In the weeks after the 2020 election, President Donald Trump appears to have become far more erratic. Not only did he contest the election results — which is his right — but he also declared that he really “won this election by a landslide” and accused a Democratic cabal of stealing it from him. While many insecurities and irregularities demand serious investigation, it was always unlikely that the vote counting was so off that Trump should have not just won, but won “by a landslide.”
After Trump’s supporters breached the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, many on the Left and those who identify as conservative “Never Trumpers” acted as though the attack on the Capitol revealed Trump’s true agenda. Incoming President Joe Biden used it to demonize Trump’s entire presidency as one long attack on “democracy.”
Trump did indeed engage in very dangerous rhetoric. Trump’s efforts to block the certification of the Electoral College votes went beyond the pale. He even argued that Pence should unilaterally reject electoral votes from contested states — even though the vice president’s role in counting such votes is purely ceremonial. (Do Republicans really want to give Kamala Harris unilateral power to reject 2024 electoral votes on the same principle?)
Tragically, Trump also coddled the rioters while they attacked the Capitol, engaging in the very kind of rhetoric for which Trump rightly condemned Joe Biden during the Black Lives Matter riots this summer.
Do the Capitol riots reveal Trump’s true character and does this mean the Never Trump conservatives were right to condemn him from the start and right to oppose him throughout his presidency, perhaps even preferring Democrats?
The answer is complicated. My wife likes to say that Trump is a “Trump supremacist.” He values loyalty and praise extremely highly and always sees himself as a “winner.” Before he became president, Donald Trump had a very mixed political record — donating to Republicans and Democrats, supporting abortion, and more. For these and other reasons, I could not bring myself to support him in the 2016 general election.
Yet something strange happened on Donald Trump’s way to the Oval Office. Republicans and conservatives praised him and supported him, while Democrats demonized him and stirred up a conspiracy theory about collusion with Russia. While Trump may not have been loyal to the conservative movement before the primary, he became increasingly loyal to conservatives.
As president, Trump championed conservative values in ways that flabbergasted me. The man who once supported abortion became the first president to address the March for Life in person. The man who joked about making his sister a Supreme Court justice named originalists to the federal bench at all levels, including three strong Supreme Court justices (none of whom are related to him). The man who engaged in blustery rhetoric brought peace to the Middle East after assassinating Qassem Soleimani after Iran-backed militias attacked America’s embassy in Baghdad. He finally moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
At every turn, Donald John Trump proved himself a champion of my values, and I could not oppose him anymore. Yes, the president sent off disgusting tweets from time to time, but the legacy media’s lies falsely painted him as evil when he actually proved himself a leader for America’s sanity against the extreme Left.
Given Trump’s achievements on conservative priorities, I firmly endorsed him for reelection in November. At that time, Trump had condemned riots and lawlessness over the summer and he had not yet coddled the rioters who attacked the Capitol.
The post-election rhetoric and the attack on the Capitol have shaken my faith, however. The president has no business telling people who invaded the Capitol, “We love you, you’re special.” The president has no business suggesting that attacks on the Capitol are the natural result of a “stolen election.” Such statements aren’t just unpresidential, they’re arguably disqualifying.
Trump would never have made those statements had he won the 2020 election or if there had been no irregularities in the election, but that is no excuse. The president has shown his willingness to put himself before the country.
This confirmed many of my fears about Trump’s temperament back in 2016. The president is narcissistic and self-obsessed, focused on his ego. Losing appears to have exacerbated Trump’s negative tendencies in a host of dangerous ways. While Trump never told his supporters to invade the Capitol and vandalize the halls of Congress, his rhetoric about his “landslide” election having been stolen created the groundwork for this horrific event.
Does this tragedy show that conservatives should have never supported Trump? I think not. While Americans have long known about Trump’s destructive pride, many of his speeches (the Mount Rushmore speech, for example) and actions have demonstrated a love for America and a commitment to serve the country. Trump fought the election in part because there were so many questions about irregularities but the way he did it actually weakened Americans’ faith in the electoral system.
Thankfully, the president reversed course in a statement on Thursday evening. He denounced the rioters, said they would “pay” a price for their lawlessness, and promised to support a peaceful transition of power. This does not erase Trump’s statements over the past few months, but it does indicate that he has put the country ahead of himself again.
The Never Trumpers were right to fear Trump’s fiery temperament, and to warn against it. However, many of the Never Trumpers went on to not just oppose Trump but to openly support Democrats — the same Democrats who became increasingly radical and dangerous, pushing the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, the Equality Act, and more. Too often, the prominent Never Trumpers seemed all too happy to jump in bed with outright socialists if that meant condemning Trump.
The Never Trumpers cannot win the argument in the Republican Party. Those who abandoned the president as he championed conservatism, and who sidled up to Democrats as they pushed ever-more-radical agendas cannot call themselves conservatives. Trump’s erratic moments between the election and the Capitol riot do not prove that Democrats were a better alternative for America when it comes to policy.
However, Never Trumpers who did not reject principle should be welcomed back into the party. Figures like Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and David French did not sell out in the same way that the Lincoln Project and Steve Schmidt did. Sasse did not shy away from criticizing Trump’s character even as he supported most of Trump’s conservative policies. Sasse could not vote for Trump, but he wrote in Mike Pence.
The GOP needs to build on Trump’s successes while refraining from engaging in the kind of rhetoric that alienated many Americans. Trump’s success among black and Hispanic voters demonstrates that there is indeed hope for the GOP, and building on Trumpism is a better strategy than returning to the pre-Trump status quo.
The president may have lost the 2020 election, but his coattails led Republicans to pick up seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and to do well in state houses. The Republican Party needs only a small correction from Trumpism, not a giant lurch away from Donald Trump.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.