When Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign, he did so by promising to restore the status quo. Trump “and all he embraces,” he said, will be seen in retrospect as “an aberrant moment in time.” Much to the frustration of Democrats who hope to frame Trumpism as the GOP’s new normal, Biden is undoubtedly right in one respect. Like so many of his predecessors, Trump will one day be denied by his Republican supporters.
Democrats went to the mattresses for Bill Clinton. They defended his character, conduct in office, and presidential record right up until the moment the last Clinton shuffled off the political stage. Suddenly, the political calculation changed, and the burden of carrying the Clintons’ baggage outweighed the rewards.
For diehard Republicans, to abandon George W. Bush while he was in office was heretical. He was a wartime president whose commitment to conservative values was beyond reproach. Then, safely out of office, the formerly obscure and heterodox attacks on Bush as a reckless spender and a heedless interventionist became the animating ethos of the Tea Party and, eventually, prevailing wisdom within the GOP.
Most Democrats still regard Barack Obama as a transformative figure, but their attachment to him is weakening. The 2020 presidential race features more candidates attacking the foundations of his signature health-care reform law than defending it. On conduct ranging from his handling of foreign affairs, trade, and negotiating with Republicans, the left of the Democratic Party is already repudiating Obama’s legacy. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign may put this correction on pause, but he cannot hold back the tide forever.
During their terms, it was hard to imagine the day when these presidents would face a reckoning within their political parties. But the revisionists and reformers came for them eventually, and they will come for Donald Trump. If anything, the factors that will lead conservative Republicans to take a critical look at the Trump presidency are far easier to imagine today than they were at this point in his last three predecessors’ terms.
Take, for example, Trump’s “total exoneration” by Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel’s office. The revelation that the president did not actively conspire with a hostile foreign power to subvert American democracy is both welcome and about the lowest possible standard by which the commander-in-chief of the armed forces should be judged. The report painted a portrait of a campaign and, later, administration dominated by mendacious and backbiting bumblers, some of whom—including Trump’s campaign chairman and his first national security adviser—were in hock to foreign interests. It revealed that the president’s press secretary deliberately misled the public. It showed the president to be weak and easily dismissed by his subordinates. And it exposed how unreservedly the campaign sought to benefit from and work with anti-American agents of foreign influence like Wikileaks.
It’s not difficult to envision a scenario in the future in which Republicans may be inclined to criticize these sorts of behaviors in a Democratic aspirant for high office. Hypocrisy is no obstacle in politics, but the appearance of insincerity does soften the blow.
What about policy? Trump has, we are told, delivered for the conservative movement when it comes to his judicial appointees. The economy is strong and growing, thanks in part to Trump’s deregulatory policies and Republican-led tax-code reform. He’s managed a competent foreign policy in some surprising areas, including his admirably hawkish approach toward Russia. But much of this, apart perhaps from fulfilling America’s long-delayed promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, would have been the policy of any other Republican president. How do we know this? Because in so many of these areas, the Trump administration is executing policy he campaigned against.
With the exception of Trump’s trade protectionism, which is hardly orthodoxy within the GOP and has largely failed to yield favorable new trade deals or restore the communities it was supposed to help, the president’s economic policies are boilerplate Republicanism. Donald Trump’s appointment of originalist judges squares with conservative judicial philosophy, but it conflicts with Trump’s own beliefs about how judges are supposed to operate. Just as Barack Obama scolded the Supreme Court from House Clerk’s desk for failing to rule as he’d have preferred, Trump has routinely chastised judges who rule against him under the assumption that they are acting in service to the president who appointed them (leading to a rare scolding from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts). In fact, Republican-appointed judges have joined their Democrat-nominated counterparts in smacking down Trump’s excessive immigration policies.
Trump’s populist reflexes on immigration led to the most dangerous subversion of constitutional conventions we’ve seen in some time—the assumption of congressional powers to execute the stalled campaign-trail pledge to build a southern border wall. Democrats are already signaling their willingness to cite the precedent Trump set to execute their unpopular agenda items, and Republicans will not be able to criticize them without confronting their own hypocrisy. And as for Russia, Trump’s accommodationist instincts are often laid bare. It is a testament to the competence of the conventional Republicans with whom Trump is surrounded that the president’s pro-Putin sycophancy has not translated into pro-Russian policy.
These intellectual concessions pale before the moral compromises the Trump era has demanded of the GOP. The standard that the Republican Party’s moralists have established to justify their support for Trump will be the hardest to maintain because it is no standard at all. Trump’s consensual affairs, his repeated efforts to buy off his paramours, the ease with which he lies, and his habit of making excuses for the most unsavory elements of American society when off script; the right’s qualified defenses of Trump’s conduct will become an albatross around its neck when it’s time to attack the next Democratic president on moral grounds.
This formerly “pro-choice” president’s conversion to pro-life advocacy is surely welcome, but the GOP isn’t short on candidates with a genuine philosophical attachment to life. As a bonus, those Republicans don’t embarrass their pro-life supporters by wavering in their convictions or mangling their views. The president’s irresolute ethical convictions drive his devotees to inflate his moral credentials in ways that they are almost certain to regret. For example: “Only God could deliver such a savior to our nation,” wrote Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, of his boss. This kind of idolatry will surely complicate efforts to criticize the cults of personality to which Democrats are prone.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins was admirably clear about the transactional relationship between the president and the conservative movement that supports him. “If the president for some reason stopped keeping campaign promises and then engaged in that behavior now,” Perkins said of Trump’s past indiscretions, “the support’s gone.” The dirty secret is that all politics is transactional, and the deal dissolves when its utility is spent. Usually, the politician’s value depreciates faster than the coalition that supports him or her. Someday, another Republican will come along who demands the kind of fealty and adoration currently surrounding the president, and there can be only one who gets it. That cycle comes around for all presidents, and it’s coming for Trump.