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The Crisis of Conservative Convictions

Many of the Never Trump opinion writers who pushed Trumpian policies in the Obama years are quiet now.

Pool/Getty Images

Nine months ago, when the Obama administration first issued guidance for public schools to accommodate–and end discrimination against–transgender students, National Review staff writer David French argued that then-President Barack Obama “just destroyed the traditional American public school” by “drafting every single public educational institution in the country to implement the extreme edge of the sexual revolution.” French spoke for many conservatives, especially social conservatives, who deduce the need for sex-segregated bathrooms from “the existence of the two sexes.”

To French’s credit, he is ideologically consistent: Today he celebrates the Trump administration’s withdrawal of that guidance. He points to no instances of transgender children trampling on the freedoms of their classmates, and is silent about the fact that this move will make life harder for those children. Nevertheless, he concludes, “given the letter’s radicalism, breadth, and lawlessness, repealing it should have been an easy administrative call.”

French opposed Trump’s nomination and even briefly considered running against Trump and Hillary Clinton on a third-party ticket. These days he’s more likely to praise Trump for implementing conservative policies than to criticize him, sparing most of his ire for liberals who oppose Trump consistently. But this is the appropriate posture for members of the “Never Trump” movement, which failed in the most pathetic and humiliating way precisely because it was premised on large areas of substantive agreement with Trump and a broad (though not universal) consensus that Trump was preferable to mainstream liberalism.

If anything, though, it is more common for Never Trumpers to ignore Trump’s tributes to conservatism than to praise them. Setting aside areas of obvious conservative consensus, like Trump’s decision to nominate judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, Trump’s efforts to upend Obama administration immigration, anti-discrimination, and health care policies have generated immense discontent in the country, and thus have driven the president’s natural allies away. Many of the conservatives who pushed those very policies in the Obama years are nowhere to be found.

The Trump administration’s most stark departure from Obama-era policy is its rethinking of immigration-enforcement priorities. For much of Obama’s presidency, law-abiding immigrants living in the interior of the country were generally held safe from deportation, while enforcement authorities devoted resources toward deporting violent criminals and recent arrivals. Under Trump, by contrast, nearly every undocumented immigrant in the country is vulnerable to deportation.

When Obama tried to formalize his priorities near the end of his presidency, conservatives erupted in anger, declaring with one voice that Obama had acted lawlessly, ignoring a large legal consensus that Obama was acting within his authority. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat accused Obama of drifting toward “Caesarism.” Republicans in states around the country enlisted a conservative federal judge in Texas to enjoin the program.

Trump has swung the pendulum back into territory conservatives prefer. New administration priorities upend the status quo ante, under which law-abiding immigrants with deep roots in the U.S. didn’t have to worry about getting swept up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Trump has technically not repealed a narrower Obama policy called DACA, which protected Dreamer children from deportation and allowed them to work legally in the U.S. But the president has broken faith with the promise of DACA publicly enough for the program to be considered in grave danger. Will immigrants brought to the U.S. as children willingly register with the federal government for protected status knowing that Trump immigration officials are no longer treating that status as binding?

The ensuing enforcement actions have ensnared not just Dreamers, but also elderly and infirm immigrants, domestic violence victims, and others, as you’d expect. But just as many conservatives who opposed Obama’s transgender-student guidance aren’t stepping up to praise Trump for rescinding it, the most high-profile critics of Obama’s deportation policies aren’t mounting much of a defense of Trump’s deportation regime.

So far, Trump and Republicans in Congress haven’t made much progress toward repealing the Affordable Care Act. But another test of conservative conviction will come if the GOP musters the will to scale back protections and subsidies for people who buy their own insurance, perhaps increasing the number of people in the country without coverage by millions. Nothing united conservatives in the Obama years better than the view that Obamacare was an abomination that needed to be repealed. This no longer appears to be the case.

When Obama was still in office, conservatives recognized that repealing the ACA would be a real challenge, but one to which Republicans should rise. “I’m a firm believer in scrapping Obamacare and starting over,” conservative Slate columnist Reihan Salam wrote in November 2014, when millions of people were already benefitting from the law. “But that’s much easier said than done.”

By the time the GOP unified control of government and set about trying, as instructed, to scrap Obamacare and start over, Salam declared, “The Republicans’ plan to destroy Obamacare and figure the rest out later would be bad for the party and for America.”

In each of these realms, Obama changed facts on the ground in ways that made the prospect of reversing his policies politically challenging. Throwing people off their insurance is ugly. Deporting young, ambitious immigrants is ugly. Exposing transgender teenagers to more bullying is ugly. But this was all perfectly clear when conservatives were willing to oppose Obama in the abstract. The fact that they lost the courage of their convictions the moment their opposition to Obama stopped being hypothetical makes a great deal of ink spilled from 2009-2017 look more like agitation than principled-but-pragmatic political opinion journalism.