Why conservative attacks on Trump and his GOP sycophants are the most cutting

The op-ed sections of various traditional media outlets have provided ample opportunity over the past few years for Donald Trump’s many detractors to vent their contempt and frustration. This is an opportunity to call out not only Trump’s heinous behavior but also the behavior of those who continue to pledge their support to him, in spite of—or because of—his actions. Based on the sheer amount of impassioned invective alone, there’s little doubt that Trump has proven to be the most polarizing figure in our nation’s political history.  

Most of that criticism has come from the left side of the political aisle. Adam Serwer’s essay in The Atlantic, aptly titled ”The Cruelty Is the Point,” described the malicious Trump mentality and its attraction for Trump’s supporter base as well as could be imagined. Charles Blow of The New York Times certainly deserves accolades for his tireless efforts in the wake of the 2016 election to contextualize, among other things, Trump’s appeal in terms of racism. And though it’s not clear whether she’d identify as left-leaning, Jane Mayer’s investigative work produced what is undoubtedly some of the best journalism about Trump. Obviously this list omits a lot of stellar writers whose political sensibilities, one way or another, have combined to form a durable and thorough evisceration of Trump and Trumpism.

But a discrete line of attack from certain conservatives, many of whom have styled themselves “Never Trumpers,” has also emerged as particularly acute over the past eight years. The writings of The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, The Atlantic’s David Frum and Tom Nichols, and certain pieces written by David French and even Robert Kagan have been unusually acute in conveying an almost-palpable indignation and outright disgust. And this is not just aimed at Trump but at their fellow conservatives who have so obsequiously debased themselves by adhering to him. 

Of course, liberals are outraged and disgusted by Trump as well. But there is a wounded betrayal infusing the critiques by these (some could be called “former”) conservatives that invigorates their rhetoric to levels that even the most ardent anti-Trump voices from the left can’t quite capture. Something that makes their feelings of disgust stand out with a peculiar, inscrutable resonance that liberals, by definition, lack to adequately express.

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This phenomenon is important because it provides a unique reminder of just how far the Republican Party has fallen. To fully comprehend it, though, it’s helpful to try to imagine ourselves experiencing the events of the past eight years from the same vantage point as these now-disaffected Republicans. 

This is the point where many will remind us that these same Republicans (some of them former die-hard neo-cons who led the cheerleading for George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraq War) are responsible for Trump’s ascension in the first place. That it also led to the descent of the GOP into its current putrescent, cadaverous state is the natural, inevitable outcome of their efforts. The only way to understand that is to imagine—as Democrats—what our reactions would be under similar circumstances. And putting it mildly, that is not easy.

First, you have to assume that for the better part of their waking political lives these folks—like Democrats—proceeded under the assumption that theirs was the “proper” course for the country, that their values were “good” values that ultimately portended a “good” result for the nation. They never, ever anticipated that someone possessed of such pervasive duplicity, outright fraudulence, and raw criminal mindset as Donald Trump could ever establish such complete, unquestionable domination of their party. They never anticipated that all of the racist dog-whistles their party relied upon for decades to muster their voters would suddenly be unleashed and openly normalized. They never foresaw that, facing the threat of demographic irrelevancy, their party and its leader would revert to openly embracing violent, murderous dictators and welcoming their meddling in our elections as an effort to preserve their political power. 

For Democrats to really appreciate the overwhelming degree of cognitive dissonance that clearly discomfits these “Never-Trumpers,” some analogies have to be drawn from an “alternate universe.” Imagine that instead of the morally upright, civic-minded fellow we all know, Barack Obama had spent the entirety of his life as a self-aggrandizing, misogynist blowhard with a long track record of corrupt business ventures, serial infidelity, and dependence on Russian financial largesse. Imagine him crudely projecting his own moral decrepitude on his opponent and eagerly allying himself with some of the most insidious and criminal personages in the country to attain the presidency. Imagine that instead of Michelle, Sasha, and Malia flanking him his offspring were the likes of Melania, Ivanka, Donald Jr., and Eric, for whom the only salient characteristics were grifting off their father’s existence. Imagine him eagerly and actively soliciting the assistance of our most ruthless strategic enemies to gain the presidency. 

Would Democrats enthusiastically elect such a person to represent them? Not very likely, but let’s just imagine they did. And in one of his first official acts as president, Obama proceeded to dispatch his openly racist underlings to implement a policy of child kidnapping toward undocumented immigrants and permanently separating them from their mothers and fathers. Imagine a long train of his own hand-picked officials resigning to write books decrying his absolute incompetence and sociopathic instability. Imagine him trying to condition military assistance to an erstwhile ally upon inventing political dirt on his presumed opponent in the next election. Meanwhile, imagine his fellow Democrats in Congress ignoring, then emulating his behavior. And they refused to criticize him and actively engaged themselves in performative, imitative acts, rubber-stamping his selection of political candidates. And all of those candidates invariably displayed the same corrupt tendencies before they went on to overwhelmingly lose in the next election.

Then imagine the world is stricken by the worst pandemic in a century, and rather than rallying to protect Americans, the Democratic president is more concerned with his own political viability. He and his closest advisers openly plan to leverage the pandemic against his political opposition, hiring quack physician advisers to ridicule the medical establishment and encourage the American people to eschew protecting themselves. All of this is being done, mind you, with the eager cooperation and praise of the Democratic Party and Democratic voters, many of whom begin to outdo themselves with public displays of obsequious sycophancy. During this interlude, nearly 1 million Americans die, a large number of those deaths stemming directly or indirectly from this president’s malevolent inaction.

Obviously at this point, any moral justification or excuses for such a hideous transformation affecting a political party would have long since evaporated. Which brings us back to reality, a reality that these “conservatives” appalled by Trump surely recognize: that Democrats would never, ever have allowed this to happen. Period.

But Republicans didn’t do that. In fact, they did the exact opposite, affirming and cementing their abandonment of all morality, all respect for the nation and its institutions, probably forever. Every action by Republicans since Trump lost in 2020 has revealed their party and almost all of its voters as swirling ever-downward in a nihilistic death spiral, from which there appears to be no return. Rather than acknowledge their gross, self-destructive miscalculation, they’ve simply doubled down like lemmings, eagerly chasing Trump as they rush toward the cliff’s edge.

And all during this time they’ve continuously excoriated—at times violently threatening—any Republican who refuses to go along with them. The storming of the Capitol by members of Trump’s voting base on Jan. 6 didn’t change their minds. Trump’s second impeachment didn’t change their minds. The serial lies about the election and Trump’s submergence beneath the weight of harsh criminal and civil liability didn’t change them, either.

The “Never-Trumpers” were, from the outset, operating under at least the assumption that their beliefs and goals were rooted in some semblance of civic responsibility, one which they—misguidedly or not—believed would serve the nation. Whether that belief was actually well-founded is or not is beside the point; the sad reality is that for them, there simply is no longer any place to go. As David French obliquely pointed out in his latest piece in The New York Times, their fellow Republicans really don’t want them. And Democrats don’t particularly need them, either. They have lost their tribe and realistically don’t seem to stand much chance of ever getting it back in their lifetimes. They could, of course, become Democrats (Jennifer Rubin said in 2020 she’s already one). That may just be a bridge too far for some of them, for whatever reasons.

But they still have a voice—an unusually strong one, because their acute sense of betrayal has put them in an uniquely shrewd position to bear witness to the self-destruction their party has wrought. Historically (in this country, at least), a political party must have some commonality of purpose, rooted in some actual benefit to the society that sustains it. When the whims of a single leader become the sole reason a party continues to exist, that party is no more than a cult, and when cults finally die they tend to collapse. This country has, however, never seen a political party abandon itself the way the modern Republican Party has abandoned itself to Trump, and there’s a chance that the cult will continue for some time even after Trump himself departs the stage.

But ultimately—maybe sooner, maybe later—it will implode. And after that happens, somebody (at least) has to be around to pick up the pieces, however ugly and painful a task that’s going to be.

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