For months, Trump-skeptical conservatives who have taken a critical look at the sensationalists and provocateurs on their side of the political divide have been bombarded with the accusation that they are acting in bad faith. The pro-Trump right alleges that this critical audit is only a tawdry reflex by urban elites who are embarrassed by Trump and Co.’s style, not their substance. On this, it seems the pro-Trump right and the anti-Trump left agree.
For a certain type of Democrat, newfound “allies” on the “Never Trump” right are suspect. Despite campaigning as a critic of a limited government ethos, Donald Trump is deemed by his Democratic detractors to have governed as the “apotheosis” of conservatism–whether conservatives know it or not. For the liberal activist class, conservative refugees from Trumpism who do not renounce their ideology have not earned and do not deserve policy dispensations or even modest rhetorical concessions from Democrats.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the true believers on the left have been discomfited by their newfound friends. Well, they’re in luck; the friendship just might be short-lived. The more the national dialogue departs from the extraordinary nature of the Trump presidency and returns to familiar political dynamics like those involving gun laws, the less this alliance of convenience will seem like a necessary compromise for exceptional times.
For example, the debate among lawmakers over what public-policy reforms should follow the massacre in Florida has been reasonably productive. The Republican president has endorsed a variety of measures, one of which—hiking the purchasing age for firearms to 21—was unilaterally enacted by Florida’s Republican governor, and he has directed his Justice Department to take legally dubious measures to regulate “bump stocks” out of existence. Compared to the inaction that has followed countless acts of mass-gun violence in the recent past, this is a sea change. If, however, you were one of the 2 million viewers who were privy to the town hall “debate” hosted by CNN on Wednesday night, you might have been left thinking that the anti-gun left sees these humble restrictions on gun ownership as worse than nothing.
Contrary to popular opinion, Senator Marco Rubio actually benefited from the hostile reception he received from the pro-gun control crowd in this setting. Amid a prosecutorial exchange with his Democratic interlocutors, Rubio managed to tease out the admission that there is no way to devise a constitutional “assault-weapons ban” that is not arbitrary and riddled with loopholes that allow for other semi-automatic rifles. “You would literally have to ban every semi-automatic rifle that’s sold in America,” he declared. This suggestion elicited a roar of approval from the crowd. “Fair enough,” Rubio replied to the audience, “but my colleagues do not support banning every semi-automatic rifle sold in America.” Indeed, when an assault-weapons ban stood the chance of being signed into law by a Democratic president in 2013, 15 Democrats and one Democrat-caucusing independent Senator helped strike it down.
The prospect of a ban on all semi-automatic long guns–much less handguns–is the sum of all gun voters’ fears and an issue that yields solidarity across the conservative spectrum. Of all the moments of this town hall event, this is the clip that is likely to have the most longevity, and it’s the kind of thing that makes Republican voters forget about Trump.
If the turnout in special and off-year elections is any indication, Republican voters are depressed. Only in December did the GOP demonstrate its capacity to use its virtually unparalleled dominance in Washington to secure big-ticket legislation. For the most part, Republicans have spent their year of dominance either defending a president prone to stepping on rakes or wallowing in self-pity over all the imagined boogiemen in the “deep state” out to get them. If that dynamic holds until November, Democrats could be reasonably certain of a strong showing at the polls. If the Democratic Party’s absolutists have their way, though, they might give Republicans something legitimate to fear. And nothing motivates voters quite like fear.