Following the sack of the Capitol, and with Donald Trump leaving the White House shattering precedents as he has throughout his time in office, we have a new, or perhaps just transformed, species of conservative. These individuals are, many for the first time in five years, acknowledging misgivings about their prior support for Trump and his presidency. The essence of this new position attempts to bridge the chasm between, “The incitement to violence was wrong” and “Look at all the cool stuff we got out of the past four years.”
Points for effort but the books don’t balance. The price tag of the Trump presidency exceeds its value exponentially. The tax cuts, deregulation, judicial appointments, executive orders, and cultural counter-offensives (“he fights”) are trinkets compared to the way he has undermined the values and norms required to sustain the rule of law and the constitutional order. These shiny objects were used to distract, mollify, and provide justification for America’s closest brush with authoritarian government since 1789.
This is the fulcrum of disagreement between the pro- and anti-Trump factions of the conservative world. One side believes their fundamentally transactional relationship with Donald Trump was worth it. The other side has shrunk from this bargain with an often inarticulate sense of the horrors it might generate.
Events over the last few years may have tipped some waverers in one direction or another. But the assault on the Capitol—the ugly climax of a two-months-long effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election—settled this dispute decisively. The Capitol’s broken glass and furniture are far easier to fix than the shattered psychological security, social solidarity, and history that told us such a thing could “never happen here.”
Since January 6, I have read and watched and listened as conservatives I admire have tried, unsuccessfully in my view, to argue that the Trump administration’s accomplishments—the Abraham Accords, the judicial appointments, the economic revival, the vaccines—stood as their own realities apart from Trump’s character as president, as if it were possible to divide the bone of policy from the marrow of moral realities. But this is political gnosticism, a separation of character, cognition, and belief from human action—as if a democratic nation could tolerate, and indeed prosper under, a Neronian figure like Trump as long as the “engine” of policy pulled us along. The shiny objects are sufficient, the argument goes, even if the destructive character happens, for the moment, to accompany them.
I admire these intelligent, principled, committed conservatives for trying to reconcile conflicting dimensions of their philosophical lives. What they miss, though—and what most Trump-captured conservatives actively ignore or outright deny—is that the insurrection that burst into view on January 6 germinated for years inside a norm-busting presidency made in the image of Donald Trump himself. Not only did our “guardrails” not hold, while we weren’t looking, they were actually removed on the day Trump won the election in 2016 because they depend almost entirely on the self-restraint of the person who wields the vast executive and communication powers of the presidency. The nation has been careening toward the January 6 disaster for the past four years, drawn along by the narcissism, cruelty, lawlessness, and heedlessness that make up the engine of Trump’s character.
And, to be clear, the disaster isn’t over. Our nation will suffer from the aftermath of Trump’s term—perhaps for decades, and certainly long after most of Trump’s policy achievements have been overturned or have withered away. The parasite called Trumpism has reprogrammed the Republican party’s DNA. For the foreseeable future, there is only one political party on the field because the GOP will, to substantial degree, either remain in thrall to Trumpism or split into multiple parties. One day after the attempted insurrection, the RNC meeting at Amelia Island, Florida, broke into cheers for Donald Trump when he joined them by telephone. Several public opinion polls released in the last two weeks have confirmed that the GOP still overwhelmingly supports Trump, does not regret having voted for him, and even still buys into his lies about the election having been stolen. Even his role in instigating a violent assault against democracy has not dimmed most Republicans’ faith in him. He may be poised to repay this blind fealty with a new “Patriot Party” that he will use to plunder what remains of the GOP for his amusement and personal profit. Only fools could have failed to envision this possibility. Fortunately for Trump there was no shortage of them.
This means that, for the time being, conservatism will lack a credible voice in national debates irrespective of the strength of any arguments it happens to make against the excesses of Democratic rule. Far into the future, Democrats will be able to wave the “bloody shirt” of insurrection at virtually every Republican candidate saying, “On the fateful day when representative democracy was hanging in the balance, were you on the side of the constitutional order or with those who tried to overthrow it and the president who inspired and led them?” For those closest to the multiple and compound tragedies of January 6—including the majority of House Republicans who, even after the attack, went along with the big lie that Joe Biden stole the election, and then refused to join Democrats in impeaching impeach Trump—this question will be largely unanswerable.
A couple of years ago, I heard Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, tell a small group of listeners that we were “storing up wrath for ourselves.” He was speaking specifically about the long-term risk the evangelical church was piling up for itself in its blind devotion to Trump, and how that support ultimately might lead to state-led retribution when the Democrats inevitably returned to power.
The same notion applies to the GOP broadly. By throwing in with a would-be authoritarian and using its Senate majority as a praetorian guard to protect him from accountability, rebuke, and punishment, and standing by lamely while a mob tried to overthrow by violence the election returns, the GOP has imprinted a generation or two of American voters with the idea that Republican party is a potential threat to both liberty and order.
The vast majority of the Republican party appears to be beyond redemption, too corrupt or fearful to break decisively with Trump, acknowledge the terrible errors of the past five years, and begin the painful journey back to principle and integrity. But there may be a remnant minority in the Senate capable of treading the path of honor in the forthcoming impeachment trial. It would not be the first time that decisive questions were settled by the narrowest of margins. If 17 GOP votes can be found for conviction, perhaps there is hope for an eventual revival of the political tradition once known as “Republican.”