Despite all the brooding among the anti-Trump left and the pro-Trump right over the existence of the small band of Republicans who continue to criticize the president when he’s wrong, few seem any closer to understanding these conservatives’ motivations. The simplicity of the philosophy that animates these rare types could not possibly elude the cliquish sectarians who act as though it is incomprehensible. More likely, they just find it annoying.
This weekend, the nation was again treated to some familiar pageantry. President Donald Trump took to Twitter to savage his own Justice Department for acting like a Justice Department and not an arm of the Republican National Committee. By indicting two of Trump’s earliest supporters in Congress, Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter, the president implied, Jeff Sessions had failed to do his job.
With that, the most fascinating dynamic in American politics today was again set into motion as members of Donald Trump’s party in Congress attacked their leader for seeming to subordinate the rule of law to his own insecurities. In an age of intense partisanship in Congress, these acts of defiance are a marvel deserving of intense study. Instead, they’re used as a springboard to launch into rote appeals to conformity.
For example, frequent Trump critics and Republican senators Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse attacked the president for talking about the conduct of justice in America as if he were a criminal. These displays of conscience are, however, dismissed as dishonest by Trump’s malleable defenders and derided as insufficient by his most committed opponents. A more powerful display of hostility toward this president would be, the threadbare logic goes, to oppose Trump’s works—all of them, heedlessly and without consideration for their merit. Anything else is just talk.
At the moment, the most urgent concern among those engaging in this kind of trite emotional manipulation is Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s pending nomination to the Supreme Court. Even some Republicans have joined in with those who insist that the legal cloud hanging over this president robs him of his legitimacy, and his obvious contempt for the rule of law should compel the legislature to limit his authority to shape the judiciary until voters have had a chance to register their satisfaction with the course this White House has taken. This is a political argument, not a point of constitutional order. And as such, lawmakers are obliged to approach the matter as they would any other political consideration.
To take the course urged by Trump’s most unwavering opponents would not only fail to advance the conservative principles to which these senators are devoted, but it would also sacrifice their capacity to influence the direction in which the Republican Party will evolve after Trump’s time in office is over.
Brett Kavanaugh is Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, but he is also George W. Bush’s nominee to sit on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and a former White House staff secretary. He was vouched for by Senator Jon Kyl, whose conservative credentials are disputed by none. The Federalist Society, a grassroots conservative movement dedicated to promoting originalist judges, vetted him, and he was selected for a high court appointment by members of that organization, including outgoing White House Counsel Don McGahn. Contrary to a short-lived conspiracy theory, there is no evidence to suggest that Kavanaugh is prepared to abandon jurisprudence to shield Donald Trump from the legal or political consequences of his actions as president.
If conservatives were to oppose this nominee not on his merits but to communicate some ancillary message to the White House, they would be guilty of betraying principle and shunning their constitutional prerogatives. In the process, they would sacrifice their scant influence within the Republican Party.
This gets to a pervasive misapprehension about what Trump-skeptical Republicans see as their role at this moment in history. Their conduct suggests that they value consistency over raw power, and that consistency is what irritates those whose politics is entirely situational.
How is conservatism advanced if conservatives decide to communicate their frustrations with the president’s antagonistic trade policies by opposing Trump’s decision to locate the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem or to pull out of the entirely symbolic Paris climate accords? Likewise, the Trump administration struck two blows last week for what conservatives would call justice, though not of the “social” variety. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s extension of the rights of due process to students who are accused of violent sexual crimes and the Justice Department’s decision to join a lawsuit alleging Harvard University engaged in systematic negative racial discrimination against Asian-Americans affirm longstanding conservative principles.
What message would it convey to voters if these conservatives suddenly opposed in practice that which they have long supported in principle only to demonstrate their anxiety over Trump’s Twitter habits? Not one of coherence, that’s for sure. Indeed, it would only impart to observers the inconsistent and even trivial nature of reflexive opposition to all things Trump.
Donald Trump will not be the last American president. Conservatives who bravely irritate the leader of their party and incur the ire of his voters would only undermine their position by being indiscrete. If conservatives were to broaden their opposition toward the president to include the policies they once eagerly supported, what kind of restoration could they possibly hope to lead? By abandoning precision, Trump’s few remaining conservative opponents would only dilute the potency of their criticisms and deaden the nation’s sense of shock when the president engages in truly dangerous behaviors.
If Trump-skeptical conservatives listened to the hectoring of their most aggressive detractors, they’d end up sacrificing their credibility and moral authority. That would suit many of those detractors just fine.