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Trump has ‘upended conservatism,’ says lifelong Republican Peter Wehner at U of M forum

Wehner, who worked for Reagan and both Bushes, wants his party back — and he’s prepared to support Joe Biden for president this year in hopes of bringing that about.

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
President Donald Trump
Lifelong Republican and honest-to-goodness conservative Peter Wehner wants his party back, and he’s prepared to support Joe Biden for president this year in hopes of bringing that about. He spoke (virtually) yesterday at a University of Minnesota forum.

Wehner has been a consistent and early never Trumper.

Four years ago, before Donald Trump had secured the Republican presidential nomination but after it had become likely he would do so, Wehner — who had worked in the White House under all three of the recent Republican presidents (Reagan and both Bushes) — spoke at the U of M’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and declared himself a never Trumper.

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(Wehner had actually already said the same in a New York Times op-ed piece, but I covered him at the Humphrey School in a 2016 never-Trumper talk, when he boiled it down to this:

Mr. Trump is a toxic figure in American politics. If you want to know how toxic he is, he has a 70 percent unfavorable rating right now. And that would make him the most disliked nominee in the history of polling. Neil Newhouse, a veteran Republican pollster, said that “In the modern polling era since World War II, there has not been a more unpopular potential presidential nominee than Donald Trump.” Mr. Trump is toxic for a reason. He is — in my estimation — nativist, xenophobic, cruel, vindictive, emotionally unstable, narcissistic, obsessive, and yet, he is without an economic agenda or a governing philosophy. He’s stunningly ignorant on issues, and he seems to be a person who’s given over to profanity and demagogy. …

Four years later (meaning Wednesday), speaking over Zoom to yet another Humphrey School/Center for the Study of Politics and Governance audience, Wehner isn’t taking any of it back. His updated portrayal of Trump’s presidency described in stark terms key differences between a proper conservative and Trump, whom he said has “upended conservatism, as I understand the term.”

Yes, conservatives got two new conservative justices on the Supreme Court, which is no small deal and has led to some rulings that conservatives like, Wehner said. But Trump is more properly understood as a populist who has stitched together some conservatism with some red meat to appeal to other elements of the electorate.

Peter Wehner
Peter Wehner
Trump, Wehner said, has “upended conservatism, as I understand the term. He’s a protectionist, while conservatives have been free traders.” Conservatives have been fiscally cautious, Wehner said, while “deficits and debt have exploded under Trump.” Conservatives “believe in a foreign policy based on morality; Trump hasn’t done that.”

Furthermore, the way Trump conducts himself should also offend real conservatives, Wehner said. Conservatives believe in “epistemological humility, respect for human experience, aversion to fanaticism, a belief in the complexity of human society, a belief in objective truth and a whole range of things … [whereas] a lot of what Donald Trump has done has been an assault” on conservatism and conservative philosophy. Wehner believes Trump’s personal conduct “has done great damage to conservatism and to the Republican Party. … So I don’t really consider him a conservative. I consider him a populist and an ethnic nationalist” resembling some of the populist/nationalist leaders elsewhere in the world.

In summary, Wehner said: “I think he’s actually broken with conservatism and redefined it in a negative way.”

So, in case you hadn’t already figured this out, Wehner said that although he disagrees with Joe Biden across a wide range of policy positions, he will vote for Biden in hopes of saving the country and the Republican Party from four more years of Trumpism.

That worries him too, he admitted. While he views Biden as a moderate liberal, he fears Biden will be pulled to the left by the pressures within the party. Wehner’s not happy about that, and his vote will be much more anti-Trump than pro-Biden. He hopes a Biden win will enable his party to repudiate the unsavory aspects of Trumpism in the aftermath and get back to representing honest, honorable conservatism.

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U of M political scientist Larry Jacobs, who moderated the event, asked Wehner how he’ll feel if Biden wins and then does things that conservatives won’t like, such as use the next Supreme Court opening to shore up support for Roe v. Wade/legalized abortion. Wehner was ready for that and replied:

“Yes, since I intend to vote for Joe Biden I have to recognize that he will pursue some policies that I will disagree with. … There were a number of people who at the beginning of the Trump era were conservative, and they’ve given up their conservatism [in reaction against Trumpism]. I’m not one of them. So I’m not an enthusiast for Joe Biden and his agenda. He seems to be an admirable human being, and that’s important to me. But I quite agree” that Biden will advance many policies Wehner opposes.

And that worries him, because, he said: “I think the Democratic Party has moved from liberalism to progressivism. They are different and distinct things. And I believe there is a kind of illiberalism that’s increasingly powerful in the progressive movement: the ‘cancel culture,’ the so-called ‘woke politics.’”

He enumerated some areas that worry him about what the left might do:

“Abortion. Bill Clinton used to say ‘safe, legal and rare.’ You can’t say that as a Democrat any more. Socialism is much more embraced. The Democratic Party has moved far to the left. So, I will, as a writer, as a public voice, be critical of Biden ….

“But I believe that if you balance the good and the bad of Trump versus the good and the bad of Biden, I come out with the scale that’s very much in favor of Biden. And not because his policies are better. I think that Trump’s combination — really a unique combination — of ignorance and incompetence that we’re seeing manifest in this year, particularly in the COVID-19 situation. And there’s the almost nihilistic assault on truth, and the damage — the radiating damage to our civic culture. And the cruelty.

“So I just think that our country will be more injured with the Trump presidency than without it. The last thing I’ll say on this question is this:

“I think Republicans will look back on the deal that they made to get Trump and they will rue the day. I think he is doing generational damage not just to the country, but to the Republican Party and to the conservative cause. They will have gotten four years of some policy victories, plus some policy setbacks. But the price for that, in terms of how the Republican Party is seen, the damage to the generation, the toxicity that it’s introduced, I don’t think it’s gonna be a close call. That why I think that conservatives, not just for the cause of conservatism, but for the country, should vote against Donald Trump. Not because they think Joe Biden will pursue policies that are fantastic but because Donald Trump is a malicious force in American life.”

I hope I didn’t run on too long quoting Wehner. When Trump was first rising, I just assumed that a certain number of decent Republicans would rise to the rescue just based on decency. That was four years ago now. I haven’t heard too many Wehners in the intervening period. So I hope he’s not the only one thinking along lines of common decency and basic honesty heading into November.

I also have to confess that there was another member of the panel that I Zoom-covered yesterday, political scientist David Hopkins of Boston College. Hopkins spoke much less and didn’t offer his own views, playing the neutral analyst, and I’m afraid I have given him short shrift.