded with constitutional conservatism. The author of The Art of the Deal drove the bargain that would take him to an unlikely presidency.

While some conservatives remained never-Trumpers, the rest, including me, made peace with Trump as the alternative to Hillary Clinton in a binary political system. Had we lived in a country with a multiparty system, we would have voted for the Christian Democrats and hoped for a part in a governing coalition, but that option didn’t exist.

Betting on Trump

I’m a practical person. In the time when I worked for a conservative organization in Georgia, I lobbied for pro-life legislation. At that time, Democrats controlled both chambers. I felt the strength of the disdain they had for abortion opponents and their proposals. The lesson was clear to me. If you don’t control the relevant institutions, your path to reform is blocked. Based on my experience, the gamble with Trump was far superior to what I knew I would get with Hillary Clinton. For decades, Democratic presidential candidates (including pro-lifers like Dennis Kucinich) had to bend the knee to Planned Parenthood for consideration.

In addition, as a career-long religious liberty advocate I had long been waiting for the sexual revolution to fully take its course and lead to a clash between the Christian church and the United States government with regard to tax-exempt status, employment rules, participation in the non-profit sector, and more. With the Democrats, I felt certain the pressure would increase to almost intolerable levels. With Trump, I took comfort in his lack of engagement on the question. I knew he wasn’t a Christian, but also felt he was not interested in marginalizing us and our institutions.

A binary system dictates binary choices. The Democrats were out for me. Donald Trump was the alternative.

Moral Free Riders?

As a Christian academic, I was not surprised that many of my friends failed to come to the same conclusion I did. While I was oriented toward winning (or at least not having losses imposed on me), they were concerned about the nature of the man, his character, and his track record. Many were also deeply concerned that Christian witness would be compromised by too close an association with Trump. Others pointed to the damaging effect he was having on American political norms.

My judgment of colleagues and of various conservatives who opposed Trump was privately severe. On the surface, I fully granted the strength of their concerns. But in the confines of my mind, I concluded that they were moral free riders. They wouldn’t sully themselves by voting for Donald Trump, but they would benefit from many of his policies. I have been asked why I voted for him when I live in Tennessee where my vote was not necessary. I voted for him exactly because of my determination not to be a free rider. I would bear the weight of the decision.

 

When I voted for Donald Trump the second time, it was easier to do. I felt largely vindicated by his judicial appointments and much of the policy record, despite my strong disagreement with his tone and approach regarding immigration (including illegal immigration). The left’s treatment of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh also bolstered my sense that Trump was the only choice. From my perspective, he had also taken necessary steps to confront China on trade and intellectual property, had begun to roll back some of the power of the administrative state, and had repatriated offshore corporate profits by making the American tax rate more competitive.

After the Election

After the election, everything changed. I understand that many have accepted the president’s claim that the election was stolen, that he actually won by a landslide, etc. But I find it entirely plausible that Joe Biden won. Donald Trump’s massive haul of 75 million voters demonstrates his strength as a politician. It just turns out that as potent as he is in attracting support, he is even more powerful in generating resistance. It was possible he would find a way to again thread the needle of the electoral college, but it was far from guaranteed. This time, the thread missed the eye.

Although I was concerned about his frequent claims that the Democrats would try to steal the election, I also took it as his usual, exaggerated way of expressing himself to command public attention. Once the ballots were counted and the president continued to maintain his victory, I began to worry that I’d badly underestimated the degree to which he was willing to transgress. Throughout, I had congratulated myself on being a political realist and not giving in to a fragile state of mind. When some suggested Donald Trump had fascist tendencies, I had laughed at their ridiculousness. I mean, really, the man had been in a Home Alone movie.

I knew I was wrong as January 6 approached and the president started calling for Vice President Mike Pence to reject certification of the electoral college results. This, of course, was on top of his disturbing phone call to the Georgia Secretary of State urging him to “find” additional votes. At the same time, he encouraged Americans to mass at the Capitol to support his cause.

I do not suggest that the Americans who went to the Capitol, the great majority of them peaceful, bore ill intent, but I do think that the president intended to create a spectacle that would put pressure on Mike Pence to take a dramatic and extra-legal step that would fundamentally betray the American political order and its traditions.

The reason for this apology, then, is because the never-Trumpers were right about the president in a very precise kind of way. They understood that the public policy of a Republican-dominated administration would likely be pretty good, as it indeed was. None of this is to say that those of us who voted for Trump lacked excellent reasons to do so. I don’t apologize for the votes I cast after careful (indeed, searching) consideration. However, I do have to apologize for my view of the never-Trumpers whom I found to be histrionic and unrealistic. They saw further that there were significant risks involved with Donald Trump that could very well outweigh the policy outcomes. They were right about that, and they deserve an apology from me (and perhaps others who saw it the way I did) for not perceiving that their concerns were grounded in reality, not merely some idealistic moral fragility. They perceived a legitimate threat, which did come to significant fruition.

I have awakened on too many days with gratitude on my lips for the blessing of living in a peaceful, orderly, democratic, and free society to see such hard-won advances thrown away for immoderate political ambition. Those who realized our inheritance was at risk saw more clearly than I did.

I am sorry that I assumed fragility or a desire to court favor with elites. I should have given greater respect to those who offered valid criticisms and concerns.

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