Will those who once claimed that Trump didn’t truly represent the Republican Party now insist that the party remain in his image? Or will they shift again and distance themselves from Trump and Trumpism?
There was a time in early 2016, before eventual-President Donald Trump officially secured the Republican Party’s nomination, when many figures in conservative media looked at the real estate mogul and reality TV star with skepticism. In fact, some outright detested the idea of Trump becoming the torchbearer of the party and beseeched voters to reject him.
After Trump won the presidency, some of those figures continued to criticize him. This group of Republicans and conservatives came to be known collectively as “Never Trumpers.” A few anti-Trump conservatives, like those behind The Lincoln Project, have gained prominence by making waves with their attacks on the president.
By in large, though, most conservative platforms have embraced Trump and “Trumpism” since he became president. Even the center-right Wall Street Journal, which ran the headline, “Donald Trump Is No Ronald Reagan” in June 2016, has filled its opinion page with pro-Trump conservatives in recent years.
With Trump set to leave office in less than a month, many of these publications will be faced with a tough decision: reject an ex-president who refuses to acknowledge the victory of President-elect Joe Biden, or continue to support Trump even as he pushes baseless accusations and conspiracies.
It won’t be an easy decision, as Fox News learned recently when it angered Trump’s loyal supporters by preemptively (but accurately) calling Arizona for Biden. At the same time, though, as Trump’s inner circle increasingly draws conspiracy theorists, the Republican Party and the right-wing media sphere will have to decide what the future of American conservatism will look like.
The Wall Street Journal
In July 2015, when few in the media believed Trump had a chance of winning the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote a blistering op-ed criticizing both Trump and those in conservative media who supported him.
Of Trump, the editors stated, “As a standard-bearer for conservative ideas, Mr. Trump would … be a catastrophe.” They added, “Some Americans may find it satisfying 16 months from Election Day to tell pollsters they’d vote for him, but that doesn’t mean conservative elites should validate this nonsense.”
The op-ed then turns its attention to Republicans, specifically Texas Senator Ted Cruz and “conservative media elites” who refused to criticize Trump. The editors compare conservatives’ silence in the face of Trump’s “demagoguery” and attacks on a fellow Republican, the late Senator John McCain, to liberals refusing to condemn communists.
The op-ed concludes with a dire warning: “Many on the right seem willing to indulge any populist outburst no matter how divorced from reality or insulting to most Americans. If Donald Trump becomes the voice of conservatives, conservatism will implode along with him.”
Yet, a year and a half later, just days before the 2016 election, the WSJ editorial board offered the case for electing Trump.
It wasn’t an endorsement – the newspaper doesn’t do presidential endorsements – but it did explain why conservative voters could be happy with a Trump presidency, including a conservative majority on the Supreme Court and Trump’s promise “to rebuild US defenses that have eroded on [President Barack] Obama’s watch.”
“The strongest argument against Mr. Trump,” they wrote, “concerns his temperament and political character.” That’s a far cry from claiming Trump would destroy conservatism.
Four years later, the editorial board again gave their preelection assessment, this time focusing on Biden and his purported leftward turn. As in 2016, the board didn’t endorse a candidate, but they expressed few qualms with Trump’s reelection, other than noting that voters “may elect the man they think is Mr. Trump’s opposite in the hope of restoring more decorum and calm to American politics.”
Perhaps the strongest indicator of how the newspaper’s editorial view had shifted was in the change of tone from Peggy Noonan, a longtime conservative columnist for the paper.
In 2016, Noonan made it clear that Trump was nothing like the revered Republican president Ronald Reagan and that he didn’t represent the party. She argued Trump had numerous flaws that would make him a bad president. Four years later, Noonan laid the blame for Trump’s rise on the Republican Party.
In recent months, The Wall Street Journal, which has won dozens of Pulitzer Prizes for its journalism since it was founded in 1889, has had to contend with the division between its journalistic and editorial sides. Specifically, when the Hunter Biden email scandal was originally reported by The New York Post, the editorial side made claims that the news reporting side soon after contradicted.
If American conservatism continues to reflect Trumpism, that division could remain a reoccurring conflict in the WSJ’s newsroom.
The Federalist is an online conservative magazine that was founded in 2013 by Ben Domenech, alongside Sean Davis, Luke Sherman and Mollie Hemingway. All are writers or politicos with a conservative background. The Federalist was founded as an alternative to other media outlets, with a focus on conservative philosophy, which includes a preference for small government.
Domenech, who was previously forced to resign from The Washington Post for plagiarism, promised a publication “with the sharpest writers digging into the major issues of the day with a viewpoint that rejects the assumptions of the media establishment.”
In 2020, The Federalist published a piece criticizing Fox News host Chris Wallace for his “slanted questions” to Trump during the first presidential debate between him and Biden. “Wallace’s ongoing problem,” the author, Jordan Davidson wrote, “is that he has a working understanding of the issues based not on facts so much as the Democrat Party and the media’s canon of anti-Trump propaganda.”
Again, to see how dramatically The Federalist shifted its views on Trump, an examination of one of its main writers, Mollie Hemingway, is all that’s necessary. Hemingway, who has been with the online magazine since its creation, rarely minced words about how she felt about Trump prior to his election to the presidency.
In December 2015, she wrote, “I hate Donald Trump.” Her hatred was based on him, in her own words, being “a demagogue with no real solutions for anything at all.” She added:
“He’s a narcissist who takes no responsibility for the negative consequences of his ill-conceived and incoherent verbal spews. He flip-flops incessantly. He is not honest when called to account for previous things he’s said. He insults individuals and groups of people gratuitously. His ideas always involve an expansion in the size and scope of government.”
She did, to be fair, include some animosity for “Donald Trump Haters” as well: “If you hate Trump, that’s fine. But have the decency to hate other deserving people, too.”
Even after Trump had secured the Republican nomination, Hemingway was still expressing her displeasure with him. She tweeted an article from BuzzFeed News on July 24 entitled, “How Donald Trump Broke The Conservative Movement (And My Heart).” The article that Hemingway praised, like Noonan’s WSJ article, insisted that Trump didn’t represent Reagan conservatism.
Years later, not only has Hemingway changed her views on Trump, she has grown critical of Never Trumpers. She praised Trump for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, she defended him against claims of racism and she criticized “anti-Trump activists in journalism and politics.” She has labeled the media “hysterically anti-Trump.”
That many in the conservative media changed their mind on Trump isn’t inherently newsworthy. In the early days of his presidency, some predicted the responsibility of the office would change and soften Trump. It would, they claimed, make him more presidential and more conservative. Also, this thinking went, some of his proposed policies were actually in line with Republican ideology.
In hindsight, though, there is little evidence Trump changed while in office. Instead, the Republican Party has changed to fit him. Senator Lindsey Graham went from being one of Trump’s most biting critics in 2016 to one of the president’s most reliable advocates.
A similar transformation happened to Senator Marco Rubio, who called Trump a “con artist” and “the most vulgar person to ever aspire to the presidency” in 2016. In 2020, Rubio was mimicking Trump as he campaigned for the president’s reelection.Which raises the question, will those who once claimed that Trump didn’t truly represent the Republican Party now insist that the party remain in his image? Or will they shift again and distance themselves from Trump and Trumpism?
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