Conservatives Need to Rethink Whose Side They’re On

Former #NeverTrump activists need to team up with the left in order to defend liberal democracy and the rule of law.

People sit on the steps on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC, April 17, 2009
People sit on the steps on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC, April 17, 2009 (Chris Kelly)

Now that Donald Trump is president, right-of-center commentators who opposed him during the Republican primaries are falling back into the habit of criticizing the left.

The home page of RedState, formerly a hotbed of #NeverTrump activism, has largely been devoid of Trump coverage at all. Instead, they featured stories this weekend criticizing the Democrats and James Robart, the federal judge in Washington state who overturned Trump’s Muslim travel ban.

George Will saw the danger of Trump and his “summons to Caesarism” earlier than most. Yet he recently decided it was important to devote a column in The Washington Post to the similarities between left-wing academics and the new president.

Even National Review, which devoted an entire issue to making the case against Trump last year, has caved. Editor Rich Lowry defends the Muslim ban. David French argues that hysterical Democrats, not Trump’s disregard for the rule of law, are the problem. Ian Tuttle argues it are hysterical journalists. Jonathan S. Tobin praises Trump’s Middle East policy. And, of course, they’re ecstatic about Trump’s conservative Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch.

European perspective

It’s not just commentators in the United States either.

Peter Oborne of Britain’s Daily Mail takes aim at the “hypocrisy” of European elites who criticize Trump but not Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian nationalist who built a fence on his country’s southern border to keep immigrants out. (Some have, though.) It’s a strange thing to argue it’s better to be consistent and wrong than change one’s mind and get it right.

In the Dutch conservative weekly Elsevier, Jelte Wiersma accuses Europe of doing “exactly” the same thing as Trump by taking measures to reduce immigration. A silly whataboutism that isn’t even accurate: The EU is trying to reduce immigration generally, without violating the rights of refugees, whereas Trump is only interested in stopping Muslims, their legal status be damned.

Exceptions

There are exceptions to this.

Eliot A. Cohen, a prominent neoconservative and counselor in Condoleezza Rice’s State Department, has emerged as a guiding light for conservatives. He recently counseled Republicans against joining the Trump Administration.

“No one who backed Trump has any excuse for being surprised by what he does,” Cohen wrote in The American Interest; “no one who joins his administration can ever be allowed to claim that they did so in ignorance.”

His latest column in The Atlantic is even more adamant:

Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it.

In the same magazine, David Frum, a George W. Bush speechwriter, continues to agitate against Trump and his creeping authoritarianism.

Old rules

But Cohen and Frum are in the minority.

Why is it that so many right-wing commentators are inclined to make excuses for Trump and criticize this critics?

Grant Clinton thinks it’s because they get more excited about angering liberals than they do about defending their own.

He writes for The Buckley Club:

Turns out, lots of righties would happily vote for Trump in 2020 as long as it freaks out liberals.

If that’s right, then those conservatives need to think twice about whose side they’re on.

The old political rules no longer apply.

The question now is not bigger or smaller government or more or less regulation. The priority is defending the rule of law from those who would use the state as an instrument of their personal will and stop a descent into kleptocracy. That’s something the mainstream left and the mainstream right ought to agree on.

Similarly, ever-closer unionists and Euroskeptics need to bury the hatchet. The priority is saving the European project from those who would take the continent back to the days when every nation fended for itself. You don’t need to want a United States of Europe (I don’t) to see that no “Europe” at all isn’t a sensible alternative.

The authoritarian challenge posed by Orbán and Trump — and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Jarosław Kaczyński and Vladimir Putin — will only be met if socialists, social democrats, liberals and conservatives unite. Now is not the time to pick each other apart. It’s time to make common cause against those who want to overturn liberal democracy altogether.