Conservatives Come to Terms with What They’ve Done

Some right-wing commentators are owning up to their responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump.

Donald Trump accepts the Republican Party's presidential nomination in Cleveland, Ohio, July 21
Donald Trump accepts the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in Cleveland, Ohio, July 21 (ABC/Ida Mae Astute)

The one good thing that may come of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is an awareness on the American right that it has done real damage to the Republican Party and indeed the country.

Not all conservatives are ready to admit that Trump is the end of the line for a movement that has for decades fed off people’s anxieties and undermined their faith in institutions. But for some, Trump is making clear what the politics of grievance and anti-government can lead to.

A spat between two right-wing commentators — Sean Hannity of Fox News and Bret Stephens of the The Wall Street Journal — is a preview of the blood feud we can expect on the right post-November if indeed Trump loses the election.

Hannity has preemptively blamed center-right Republicans, arguing that the likes of House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate leader Mitch McConnell have been harsher on Trump “than they’ve ever been in standing up to Barack Obama and his radical agenda.”

He said on his radio show, “You created Donald Trump, all of you. Because of your ineffectiveness, because of your weakness, your spinelessness, your lack of vision, your inability to fight Obama.”


The idea that spineless Republicans in Congress let Obama get away with implementing a far-left agenda is a myth. The Democrat has hardly been able to get anything done since the Republicans won the 2010 midterm election. He wanted to invest more infrastructure, cut less in welfare spending and tighten gun control. None of that happened, because Republicans stopped him.

But Republicans didn’t get much of what they wanted either. They, after all, do not control the presidency. The result is gridlock.

Democrats uniformly blame the other party for this. Republican voters have a curious tendency to blame their own.

Ryan argued earlier this year that conservative leaders in the country were to blame for raising unreasonable expectations. The party in Congress, he said, is paying the price for this.

“When voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know we can’t achieve with a Democrat in the White House, all that does is depress our base and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House,” he said.

Which is what the likes of Hannity have been doing for eight years.

Surrender to the hard right

Stephens, for one, recognizes the wrongheadedness of the stab-in-the-back mythology that has caused Republican voters to turn on their leaders and accuses Hannity of peddling it for his personal gain.

“Those who can make themselves rich by shouting and hearing echoes of themselves even as the GOP loses one presidential election after another” are the only ones who stand to benefit from Trump, he argues.

As someone who has argued that Trump’s candidacy marks the culmination of years of Republican surrender to the hard right, I can’t disagree.

It’s not just Hannity. It’s Ann Coulter, it’s Laura Ingraham, it’s Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart, Drudge, the lot of them. (And if you go back far enough in the archives of this website, you might even find a few op-eds that sound too much like them.) They won’t be satisfied no matter how many times conservatives win in Washington or manage to block a Democratic policy initiative, because — like Trump — they thrive on grievance, not success. The reality that America has turned rightward in the last three decades; that conservative views on abortion, economic policy, guns and security dominate; that Republicans are all-powerful at the state level seems totally lost on these angry voices on the right.

And what they say matters. Brian Rosenwald and Michael A. Smerconish have shown that during the same three decades that the right was on the ascendancy, media personalities surpassed party officials and even elected representatives in their influence. “Yet they prioritize goals seemingly at odds with good governance and often even the party’s sole purpose for existence,” they write.

Talking heads wresting control of the GOP from the traditional party power brokers benefits neither the party nor the nation. Political parties, after all, exist to win elections. By surrendering issue control to entertainers on the fringe of contemporary thought, however, the Republican Party has limited its ability to reach the 42 percent of Americans who, according to Gallup, regard themselves as independents in a national, general election.

No wonder the Democrats have won four of the last six presidential elections (and the popular vote in a fifth).


You can gloat, as Zack Beauchamp does at Vox, and say Stephens is hardly the ideal messenger. He is rather the kind of faux right-wing intellectual who for years has lended legitimacy to outrageous arguments, for example that last year’s nuclear deal with Iran was comparable to the 1938 Munich Agreement or that Barack Obama has augured in a “new isolationism” in American foreign policy.

Obama has maintained roughly 800 military bases worldwide as well as a military presence in about 76 percent of the world’s countries. He has pledged to defend NATO and East Asian allies repeatedly. He has intervened in several foreign conflicts, toppling Muammar Gaddafi and launching a major air campaign against ISIS. The idea that this is some kind of “isolationism” is laughable.

Yet Stephens wrote a book premised on the idea that America is in retreat and that’s now a respectable right-wing talking point.

So Stephens shares blame with Hannity for the problem he puts his finger on. His views only hold credence on the right and only make sense if you get your news exclusively from Fox, talk radio and The Wall Street Journal.

But look on the upside: at least Stephens, and others like him, now see the error of their ways.

Charlie Sykes, for instance — another talk radio host and conservative author — recently told Oliver Darcy of Business Insider that right-wing media had “created” the “monster” that is Trump and his fact-free politics by demonizing their mainstream counterparts. “A lot of it has been justifiable,” he said. “There is real bias. But at a certain point you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there.”



This goes to the wider Republican assault on institutions that Paul Waldman has written about in The Week. Republicans decided some time ago that there are rules and there are norms, Waldman argues, and while rules need to be followed, norms can be torn down whenever politicians find that doing so advances their momentary objectives.

That is why it now takes sixty votes in the Senate rather than a majority to get things done; why so many diplomatic, judicial and lower-agency vacancies go unfilled; why every budget now raises the risk of a government shutdown. It’s how Republicans came to toy with defaulting on America’s debt. There is no law against it. Only conventions, whose function, as Waldman puts it, “is to permit government to operate in something like an efficient fashion.”

Conservatives have for decades rallied against those norms and undermined trust in institutions: Congress, the presidency, the media. Now it’s their party’s turn, which, contrary to “the party decides” theory, was unable to block a candidate who until a few years ago wasn’t even a Republican, much less a conservative.

This is not the origin of Trump, which is a more complicated story. (I, with others, have argued that white backlash is a key factor.) But this is what enabled him. A would-be strongman can only succeed if norms and institutions are weak. The reason they are in the United States today owes much to the machinations of the conservative movement.

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