Another big question about this president — besides “why didn’t they realize he’s a con man?” — is “why don’t Republican politicians stand up to him?” Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine offers an answer:
Republican elites who opposed Trump during the primary, as most of them did, had different reasons for their opposition. But a central rationale for conservative opposition was the belief that Trump would deviate from conservative policy. The keystone editorial in National Review’s celebrated “Against Trump” special issue revolved around the candidate’s lack of ideological consistency:
“Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones … Trump’s political opinions have wobbled all over the lot. The real-estate mogul and reality-TV star has supported abortion, gun control, single-payer health care à la Canada, and punitive taxes on the wealthy…. Since declaring his candidacy he has taken a more conservative line, yet there are great gaping holes in it … Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism.”
The key phrase here is the last one, “menace to American conservatism.” It is distinct from, say, a menace to the republic. Non-conservatives may have read into conservative anti-Trumpism a set of shared, small-d democratic concerns. But the major fear that stalked the right was the specter of higher marginal tax rates and bipartisan health-care legislation. To the extent that conservatives raised concerns about Trump’s ignorance and authoritarianism, it was harnessed to his lack of ideological commitment. Conservatives could imagine Trump as an American Perón, catering to the masses with a populist agenda while sidelining the conservative elite.
What did not especially trouble them was the prospect of Trump as an American Pinochet. (Augusto Pinochet was the Chilean general who overthrew a democratically elected socialist government and implemented free-market policies, with the advice and enthusiastic support of American conservatives.) And while Trump has proven every bit as ignorant and instinctively authoritarian as his worst enemies feared, he has vanquished nearly all right-wing doubts about his ideological bona fides (or, at least, his malleability to the same end).
The idea that Trump’s anti-democratic qualities per se would alienate him from his party is a fantasy that rests upon a deep misunderstanding of conservatism. The Republican Party is attracted to anti-democratic means, so long as they’re used for the correct ends. Look at North Carolina, where Republicans designed a vote-restriction measure that, a judge found, would “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” and then greeted the election of a Democratic governor by stripping him of his powers before he could assume office. Or look at Pennsylvania, where the party is so determined to lock in a voting map that allows them to rule as a minority that, when the State Supreme Court ruled its anti-democratic scheme unconstitutional, the party first defied the court’s authority, and is now working to impeach the justices. None of these maneuvers has provoked any significant intra-party dissent.
Against this chilling backdrop, the president’s frequently stated intent to make federal law enforcement a weapon to protect his party and investigate his opponents hardly even registers. Indeed, Trump’s routine authoritarian bluster nestles comfortably into a party where panic about unfriendly demographic changes has curdled into deep suspicion of the principle of majority rule. Trump as an individual is surely a grotesque outlier. But the overall direction of his presidency is an outgrowth of the party’s long-standing direction. Conservatives once feared Trump as a blunt instrument. Now they recognize and appreciate that the blunt instrument is a weapon of their cause.
He campaigned as if he was a “small-d” democrat, but he governs like a Republican, only more so.