Hunter Baker at the Public Discourse offers an apology to the “Never Trumpers” for dismissing their concerns as “histrionic and unrealistic” and grounded merely in an “idealistic moral fragility.” As someone who defined himself as a “Never Trumper” from the very beginning, I guess I appreciate his apology. However, his apology comes only after the original fears of the “Never Trumpers” came true last week. But is this coup attempt really the only proof that those fears were valid? What about in the period leading up to the coup when Trump’s rhetoric (completely unfounded except in his own head) against the election caused half the country to doubt the election’s legitimacy? And what about his rhetoric throughout his presidency? His rhetoric consistently avoided any attempt to unify the country through the office of the Presidency. One of the fundamental mistakes made by the anti-Never Trumpers is this argument they kept making (Hunter Baker summarizes it in his apology) that Never Trumpers were choosing aesthetics over policy. According to them, worries about Trump’s rough rhetoric and unseemly behavior should not trump the policy benefits he would bring to Republicans (deregulation, lower taxes, conservative judges, etc.). As Baker suggests, the anti-Never Trump Republicans thought that they were insufficiently hard-headed to accept the badness of Trump’s rhetoric in exchange for the goodness of his policy.
This argument fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the Constitutional Presidency. Beginning with Washington, the President represented the unified sovereignty of the nation. Through our President, we were more than just a discordant group of states and political divisions. Washington’s stature and demeanor made it possible for us to become a real Nation. Lincoln’s stature and demeanor repeated that feat at the moment we needed it most. Both men could bring us together because their rhetoric aimed to bring us together. That is, presidential rhetoric matters for the function of the Constitutional Presidency. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural holds out an olive branch to the South and, in doing so, aims to patch up the Union. Obviously, not all presidents live up to the standards of Washington and Lincoln. But it’s almost as important that they have tried. They understood that presidential authority lies partially in the national unity that they represent. Thus, presidents prior to Trump have all at least reached for a rhetoric of unity. And, even if it wasn’t always backed by actions or policies that aimed at unity, that rhetoric of unity itself still achieved constitutional purposes. By contrast, Trump’s demagoguery always depended on creating disunity. He represented an “us” over and against a them. That is why demagogues are so dangerous to our Constitution. Their authority depends on division. I held out some hope that the Presidency would transform him; he would recognize that he could achieve more authority through typical presidential behavior. But it never did. He consistently left the office and its magisterial symbolism to go speak at his rallies where he could return to being a demagogue. The constitutional union itself depends on a President that soothes our divisions and inspires hope in our national unity. The Constitutional Presidency was never about getting the right policy. It was about representing the essential executive function: “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” Prior to Trump, conservatives in particular understood that constitutional function. In fact, it was much of their argument against the presidential activism of progressive presidents. They understood that the character and function of the President mattered more than his policies. In fact, they criticized Clinton on the grounds of his bad character as unfit for the office. It seems the anti-Never Trumpers forgot or lost sight of this constitutional concern and the way in which it was fundamentally connected to bad rhetoric. Never Trumpers never opposed Trump because he was aesthetically unpleasing. They opposed him because his rhetoric was fundamentally dangerous to our constitutional order. The President is the glue to our constitutional order. Instead of being the glue, Trump aimed to dissolve the glue.