Commentary Magazine

A Cult without a Legacy

AP Photo/Francisco Seco

Conservatives who have yet to fall obsequiously in line behind Donald Trump are emerging in droves to respond to columnist and radio host Dennis Prager, who recently demand that they abandon their skepticism of the president and “report for duty.” In Prager’s estimation, Trump is a general in a new American “civil war,” and conservatives are his foot soldiers. In fact, the only distinction between the president’s supporters and those who have yet to accept him as their Great Helmsman is the degree to which those on the right have come to accept the inevitability of this new internecine conflict.

The responses to Prager’s column from those he allegedly set out to persuade are as enlightening as they are voluminous. Items by Jonah Goldberg, David French, Erick Erickson, Dan McLaughlin, Jay Cost, and Matt Lewis criticized the radio host for, among other things, indulging in some bizarrely starry-eyed veneration of a particularly fallible man.

By applying social pressure to the uninitiated, Prager exposed his own discomfort with his mission. These obstinately righteous holdouts represent a cruel reminder of the morally uncompromising crusaders who once typified the conservative movement. As Lewis noted, Donald Trump’s following seems increasingly inclined toward sycophantic hyperbole in defense of the president’s debatable accomplishments. Perhaps more disturbing, their praise for Trump has grown exponentially more cloying as this administration falters.

With Donald Trump’s presidency nearing the six-month mark, his most unambiguously successful and lasting accomplishment so far is the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. This is a laudable achievement, but adhering to a list of conservative justices is the bare-minimum expectation of a Republican president. Moreover, it was not without cost. Only to maintain the status quo ideological balance on the Court before the death of Antonin Scalia, Republicans in the Senate were compelled to curb the filibuster even further. This won’t be the last curtailment of minority privileges in the upper chamber—privileges that won’t be there for Republicans when they need them. That day could come sooner than anyone on the right seems to think.

On Tuesday, Iowa’s two GOP senators—Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley—said that ObamaCare’s repeal was unlikely. At best, the Senate GOP could only be expected to “tinker around the edges,” as Ernst described it. GOP reformers banked on the savings from ObamaCare’s repeal to fund tax code reform. Tax code reform is supposed to beget an infrastructure bill, the reform of the IRS, the funding of the border wall, and an immigration overhaul.

The Republican Congress is not only operating without normal presidential leadership; it is beset with distractions and interference from this presidency. The entire Republican agenda is stalled, and the GOP appears to be drifting toward the 2018 midterm election cycle with nothing to run on besides a uniquely unpopular presidency. Every midterm election in this century, save 2002, has been a disaster for the party in control of the White House. If Democrats gain just 24 House seats, which would only be a modest haul for a party benefiting from tailwinds, the legislative phase of the Trump era will be over.

Without legislative accomplishments, the Trump presidency might as well be written in sand. By Prager’s own estimation, many of Trump’s “accomplishments” are entirely rhetorical. Further, Barack Obama would be the first to admit that Trump’s “pen” and “phone” approach to presidential leadership cannot create a legacy. Scaling back environmental regulation, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and broadening restrictions on funding abortion providers domestically and abroad can be easily undone by Trump’s successor.

Even absent an exogenous crisis beyond this administration’s control—and no presidency escapes black-swan events that test it to the brink—Trump’s presidency is floundering. The response to this suboptimal reality from Trump’s adoring fan club seems to be to ratchet up their embarrassingly effusive praise for their leader.

When the Washington Post asked the White House to respond to the myriad claims from administration staffers that the professional culture in this administration is downright abusive, White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks did her best Major Ben Marco impression.

“President Trump has a magnetic personality and exudes positive energy, which is infectious to those around him,” she wrote. “He is brilliant with a great sense of humor … and an amazing ability to make people feel special and aspire to be more than even they thought possible.”

“He is the greatest communicator as a president we’ve ever had,” said former Trump campaign manager and rumored candidate for a White Houses role, Corey Lewandowski. “He’s better than his staff.”

“We’ve never seen before at this point in a presidency such sweeping reassurance of American interests, and the inauguration of a foreign-policy strategy designed to bring back the world from growing dangers and perpetual disasters brought on by years of failed leadership,” said Sean Spicer of the president’s record on foreign affairs.

When asked why the president dismissed his communications director just weeks after engaging in a “rebranding” of the president’s image, Spicer insisted that Trump didn’t need no stinking communications director. “Ultimately, the best messenger is the president himself.” We’re talking about a man who literally tweets gibberish. This slavish toadying is doing the president no favors.

All this reeks of insecurity. These are the actions of men and women who fear not just their careers and reputations but their places in history. This presidency and the moment of prohibitive Republican authority it inaugurated is slipping away. Appealing to a cult of personality is a common means of distracting from failure and compelling cohesion among otherwise dispirited true believers. Eventually, though, the cult comes apart. The monuments are torn down and the revisionism is done away with. On its present course, the Trump era won’t even leave these durable edifices in its wake. Its memory will be washed away with the tide, leaving only those who debased themselves as its legacy.

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