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My Two Cents: Should Conservatives Back Trump in 2020?

To those conservatives who are rushing to pledge support for Trump 2020, I ask, “What’s your hurry?”

Over the past few weeks, many Trump-critical conservatives have decided to draw lines in the sand over President Trump and the 2020 election. Some have reluctantly decided to support the president’s re-election while others have become full-fledged passengers on the Trump Train. Still others are restating their belief that Trump does not deserve conservative support. I may as well jump on the bandwagon and put in my two cents.

I didn’t vote for Trump or Hillary in 2016, choosing instead to cast a protest vote with a third-party candidate. I didn’t believe that either of the major party candidates was a viable choice for president. They were both bad candidates, the worst choices in American history, for different but sometimes overlapping reasons.

I laid out my reasons for not supporting Trump in an op-ed in September 2016. At that point, Trump was still somewhat of an unknown quantity. I listed a bevy of reasons that Trump was unworthy of the privilege of being elected president, some based on his past and some based on his potential actions in office. I wasn’t right about everything and didn’t expect to be since some of the possibilities that I saw were mutually exclusive. For example, you can’t exercise authoritarian control and be incompetent at the same time (yet Donald Trump has almost managed to do this). On the other hand, I was far from being wrong about everything.

After his election, I gave President Trump the benefit of the doubt. I supported his policy where it was good and opposed it when it was bad. In particular, I supported tax reform and the Republican attempt to reform Obamacare. By the end of 2017, after a year of quasi-normal Republican policy and quasi-normal presidential behavior, I was questioning whether I should support Trump’s certain attempt at re-election.

Then came 2018. My guess is that Donald Trump became more comfortable in the role of president in his second year and stopped paying attention to his advisors. The results were predictable and 2018 was a disastrous year for anyone who cares about conservative policy.

A popular trope among some conservatives is that they dislike Trump’s behavior but like his policy. To them, I say that his policy ain’t great. 2018 brought the war of words with Kim Jong Un and the subsequent reversal of traditional US policy to allow two summit meetings without preconditions, trade wars with friend and foe alike, the embarrassing summit with Vladimir Putin, the bump stock ban, bailouts for farmers impacted by the trade wars, new restrictions on legal immigration, insults for NATO allies, the Hobson’s choice of a withdrawal from NAFTA or affirming an inferior treaty, a spur-of-the-moment decision to withdraw from Syria, the ill-advised government shutdown, and deficits even larger than those under Barack Obama to name a few.

To cap off 2018, two of Trump’s best senior advisors, Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis, were shown the door. It seems to me that these men had been a restraining and guiding force for President Trump. I wrote at the time that without their influence, Trump was unchained and “left to his own devices with no one to check his behavior” and said, “In this phase, we can expect the president to pander to his base by embracing policy positions that he has been advised against until now.” That has proven true already with the president’s blatant attempt to bypass Congress by declaring a national emergency.

If everything else that President Trump did was ideal and perfectly enacted, I’d still have problems voting for him because of the national emergency. Trump’s move is much more egregious than any executive overreach by Barack Obama, which I also opposed, and sets a horrible precedent for future administrations. If Republicans and conservatives (and the two are not the same although there is some overlap) are to have any credibility on the issue of abuse of executive authority, Trump’s power grab must be opposed.

To those conservatives who are rushing to pledge support for Trump 2020, I ask, “What’s your hurry?” The first primary is almost a year away and we don’t even know who is running yet. Given Trump’s recent escapades, a year gives him plenty of time self-destruct and lose support, even among Republicans. It may seem unlikely at this point, but it is not impossible. It is ironic, however, that given Mr. Trump’s left-of-center record on many issues many conservatives will reject other Republican candidates as too liberal.

The idea that conservatives must support Trump to avoid a radical Democrat in another “Flight 93 election” also does not bear up under scrutiny. At least not yet. With almost 20 Democrat candidates, there is no way of knowing who the Democratic nominee will be. It definitely won’t be the new favorite whipping “persons,” Alexandria Ocasio Cortez or Ilhan Omar. Neither will Nancy Pelosi. It is also unlikely to be Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren. There are moderate Democrats in the running who stand a decent chance of being nominated.

For me, the unworthiness of Democrats does not override President Trump’s own unfitness to lead the country. A race between Trump and a radical Democrat would leave me exactly where I was in 2016, especially given the fact that President Trump will, by then, have spent four years proving to me that he shouldn’t be near the levers of power. This is especially true since the Republicans who said that they would hold Trump accountable in 2016 have failed to follow through on their promise.

In one area, Trump’s own success works against his re-election. In 2016, the Supreme Court loomed large and the possibility that Hillary Clinton would tip the balance of the Court to the left swayed many voters toward Trump. That is no longer true in 2020. The confirmations of Neal Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh have secured the centrist (if not conservative thanks to John Roberts and Kavanaugh himself) balance of the Court. A Democratic president appointing a successor to Ruth Bader Ginsburg would not shift the balance.

Finally, for those who desperately want to avoid a Democratic victory, the answer is not to go all-in for Trump. The 2018 midterms were an all-hands-on-deck election in which Republicans were highly (although belatedly) motivated to get-out-the-vote. They still lost and lost big, due in no small part to President Trump. If the 2020 election is a referendum on Trump, and it probably will be, Republicans will be in trouble. By hitching the party to a sinking ship (to mix a metaphor) and shutting out challengers, Republicans are doing their part to ensure that the next president will be Bernie Sanders.

So, what are my plans for 2020? I’m keeping my options open, just as everyone should. There is always the chance that the Democrats will nominate a good candidate or that Donald Trump will experience a sudden outbreak of common sense. I’m not holding my breath for either outcome.

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