The moment that the state of Pennsylvania was shockingly called for Donald Trump back in November of 2016, the fate of “Never Trump” conservatism was as doomed as that of an openly liberal host on Fox News in primetime. While this cause was on life support through 2017, however, it wasn’t until 2018 when it officially, and in many ways literally, died.
We are often too prone to attributing more significance to events that are largely symbolic than is really deserved. In this case, however, the figurative and the actual tell very much the same story, sometimes simultaneously.
This year, in very real terms, we lost George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara, Charles Krauthammer, and John McCain. Each of them was a conservative of a different stripe — arguably far more so than Trump himself — but they all shared at least some level of disdain for our allegedly Republican president.
Their deaths, all at advanced ages, are largely symbolic of the old guard of traditional Republicanism quickly fading away. But there was also a substantial practical impact of their collective passing. Had all of them lived and remained at least somewhat vibrant into 2019, a year when it looks as if the Trump presidency will be threatened by an attempt to impeach him, their highly credible personas could have been critical in convincing non “Cult 45” Republicans that it is time to finally stop selling our souls to a corrupt conman.
With their voices now all silenced (and, without their parents around to provide a nod of approval to get back into the game, George W. and Jeb Bush likely to remain on the sidelines) it is very difficult to see how any sort of legitimate counter to Trump gains traction in conservative political and media circles. For instance, with McCain gone from the Senate, and Krauthammer missing from Fox News, there are very few respected figures who would be willing and able to provide significant cover for anyone else who might dare to break away from the cult.
This underrated problem has been recently exacerbated with the retirement of Never Trump conservatives Jeff Flake and Bob Corker from the Senate. While Mitt Romney is “replacing” them, it is currently unknown if he will be bringing his balls to Washington with him. And it is quite clear that with John McCain no longer by his side, Lindsey Graham has lost his, probably due to playing too much golf with Trump.
On the media side of this equation, obviously the death of the Weekly Standard magazine, which had been a bastion of principled anti-Trumpism, is a huge blow to the cause of keeping the candle of true conservatism burning during this most hellacious of storms. When Trump had the audacity to go out of his way, just before Christmas, to stomp on their grave, and received almost no blowback from elected Republicans, it really did feel like the entire movement had just been effectively buried.
While the Weekly Standard’s death was official, 2018 also saw several key “Never Trump” voices in the conservative media significantly soften their criticism of the president. While there are still some notable exceptions, several have seemingly finally given into to the enormous commercial pressures of trying to appeal to an audience that just doesn’t want to be made to feel bad about their support of Trump.
Even two of three possible reasonable escape hatches, through which I theorized organized conservatism could survive Trump, have been pretty much blocked off in 2018. For instance, any hope that Trump supporters might awaken to reality with a heavy electoral loss in the midterms was dashed when Republicans indeed got crushed in the House, and somehow Trump’s approval ratings went slightly UP.
Similarly, there had been a hope that maybe Trump, not really in love with the job, would simply declare victory and decide not to run for re-election, thus giving anti-Trump conservatism a fighting chance to survive a shortened Trump hurricane. But now, ironically, Trump is in so much potential legal jeopardy that he basically has no choice but to run for reelection so that he can benefit from the protections of his office as long as possible.
As for the third path to enduring Trump — Robert Mueller coming up with a blockbuster final report — while that is still theoretically possible, based on my interview this weekend with Russian Roulette co-author Michael Isikoff, I currently doubt the likelihood of that scenario. Regardless, a strong case can be made that, even if that happens, it is simply too late to matter much within conservatism. As, with everyone who really matters completely invested in his fate, the body is now cold, lifeless, and beyond reviving.
Heck, just this past weekend, our Republican president brutally attacked the Weekly Standard, the First Amendment, the FBI, the rule of law, James Comey, and Robert Mueller, while defending vile 9/11 Truther Jerome Corsi and the hideously corrupt Democrat Rob Blagojevich. There can no longer be any legitimate opposition to Trump within conservatism because, as insane as it is to contemplate, Trump now IS conservatism.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at [email protected]
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This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.