One of the more amusing developments this election season has been the struggle of the conservative commentariat to make their peace with the rise of Donald Trump.
Some outlets — the National Review comes to mind — have blasted Trump relentlessly, at least until now. Columnist George Will has been merciless. Even some members of the Fox News parade have resisted the Trumpet call.
The most fascinating response, though, has come from radio talker Rush Limbaugh, the one-time Kansas Citian who claims he borrowed his talent from God (in a recent interview, Fox News host Chris Wallace called Limbaugh the pope, which would be a step down.)
In any case, Limbaugh could use some divine intervention right about now, because he can’t quite figure out whether to embrace Trump or not.
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Like many conservatives, Limbaugh seems fascinated by Trump’s populist appeal to blue collar, disaffected Democrats and independents hammered by trade agreements and lost jobs. “Donald Trump has put together a coalition, whether he knows it or not, whether he intended to or not, he’s put together a coalition that’s exactly what the Republican Party says that it needs to win,” he told Wallace.
Yet Limbaugh warily circles Trump, unable to dismiss or support him. “You ultimately have to take what you get,” he said. “I think on the case of Trump, there’s a much bigger upside than downside.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement.
Limbaugh and other conservative yakkers are in a pickle partly because of their own words. For decades they’ve insisted Republicans must nominate “principled” conservatives, candidates who hew closely to the low-tax, low-social spending, anti-immigrant, high military budget mantra of right wing orthodoxy.
Yet Trump is the most unprincipled presidential candidate in memory. His appeal is transactional — voters like Trump because they trust him to negotiate better deals on their behalf, not because they agree with his policy views. Many of which, to be charitable, are either incoherent or subject to change without notice.
That flexibility has allowed Trump to rack up huge margins in Republican primaries and caucuses. But it’s also left El Rushbo and fellow conservative travelers with a difficult choice: accept Trump, warts and all, or stick with a principled conservative like Sen. Ted Cruz, and risk the loss of your Trump-loving base.
It’s a constant juggling act, one that will become increasingly difficult in an election against Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders. For all his bluster, Donald Trump is essentially a moderate conservative — he wants to protect Social Security benefits, for example. Yet his appeal to angry blue-collar Democrats and rural voters makes him a formidable fall candidate in ways Cruz may not be.
So Rush may soon have to decide if winning is more important than principle. I don’t know the answer, but I guess he — and God — will eventually figure it out.