The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) ended Saturday, and it went out with a bang. During a panel discussion about the #MeToo movement, National Review columnist Mona Charen accused the Republican Party of being hypocritical on women’s issues because a “sexual abuser” and “harasser” (her words) is “sitting in the White House.” She attempted to shame Republicans for endorsing Roy Moore in Alabama’s special U.S. Senate election in December.
In a weekend interview on MSNBC, Charen admitted her disgust with Trump—and the GOP—extends beyond his alleged sexual misconduct: “There are a great many of us . . . who do not accept this and just want someone to tell the truth, that it matters he is immoral and unethical in his treatment of women and in many other respects,” she said.
The battle between what Charen calls “traditional” conservatism and what she sees as something new and derides as “Trumpism,” won’t subside any time soon. Last week, the anti-Trump Right mocked CPAC—including fair criticism for inviting Marion Le Pen to speak—for its fealty to All Things Trump. The de facto leader of the NeverTrump tribe, Weekly Standard editor-at-large Bill Kristol, and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough lamented how CPAC was “unrecognizable” from the days when the gathering was controlled by “Bill Buckley, small government conservatives.”
Meantime, Death of Expertise author Tom Nichols, a NeverTrumper and expert tweeter, complained in a USA Today column that “Republicans once believed in limited government, fiscal restraint” but are now “bellowing drama queens whose elected representatives blow up spending caps [and] bust the deficit.” (Let’s pause to recall that most NeverTrumpers pushed for budget-busting wars earlier this century and had no qualms about doing so at the time.)
Yet the budget is a legitimate concern and I heard from a few conservatives at CPAC that they worry it’s being overlooked. While the NeverTrump crowd’s antidote to “but Gorsuch!” seems to be “but deficits!” more equanimous folks on the Right are also worried that core, green-eyeshade principles are being abandoned in favor of big, beautiful walls and fights with journalists.
In an interview with Chris Buskirk and me on the first day of CPAC, Ed Morrisey, a senior editor with Hot Air, questioned whether the rank-and-file would push back on Trump’s populist approach and return to legacy issues such as balanced budgets and entitlement reform: “This is supposed to be a fiscally conservative party and we’re throwing a lot more money at the federal budget than we used to. Conservative values are reducing the federal budget, reducing the deficit, entitlement reform. These are the types of things that just aren’t being addressed in this first year of the Trump administration.” (Buskirk acknowledged there was little, if any, appetite in Congress to tackle those issues right now.)
It could be the public’s interest in closing the federal budget gap is waning: Only 48 percent of Americans list the budget deficit as a priority, including 59 percent of Republicans. Entitlement reform, including shoring up Social Security and Medicare, does rank high among Republican voters. But considering the party’s failure to reform Obamacare as promised (thanks to obstruction by “traditional conservatives”), it’s hard to see how any meaningful changes to the largest entitlement programs will be prioritized in an election year.
So, why is budget hawkishness not only largely ignored by Trump and the GOP, but by mainstream Republican voters as well? I would argue (and did in an interview here) that Trump supporters on the Right are more energized by the president’s willingness to challenge our institutional elites, who have for too long denigrated American values and beliefs with impunity, than they are by mundane pencil-sharpening exercises. The cultural war that was launched with vigor nearly 30 years ago by some of the very people now decrying it, such as Bill Kristol, is at a boiling point. Most Republicans and a handful of commentators on the Right such as Dennis Prager know this; the Acela-corridor snobs do not.
Take, for example, the president’s war on the news media. Here is what both NeverTrump and establishment Republicans ignored: Over the past 15 years, Republicans’ trust in the media has tanked. In 2003, only 35 percent of Republicans said the news media “gets the facts straight.” By 2017, that figure was an abysmal 14 percent. While negative opinion for the past two years has probably been fueled by Trump’s attacks on “fake news” outlets such as CNN and the New York Times, it was dropping steadily before Trump even announced his candidacy, as the media became increasingly hostile to Republican ideas. Gallup summed it up this way: “The finding that a solid majority of the country believes major news organizations routinely produce false information is one with potentially significant consequences. As one example, these views may be related to Americans’ diminished trust in most major U.S. institutions and rising cynicism about the U.S. political system and elected officials.”
Other polling bears that out, and it’s unrelated to Donald Trump. Republicans’ favorable view of financial institutions, labor unions, and academia is below 50 percent. Since 2015, Republicans have developed a sharply negative opinion of higher education, with only 36 percent saying colleges and universities have a positive effect on the country. (The left-wing mobs that greet any conservative speaker on campus will further solidify that opinion.) And, of course, no institution earns more dismal marks than the government, and not just from Republicans. Overall confidence in the federal government is near an all-time low and only 22 percent of Republicans entrust Washington to do what’s right either all or most of the time, down from 52 percent in 2005. Congress doesn’t fare much better; 83 percent of Republicans disapprove of the job Congress is doing.
The only politician who has given voice to this deep mistrust and, in some cases, rage, is Donald Trump. That’s why an overwhelming majority of Republicans think Trump is a strong leader, trustworthy, and able to get things done. (Sorry, Mona.) Facing down the ruling class, even in an uncouth and semiliterate manner, is not inconsequential. The NeverTrumpers and establishment Republicans have never had the stomach for it, which is why they remain completely flummoxed by Trump’s appeal. It’s why you don’t hear the base rallying for budget cuts or Social Security lockboxes. There are only so many political battles that can be waged at a time, and as far as the majority on the Right is concerned, this one is more important. Plus, what’s the use in pursuing governmental reforms when no one trusts you to get it right? It’s sort of like talking about gun control policies while overlooking the egregious incompetence at every level of government that failed to stop the Stoneman Douglas High School massacre. Remedy that first before looking for new government fixes.
Fundamental “conservative” budget issues should still matter in Trump’s Republican Party. But until the ruling class’s integrity is restored, green eyeshades will take a back seat to boxing gloves. And those for whom budgetary concerns are their primary focus should reconsider their priorities for a while. The budget mess isn’t going anywhere, but we are in no position to fight it now until we win the political battle. It’s no one’s fault but their own that they lack the trust and the support to win their arguments. It’s time for them to side with their (mostly) political brothers-in-arms and take on the neighborhood thugs; the Democrats and cultural elites, not Trump supporters.