Of all the aggrieved elites disoriented by Trump, none face a trickier calculation than the dark artists of the right, whose conspiratorial powers have always been oversold. Trump wouldn’t be president today if political operatives had a scintilla of the pull imagined by the commander-in-chief. It is true, however, that they don’t like the president all that much. They’re worried about his tweeting; his tone; his behavior; his character (or lack thereof)—ill will reinforced by his widely condemned response to an uprising of white supremacists and anti-Semites in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one counter-demonstrator dead. They fret about Trump’s long-term impact on the Republican Party, on the country, and what his rise means for America’s international standing as the leader of the free world. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them lower.
Yet in meeting after meeting, Republican consultants have had one consistent message for clients and prospective clients running for office in 2018. It’s a message they tell me will not change, even after the avalanche of criticism directed at Trump by fellow Republicans for his failure to immediately condemn the racists who gathered in Charlottesville and his decision to conflate them with counter-protesters. “Your heart tells you that he’s bad for the country. Your head looks at polling data among Republican primary voters and sees how popular he is,” said one Republican strategist who, like most of the nearly two dozen I interviewed for this story, requested anonymity in order to speak candidly and protect their clients. “It would be malpractice not to advise clients to attach themselves to that popularity.”