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Trump, 2020, and the Dangers of “Sunk Costs”

April 5, 2019
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(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Glance around on the right these days, and you might well wonder: Hey, didn’t there use to be some Trump skeptics around here? During the 2016 presidential season—particularly early on—it was hard to find an outlet to the left of Breitbart that wasn’t dedicating considerable time to jeremiads about how catastrophic the future president’s presidency was likely to be.

Now, however, the ranks of right-wing Trump critics are considerably diminished. You can ring much of this up to brute political pressure: Trump and his allies have gone out of their way to annihilate right-wing critics and heap rewards on sycophants. But plenty who fiercely opposed Trump before his election have since come around on the president organically. The Daily Wire’s Josh Hammer has written a solid manifesto for this sort of conservative: the NeverTrumper who next year intends to vote for Trump.

The case he makes is one that many will find compelling. No triumphalist #MAGA fantasias here: Hammer remains aware of Trump’s deep flaws. The tone of his argument is realist, even cynical. It boils down to this: Fears that Trump would govern like a progressive and thereby harm conservative causes have not come to pass. Fears that he would govern like a loon and thereby harm conservatism’s credibility have come to pass—but what damage that has done is done already, and not soon undone whether Trump leaves office in 2021 or 2025. And finally, as the Democratic party slides further left, the danger posed by surrendering the White House is more acute than ever. The substantial pros of re-electing Trump outweigh some admittedly serious cons.

The first point is an important one—as a historical fact, we sometimes forget that fears that Trump remained a closet liberal motivated much of Trump’s early conservative resistance. What I want to dispute is the second point: that Trump’s damage to the credibility and principles of the conservative movement constitutes a “sunk cost.”

Hammer writes:

“Many conservatives, including myself, were fearful that the Republican Party anointing someone with Trump’s, um, ‘colorful’ personal history might pose an irrevocable moral stain on the modern conservative movement and the Republican Party which serves as that movement’s sole viable partisan vessel. To be sure, concerns about that stain have hardly abated, and there is likely no returning to social conservatives’ ‘Moral Majority’ halcyon days of the 1980s…

But here is the upshot. The jury is still out on the effect that Trump’s ‘checkered’ personal past and current habits—including but hardly limited to his trigger-happy tweeting thumbs—will have on the intellectual gravitas and solemnity of the conservative cause. But Trump has already been elected and is already our president. Therefore, in economic terms, whatever stain may afflict the movement and/or the GOP is, henceforth, necessarily a sunk cost: A cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recouped. That ought to make a monumental difference in how morally/socially conservative voters approach the 2020 presidential election, in contradistinction to the 2016 presidential election.

Let’s acknowledge that there’s some truth to this. Whatever the damage the Trump presidency does to conservatism, the best time to head it off would surely have been 2016, not 2020. We’re already doing damage control at best on this front, and that’s the way things remain for a long time. But temporary hypocrisy is not the worst thing that can befall a movement. A hypocrite can grit his teeth and sin against his principles without thereby abandoning those principles altogether. The more insidious danger comes as a movement exists in a state of hypocrisy—and the gradual, almost imperceptible decay that does over time to those principles themselves.

Hammer’s argument suggests that by the time Donald Trump was sworn into office, the damage to conservatism was already done. This seems a stretch. Consider some of these highlights of the first two years of the administration, and think about how conservatives would have responded if they had all happened during the first few weeks of 2017:

  • President Trump had floundered in the wake of a white nationalist rally at which a protester was run down by a car, saying there were “some very fine people” on both sides at the event.
  • The Trump White House had begun separating children as young as three from their illegal immigrant parents at the Mexican border for weeks on end, with administration officials arguing at intervals that the separations were necessary to deter illegal immigration and that no such policy of separation existed at all.
  • The Trump White House had declared a state of emergency on the southern border to build a wall without congressional approval.
  • It was suddenly revealed that Trump, despite repeated assurances to the contrary, had been actively negotiating a lucrative business deal in Russia during his presidential campaign, and that top campaign surrogates had eagerly met with a Russian lawyer in the hopes of getting their hands on damaging information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government.
  • It was suddenly revealed that Trump had paid off two women with whom he’d had trysts in order to keep them from telling their stories before the election.

If the damage had been done—if it really is a sunk cost—then a cynic might predict that conservatives would have just shrugged all this off, because tax cuts and Gorsuch. I’m not so sure. For many conservatives, getting used to Trump in the early days was a gingerly process; there was a lot of wincing, trying to ignore the negatives, to focus on the pleasant surprises. If the curtain had ripped open quickly, many might have jumped ship. The trouble is that the more you try ignore something, the easier it becomes to ignore. So as each of the above outrages came and went, Republicans found they could make just enough room on their balance sheets to accommodate them.

Conservatives have continued to inch toward such accommodation despite the fact that Trump has been growing seemingly more erratic over time. Consider border security: In 2017, Trump mostly contented himself with beefing up the budgets for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol and pulling the rug out from under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Last year, he went bigger: trying and failing on multiple occasions to pass a grand immigration reform bill that would, among other things, build a wall on the southern border, retool the way America approaches legal immigration, and re-establish DACA legislatively. This year, out of frustration or fear of being seen as a failure or simple impatience, he has thrown the playbook out entirely: provoking the longest government shutdown in history to try to twist Democrats into funding the wall, launching the aforementioned national emergency when that failed.

This week, Trump contemplated even wilder actions: He threatened the economically ruinous step of closing the southern border entirely. (He has since backed down on this claim, saying he’d give Mexico a “one year warning” to deal with drugs being trafficked into the U.S.) But most conservatives, by now bludgeoned nearly insensate by two years of this sort of sound and fury, barely blinked. Imagine two years more of this. Imagine six.

This is all a long way of saying that there are no “sunk costs” in ethics, political or otherwise. The last two years have looked bad for conservatives, but looking bad isn’t the worst of it. It is harmful for a person to harden himself against his own principles and better judgment; harmful to a party or a movement to be constantly berated into hardening itself against those principles by a powerful leader. This is not a one-time danger; the longer such a hardening continues, the worse it gets.

Is it possible to support Trump politically while resisting this temptation? Sure, but it’s also exhausting—Trump outputs such a heroic amount of offensive garbage that the pressure to compartmentalize it is intense. Observe how Hammer himself—again, a formerly rabid Never Trumper, and at best a grudging supporter now—still falls into patterns of sanitizing euphemism: Trump’s “checkered past” of “personal foibles.” His “occasional misguided tweet.” To be sure, he is vulgar! To be sure, he is cruel! Sorry, what were we talking about again?

It is appropriate that, to make his point, Hammer turns to the bloodless, abstracting language of economics. In other realms of human life, we recognize this sort of “what’s done is done” apathy as a terminal form of despair. It’s the mindset of an addict in the depths of a relapse bender: I’ve just thrown away everything again, so I might as well bottom out again before I try again to change. But this mindset is a mirage. Things can always grow worse—but it’s never too early to start trying to turn the corner again.

For now, though, we remain mired in the thick of it. It is a mark of how far things have gone that so many Republicans see the idea of a primary challenge to Trump not merely as inadvisable, but as positively outrageous. How many more times can we bottom out?

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.