Should anti-Trump conservatives support moderates like Maine Senator Susan Collins? Photo: Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: To burn or not to burn?

What a Never-Trump divide says about the future of the Republican Party

To burn or not to burn? That’s the question anti-Trump conservatives have been asking themselves in recent weeks.

If you don’t obsess over internecine feuds on the American right, allow me to explain.

For some Never Trumpers, bringing an end to the Trump presidency isn’t enough. If there is to be a broader reckoning among Republicans, they argue, GOP politicians need to be punished as harshly as possible for their acquiescence to the President. The bigger the defeat, the bigger a mistake the Trump experiment will look. In every senate seat and congressional race, no matter the Trumpiness of the candidate in question, the instruction is the same: don’t vote Republican.

In other words, burn it to the ground.

The noisiest exponents of this view are the operatives behind the anti-Trump campaign group the Lincoln Project. This week, the PAC released an unsparing television advertisement targeting Maine senator Susan Collins, who faces a tricky re-election battle against Sara Gideon, the Democratic candidate. Collins has attempted to carve out space on the Hill as an independently-minded Republican. In the first two years of the Trump presidency, Collins’s voting record made her the most bipartisan member of the Senate. But in a number of important votes, including on impeachment, Collins has sided with the President.

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“Collins isn’t an independent, she’s a fraud,” intones the narrator. “Maine deserves a leader, not a Trump stooge. It’s time for Susan Collins to go.”

The Washington Post’s George Will expressed the same position in loftier terms when he called for Senate Republicans to be “routed, as condign punishment for their Vichyite collaboration, leaving the Republican remnant to wonder: Was it sensible to sacrifice dignity, such as it ever was, and to shed principles, if convictions so easily jettisoned could be dignified as principles, for… what?”

The other camp sees the same flames but reaches for an extinguisher rather than lighter fluid.

Former Ronald Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan calls the arsonists’ approach “bloody-minded and not fully responsible”.

Ramesh Ponnuru, a prominent Reformocon and certainly no Trumpist, points out that “any competitive centre-right party after Trump will by necessity represent substantially the same voters who put him into power in November 2016 and have sustained him since then. Any strategy for changing the Republican Party that fails to reckon with that fact is doomed.”

Given the spinelessness of so many one-time opponents of Trump, you don’t need to be a pyromaniac to understand the “burn it to the ground” temptation. And some Never Trumpers have been explicit in their view that the Republican Party is beyond saving. However, those arguing that the heaviest possible loss is in the GOP’s long-term interest leave very little room for the kind of accommodation that Ponnuru argues is necessary. To return to the Collins example, her defeat would also mean the loss of a moderate voice in debates about the future of her party and could end with a new, possibly Trumpier candidate in six years’ time. 

This superficially tactical conversation makes more sense when understood as a debate over deeper, ideological differences. The Never Trumpers agree on one big thing — that the president is unfit for office — but not much else. The operatives behind the Lincoln Project are, generally speaking, socially liberal moderates for whom the prospect of Democratic control of both the executive and the legislature is less troubling than it would be for, say, David French, a similarly hardline Never Trumper but also a socially conservative evangelical. Hence French’s place in the don’t-burn-it-down camp.

As Ross Douthat observed this week, “Republican divisions over Trump himself are somewhat different from Republican divisions over what to learn from Trumpism. A figure like [Mitt] Romney is anti-Trump, but he might be friendlier to post-Trump populism, while [Ted] Cruz and [Rand] Paul have ended up pro-Trump but will probably revert to their libertarian roots once he’s gone.”

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Douthat is downplaying the areas of ideological agreement between the President and libertarians like Paul; both have been very critical of the Washington consensus on US foreign policy, for example. However, he nonetheless gets at an important dynamic: conversations about Trump may consume a lot of oxygen, but they conceal as much as they reveal about disagreements on the American right.

The debate that would follow a close loss for Trump would look similar to one that followed heavy defeat. Supporters of the president’s populist agenda would argue that 2020 was a referendum on one man’s suitability for high office, not, say, his policies on trade and immigration. They would have a point: those policies are hardly dominating this Covid-hit election. Similarly, those pushing for a return to the orthodoxies of the pre-Trump Republican Party will make the same arguments, no matter what happens in November. Neither side would want to linger too long on the Trump years and the results in a handful of key Senate seats would not determine who wins the argument.

Of course, this entire conversation assumes defeat, and it is perfectly possible that in a few months time we look back on it as an embarrassing example of anti-Trump hubris. But if the Trump experiment does end in failure, those who campaigned against all Republicans, and not just the President, are kidding themselves if they think the GOP’s worst case scenario ends with those who helped bring it about being invited back into the fold.

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