Commentary: A "sh*thole" swallows the GOP

Last Updated Jan 12, 2018 1:32 PM EST

For Republicans, every day is like a recurring horror movie: "The Curious Case of Dr. Donald and Mr. Trump."

One day it's The Donald doing the presidency in a way many hoped he would: Encouraging deal-making on DACA among hardened partisans in Washington, D.C.; Using a carrot and stick to move North Korea toward negotiations and compromise.

The next day? "Sh*thole countries."

And so it goes, with no sign of stopping.  And the question for conservatives and Republicans (the two are not synonyms) is how to respond? Join the #NeverTrumpers? Jump on the Trump Train and try to get as many policy wins on taxes, deregulation and border enforcement as you can?  It can be a tough call, because the "standard deviation," if you will, on Donald Trump is so wide.

The nonstop criticism from conservative Never Trumpers looks foolish when he's making progress on policies they've long championed. Corporate tax cuts, arming Ukraine, opening ANWR, etc.—these are things that conservatives at National Review, the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal editorial page pushed for. So it only makes sense that, when Trump is leading and getting results, you should see headlines like "Trump Proves He's Sane" on a Dan Henninger column on the WSJ editorial page.

Just in time for the immigration "sh*t storm." Suddenly, supporting Trump looks extremely foolish, too.

What to do? A few weeks ago, conservative media was dominated by a dust-up on the Right between National Review's Charles C. W. Cooke and the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin over the proper reaction to Trump. Rubin has been accused of abandoning positions she's supported in order to always be in opposition to Trump. Cooke has taken a different approach.

"In a sense, Trump's critics now find themselves in the same position as might a parent on the day after his daughter has married someone unsuitable," Cooke, who was firmly anti-Trump during the Republican primary, wrote. "What, other than to say, 'I guess we'll see how it goes, then,' is left to do?"

The problem with Cooke's approach is that it doesn't take into account just how badly it can go. For conservatives who've spent years fighting the left's narrative that policies on immigration and entitlement reform are mere "dog whistles" for racism, Trump's comments on immigration and Africa are devastating. Is pointing out, "Yes, but he's right about chain migration" really enough?

Worse, Trump's talk about preferring immigration from Norway as opposed to North Africa poisons the conversation about immigration reforms conservatives have fought for. Advocating for a points system on immigration similar to Canada's isn't race-based or bigoted. Ending visa lotteries and chain migration means immigrants who are more likely to succeed in America move to the front of line, whether they're from Haiti or the Himalayas. 

But in the wake of Trump's race-based rant, those arguments are all but lost.

Is this inevitable? Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which argues for less immigration, agrees that Trump undermines the cause of border security. "On the other hand, he is who he is, and if he weren't in the White House none of this [reform effort] would be happening," he writes. "Maybe we just have to take the sweet with the sour."

The question for conservatives is this: At what point does the Trump presidency become so sour that it overwhelms the entire movement? When a Tea Party Republican (and Haitian-American) like Rep. Mia Love of Utah has to demand an apology from her own party's president for "comments that are unkind, divisive, elitist and fly in the face of our nation's values?"

That last comment may be the most significant. One of the premises of conservatism in the post-Reagan era has been an insistence on ideas over identity. What matters, many on the right argue, isn't what you look like or where you're from, but rather what you believe in: Limited government, individual liberty, free markets, etc.

Trump's talk about preferring immigrants based on nationality, as opposed to judging individuals based on their ideas and abilities, is the line that separates Reagan-style conservatism from Steve-Bannon-style nationalism.

Deciding which side of the line they fall on may define the Republican Party for years to come.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.