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What the Respectable Right Fears Most About a Trump Win: Angry Libs

National Review magazine’s latest cover story worries that “the Left would foment widespread violence in the cities to punish nonviolent voters.”

A protester in an inflatable Trump "loser" suit
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
A protester outside a courthouse in D.C. on August 3, 2023, when Trump was scheduled to be arraigned in the January 6 insurrection case

Liberals lately have been imagining, with some trepidation, what a second Donald Trump administration might look like. The Atlantic devoted its January/February issue to the subject. The New York Times editorial board warned in January that“Re-electing Mr. Trump would present serious dangers to our Republic and to the world. In this magazine, Alexander Nazaryan took a lighter approach, inviting readers to chuckle at the possibility of Michael Flynn as defense secretary, Kid Rock as interior secretary, and Elise Stefanik as vice presidentthen brought the laughter to a halt by reporting these are all very real possibilities in a second Trump term.

In a well-ordered universe, liberals wouldn’t be the only ones scared out of their wits that Trump may return to power. Conservatives would be too. I don’t mean MAGA conservatives, whom I don’t count as real conservatives because, really, they’re just Trump cultists. I mean the respectable right, as represented by, say, National Review. In a January 2016 editorial the magazine denounced Trump as “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist” who “would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.” Of the Trump-encouraged MAGA insurrection on January 6, 2021, a National Review editorial said, one year later, “Trump’s recklessness disgraced the office of the presidency.”

Throughout Trump’s presidency, National Review continued to criticize Trump here and there, but more often it defended him—often directly, but at least as often indirectly, by attacking his critics. Even so, the magazine can’t have been sorry to see Trump go, because he wasn’t just disgracing the presidency, he was disgracing a Republican Party that the magazine has worked nearly 70 years to rebuild. Now that Trump is back as presumptive nominee, National Review is entertaining, on the cover of its May issue (“Four More Years?”), the same ghastly possibility that The Atlantic, the Times editorial board, and TNR lately considered. What National Review sees tells you a lot about the diminished state these days of conservative thought.

The good news is that the author of the piece, senior writer Michael Brendan Dougherty, acknowledges danger. The bad news is that the danger resides almost entirely in the prospect of a thuggish and antidemocratic rebellion by, you guessed it, liberals.

The old National Review line on Trump was that he was a menace and a disgrace. The new line is that, although he’ll continue to degrade “public discourse and the image of republican governance,” Trump is, as Margaret Thatcher said of Mikhail Gorbachev on the eve of his ascent to general secretary, “a man one could do business with.”

Dougherty outlines four possible scenarios.

Scenario One (“A Replay of the Limited Trump”), is that Trump, as he was during his first term, will be hemmed in by Congress, the courts, and his own short attention span. Trump, Dougherty notes, “did not strongly deviate from standard Republican views on economics.” People like me think that’s terrible; people like Dougherty think that’s good. Where Trump did deviate, writes Dougherty, either from Republican orthodoxy or Washington consensus, he tended to lose. For example, Trump didn’t achieve all that much on trade. A second Trump term will be more of the same.

In Scenario Two (“The Full Trump”), the president has “learned a few things from his first term and will find staff members who execute his decisions.” This is the Trump II that most liberals anticipate and fear. Dougherty sees Scenario Two as much less likely than Scenario One, and maybe it is. But I see little practical difference in the outcome because—apart from eviscerating the civil service, punishing his enemies, and building that stupid border wall—Trump is short on concrete ideas for a second term. Really, all Trump wants to do is beat Joe Biden; if he could do that and immediately retire to Mar-a-Lago, he’d be very happy.

Trump’s lack of an agenda means that whatever he achieves will, as in Scenario One, mostly reflect Republican orthodoxy or Washington consensus. Knowing this, the Heritage Foundation has furnished a long list of policy proposals that political reporters describe as Trump’s agenda merely because there isn’t any competing set of proposals. There are some conservatives—Dougherty appears to be one—whose only real ambition for a second Trump term is an even more reactionary Supreme Court. In a second term, Dougherty writes, Trump would “almost surely” end up naming successors to Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, and possibly also to John Roberts and Democrat Sonia Sotomayor (who, Dougherty notes hopefully, “has health challenges,” a reference to her type 1 diabetes). Naming four additional justices to the Supreme Court would allow Trump to impose a “historic stamp” on the high court, Dougherty writes, “comparable only to FDR’s.”

It’s the third and fourth scenarios that give Dougherty the willies. Scenario Three (“A Four-Year Siege”) refers not to newly pardoned January 6 insurrectionists laying waste to democratic institutions, but rather to “a ‘Resistance’ whose legal, moral, and political brinksmanship presents as many threats to American institutions as, or even more than, Trump himself.” Huh? Dougherty doesn’t try very hard to support this outrageous statement beyond hinting at unhappy memories of Black Lives Matter protests. For the record, it’s well documented—going back decades—that political violence has always been much more prevalent on the right.

What, specifically, does Dougherty fear? That “a Democratic House will find every chance to investigate Trump.” True, but that’s mostly because Trump (unlike Joe Biden) furnishes Democrats so many reasons to investigate him. Or the Democratic House might “refuse to invite Trump to deliver a State of the Union address.” That’s unlikely, but so what if they did? It’s not something to lie awake nights about. One impressively rococo anxiety Dougherty harbors is that the left will “take as a given that Trump authentically represents America, and that the entire American tradition is a tree that produces bad fruit.” Well, yes, I suppose some might go there. But if Dougherty truly fears that, then why—instead of rationalizing a second term for this bad apple—doesn’t he dedicate every waking moment to reelecting Joe Biden, who’s far less likely to inspire such nihilism?

Scenario Four is “Trump Aborted.” Dougherty doesn’t mean somebody will fly a time machine back to October 1945 and slip Mary Anne Trump a mifepristone tablet. He means that “the Left would foment widespread violence in the cities to punish nonviolent voters” and will thereby prevent Trump from becoming president. Dougherty writes that Ronald Brownstein, Franklin Foer, and Russell Berman have all predicted something along these lines in the Atlantic.

Now, the Atlantic does have some penchant for Doom Porn, one that I’ve criticized in the past. In the Atlantic, the sky is pretty much always about to fall. But none of the three Atlantic writers Dougherty cites has ever predicted that Democrats will commit acts of violence if Trump is reelected, nor have they suggested even indirectly that they would condone violence if Democrats committed it. Dougherty himself introduces the “Trump Aborted” scenario as “remote” and concludes that “public opinion and the desire for continuing constitutional government would restrain Democrats tempted by such a gamble,” sounding a little like Emily Litella on Saturday Night Live, who always ended her furious commentaries with the words, “Oh. Never mind.”

If only Dougherty could predict Trump Republicans will show comparable restraint if their man loses. Clearly Dougherty grasps that the prospect of violence and another attempted insurrection is much greater in the event of a Biden victory. That is not, of course, a reason to vote Trump back in. But I can’t help wondering whether Dougherty thinks it is. The respectable right’s principal emotion about Trump, after all, has always been abject fear of the man. He took away their party, and he won’t give it back. The last thing they want to do is to make Trump, or his MAGA followers, mad.