In the blink of an eye, the essential nature of the American presidency seems to have changed. Only days ago most Republicans were cheering along to the president’s less than statesmanlike routine and happy to let him act as the chief culture warrior and judicial nominator in chief. But suddenly, the specter of COVID-19 has made owning the libs seem slightly less important and shined a bright light on the centrality of character to presidential leadership.
Even such fervid supporters of President Trump as Tucker Carlson have admitted that his management of his administration in this crisis has left something to be desired.
But there is one group of Republicans for whom the president’s performance under pressure has been entirely unsurprising — the oft-abused when not entirely neglected NeverTrumpers. Almost no one predicted that a global pandemic would be the test of President Trump’s mettle as a leader. But if you interviewed conservative critics of Trump as we did for a book, many of them emphasized precisely those aspects of the president’s character that have come to the fore in the last few weeks.
Many NeverTrumpers disliked what they saw as Trump’s violations of conservative orthodoxy, but what really cleaved them from their former friends who made peace with the president was their obsession with what they referred to as “character.” This concern was dismissed by most Republicans as moral preening or a Pollyannaish unwillingness to recognize the distinction between private morality and realpolitik.
But NeverTrumpers feared that Trump’s own cruelty, narcissism and sexual incontinence would make the job of remoralizing the country that much harder, a goal they prioritized over tax cuts, deregulation and judicial nominations. As the controversial conservative social scientist Charles Murray told us in the summer of 2019: “You can’t have a successful limited government unless you have a population that itself is virtuous. And so, that means character in the leaders is important, not just so they can perform a job effectively. It’s extremely important as an emblem of what the country’s all about.”
Many NeverTrumpers who held important positions in previous Republican administrations agreed. These conservative critics of Trump recognized — if only in outline — that the president’s personal pathologies that would lead to something like his disastrous management of the COVID-19 crisis. While most Republicans focused on Trump as an ideological and cultural bludgeon with which to pummel their enemies, NeverTrumpers foresaw that his character and governing instincts would have unpredictable and terrifying consequences.
When we spoke to Pete Wehner, a veteran of three Republican administrations (and a New York Times contributing opinion writer), in 2017, for example, he emphasized that judging Trump purely by his willingness to wage partisan war on behalf of Republicans was an erroneous standard, given the unpredictability of the president’s agenda. “There’s just too many things in the presidency that you can’t anticipate … You ultimately have to depend on the wisdom and prudence, the insight of an individual. And Donald Trump strikes me as … somebody with a disordered personality. I think he’s emotionally and psychologically unstable, and is temperamentally dangerous.”
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the inability of President Trump to strike an elevated, sober tone that reflects the seriousness of the moment has been clear for all to see. Philip Zelikow, who was a top deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, emphasized to us in 2017 that, “In government, you’re often in a world in which there are lots of different ceremonials associated with appropriate behavior — funerals, commemorations — and I think all of this just tends to maybe give a stronger consciousness of the expectations for an American president and what an American president represents.”
Trump’s inability to shape himself to the ceremonial character of the presidency has a long track record, going back to his bizarrely improper tone in his visit to the CIA’s Memorial Wall the day after his inauguration. This failure has had grave consequences in his response to the current pandemic, as during his trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when he not only passed along erroneous information, but quite implausibly talked up his acumen in the field of medical science and returned to his “perfect” phone call with the Ukraine president.
Eliot Cohen, another former assistant to Secretary Rice, emphasized to us in 2017 that Trump seemed entirely incapable of embracing and being shaped by the office of the presidency.
“One thing you get from foreign policy and national security people is they do have this sense of the dignity of the office. Particularly if you’ve been in the White House, as all of us have been. That sense of … who the previous occupants of it have been, and the things that had come across their desk, the things that they had done. It seemed to me, and it seems to me today, to be a desecration.”
Finally, in a crisis that demanded that the president listen carefully to and mobilize professional, expert knowledge, President Trump has been almost entirely at sea. Peter Feaver, a political-science professor at Duke and a former National Security Council staff member under George W. Bush, thought that Republicans had already flirted too much with an anti-analytical and anti-professional stance in their romance with Sarah Palin and that, “Donald Trump personified the problems of 2012 — outrageous statements, not well-briefed, a stance of anti-expertise, as if knowing something about the policy, having experience, was a bad thing … Donald Trump was personifying that, doubling down on it, tripling down on it.”
Many of the NeverTrumpers have much to answer for themselves, including their role in the Iraq War. But in their instinctual revulsion at Donald Trump, they saw something that other Republicans allowed themselves to ignore. They realized that character defects that are corrosive of the nation’s character in the long-term can be threats to the people’s literal short-term survival when the country faces unanticipated emergencies — as almost every president does. We are now all facing the life and death consequences of ignoring their warnings.
Robert Saldin, a political science professor and Mansfield Center fellow at the University of Montana, and Steven Teles, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, are the co-authors of the forthcoming book “Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites.”