If you are looking for evidence that the original Tea Party, with its emphasis on fiscal discipline and constitutionally limited government, has been repealed and replaced with something else, the defeat of Congressman Mark Sanford, the South Carolina Republican, in a primary last week is Exhibit A.
One of the standout fiscal conservatives in Congress and a quiet liberty Republican, Sanford lost to a staunch supporter of the president because the people who cheered him when he stood up for those principles against Barack Obama jeered him when he did the same under Donald Trump.
But if we are going to take a stroll down memory lane and recall a time when Tea Partiers cared more about stopping bank bailouts than quenching their thirst with liberal tears, there are other ways in which the Sanford setback makes one wonder what might have been.
What if “Never Trump” was more a movement of Mark Sanfords than the disproportionately neoconservative phenomenon it has become? It’s not hard to imagine how that could have been the case. Senator Mike Lee was as outspoken against Trump when it mattered as Max Boot. Senator Jeff Flake is more of a show horse than Lee, but he nevertheless shares Lee’s skepticism of welfare and (occasionally) warfare.
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Instead anti-Trump conservatism came to be dominated by those with the “neo” prefix. Evan McMullin was essentially a neocon Howard Phillips. This brand of Never Trumper might make the same arguments against the president as Sanford and share many of the same concerns about his character, temperament, and fitness to lead the republic. But they’ve also shown alarm that Trump’s dissents from their foreign policy vision, however modest and inconsistent, have been strongly supported by the Republican base.
Let’s just say it isn’t surprising that many Never Trump schemes for a brokered Republican convention consisted of trying to overthrow the leader with little thought to the unintended consequences or what would come after.
Another problem was that Never Trump was too confined to magazines, columnists, and Republican strategists. The movement’s achievements were elite successes, not grassroots ones. Never Trump helped keep Trump’s campaign, administration and, until recently, media cheering section relatively talent-starved compared to those of a normal Republican. Perhaps there were other alternatives that would have done more at the ballot box—and towards a sober conservatism.
Many of the younger Republicans who have been most alienated by Trump are libertarian-leaning conservatives or conservative-tinged libertarians. Some of them experienced their original political awakenings thanks to Ron Paul, whose Republican presidential campaigns were decidedly anti-neocon affairs.
Now some of those very same young people will be lost to the neocons, whom they see standing up to the statism, racial collectivism, and cult of personality that they, with considerable justification, associate with Trump and his most fervent backers to a greater degree than their elders in the liberty movement. To them, Trump’s political incorrectness does not excuse—and frequently leads to—a multitude of sins.
A Sanford-led Never Trump might have kept these young conservatives and libertarians in the fold.
That brings up a second hypothetical: what if Sanford had continued to vote his conscience on Capitol Hill but largely kept his musings about Trump the man to himself? Sanford has recounted that the first time he met the future president, Trump called him a “winner.”
His fellow liberty Republicans have had different approaches to the president.
Senator Rand Paul and Congressman Justin Amash have virtually identical voting records. Paul plays golf with Trump and tends to stress their areas of common ground. Amash is much more critical, and in fact came to Sanford’s defense after the fateful Trump tweet that did his Freedom Caucus colleague in.
“He’s one of the most principled, consistent, and conservative members of Congress I’ve ever known,” Amash retorted. “And unlike you, Mark has shown humility in his role and a desire to be a better man than he was the day before.”
Paul represents a state, Kentucky, where Trump is popular (he also inveighed against Trump in the GOP presidential primaries and it got him nowhere). Amash represents Gerald Ford’s old congressional district. Both methods of dealing with Trump fit their constituents, as well as their conscience.
Given Trump’s malleability and occasional non-interventionist impulses on foreign policy, it’s good to have a more libertarian-minded Republican vying with Senator Lindsey Graham for influence over the president. Now Sanford doing the opposite in a Southern congressional district has led to the eventual replacement of a Republican like Paul with one more like Graham.
Men and women of principle have a hard time with such compromises. That is why they are so difficult to find in Washington—and, as Sanford shows, they don’t always last long.
W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?