Never Trump Republicans and Conservatives Ought to Dial Back Their Critiques of Progressives
Believers in 'moderation,' they should moderate their own preferences, acknowledge that conservative Republicanism brought us to this point, and that the fate of democracy is now in the hands of the democratic left.
Most of my writing over the past three years has centered on promoting agonistic respect and constructive discussion and debate between liberals and democratic socialists on the broad democratic left. My motivation is at once ethical and pragmatic: Trumpism represents a clear and present danger to liberal democracy, justice, and simple human decency, and it is imperative that those who support these values work together to defeat Trumpism in the name of these very values.
The Trump administration is using the power of the federal government to do terrible things while at the same time deliberately gutting the institutions of government designed to do anything good. Yet I believe that the greatest harm done by Trumpism is not awful policy but its rhetorical hostility to the norms of pluralist democracy, and its poisoning of public discourse by stoking fear and resentment, attacking the press and the very notion of independent media or objective truth, and promoting a cynical, Manichean, “friend/enemy” politics.
The viciousness, crassness, and downright authoritarianism of Trump has led an important group of conservative writers to strongly oppose Trump, distancing or even divorcing themselves from the Trumpist Republican Party and promoting a centrist politics of “moderation.” The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, for example, has become one of Trump’s most consistent, cogent, and harsh critics. David Frum, Peter Wehner, Michael Gerson, Max Boot, Joe Scarborough, Brett Stephens, and even Bill Kristol have joined the ranks of the opposition to Trump.
These figures are important politically, because they represent and articulate a real fissure on the right. And they are important ethically, because they defend principles of constitutional democracy that are in dire need of defense. The criticisms of “Trumpocracy” offered by these conservatives are to be welcomed. But while they can be viewed as “co-belligerents” and in a way even “allies” in the struggle against Trumpism and its authoritarian tendencies, in a broader sense they are also political adversaries in the ongoing effort to advance a left liberal politics in the U.S. For while they are “against Trump,” and indeed sincere in their basic commitment to constitutional democracy, they do not go very far in their critique of Trumpism, laying too much responsibility at the feet of Trump himself, and not enough at the feet of a political-economic system in need of substantial reform, and even less at the feet of the Republican Party, and its long-term rightward shift, which has brought us to our current crisis.
Many of these writers have expressed concerns about the leftward shift of political debate in the Democratic Party, as evidenced in the recent Presidential debates. These concerns have some validity, as I intend to discuss in later columns. For if the Democrats are to win in 2020, and to move forward as a majority party, it will be necessary for party leaders to be prepared to moderate some of the party’s more radical proposals, such as the Sanders Medicare for All plan (which is not the only Medicare for All plan promoting universal coverage), at least in the short term, and to promote an agenda that takes seriously the increasing dynamism on the party’s left, while also taking seriously the fact that many of the “blue wave” House victories of 2018 involved candidates of the center. Democratic Party leaders, candidates for national office — including but not limited to the Presidency — and even progressive activists will need to perform a complicated balancing act to take seriously both things at once. There is no simple formula for this, and it really is necessary for the internal politics of the party to play out fairly in the coming year, and then for Democrats to come together behind the “winning” platform and presidential candidate. This must involve contention and debate, and it is important both that the debate be vigorous, candid, and fair and that it not be so divisive as to make common action impossible. Because common action is the only way forward, to defeat Trumpism and to institute necessary reforms of public policy and public life.
But progressives do not need to be “schooled” about this by conservatives who have been cast adrift by Trumpist barbarism and are now seeking a politically safe harbor. For we have been debating these things ever since the run up to 2016, and will continue to debate these things in the run up to 2020 and beyond.
There is something very self-righteous, and indeed immoderate, about the way that some “Never Trump” conservatives have been writing about these challenges.
A case in point is New York Times columnist David Brooks’ June 27 column, entitled “Dems, Please Don’t Drive Me Away.” Brooks, long a self-proclaimed paragon of civic virtue, is horrified by Trump, and he wants to be able to support a Democratic challenger. But he is also horrified — perhaps even equally horrified — by the progressivism of the leading Democratic candidates. He bemoans that: “All the energy and competition is on the progressive side. . . The party is moving toward all sorts of positions that drive away moderates and make it more likely the nominee will be unelectable. And it’s doing it without too much dissent.” Brooks wants a politics of the center, an agenda hospitable to “moderate Democrats” (does he consider himself such a person? Really?) that is not overwhelmed by “the passionate intensity of the left.” There is some pathos, or at least some self-pity, in his concluding line: “Right now we’ve got two parties trying to make moderates homeless.”
What Brooks fails to note is that this polarization has a very long history and that, as most serious political analysts have long observed, it is a history of asymmetrical polarization. The Republican Party, in short, has moved much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has moved to the left, as a piece published just last week in the Times, “What Happened to America’s Center of Political Gravity?” graphically demonstrates. Trump is an exceptional and exceptionally terrible and dangerous President. But Trump became President by bending the Republican Party to his will, rather easily bringing its own deeply racist, sexist, and inegalitarian tendencies out into the open, and then exulting in and intensifying them. There is a clear line linking Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, Palin, eight years of rather vicious anti-Obama obstructionism, and Trumpism. And conservative and neoconservative writers who often offered aid and comfort to these forces, working for Republican leaders and editing pro-Republican journals, thus played an important role in the rise of Trump, even as they quickly became horrified by the monster they had helped to create.
Because the partisan polarization has been so markedly asymmetrical, and because the Republican move to the right has involved so many especially egregious assaults on democracy — from a deliberate political strategy of voting rights abridgment to immigration restriction to assaults on reproductive freedom to support for the militarization of policing to the gutting of environmental regulation and social citizenship — and because all of these things came together in a perfect storm to bring us Trumpism, a strong and passionate resistance has emerged on the left.
This resistance is an explicable reaction to the manifestly reactionary nature of Trumpism. It is a political mobilization that is necessary in order to defeat Trumpism, which will require not median-voter centrism but the energizing of activist campaigns across the country capable of contesting abridgements of voting rights and mobilizing millions of new voters. And it is an ethically exemplary form of democratic civic activism and political empowerment. This does not make it perfect or above criticism. Indeed, this resistance contains a multiplicity of tendencies and is characterized by sometimes serious divisions and debates. But it is a resistance nonetheless, and one fueled by broadly progressive impulses and commitments to greater political, social, and economic democracy.
Brooks, like many of the Never Trumpers, fails to see that while some appeal to some “moderates” might be necessary for some Democratic candidates in a pragmatic electoral sense, it is arguably much less important to the fate of the party than mobilizing Democratic base voters and the millions of new voters who should become part of the base of an invigorated Democratic Party. More importantly, there is certainly no ethical or normative obligation for Democrats to moderate their progressive impulses in order to please “moderates” in exile from the Republican Party.
In 2016 many so-called “moderates” both inside and outside the Democratic Party called on leftists to support Clinton in order to defeat Trump. I agreed with this call. And indeed, while surely some Sanders voters on the left refused to vote for Clinton, the notion that this was responsible for Clinton’s loss (via the Electoral College, it is worth noting) is unfounded. Trump’s victory had many other sources, both deeper and more proximate.
In 2016, the appeal for opponents of Trumpism to ultimately come together and support Trump’s Democratic opponent was both reasonable and largely successful.
Now, in the lead-up to 2020, the same expectation must be put to so-called “moderates” who are to the right of the current Democratic mainstream: if they are serious about the danger of Trump and the need to defeat him, then they need to make the same commitment that was and remains presented to the left: advocate for the policies you prefer, but recognize that it is the Republican Party that has brought this crisis upon us, and if you care about democracy, then you ought to very publicly commit yourself to supporting whoever is the Democratic candidate, whether Harris or Warren or even Sanders.
Brooks, Boot, Rubin, and the rest might not like the way the Democratic primary debate is proceeding, and it is their right to say so. And if they are serious about their abandonment of the Republican Party, then they should join the Democratic debate, and do their part to influence it.
But if they are serious about their own “moderation,” then they should acknowledge that the Republican Party in which they invested hope for the future has become a danger to constitutional democracy, and some of their own past errors in judgment helped to lay the foundation for our current predicament. I say this without gloating or condemning or demanding some kind of “mea culpa.” But some sense of humility, and proportion, is the least we can expect from those who make a living writing about “humility” and “proportion.”
If Trump is to be defeated, it will be by a Democratic candidate, a Democratic agenda, and a Democratic activist core capable of mobilizing many millions of people, as voters and as citizens, to support a powerful alternative vision of the future. All who are serious about opposing Trump ought to recognize this and do their part to help that Democratic debate about the future move forward. For there is no going back.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, now available from Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can talk to him about this essay on Facebook.