Politico contributing editor Bill Scher isn’t the first to claim that the only responsible way for Trump-skeptical conservative to oppose the president is to register as Democrats, but his is one of the most charitable and honest of those appeals. It deserves a comprehensive response. Toward that end, I’d contend that Scher has conservative thought leaders confused with legislators and political organizers. He has mistaken those who adhere to inviolable conservative principle with influence-seekers who are bound to a constituency, not ideas. Finally, he has adopted a narrow view of the current political moment that has blinded him both to what the Democratic Party truly is and the incentives to which conservatives in political exile respond.
Scher began by noting that a few influential Trump critics in the conservative movement have left the Republican Party in the Trump era, and a few are even rooting for a Democratic takeover of one or both chambers of Congress in November. This is, in his estimation, a half-measure unequal to the gravity of the moment and generally not in this group’s interests. There is no country for a homeless pundit. They will need a tribe if they are to be effective and, ultimately, protected.
Outside the tent, Scher claims, the Democratic Party will continue to move left and become even more unappealing to those on the right. The party can serve as a haven for conservative refugees, he insists, if they’d only just throw off their partisan blinders. Ideologically diverse, accommodating, and conciliatory, Scher insists that Democrats maintain the last true big tent. “[I]f you are primarily horrified at how Trump is undermining the existing international political and economic order—hugging Russia, lauding strongmen, sparking protectionist trade wars—then becoming a Democrat is your best option,” he wrote.
This isn’t just a terrible misunderstanding of what animates Trump’s conservative critics; it is a misguided and ultimately deceptive misrepresentation of the modern Democratic Party.
Scher makes the point repeatedly that the Trump-skeptical conservative movement has utterly lost the debate and the GOP with it. In 2016, most of the party’s voters rejected the doctrinal conservatism to which they cling. What else is new? The Republican Party has not always been a conservative party. Conservatives waged a 20-year struggle to displace the progressive ethos that typified the GOP from T.R. to Eisenhower. Preserving the GOP’s ideological predisposition toward conservatism is a constant struggle, but it is one that conservative opinion makers relish.
Trump’s critics in the conservative movement abandoned him not just because of his temperamental defects, but because of his progressive impulses. The president’s skepticism toward free trade, his conciliatory posture toward hostile regimes abroad, his Keynesian instincts, his apathy toward budget deficits, and his general amenability toward heedless populism are traits that traditionally appeal to and are exhibited by Democrats. Why would conservatives join that which they are rebelling against?
Scher’s contention that the Trump-skeptics in conservative ranks would have more influence over the Democratic Party than the GOP is bizarre. The anti-Trump right is far too small a contingent to have any impact on the evolutionary trajectory of the Democratic Party, even if they were to abandon the principles that led them into the wilderness in the first place. They do, however, enjoy influence over American politics wildly disproportionate relative to their numerical strength.
Trump-skeptical conservatives are ubiquitous features on cable news. Their magazines and websites are enjoying a renaissance. They haunt their comrades who have made their peace with Trumpism. Most critically, they represent the strain of conservatism to which the majority of the Republican Party’s congressmen and women are loyal because it was that brand of conservatism that led them into politics in the first place. The worst-kept secret of the Trump era is that this president receives his highest marks when he’s doing conventionally conservative things. When the president behaves as he promised to on the campaign trail, Republicans rebel and often rein in his worst impulses. It’s not much, but it is a sign that a partial restoration of the status quo ante is not unthinkable.
Scher frequently cites exceptions within the Democratic firmament as though they do not illustrate the rule. He claims that the Democratic Party is not “a rotten cauldron of crass identity politics, recreational abortion, and government run amok.” As evidence, he cites the fact that a handful of pro-life Democrats have managed to resist the party’s purge of that formerly-common view, but that is an admission of heterodoxy. The Democratic Party’s fealty to divisive identity politics is hardly a figment of conservative imaginations. From Salon.com to the New York Times opinion page, many on the left, too, have soured on the party’s attachment to racial and demographic hierarchies. And as for the party’s reputation for profligacy, Democrats can renounce the works of the 111th Congress—the last time the party had total control of Washington—whenever they muster up the gumption.
Scher believes it is inconsistent for conservatives to support a Democratic takeover of one or more legislative chambers and not support the Democratic agenda, but there is nothing inconsistent about it. Conservatives who think the GOP-led Congress has proven an insufficient check on the GOP-led executive are placing a vote of confidence in the Constitution, not the progressive agenda. If the cohort formerly dubbed #NeverTrump conservatives believe Democrats would be a better governing party than the GOP, they should certainly register Democratic at the nearest opportunity. If they believe that, though, they’re not #NeverTrump conservatives at all. They’re just #NeverTrump.
Conservatives are no strangers to being torn between their principle and their influence. Conservative opinion makers have been compelled to choose between proximity to power and their core values before. Those who chose temporary isolation in order to shield conservative beliefs from being disfigured by those who do not cherish them might not enjoy the gratitude they’ve earned. But they left behind a markedly more conservative country than the one they were born into.
The lessons of recent history are clear: Those who are content to sacrifice their principles for access and influence preserve neither in the long run.