Karen Handel’s narrow victory over Jon Ossoff in last night’s special election in Georgia shows how Republicans can keep their coalition together despite President Donald Trump’s unpopularity. True, Trump was a drag on Handel, who won by four points in a conservative district that Tom Price, now Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, carried by 23 points just six months ago. But in the end, Handel convinced enough Republicans to come home to the party, which she did by shrewdly realizing what unifies the party: anti-anti-Trumpism.
During the campaign, Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, took care to avoid mentioning Trump’s name whenever possible, referring to him only as “the president.” But as David Weigel reported in the Washington Post, Handel and her political allies ran a tribalist campaign designed to remind Republicans voters that, whatever they might feel about Trump, they hate his opponents more. They relentlessly linked Ossoff to Trump’s critics, from establishment figures like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to outliers such as controversial comedian Kathy Griffin.
“Griffin, whose involvement in the race was limited to one April tweet in support of Ossoff, has now been linked to [Bernie] Sanders and Pelosi in a lineup of ‘childish radicals’ who back the Democrat,” Weigel wrote. “The ad strategy, and the campaign visit from Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, have had almost nothing to say about what Republicans were working on in Washington. The message was that Republicans would feel terrible if they had to watch Democrats celebrate.”
Handel hit on the magic formula for keeping Republican voters from jumping ship: a politics of negative partisanship taken to its logical extreme, where political identity is based solely on opposition to the other side. This anti-anti-Trumpism is now the glue holding together the otherwise fraying Republican coalition. It’s a weirdly contorted ideology, a counter-punching worldview that shows that the power of hatred can be the strongest force in politics.
Anti-anti-Trumpism is a natural outgrowth of longstanding Republican tendencies toward negative politics, which ramped up in the 1990s when then–House Speaker Newt Gingrich and fellow Republicans made opposing President Bill Clinton the primary feature of their party. But this anti-Democratic and anti-liberal philosophy has been updated today to account for an unpopular Republican president: Whatever you dislike about Trump, rest assured his opponents are far worse.
Anti-anti-Trumpism pervades conservative thinking, and is especially strong in an unexpected quarter: among “Never Trump” Republicans. Media outlets like National Review and The Federalist, which once warned that Trump was a menace to conservatism, are now devoted to decrying the president’s critics, sometimes portraying them as subversives who will stop at nothing, not even violence, to defeat Trump. Matt Lewis, a conservative writer at the Daily Beast, on Wednesday lamented this “shift” at The Federalist, writing, “It’s one thing to point out the left’s hypocrisy and the media’s hyperventilation; it’s another thing to cast Trump as a victim.”
Anti-anti-Trumpism is an increasingly comfortable mode for many conservatives because it allows them to maintain a right-wing identity, and support the Republican Congress, without affirmatively backing the toxic president himself. It’s an especially convenient position for traditional conservative writers who want to remain relevant—that is, to retain their readership—in the age of Trump. “The anti-anti-Trump position is a safe one,” John Ziegler, a Mediaite columnist and conservative talk show host, told Lewis, “because you’re giving the Trump cult what they want while you’re also trying to pretend you’re standing on some sort of principle.”
The powerful appeal of anti-anti-Trumpism is evident in the latest New York Times column by David Brooks, once the embodiment of intellectual Never Trumpism. Brooks compares the ongoing Russia investigation with the fake Whitewater scandal that Republicans ginned up in the 1990s, a comparison that immediately falls apart when Brooks admits he doesn’t even know what Whitewater was all about: “I was the op-ed editor at The Wall Street Journal at the peak of the Whitewater scandal. We ran a series of investigative pieces ‘raising serious questions’ (as we say in the scandal business) about the nefarious things the Clintons were thought to have done back in Arkansas. Now I confess I couldn’t follow all the actual allegations made in those essays.”
Starting from this place of ignorance, Brooks confidently concludes, “In retrospect Whitewater seems overblown. And yet it has to be confessed that, at least so far, the Whitewater scandal was far more substantive than the Russia-collusion scandal now gripping Washington. There may be a giant revelation still to come. But as the Trump-Russia story has evolved, it is striking how little evidence there is that any underlying crime occurred—that there was any actual collusion between the Donald Trump campaign and the Russians.” He later writes that “frankly, on my list of reasons Trump is unfit for the presidency, the Russia-collusion story ranks number 971.”
The Whitewater scandal grew out of investments the Clintons made with friends Jim and Susan McDougal in Arkansas in the 1970s and 1980s. While the McDougals received felony convictions for various shady business dealings, multiple government inquiries found no evidence connecting these crimes to the Clintons and no member of the Clinton administration was implicated. The Russia investigation has already had far more real-world consequences—for starters, the resignation of national security advisor Michael Flynn and the firing of FBI Director James Comey. And let’s not forget what started it all: Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the intent of helping Trump, and perhaps were responsible for his election. The Russia investigation is still in its early days, but it is already much closer to Watergate—which, it’s worth noting, began with the burglarization of a Democratic Party office by Nixon White House operatives, not a widespread hacking campaign by a hostile foreign power—than Whitewater.
Why is David Brooks suddenly running interference for Trump? For the same reason that National Review and The Federalist have become organs for attacking Trump’s foes, and that most Republican voters reverted to partisan loyalty and voted for Handel: Politics is tribal. Brooks might present himself as a thoughtful, above-the-fray conservative, but at the end of the day, he too feels the tug of loyalty. A Republican president is being attacked, and his instinct is to find extenuating reasons for the man’s controversial actions.
In making sense of anti-anti-Trumpism, Lewis wrote that “the Trump presidency is dangerous for conservatives, in part because it confuses things. It’s hard to justify your existence as a balance to the liberal media if you are spending most of your time criticizing a Republican president.” This may well be what Brooks, a fierce critic of Trump last year, has come to realize. But his essays are now weaker for it. As Lewis wrote, “If you’re not keen on defending the indefensible (which would be most of Trump’s rhetoric), you end up making a lot of tu quoque arguments that become hackneyed and predictable.”
Trump himself might even realize the power of anti-anti-Trumpism—that would explain his otherwise inexplicable decision to keep harping on “Crooked H,” more than half a year after he defeated her. Because anti-anti-Trumpism is the cohesive force keeping the Republicans together, we can expect both Trump and other Republicans’ to continue to demonize his critics at every turn. This will only intensify as Trump finds himself in more political trouble—and it should give Democrats pause. Ossoff, like Clinton before him, bet that he could win over enough disaffected Republicans to win. But in this age of negative partisanship, as Tuesday night’s results prove, it’s extremely hard to create enough converts. As they strategize for next year’s midterms, Democrats should accept the indomitable force of anti-anti-Trumpism and focus instead on energizing the very people whom anti-anti-Trumpers are demonizing.