Since Donald Trump took the oath of office, he has vacillated between extremes. One day, he’s running a laudably conventional Republican administration. The next, he’s taking a sledgehammer to the conventions that define America’s national identity. Conservatives who opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016 can expect to be regularly berated by their right-of-center compatriots—justifiably on occasion—who cannot understand why they maintain their suspicion of this conventional Republican administration. But those Trump skeptics only have to wait for the inevitable heel-turn, when Donald Trump again acts like Donald Trump and the wisdom of their skepticism is confirmed. The Trump skeptic’s purgatorial torment is without end.
The only real question is whether this dynamic will outlast Donald Trump’s days in the Oval Office. Will Republican voters gravitate toward the Trumpian version of Donald Trump or to his more ordinary persona? Some, like The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis, claim the question answers itself. The erudite and morally discerning party of Ronald Reagan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and William F. Buckley is no more. It’s a cult of personality now, and that personality is uniquely unsavory and corrupting. While it is easy to succumb to despair in moments like these, I think Lewis may be wrong, in part, because he’s asking the wrong question.
In praising her moral authority, Lewis cites Kirkpatrick’s antipathy toward her former comrades in the Democratic Party who “blame America first,” an unattractive trait that the Trumpain GOP has adopted. But the 1979 COMMENTARY essay and subsequent book that propelled Kirkpatrick to the helm of the American Mission to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan, “Dictators and Double Standards,” was a case against a rigidly ideological foreign policy. It was an argument in favor of a realist approach to foreign affairs based on a grand strategic commitment to principle and was, therefore, duplicable. Donald Trump, by contrast, has no ideology and his style has proven harder for his disciples to mimic.
Trump’s press conference alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin stood out not just because he defended Russian attacks on U.S. interests and disparaged his own Cabinet officials—it also reflected his deep obsessions. Perhaps the most notable line from that event occurred when Trump dwelled inexplicably on Hillary Clinton’s email server. “What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails?” he asked. “33,000 emails gone, just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily.” Implied in these comments is the assumption that an authoritarian nation like Russia would not allow unmonitored channels of communication in the first place.
These comments aren’t pro-Putin so much as they are pro-autocrat. What’s more, they are akin to comments Trump recently made about the increasingly autocratic president of Turkey. According to Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer, Trump expressed frustration over the political process that prevented democratic NATO member states from hiking their defense budgets by decree. “‘Except for [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan over here,” Bremmer recalled Trump saying of the Turkish leader. “He does things the right way.” It’s hardly the first time Trump has heaped praise on Erdoğan even amid his regular crackdowns on Turkish dissenters, and no one has alleged that Trump has any particular affinity for Ankara. Nor has anyone established “collusion” between the Trump campaign and North Korea, but that didn’t stop Trump from praising Kim Jong-un as an “honorable” and adept leader.
What these comments reveal is an affection for illiberalism because it is pragmatic; he does not have an attachment to Putinism per se. That’s important. There is a substantial faction on the right that has convinced itself of the blinkered belief that Putin stands for all that they hold dear. They believe—erroneously, as it happens—the propagandist line that Putin is a savior of Christianity. They see him as a bulwark in defense of Western civilization, primarily or in part because of his government’s hostility toward the LGBTQ community and championing the rights of ethnic Russians.
This Buchananite wing of the GOP really believes all this earnestly, but does Trump? He’s given no indication that he has any ideological opposition to gay rights or religious freedoms. His hostility toward immigrant groups is, ultimately, a problematic proposition for Republicans interested in the long-term electoral health of the party. Authoritarianism, like extremism, is a tool to achieve certain circumspect ends, not an end in itself. The ends of Trumpism remain relatively undefined. If Trump’s primary attachment to Putin isn’t ideological but rooted solely in his affection for undemocratic systems, it is going to be hard for conventional Republicans to mirror what is essentially a disposition, not a doctrine.
And that leads us to the most compelling evidence that Trumpism’s hold over the GOP may end up being ephemeral. The secret of Donald Trump’s presidency is that it receives its highest marks when the president moves in directions preferred by establishmentarian Republicans and traditional conservatives—when Trump sticks to reading from the script, nominating Bush-era judges to the Supreme Court, or aggressively containing Russian revanchism. But when Trump reverts to a form he perfected on the campaign trail—when he’s calling equatorial nations “s***holes,” apologizing for white supremacists, attacking his critics’ physical appearance on Twitter, or blaming America for Russian attacks on U.S. interests—the bottom falls out. Republican lawmakers break ranks to criticize him and, on occasion, force Trump to walk his incitements back. Trump-skeptical Republicans continue to exercise a level of influence over the GOP disproportionate to their relative numbers. That might help explain why this routed, rump caucus of malcontents without a broad constituency haunts the imaginations of so many committed Trump Republicans.
Ultimately, all bets are off if the president wins a second term in office. Two-term presidents have a habit of remaking their parties, regardless of the odor about them when they lift off from the White House lawn in Marine One. And even if Trump’s legacy is limited to one term, it’s possible that his hostility toward free trade and comprehensive solutions to America’s illegal immigrant population may persist as the dominating views in his party. But the evidence today that the GOP has been thoroughly remade in Trump’s image is remarkably superficial. Republican lawmakers talk a game just good enough to boost the president’s ego and flatter his phalanx of defenders in the conservative press, but talk is cheap. And the wall is still unbuilt.
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