Conservative icon William F. Buckley is famous for many things, but one of his most important contributions to the cause was what might be described as “brand management.” Though he wasn’t perfect, Buckley appreciated the importance of ensuring that unseemly fringe elements did not tarnish conservatism’s good name.
Where have you gone Bill Buckley?
Today, Donald Trump has put Republicans in the very sort of bind that Buckley sought to prevent. It really is hard to square how Ryan could call Trump’s recent attack on a Latino judge racist and yet still support him for president. As Ryan’s attempt to roll out a plan for a “better GOP ” was overshadowed by Trump’s comments, it seemed he had given away the moral authority to be the conservative opposition leader to Trump’s policies.
This abdication isn’t a temporary thing. Attempts to retroactively distance oneself from Trump bring to mind the country song that declares: “It’s a little too late to do the right thing now.” President Barack Obama is fond of promiscuously declaring people and ideas to be “on the wrong side of history,” but the truth is that these are defining moments.
Imagine Trump losing the presidency but the legacy of supporting him lingers for years. Fast forward a decade or so, and imagine Ryan or Marco Rubio — one of today’s optimistic young conservatives — giving a speech about how conservative ideas are the best policies to bring about the most joy and human flourishing. They will be right on the merits, but it won’t matter. Someone will simply point out that they once endorsed a racist misogynist with orange hair. Game over.
For some, supporting Trump, even nominally, risks tarnishing a proud legacy that took decades to accrue. On Tuesday night, I interviewed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the American Enterprise Institute and discussed his appropriately titled book, “The Long Game.”
In many ways, McConnell has been a civil rights champion in the party of Lincoln, a fact made more impressive by virtue of his coming up in Kentucky at a time when this was not terribly popular. He voted against Barry Goldwater in 1964 because of his vote against the Civil Rights Act, and supported sanctions on South Africa .
Now, McConnell is forced to balance his support of the presumptive Republican nominee with his stance on racial reconciliation and reputation as a shrewd political operator. “Even if you thought that was appropriate in any way, which I don’t,” McConnell said of Trump’s controversial comments regarding a judge of Mexican heritage, “it’s stupid to do that.”
These comments came on the heels of Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk rescinding his (semi) endorsement , of having the only African-American Republican U.S. senator, Tim Scott, call Trump’s comments “racially toxic ,” and of Trump ally Sen. Bob Corker saying “it’s up to Trump now to pivot,” and that Trump “has two to three weeks to fix his campaign or risk losing enough Republican support that it would doom his run for the presidency.” (Chuck Todd gives him five weeks — but warns he could still lose the nomination).
In the face of a changing electorate, can a GOP that has spent decades fighting off negative stereotypes afford to countenance a standard bearer who encourages even the appearance of racism?
Perhaps finally feeling chastened, Trump delivered a very different speech from a teleprompter on Tuesday night, promising “I will make you proud of our party and our movement.” The obvious speculation is that he had been reined in. And he needed to be.
That same night, Rep. Renee Ellmers— whom Trump supported — lost her primary . And, of course, Hillary Clinton had a great night, finally breaking that glass ceiling to become the first female presumptive nominee of a major party.
For now, Trump is back on his best behavior. But don’t expect it to last three days, much less three weeks. Meanwhile, the stakes are huge. I wonder if we can put a price tag on the destruction of a generation of young conservative leaders. Priceless.