We’re well into year two of the Trump presidency, and well past the time when any lingering intramural hard feelings on the conservative side should’ve been smoothed over. That’s how it normally goes — egos get punctured in the primaries, expectations get modified based on who the actual candidate is, and then the winning party unites and gets down to governing.
Instead, assorted sub-groups within the conservative camp are going at each other like family members at the reading of Michael Jackson’s will. People who were ostensibly allies just a couple of years ago now only communicate through argument. And those arguments blow right through Reasonable Disagreement City on the express train to Contemptville, where sober debate is thin on the ground.
There’s very little “my reasonable colleague” this or “agree to disagree” that among the Republican factions. You’re either a Trumpkin throne-sniffer who will do anything to gain proximity to power, or a #NeverTrump charlatan who was never really conservative and never really wanted to win anything anyway.
I think it’s entirely possible that some people are less than truthful about their ideological allegiances or ethical standards or both… but not everybody. All the smart, principled conservatives didn’t suddenly become dumb and unprincipled just because of one election. Still, that seems to be the starting assumption of a lot of conservative commentary.
If you can avoid being distracted by the crisis du jour and look at the facts of the Trump presidency so far, it’s hard to deny that he’s done a lot of the things that conservatives traditionally want presidents to do. And while my math may not be entirely accurate, it’s also hard to deny that the policies of the Trump White House are about a million billion times better than the policies we would’ve gotten from the Hillary Clinton White House.
Trump’s opponents among the conservative commentariat never mention any of that, though. They hammer on Trump administration buffoonery, which, truth be told, is probably the pundit equivalent of popping a really long and satisfying sheet of bubble wrap. But the cabinet appointments? The judges? The regulatory rollback? Never heard of ’em.
This isn’t the first time a president has been less than popular with a large segment of his own party, but winning the presidency (which, I’m told, is one of the major goals of political parties) is usually enough to inspire at least the appearance of unity. Why is there still such division? I think the answer lies in a prison camp in Burma.
In the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, Alec Guiness plays Colonel Nicholson, the leader of a company of soldiers captured by the Japanese in World War II and forced to work as prison laborers on the titular bridge. Though a prisoner, Nicholson refuses to let his men be treated as slave labor. He insists on proper procedures and good military order in all things, and his endurance wins out over the sadistic prison camp commander. In the end, his men keep their dignity, but in so doing they build a better bridge for his enemy than they could’ve built themselves.
Nicholson is often used as a metaphor for people who thoughtlessly hurt their own cause by helping their opponents. Jonah Goldberg has used the reference himself a couple of times, once specifically to refer to people who supported Trump in the primaries.
But in the movie, Nicholson isn’t a bad guy. He’s an admirable guy. He stood for what he believed in the face of threats and abuse. He fought the battle that was in front of him and never gave in, and he won.
The problem was that the objective of Nicholson in his battle had diverged from the objective of others fighting the greater war. From where he stood, Nicholson saw victory in showing up his captors, demonstrating that the British character was better. That effort culminated in building a superior bridge. For the greater war effort, on the other hand, the objective was to blow that bridge up.
Trump has forced a divergence of goals. Many conservatives have devoted their lives to the twin pursuits of promoting moral leadership and winning elections, and before Trump, they felt they could pursue both those goals at once. But the rise of Trump split those goals in twain, like a weekend gambler splitting 7’s at the Trump Taj Mahal.
There is a class of conservative thought leaders who believe that to win is to demonstrate that the conservative character is better. When they attack Trump’s character flaws, they’re not betraying conservatism or trying to throw the match to the Democrats. They’re fighting the war that’s in front of them. They believe that maintaining the integrity of the Republican brand is ultimately the path to victory.
Meanwhile, there’s another group of conservatives who believe that they’ve been handed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strap satchel charges to the pilings and blow the whole shebang sky-high. They’re willing, for the time being, to eschew moral victories (in both senses of the term) to gain victory victories.
I think the “Colonel Nicholson” label is applicable, but contra Jonah Goldberg, I think it applies more to Trump’s conservative detractors than his supporters. Both these groups want to advance conservative principles. But they define victory differently from each other now. So they grapple like people who aren’t on the same side, even though they are.
I don’t think that Colonel Nicholson conservatives will ever have a “What have I done?” moment, though, nor should they. It is good to have a faction within a party that can act as the party’s conscience, always pushing for higher standards of integrity and character. But sometimes you need commandos too. And it would be nice if the conscience of the party could take a break now and then to enjoy the sound of a good explosion.