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Trump is no longer the GOP standard-bearer. It’s past time to move on

Conservatives should look to the summer days of 2016 for guidance on how to view the president moving forward

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President Donald Trump leaves the stage after speaking at a campaign rally at Tucson International Airport, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Tucson, Ariz.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

After a couple blissful weeks in a world in which the GOP looked to be moving past Donald Trump, last week saw the emergence of a troubling report: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had flown to Mar-a-Lago, made amends with the president he’d recently blamed for deadly violence, and declared that they would work together to make sure Republicans take back the House majority in 2022.

It’s a disappointing regression in a time ripe for evolution.

The Republican Party must move on from Trump-the-man — which, I hasten to add after knee-jerk eruptions of protestation from my right, shouldn’t be confused with moving on from Trump’s accomplishments. Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations and potential 2024 contender, has her finger on the right pulse in this regard: She has said that Trump’s “actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history” and are “deeply disappointing,” but “it’s a real shame, because I am one who believes our country made some truly extraordinary gains in the last four years. ... We should not shy away from our accomplishments.”

Trump’s accomplishments are indeed numerous and underreported: aggressively filling hundreds of judicial vacancies with Constitution-minded judges, including Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court; negotiating and signing the bipartisan United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement to replace NAFTA; cutting and simplifying taxes with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017; appointing James Mattis as defense secretary and thus demolishing ISIS in the Middle East; abstaining from new wars while firmly deterring Syrian aggression; and brokering peace and trade between Israel and Arab nations with the Abraham Accords.

These victories, coupled with Trump’s harsh stance against China’s growing power, are what folks like Haley say Republicans should bring into the future with them. But the fact is that these accomplishments would’ve been pursued by any conservative Republican leader — and there are plenty of those, not named Trump, to choose from. Even the broadest glance at the growing list of possible 2024 candidates — Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, and others — reveals no Bush-era Republicans who would waffle on taxes or appoint malleable judges.

Trump, then, is not a necessary figure in the conservative movement — in fact, election data suggests he’s alienated the women and young people who will be crucial to its success. Trump has already lost Republicans the Senate by depressing voter turnout in Georgia. And although Republicans made gains in the House, those gains were made mostly by women — women who campaigned less on their alliance with Trump and more on combating socialism. It seems more a rebuke of Trump than a credit to him.

With Joe Biden already governing liberally (in both senses of the word) by executive order and thus giving Republicans plenty of fodder to build on their momentum for 2022, Trump’s influence isn’t needed and will only muddy the waters.

No, instead, conservatives should look to the summer days of 2016 for guidance on how to view the president moving forward. Cast your mind back to those days when, after a hard-fought primary, it began to dawn on horrified Republicans that The Donald would be their nominee. A coalition of Never-Trumpers formed, but most other conservatives — principally evangelicals — began to cautiously take a transactional approach: Champion conservative causes, they said, and we’ll swallow our disgust at your moral failings.

It was a sticky situation, especially given that less than two decades earlier the Southern Baptist Convention released a resolution amid the Bill Clinton sex scandal that urged “all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character,” saying that “tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”

Ironically, the rationale behind the evangelical about-face on Trump was made more urgent by his alternative, Hillary Clinton — but at the end of the day, the unholy alliance was only ever supposed to be temporary.

Somewhere in the past next four years, that reluctant agreement morphed into full-throated enthusiasm. GOP folks who once decried Trump as dangerous to democracy or toxic to the party embraced him as more than just their interim standard-bearer. And now that he’s out of office, they can’t seem to let him go — refusing to stick to that original, tacit agreement that he was to be a makeshift palisade for conservatism, not a shining citadel.

Writing for The Dispatch, David French notes conservative abdication of moral authority: “Christian Trump supporters can no longer say, ‘We won’t tolerate serious wrongs.’ That ship has sailed. They can, however, say ‘Enough. No more.’ And it’s vital that they do.”

The future of a GOP-stewarded conservatism could be bright. But although it may pick up where some of his accomplishments left off, it isn’t named Trump.