The President of the United States has resumed his preferred pastime: screaming into the Internet. The target of Donald Trump’s ire this time was his supposedly “embattled” attorney general, Jeff Sessions. For deferring to the Justice Department’s inspector general’s office regarding alleged FISA abuse, Trump called his appointee’s conduct “disgraceful.” With the theatrical zeal of any absolutist movement, Trump’s keenest supporters were quick to condemn this new Bukharin in their ranks.
The competition was over before it began. “I couldn’t agree more,” read the winning entry, submitted by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. Sessions, he insisted, “must be part of the Bush/Romney/McCain Republican Establishment. He probably supported @realDonaldTrump early in [the] campaign to hide who he really is. Or he could just be a coward.” Jeff Sessions spent his career in the Senate opposing his party’s orthodoxy on immigration. That career culminated in his decision to buck his party orthodoxy on Trump—legitimizing the future president’s outsider campaign by becoming the first sitting senator to endorse him. Sessions is many things, but he’s no coward. Falwell’s denunciation is valuable only insofar as it demonstrates the malleability of the epithet “establishment” and the cultish pusillanimity around this president.
The old revolutionaries who were with Trump from the earliest days hadn’t adjusted to the bewildering new reality in which Jeff Sessions was an establishment stooge before they were compelled to accept another bewildering new reality. According to the new orthodoxy, GOP was to be a restrictions party when it came to gun rights.
At a televised meeting with lawmakers on Wednesday, Trump pledged with gusto to pursue virtually every gun-control measure on the Democratic Party’s wish list. He appeared to endorse hiking the purchasing age on all guns from 18 to 21. He backed stronger background checks. He seemed open to a new ban on “assault weapons.” He rejected Steve Scalise’s proposal to seek reciprocity for concealed carry permits across state lines as a means of winning some GOP votes for his new proposals. He pledged to use the presidential pen to regulate “bump stocks” out of existence, despite repeated ATF assurances that the president lacked the statutory authority to do that. When Vice President Mike Pence said that any effort to remove firearms from the hands of potentially dangerous people must preserve due process rights, Trump dismissed the concern outright. “Take the firearms first, and then go to court,” the president said. “Because that’s another system.” Oh, that’s “another system,” alright–just not a particularly democratic one.
“It takes so long to go to court, to get the due-process procedures—I like taking the guns early,” Trump continued. “So you could do exactly what you’re saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second.” Some Republican elected officials immediately assumed a familiar position, translating Trump into elementary conservative for concerned onlookers. Senator Pat Toomey went so far as to invoke “the old saying” about Trump: “Take him seriously, not necessarily literally.” That’s a charitable way of saying the President of the United States doesn’t know what he’s saying, and you shouldn’t listen to him.
This wasn’t the first occasion on which Trump’s musings gave conservatives pause. In an earlier televised negotiation between lawmakers, Trump informed conservatives of his desire to pass a “clean” bill that would codify Barack Obama’s deferred deportation program into law. “Then we then we can start immediately on the Phase 2 which would be comprehensive immigration [reform],” Trump added, “I would like that.” Presidential translators later insisted that what Trump meant by “clean” was the precise opposite of its legislative definition.
Conservatives skeptics of Donald Trump jumped aboard the #MAGA Train to enjoy all the winning, and perhaps some renewed sense of tribal comradery. They could be forgiven for suffering whiplash. They were asked to overlook the candidate’s boorishness and well-documented history of knavery because he was admirably uncompromising. Trump was the candidate of deportation forces and Muslim databases. He would seize the oil, implement a flat tax, and relocate the GOP’s center of gravity from Wall Street to Main Street. So what if his understanding of conservatism was so tenuous that he’d occasionally entertain punishments for women who had abortions, profess undying affection for ObamaCare’s individual mandate, or contemplate forcing U.S. servicemen and women to perform acts of torture. Here was a man of conviction.
It turns out that President Trump’s virtue isn’t his rigidity but his malleability. He is easily persuaded to adopt the position of the people around him, and he has—to his credit—surrounded himself mostly with status quo ante Republicans. Thus, Trump was convinced to abandon his relatively dovish foreign policy and hostility toward trade and defense alliances. But how long will conservatives with a more authentic and thorough understanding of their philosophy be expected to look past the president’s liberal instincts? How long must they be made to endorse ideas to which they’d never subscribed as their own? How many of their allies, scarred by years of combat in the arena of ideas, will be replaced by sycophants and lickspittles before their disorientation becomes vertiginous?
The president’s instincts on policy are not and never have been especially conservative; his only motivation is to win, whatever that means. If the generic ballot is to be believed, winning will be defined after the midterms by having a working relationship with Democrats. Will this bizarre conservative cult of personality endure when those with this non-ideological president’s ear aren’t Republicans?