What Trump Is Doing To The Conservative Character

Curious minds want to know: how would conservatives react if Donald Trump fired special prosecutor Robert Mueller? If he issued sweeping pardons of his family members and cronies, or even himself?

Would that cross a red line for movement that once claimed to care about the rule of law? Would there be a backlash among the folks who once insisted that character mattered and rushed to buy books like the Book of Virtues?

Or would they go along, once again shifting their standards to accommodate the need to defend Trumpism?

Obviously, this would be a defining moment. As David French wrote recently:

If he does any one of these things — much less several in combination — the GOP will have to decide, once and for all, if it is an American political party or a craven, fearful instrument of Donald Trump’s personal brand.

We may already know the answer. Trump, who remains unbowed and unchanged by the presidency, continues to transform the party that last year capitulated to him. Or more accurately, the conservative movement continues to transform itself into his image.

I’d written about this earlier this year:

[In] the right’s new media ecosystem, a willingness to accept and rationalize lies has now become a test of tribal loyalty.  Unfortunately, the effects run even deeper as Trump’s acolytes in politics and social media model their behavior on his, combining the worst traits of the school yard bully, the thin-skinned nastiness that mimics confidence; the strut and sneer that substitute for actual strength, vindictive smash mouth attacks have replaced civil engagement. …Think of it as trickle down boorishness

Now comes Ben Shapiro, with an insightful analysis of how conservatives have come to fully embrace Trump’s character and its most loathsome manifestations. A year ago, many conservatives rationalized their support for Trump because the “ends justified means — and that the end was the implementation of conservative policies.” And, indeed, there have been some significant wins, most notably the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and some of his environmental policies.

But, writes Shapiro, “now that Trump isn’t actually implementing conservative policies, the truth is coming out: For most conservatives, the ends don’t just justify the means, the means are the ends. All that matters is the punching, even if the punching is both counterproductive and immoral.” 

For many conservatives, Trump's character is no longer a glitch… it’s what they love. “Trump’s character is now a thoroughly accepted positive good,” writes Shapiro.

All of which suggests that Trump isn’t the engine, he’s the hood ornament for a certain movement that now feels liberated from traditional rules of decent behavior. Trump allows us to indulge our id and feel righteous while doing it. We grew up believing that decent behavior made you a decent person — but then we realized that breaking the rules not only makes victory easier, it’s more fun than having to struggle with the moral qualms of using moral means to achieve moral ends.

Shapiro describes the “backwards logic” that many on the Right now use “to absolve ourselves of moral responsibility.”

 The first premise: The other side, which wants bad things, cheats and lies and acts in egregious ways.

The second premise: It requires cheating to defeat them.

The third premise: If they are not defeated, the country will be destroyed.

 Conclusion: It is morally required to cheat and lie and act in egregious ways.

In other words, we have become precisely what he hated and claimed to stand against. Add in the ways the Right has succumbed to cult of personality politics and you have the toxic stew in which we now find ourselves marinating.

All of this is a logical extension of the binary politics that drove many conservatives to embrace Trump last year. In a piece I wrote for The New York Times earlier this year, I described it this way: 

In this binary tribal world, where everything is at stake, everything is in play, there is no room for quibbles about character, or truth, or principles. If everything — the Supreme Court, the fate of Western civilization, the survival of the planet — depends on tribal victory, then neither individuals nor ideas can be determinative.

So it is perhaps not surprising to see how many conservatives have been corrupted by the need to keep pace with the vertiginous reversals, rationalizations, outrages, and deceptions of Trumpism. Jonah Goldberg writes:

 Put on your hip boots and wade into the swampier recesses of Twitter, Facebook, online comment sections, or Sean Hannity’s oeuvre and you’ll see riots of rationalization. Trump’s lying is celebrated. His petty vindictiveness is redefined as leadership. Cheating is strength.

Trump will not, of course, always be with us. But he will leave a mark on the culture and character of conservativism for a very long time.