Donald Trump is notable among recent Republican presidential nominees in his talent for alienating conservatives. Those who disowned him during the campaign include three former chairmen of the Republican National Committee, House members Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Justin Amash of Michigan, and commentators George Will, Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol.
Four years ago, none of them could have imagined refusing to vote for the 2016 GOP presidential nominee. Trump violated their sense of what the Republican Party represents, and they and many other people on the right couldn’t accept him at the top of the ticket.
But he won, and he will enter the White House with the Republican Party controlling both houses of Congress. The question is how closely he and congressional Republicans will be aligned. If Trump adopts their agenda, it will be a happy and generally positive partnership. But if he goes his own way, they will have to decide whether to go with him.
Power offers opportunities, but also temptations. Trump will want to define the Republican agenda according to his own impulses, which are neither consistent nor predictable.
The GOP has always been the party of conservatism, but it and its presidents have not always upheld conservative principles.
Much of what Trump has advocated fits well with the goals of limited government, judicial restraint, free markets and strong national defense. Conservatives also should find plenty in common with Trump when it comes to reforming the tax code, making judicial appointments in the mold of Antonin Scalia, replacing Obamacare, eliminating onerous regulations and getting our allies to spend more on their military forces.
But he exhibits some tendencies that are not conservative at all. Among them: His suspicion of free trade, his faith that tough enforcement can overcome the failures of an irrational immigration system, his taste for expansive presidential power and his free-spending fiscal proposals.
Will Republicans in Congress and conservatives elsewhere have the backbone to resist him on issues like these? The record is not encouraging. When President George W. Bush proposed to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare — the biggest new federal entitlement since the 1960s — the House Republican leadership did everything it could to push its members into line, and they got it passed.
Why did they go along? Because they saw the electoral advantages of doling out federal benefits without asking voters to pay for them. (Billing future generations is rarely a loser at the polls.) They also found it painful to buck their own president, even when he did things that would have elicited loud Republican objections had they been done by a Democratic president.
Bush was a conservative who sometimes deviated from conservative principles. Trump’s ideology, by contrast, is something of a mystery, but it does not appear to be the product of any real attachment to Republican ideals. After eight years of Barack Obama, though, conservatives may be inclined to give Trump the benefit of every doubt.
They shouldn’t. Gaining power is a good thing. But conservatives should never forget why they wanted it.