Dennis Prager's 'Purist' Straw Man
Conservative commentator Dennis Prager recently wrote a column in which he blamed what he sees as two major failures within the Republican party (and the conservative movement) on purist conservatism.
One of them, as you can probably guess, was the collapse of the American Health Care Act. The Republican-sponsored bill, which was supported by President Trump, Speaker Ryan, and a large majority of House Republicans, peeled away some key components of Obamacare. It wasn't, however, the sweeping repeal-plan that many on the Right were hoping for, and it was ultimately denied the required number of votes to move forward by members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of very conservative congressmen.
Prager's point was that by taking the hard-line position of insisting on the full repeal of Obamacare, rather than signing on to a multi-phased dismantling of the law that took into account the realities and complexities of the current health care system, Republicans came away with absolutely nothing. Thus, Obamacare will continue on as the law, untouched, indefinitely.
It's a reasonable argument. While there were a number of conservatives outside of DC that opposed the bill (who were by no means purists), the Freedom Caucus members are well known for their opposition to legislative compromise in the name of conservative principle. And their rhetoric throughout the AHCA debacle reflected that.
Prager shot himself in the foot, however, with his second example of purist conservatism: The NeverTrump movement.
As someone who was an unapologetic NeverTrump voter from February 2016 through election day, who also happens to be to the left of Prager politically (as many NeverTrumpers were), I feel inclined to shoot down this silly narrative.
NeverTrumpers, of course, were those right-leaning folks who typically vote Republican, but couldn't bring themselves to vote for Donald Trump in the general election. This very small but vocal minority grappled with their consciences quite a bit throughout the election cycle. They certainly didn't want Hillary Clinton to become president, but they found Trump to be such a profoundly unacceptable nominee, that they couldn't grant him their support. In the end, they voted for neither of the major-party candidates.
And as Mr. Prager (who's quite familiar with this crowd) very well knows, it wasn't about conservative purity — not in the general election anyway. NeverTrumpers ran the spectrum of the Right, from moderates to libertarians to right-wingers. They didn't expect or demand ideological purity. What they expected was a nominee who was fit for the office. And in Trump, they didn't see that person.
Sure, Trump's liberal leanings were a concern for many conservatives during the primary (and beyond). The man, after all, was a lifelong Democrat who had given lots of money to Democratic politicians. The paint was still wet on his conversions to Republican stances on key issues like gun control, immigration, abortion, and taxes. And as a Republican candidate, Trump advocated for universal health care and praised single-payer. He vowed not to touch entitlement programs, campaigned against free trade, and described eminent domain as "wonderful." He even parroted the reckless and conspiratorial anti-war rhetoric of Code Pink and Michael Moore.
These things deeply troubled a number of conservatives (as they should have), but even back then — before Trump became the GOP nominee — his positions weren't the poison pill. Trump himself was the problem.
The current occupant of the Oval Office established himself early on as a man who had a ridiculously hostile relationship with the truth (far beyond what people are used to from politicians). He routinely made up outlandish stories and casually thew out assertions that were patently false. This went on routinely for well over a year. Sometimes the rhetoric was relatively harmless. Other times, it went as far as implicating foreign governments, world leaders, and even our own military.
One doesn't have to be a conservative purist to have serious trouble supporting a pathologically dishonest individual, who demonstrates no understanding of the ramifications of his own words.
Then, there was the counter-punch.
When Senator John McCain made a joke at the expense of Trump supporters, Trump scoffed at the notion that McCain was a war hero, and mocked American POWs for their capture. When Trump took issue with a disabled journalist's reporting, he lampooned the man's disability. When Megyn Kelly asked a tough debate question, Trump suggested that she was on her period, and then harassed her on Twitter for nine months (resulting in 24/7 security for her and her family). When fellow candidate Ben Carson got too close to Trump in the polls, Trump compared him to a child molester and mocked his faith journey. When Jeb Bush challenged Trump at a debate, Trump accused his brother (former U.S. President George W. Bush) of lying about WMDs in Iraq, and being aware of the 9/11 plot ahead of time and doing nothing to stop it. When Ted Cruz's father had choice words for Trump, Trump linked him to the JFK assassination. When Judge Gonzalo Curiel ruled against Trump in a court case, Trump stated that the judge should recuse himself because of his Mexican heritage. When the Khan family (parents of a fallen U.S. soldier) criticized Trump, Trump responded by suggesting that the mother was stuck in an oppressive marriage that didn't allow her to speak.
One doesn't have to be a conservative purist to have serious trouble supporting a man who is despicably vindictive and can't control his ugly impulses. Some might even have trouble helping such an individual get his hands on our country's nuclear codes.
The perverse fixation on Vladimir Putin. The threatening of journalists. The difficulty with directly condemning David Duke and the KKK. The bragging of grabbing women by their genitals. The list went on and on, and none of these things had anything to do with conservative ideology.
Yet, Prager actually wrote this of Trump in his column: "There were no valid reasons to oppose him in the general election."
No valid reasons? Just sanctimonious purist conservatism, huh? Please.
The reality is that if Trump had run on all of the same political positions, but had presented himself as something other than a disgusting, dangerous, and profoundly unsuitable individual, the NeverTrump crowd would have managed to hold their noses (albeit more tightly than usual) and sign on to the popular binary-choice (aka lesser-of-two evils) argument. Despite their deep reservations over his lack of conservative principles, they would have recognized him as being a better big-picture alternative than Clinton, and reluctantly given him their vote.
Instead, they were faced with the kind of dilemma The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes struggled with, and wrote about, when reflecting on Trump's trashing of McCain's status as a war hero: "The main reason I won't support Trump is simpler and more personal [than his policies]: I couldn't explain such a vote to my children."
This sentiment was widely shared among the NeverTrump crowd, and we hated being put in such a position.
In the comment section of this very website, in response to my fellow righties who often blasted me during the election for my NeverTrump stance, and accused me of helping Hillary Clinton, I'd ask this question: If Trump were to literally spit in your spouse's face, would you still vote for him?
Tellingly, no one ever answered it. Not a single person. They all either ignored the question or called it absurd, stating that Trump would never do such a thing. Of course, I didn't ask the question believing such a scenario to be plausible, and I explained that. The reason I asked it was because I wanted to know if there was absolutely anything Trump could possibly do, that was so personally offensive, alarming, and beneath the dignity of the office, that would compel these people not to vote for him.
The question went unanswered because the honest reply would have been "no." Anyone with any shred of personal dignity has a line that can’t be crossed, and a man spitting in their spouse’s face would certainly be it. And once the existence of such a line is acknowledged, it becomes much harder to deride those whose line had already been crossed (but didn't require a literal slap to get there).
It's quite easy, on the other hand, to throw out some absurd claim about purist conservatism to degrade people whose conscience wouldn't let them support a particular individual. One has to wonder if Mr. Prager's attempting to pacify his own misgivings with such a clumsy argument.
The NeverTrump movement ("stance" would be a better descriptor) ended on election night. It was about withholding our vote from an individual we deemed unfit for office. It wasn't about blindly opposing that individual as president. While many of us have remained skeptics and critics, we've supported President Trump when he's been right, and will continue to do so.
I got to know a lot of fellow NeverTrumpers throughout the election, and we always respected the logic of the vast majority of Republican voters that supported Trump. We understood the "binary choice" point of view. We simply disagreed with it on a personal level.
How about returning some of that respect, Mr. Prager, by dumping the "purity" straw man, and acknowledging that NeverTrumpers voted as they did out of conscience, even if your conscience led you in a different direction?