I have an enormous amount of respect for Charlie Sykes, the recently retired dean of conservative talk radio in Wisconsin, who was one of the most outspoken and principled anti-Trump voices during the 2016 primary and general elections. Sykes has since dedicated himself to rooting out the moral and intellectual rot in much of right-wing talk radio and TV, and his latest New York Times essay makes some excellent points. Sykes is appalled at how many people have abandoned conservative principles and policy goals out of a combination of the tribal instinct to circle the wagons around President Trump and the sheer glee that comes from seeing how angry he makes liberals. I particularly object to the view that Trump must be doing something right every time he gets liberals mad at him, or that any other Republican would be in exactly the same hot water, when in fact he has repeatedly picked battles on the least defensible turf for the worst reasons, guaranteeing failures.
But I must also object that Sykes is painting with a bit of a broad brush here, as are many of the people sharing his piece:
[M]uch of the conservative news media is now less pro-Trump than it is anti-anti-Trump. The distinction is important, because anti-anti-Trumpism has become the new safe space for the right.
Here is how it works: Rather than defend President Trump’s specific actions, his conservative champions change the subject to (1) the biased “fake news” media, (2) over-the-top liberals, (3) hypocrites on the left, (4) anyone else victimizing Mr. Trump or his supporters and (5) whataboutism, as in “What about Obama?” “What about Clinton?”
For the anti-anti-Trump pundit, whatever the allegation against Mr. Trump, whatever his blunders or foibles, the other side is always worse.
I’m in agreement with Sykes that those of us writing and speaking in conservative media have an obligation to criticize Trump when he goes astray – either by betraying conservative policies or principles, or simply by doing things that are objectively wrong (at the same time, we should praise him when he does good things). As I said in the immediate aftermath of the election, the Republican challenge is to be the Party With Trump without becoming the Party Of Trump. What I object to is the suggestion that we have some sort of obligation to do nothing else but criticize Trump – to get out of the business of reminding people how bad his critics still are or how inaccurate or overwrought many of their attacks on him are. We shouldn’t be only anti-anti-Trump, but there is nothing wrong with being anti-anti-Trump, because politics didn’t begin with Trump, it doesn’t consist solely of Trump today, and it won’t end with him, either.
Trump doesn’t respect the proper limits on his power, and neither do the Democrats. But ultimately, Trump is an amateur at the business of expanding power, bending institutional norms, and erasing the lines of constitutional separation of powers; Democrats are professionals. His entire ham-handed handling of the firing of Jim Comey is almost certain to lead to more, rather than less, vigorous investigations of the Russia 2016 story. There are well-worn formulas for working the system in DC to your own ends, which Obama and Clinton mastered, and which Trump disregards, inevitably reducing his effectiveness. Trump has power, but let’s not pretend that his opponents to his left are powerless – besides a significant redoubt in the Senate minority and many places in the courts, the bureaucracy, and the legal profession, they still run multiple state governments, many municipalities, most of the mainstream media, the universities, Hollywood, and plenty of other institutions. And they will be with us, and entrenched in power, and unalterably opposed to all the things principled conservatives hold dear, long after Trump is gone from the scene.
Conservatives and Republicans who saw Trump for the threat he was to our movement were in a difficult place during the election, and it has only grown more uncomfortable since then. But for us to give up the fight against the permanent opponents of everything we stand for is perilously short-sighted. Right is still right, and wrong is still wrong, and the presence of Trump should give wrong no holiday.