In the world of op-eds and talking heads a campaign is underway to unseat President Donald Trump in the Republican primary. In December, the New Yorker put forward former Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who retired with a negative approval rating in his own state, or Michael Bloomberg, if he switched parties again after re-registering as a Democrat last October. The Washington Post, an unusual counselor for Republican primary voters, shopped Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and former Ohio Governor John Kasich as potential insurgent leaders.
For their part, principled conservatives ought to oppose a primary challenge to President Trump. From a prudential view of politics, concerned with both the universals and the particulars, we may in any given circumstance perceive virtuous ends and act so as to best attain them. If one aims to see America well-governed, domestic liberty and constitutionalism respected, and American power judiciously used abroad, then prudence dictates that a primary challenge to Trump is patent political folly.
Turning to the particulars, it is politically impossible to successfully defeat President Trump in a Republican primary. While presidential approval polls abound and are breathlessly reported, careful examination of the most recent and targeted data is revealing. On January 27th a Monmouth poll found that “43 percent of registered Republicans would like to see [Trump] face a primary challenge.” However, when Monmouth asked the same Republicans if they would support names like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, or Kasich in a primary bid, Trump won by hefty margins — even among the Republicans who preferred a primary challenge! Many Republicans may not be entirely satisfied with President Trump, but the majority of even the most reticent Republican voters prefer him to the “viable” alternative candidates. Practically speaking, a primary against Trump would amount only to a self-inflicted wound, hurting Republican messaging and fundraising in a general election. This may explain why HarrisX polling found 91 percent of Democrats support a Republican primary challenge.
Moreover, it is impossible to win a general election with anyone but President Trump. If we swap horses now, we may end up with a donkey. Like it or not, American politics has changed. The margin of victory against the Clinton machine in 2016 was slim and largely carried by Trump’s appeal to working-class Americans — a group President Trump carried into the Republican Party. Hillsdale conservatives did not win the election for Trump. And yet, President Trump listens to conservatives and staffs his administration with them to a great extent — much to his, and the nation’s, benefit.
Some conservatives may support a primary challenge to obtain a more “pure” candidate. In reality, any primary challenge to Trump will come from the center. As Kasich’s advisors have no doubt informed him, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has already staked out the centrist position in the general election amid withering criticism from the left. And given the lack of applause for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a conservative is unlikely to find a preferable candidate among this crowd. In the end, conservatives cannot allow the idea of the perfect to become an enemy of the good. Especially if a “perfect” candidate isn’t among the options.
None of the preceding observations are person-worship, an all too common accusation — even in this paper — against many who support the President. Conservatives recognize that human beings are fallen. No reasonable participant in politics supports a campaign expecting a messiah. The same goes for governance. Pundits frequently comment that Hillary Clinton is no longer on the ballot, but now the conservative beholds even more frightening alternatives. Literal infanticide and 90 percent tax rates are entering the political mainstream with shocking rapidity. On the other hand, Trump is no longer unknown, as he was in 2016. Of course mixed, Trump’s track record has been pro-life, pro-business, pro-rule of law, and pro-America. That’s a good look for our president.
Churchill rejoined the Conservative Party when his former party allowed Labour to form a government and usher the specter of socialism into Great Britain. While he still had tremendous disagreements with the Conservatives, he asserted that “the only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.” Conservatism has not dumped its principles for a person over the last two years. America has President Trump for four or, I hope, eight years, but it is incumbent on each of us, individually and through institutions such as the college, to ensure that its principles will be both preserved and aired in the public square for years to come.