A follow-up to last night’s post, which you should read to understand what I mean by him “sort of” defending Trump’s proposal. Rush isn’t saying that he likes the idea of guaranteed paid maternity leave; he mentions in passing more than once that it’s not the sort of thing that’s going to excite a small-government conservative like him. But that unhappy fact is quickly brushed aside in favor of lengthier analysis about the plan and how it’s a “home run” politically for Trump. Today he doubles down on that distinction. “There’s politics,” he notes, “and there’s ideology.” You can dislike a policy idea while also assessing objectively that it’s likely to be popular. Which of course is true.
But … conservative talk radio is a very strange place for sharp lines to suddenly be drawn between politics and ideology. Lots and lots and lots of people made the case in 2013 that a government shutdown over ObamaCare was sure to achieve nothing and was likely to damage Republicans politically. (Which it did, although thankfully not for long.) The talk-radio position, though, was that there comes a time to stand and fight. Ideology over politics. Establishment Republicans have pleaded for years with populists like Rush to cut them some slack in the name of political reality, especially on immigration in order to rebuild bridges to Latino voters. The talk-radio position is that you should never compromise on core principles and that the mere suggestion that you might is proof enough that Republicans are no better than Democrats. In fact, the baseline assumption that drives conservative populism (or drove, since there isn’t much left of conservative populism anymore) is that the electorate is essentially right-wing deep down and will reveal its true nature once the GOP nominates a “bold colors, not pale pastels” conservative who presents a sharp distinction with Democrats. We got that in the primary this year with Ted Cruz. He lost to the “former” Democrat Trump. It turned out not even the Republican Party was right-wing deep down.
Point being, it’s oddly fortunate for Trump that this sea change on the radio from ideological litmus tests to calmly analyzing political reality happens to coincide exactly with Trump’s cult of personality taking hold among the populist right that populates the listening audience. Imagine John Boehner proposing guaranteed paid maternity leave four years ago and Rush reacting with a “whaddaya gonna do, these are the leaders we’ve chosen” fatalism. Conservative talkers would have burned their studios down in outrage that the RINO sellouts in Washington were pushing the Democrats’ agenda again. Now here’s Trump pushing it and, instead of tearing him a new one, Rush is in play-the-hand-you’re-dealt mode. Go figure.
He notes at one point here that he stood up for Marco Rubio’s conservative bona fides this spring when others were hammering him over the Gang of Eight. That’s true. He also said during the primaries that Ted Cruz is the closest the GOP has come to Reagan since Reagan. Some conservatives, annoyed at Rush for not being harder on Trump over the past year, were grousing last night on Twitter that he wanted Trump to win all along but I don’t think that’s true. In his own tepid way, Rush has signaled at various points that he would have preferred a different, more conservative nominee. He’s not Hannity. But he’s also not Glenn Beck. He never went all-in for Cruz or Rubio and he never made the case that Trump should be patently unacceptable to anyone who takes conservatism seriously. And the only plausible explanation why is that there are simply too many Trumpers in his audience for him to feel comfortable crossing them that sharply. He won’t pander to them to the point where he’ll pretend that he likes Trump’s proposal but he will pander to them to the point where he’ll look for other ways to praise Trump’s plan (political “home run”!). As long as Trump is being praised in some way — for his polls, for his retail savvy, for his politically incorrect fearlessness — they’ll tolerate Rush politely disagreeing with him on policy. Like the man says, there’s politics and there’s ideology. And few on the populist right, especially among Trump fans, cares much about the latter anymore, if they ever did.