It’s easy to understand and even sympathize with those on the Right who are critical of Donald Trump’s presidency. But it’s really hard to stomach Never Trump neoconservatives who now complain about Republican tribalism, cults of personality, and blind loyalty to the current president—because virtually all of them used to engage in and endorse the very same behavior.
George W. Bush-era hawks thrived by capitalizing on a popular Republican president, corralling the Right accordingly and ostracizing conservatives who dared step out of line. In a story about President Trump’s enduring support within his party, The New York Times gave a useful comparison on Saturday: “Mr. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is now about 90 percent…the only modern Republican president more popular with his party than Mr. Trump at this point in his first term, according to Gallup, was George W. Bush after the country united in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.”
If conservatives now behave as though failing to defend Trump is tantamount to treason, the early 2000s weren’t much different. Unlike the polarized national divide over Trump, the post-9/11 period saw an America overwhelmingly support Bush and the Iraq war. The entire war on terror narrative—the Iraq invasion, the Patriot Act, the demotion of any constitutional or limited government agenda—became the new popular definition of conservatism at that time, and blind loyalty to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney was expected of everyone on the Right.
Neoconservatives eagerly led that charge.
Former Bush speechwriter David Frum might warn about the threats that the Trump herd mentality poses to the GOP, but in 2003 he was taking stray sheep to the slaughter. In his now infamous “Unpatriotic Conservatives” essay at National Review, Frum declared conservatives Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak, libertarians Lew Rockwell and Justin Raimondo, and others on the Right who opposed the Iraq war as persona non grata.
“They began by hating the neoconservatives,” Frum wrote. “They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.” He continued: “War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen—and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.”
Talk about tribalism.
The minority of antiwar conservatives and libertarians of that era never went so far as to label themselves “Never Bush”—but David Frum did it for them. Frum wanted to read these dissenters out of the conservative movement completely.
Nor was he alone in that sentiment. It’s hard to recall a major neoconservative figure of that time—including today’s leading Never Trumpers—who didn’t rigidly enforce the party line, which was made all the easier by a Republican base enthralled by their president almost exclusively on the basis of his foreign policy agenda. This disposition permeated talk radio and Fox News and the entire American Right, with fealty to Bush as its core.
When Ron Paul ran for president in 2008, the libertarian GOP congressman’s popularity exploded precisely because he challenged the war on terror party line directly, beginning with an explosive exchange with Rudy Giuliani over foreign policy at a 2007 Republican primary debate. Virtually every Republican who ran for president in 2008 and many of their supporters tried to paint Paul as a Republican imposter—someone whose refusal to back Bush-Cheney and question his party made him ineligible for membership in the GOP. Unquestioning fidelity to the righteousness of Bush’s war ran so deep that even in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, many of the candidates hesitated to bring themselves to admit that Iraq had been a mistake, despite the rest of the country and world having come to that conclusion years prior.
The hawks who form the core of today’s Never Trump cadre have resisted the president precisely because his “America First” rhetoric threatened their long-reigning exclusive definition of what Republican foreign policy should look like. Regardless of whether the president has lived up to that promise, he has certainly opened up the debate within the GOP.
Neoconservatives need to stop pretending it’s Trump-induced tribalism that truly upsets them. They never had a problem making similar emotional plays for their own purposes when those opportunities arose. Show me the Trumpiest Deplorable in a red MAGA hat you can find, and I’ll show you his Saddam “Insane”-hating, Bush Country—We-Gotta-Fight’em-Over-There-So-We-Don’t-Have-To-Fight’em-Over-Here—predecessor from a decade prior.
The neoconservatives never had a problem with populism or nationalism when it was used to whip up war fever. And if the current president were more like Bush, today’s Never Trumpers wouldn’t have had much of a problem with Donald Trump and his Republican Party either.