Conservatives go after Trump. What took them so long?

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In the past week, Republicans have gone on the offensive against Donald Trump. Marco Rubio has been notably pointed on the campaign trail and, more significantly, conservative activists and party stalwarts have pledged to oppose Trump in no uncertain terms. They’ve taken to web outlets and social media platforms with a #NeverTrump hashtag and soaring rhetoric about how good people with a conscience cannot allow a man who refuses to renounce the KKK, among many other transgressions, to attain the office of the presidency. 

I’m happy to see all of this as, no matter what has driven Trump’s rise (not all of it racist appeal, even if the racism has been a useful accelerant for an already smoldering fire), the man and his message are simply toxic and unfit for the presidency. He should be and must be stopped. Not just in the general election, for which some of my friends on the left are content to wait, enjoying as they are the Republican meltdown, but even now, in the primaries. Even if another Republican emerging makes the general election more difficult for Democrats. Yes, I understand electoral game theory, but one does not play games with fascists. 

All of that being said, I can’t help but wonder where all of this Trump opposition was several months ago. 

Trump has been trafficking in ugliness since at least last summer. In the very speech with which he announced his candidacy last June, he compared Mexican immigrants to “rapists” and soon broadened the scope to all Latinos, calling them “killers” as well. One of his first attacks of Jeb Bush involved him taking derisive shots at his “Mexican wife.” When told that two of his followers attacked a Mexican man he praised them for their “passion.” He dismissed a Latino reporter in a press conference last summer by telling him to “go back to Univision.”

It’s likewise been many, many months since he dismissed John McCain’s military service and time as a POW, saying he “liked soldiers who weren’t captured.” He went after GOP rival Carly Fiorina – and other women who opposed him – on the basis of their looks and has never hesitated to hurl sexist slurs and insults. He told bald-faced lies about the behavior of Muslims and Arab-Americans in New York and New Jersey on 9/11, claiming they cheered when the towers fell. He later demonized Syrian refugees and proposed a total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. He praised the despotic Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader.” He bragged about how he could shoot someone in the face in the middle of a city street and that his popularity would only rise. And this is just scratching the surface of his odiousness. 

Obviously none of these things have deterred those who support Trump. Indeed, his base has considered every outrageous thing he has said to be a selling point, not a reason for pause. They consider any and all criticisms of Trump as validation. His base of support is devoted in the extreme. I don’t offer any of this to try to persuade them not to support the guy. That, I believe, is fairly hopeless at this point. There is a bedrock ~30-35% of Republican primary voters who will be with Trump until the heavens fall. 

I do wonder, however, why none of those statements, positions or inherent qualities of Trump inspired non-Trump supporters in the GOP to go after him before now.

Until very, very recently no one in any position of authority in the conservative movement or the Republican party had the appetite to take on Trump head-on. Charitably, I’d mark late January’s “Against Trump” issue of the National Review as the starting point for the GOP’s anti-Trump efforts, but it was only in the last week and a half that Marco Rubio himself went after him. Last week’s debate – the 10th of this campaign – was the first one in which any candidate seriously took Trump on. No one ran negative ads against him, let alone mounted a sustained, advertising campaign against him, until just before the Iowa caucuses.  

Before all of this the extent of the right’s anti-Trump efforts was soft denial. “Keep Calm, it Won’t Be Trump” was the mantra of conservatives. Such a statement is passive in the extreme. If anything it counsels against action, suggesting that to speak out or campaign against Trump would be hysterical and unnecessary. Now the very same people who promoted such sentiments are among the most passionate anti-Trump voices, describing his threat in the starkest of terms. This despite the fact that Trump was spewing hatred and bile and polling as a frontrunner months ago. 

What has changed? 

Certainly not Trump’s rhetoric or the rhetoric or acts of his followers. They continue to demonize racial, ethnic and religious minorities and continue to prefer intimidation to persuasion. Not Trump’s quite obviously hollow conservative credentials, which were seen as phony immediately after the announcement of his candidacy if not before. No, the only thing that has changed is that Trump is actually winning primaries and looks to destabilize both the Republican party and the conservative movement. The once seemingly inevitable consolidation of the GOP field and the ascension of, say, Rubio, has not come to pass and the notion of a Trump candidacy resulting in a Hillary Clinton presidency and, even worse, the loss of a Republican majority in Congress, is a distinct possibility. Trump is now public enemy number one of conservatives, not because of the ugliness and depravity he represents, but because he threatens their claim to power. 

Conservatives’ preoccupation with power over principles explains why they could not and did not attack Trump before now. To do so would require attacking Trump’s rhetoric and alienating his supporters. Which would be problematic given that conservatives have trafficked in softer and more veiled versions of the same stuff for years and appealed to many of the same supporters. One need not look hard for examples of mainstream Republicans and conservatives implying that Latinos are inherently threats, that women can be dismissed if they are not sexually appealing and that Muslims must be marginalized or eliminated at any cost. They have always been far less obvious about it when they do it – there is always a thread of plausible deniability to such assertions – but the same message has long been communicated or, at the very least, tolerated.

Trump’s genius, such as it is, is saying directly what others were only saying obliquely. That doing so was a more effective means of attracting the support of the small but fervent minority of the Republican party which likes to hear that stuff. Unlike some on the left I don’t believe most Republicans actually believe that stuff, but most Republicans have long been willing to tolerate those who do believe it in order to bolster their election prospects. The purely conservative message only has so much appeal. To maintain majorities and win elections, the Trump Rump has been essential, going all the way back to 1960s political realignment and Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Democrats used to rely on these people before the Civil Rights Movement changed the game and Republicans have relied on them since. Now these cretins have found another outlet and conservatives are beside themselves.  

From a purely strategic point of view all of this is understandable: mobilize now to neutralize a threat. But this realignment creates a dilemma for conservatives who seek to combat Trump. How do you go after someone whose message, in softer terms, you’ve never vocally opposed and have tacitly approved? How do you call out Trump’s disingenuous claims that he is being targeted by an anti-Christian, P.C. conspiracy when you have fully endorsed the idea that such conspiracies exist for so long? How do you argue that the man is not going to serve the interests of the desperate and marginalized people who support him when your very own platform, for 40 years, has been that if you only give more to the rich it will eventually trickle down to the desperate and marginalized? It’s a tough trick to be sure.

I don’t take any pleasure in the difficulty conservatives are having in beating back Trump. As I said before, I am not among those who are amused by Trump’s rise or who are eager for his nomination because I think it may help my preferred candidate in the general election. Anything can happen in an election. Stumbles, scandal or worse. A Trump nomination makes him more likely to be president than a Trump defeat now and the notion of a Trump presidency is too horrifying to contemplate. He should be and must be stopped and I hope my friends in the Republican party are able to stop him. 

But it sure would’ve been easier for them to have done so if they had started months ago. It sure would’ve been easier to oppose him and all of the odious things he stands for if more in his party had objected to them when first uttered and his odiousness was first made plain to see. Rather, they waited until he became a strategic threat and now they have to play catchup.

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Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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