What is Donald Trump up to, and what are his supporters to do? Is Trump betraying his supporters, or are Chuck, Nancy and the media misrepresenting his position?
For the hundredth time, I supported Ted Cruz, not Trump, for the GOP presidential nomination. But when Trump was victorious, I supported him against Hillary Clinton, and I have no regrets about that because though Trump sometimes disappoints, Clinton would have been a wholesale nightmare. Even in hindsight, it's not a close call.
I have also criticized a small fraction of conservative pundits for their seemingly obsessive knee-jerk opposition to Trump and their apparent glee when he sometimes lives down to their expectations. My main objection to some never-Trumpers is their gratuitous piling on and apparent joy in doing so, even on unfair allegations, such as those of pre-election collusion with Russia. None of us should be motivated by bragging rights — the dubious satisfaction of saying "I told you so," especially when the interests of the nation hang in the balance.
Since the primaries, I have hoped that despite my doubts about Trump's allegiance to certain conservative principles, he would be able to advance a conservative agenda more than a centrist Republican could or would. This is not because he is a so-called outsider but mainly because he has shown a willingness to fight. Whatever else you might say about the Republican Party, it has lost its backbone, particularly on budget battles.
But the courage to fight is meaningless unless you are willing to fight for the right things. Given Trump's general non-ideological bent, why should his feistiness give us any solace?
Well, Trump campaigned mostly as a conservative, and if the campaign showed him anything, it is that leftists — no matter what he may have learned living his entire life in liberal New York City — are his sworn enemies. If he hadn't chosen sides before, he had no choice now. If he hadn't been paying much attention to ideological issues before, he surely was learning now and becoming more conservative in the process.
No, I had no illusions that Trump had converted overnight to constitutional conservatism, but I was hopeful that he would make significant strides in rolling back Barack Obama's agenda. I sincerely want to hold on to that optimism.
Recently, however, Trump has given many of his supporters pause — including even some of the die-hardiest of the die-hards. Others in his camp are impervious to any evidence that Trump is faltering or is capable of it. Still others define what is good by whatever Trump does, just as some define what is bad by whatever he does, and those types are unreachable anyway.
A debate has emerged among certain Trump supporters over whether he has betrayed them by cozying up to Democratic leaders or he is playing some elaborate version of 4-D chess. Those unfazed by Trump's two-step with Pelosi and Schumer are ecstatic that he is finally taking it to Ryan and McConnell. But it will be a cold day in Hades before I rejoice in Trump's humiliating establishment Republicans when it comes at the price of abandoning his campaign pledges and a mainstream conservative agenda. Let's not lose our heads.
Admittedly, political analysis is difficult in such a chaotic, convoluted, paradigm-shifting environment. The stakes are enormously high. There are many moving parts. Political constituencies are more fluid than they've been in decades. And there is an unusually high level of intramural tension in the Republican Party. Arguably, even the conservative movement is experiencing an identity crisis, with chest thumpers from all sides claiming they are the true conservatives and everyone else is a fraud.
For me, the jury is still out. Yes, Trump is making me nervous sometimes. Reports of his vacillation wouldn't bother me so much except for his history of sympathy for certain liberal issues, his basic non-ideological bent, his desire for personal approval, his focus on the deal-making process (as distinguished from the goals to be achieved in the deals) and the presence in his inner circle of socially liberal influencers. How, then, can we not be uneasy when we read that Trump's tax cuts will punish the "wealthy," that he's abandoning his opposition to amnesty or his commitment to the wall and that he's losing interest in undoing the Iranian nuclear deal?
You feel me?
I don't want to rush to judgment and prefer to believe that Trump will quit going wobbly and make course adjustments back toward those who brought him to the dance. For the record, I happen to believe that those who brought him to the dance are essentially conservatives — not populists, racists or political cultists.
I never want to pile on Trump with those malevolently motivated to destroy him. But his opponents' bad faith must not blind us to his missteps or silence us about his policy betrayals, should they occur. Political leaders must be held accountable, sometimes on a daily basis. This is for their own good, as well as the nation's.
Just this week, we read reports of Trump's alleged deals with Democrats, and within a few hours, after significant blowback from Trump supporters, he raced to Twitter and public microphones to assure us he isn't fishtailing on the wall.
At this point, it's difficult to tell whether the media reports were completely fallacious about Trump's caving or he actually did an immediate 180. Either way, we got strong and expeditious clarification — and that can only be healthy.
If Trump's supporters don't ever criticize him for fear of strengthening the position of his opponents, then he might just strengthen the position of his opponents on his own initiative. Trump is an old hand at business, but he is new at the game of politics, and the more constructive feedback he gets the better his governance will be.