Rothman’s column, in May, told a story in which Trump was restoring progressive control of the Republican party, after conservatives had seized it. Rothman correctly equated conservatism with the movement organized around Barry Goldwater. Rothman did concede that Goldwater opposed civil rights legislation, but he dismissed this as ancillary to his beliefs. (“Goldwater’s brand of conservatism — so doctrinaire that he opposed the Civil Rights Act’s Sections II and VII because they would impose on the private sector racial quotas and could not be enforced but through a police presence.”) And so, in Rothman’s mind, Trumpism is the repudiation of Goldwater’s conservatism. But if you acknowledge that Goldwater’s rejection of civil rights was the basis of his electoral appeal rather than an extraneous detail, and that the conservative movement opposed liberal Republicans in the 1960s explicitly because the liberals favored civil rights, then you realize his narrative is upside down. Trumpism is not the revenge of the liberal Republicans against the Goldwater conservatives. Just the opposite: It’s the natural outcome of the conservative movement’s domination of the party (as I argue at more length in the magazine.)
The conservative intelligentsia is right about one thing. Trump is not a committed ideologue but a grifter who decided to use their voters for his own ends. Trump grasped from the outset that the birther issue gave him a connection to the Republican electorate. The conservative intelligentsia ignored the birthers, the freaks, and the transparent racists because they were embarrassing. It was far more flattering and heroic to imagine the whole thing was about the Constitution. The con artist swindled the perfect mark.
Why are Republican elected officials almost uniformly getting behind Trump despite his opportunistic exploitation of the party? This is explained earlier in the piece:
Ryan has since endorsed Trump and reaffirmed his decision repeatedly in the face of numerous revelations that might be considered disqualifying. As Ryan has repeatedly explained, mostly recently again this morning, Trump would sign rather than veto his bills. That is to say, on the issues conservative leaders care about most deeply, like tax cuts for high earners, repealing Obamacare, and deregulating finance and fossil-fuel emissions, Trump is in fact conservative.
The support of the Republican conference for Trump is, in fact, perfectly rational in its own way. Whether Trump has any a priori commitment to a Republican domestic policy agenda is completely irrelevant to how he’ll act as president. He will sign the legislation that McConnell and Ryan put on his desk, and he will appoint generic Republican judges McConnell will confirm. For the same reason that the stakes of the Democratic primary were much lower than many strong partisans of either candidate believed, the legislation that would be enacted by a president Trump would not be significantly different than that of President Cruz or Rubio or Kasich. There may be some other ways in which Trump is worse, but Ryan and McConnell see Trump as someone they can use to enact their agenda, and they’re not wrong. Which is why the idea of a Republican revolt against Trump has always been absurd. And if many Trump voters don’t particularly want or expect Paul Ryan’s agenda, well…surely Hillary Clinton’s emails are a far more important issue than whether we return federal economic policy and constitutionalism to the Gilded Age and destroy the planet’s climate anyway.