Ponnuru: Say Trump’s name, Republicans | Opinion
“I tell it like it is,” Donald Trump told an interviewer in May 2015, and over the next months and years that boast would find a lot of takers. The perception of his forthrightness was a major political asset. In the South Carolina Republican primary held in February 2016, voters who said they prized “telling it like it is” over any other quality in a candidate gave him 78% of their votes.
Trump didn’t get this reputation by saying things that had a high rate of correspondence with verified reality. He lies frequently about matters large and small. Trump is nonetheless more honest than most politicians in one sense: There is a kind of routine fakery that they employ and he rarely has. He does not pretend to like or respect his opponents, for example, as most candidates feel obliged to do. His critics deplore this norm-breaking, and they have a point: The norm of pleasantries between political rivals, often insincere ones, helps in its small way to keep the peace and to focus attention on issues.
But his highest-profile Republican critics keep illustrating why Trump’s style can feel like a refreshing break from cant. Take Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, who supposedly “took dead aim at both Trump and his more ardent followers” in a Sept. 9 speech at the Ronald Reagan Library.
“We need to renounce the conspiracy theorists and the truth deniers,” he said. If he had any particular conspiracy theorist in mind, though, he kept it to himself. The name of our most recent Republican president did not pass his lips. Christie did find time to explain that leaders need to tell “the hard truth.”
Two days later, commemorating the Sept. 11 attacks, former President George W. Bush made remarks that have widely been taken as criticisms of Trump and a subset of his followers. His reference to “violent extremists at home” who wish “to defile national symbols” appears to be a reference to the rightist mob that breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 — although some people have read the passage to sweep in left-wing rioters as well. When he said that “much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment,” nobody thought he was taking a shot at President Joe Biden. But he, too, avoided specificity.
Maybe Christie and Bush hoped that pulling punches would discourage below-the-belt counterpunches. If Bush harbored that hope, he was mistaken. Trump slugged back on Tuesday by accusing Bush of leading “a failed and uninspiring presidency.” Yes, by name.
Or perhaps Christie and Bush just thought they were being decorous. One of the lessons Republican politicians drew from the 2016 primaries was that sinking to Trump’s level to attack him doesn’t work. Bush may well have thought that a solemn observance was not the right occasion to critique a successor. But then why make veiled criticisms either?
Shrinking from naming Trump makes his opponents look weak and shifty. It plays into Trump’s self-depiction as strong and candid. It also suggests that Trump remains so powerful that even ex-presidents whose political careers are long over cannot risk taking him on.
A merely elliptical criticism also lends itself to misunderstanding. Was Bush talking about Black Lives Matter protesters after all? When he called out “nativism,” did he mean to tar everyone who supported Trump’s border-wall idea? Does he really think that the Capitol rioters are morally equivalent to the 9/11 hijackers? (He didn’t explicitly say that, but the suggestion was there.)
Paul Ryan, the former Speaker of the House, ran into similar problems when he tried to finesse the Trump question in his own speech at the Reagan Library in May. Unlike Bush and Christie, he spoke the name. He praised Trump for accomplishments in office and for attracting new voters to the Republican Party. When he got to the constructive-criticism portion of his remarks, though, it was a different story.
“We need to be frank,” he said. “Today, too many people on the right are enamored with identity politics in ways that are antithetical to Reagan conservatism.” Which people? Republicans who think of themselves as closer to Trump than to Ryan in politics thought he was smearing them all as racists. He may not have meant that, but he left himself open to that reading.
Trump himself cut through the verbal fog. His response: “Paul Ryan has been a curse to the Republican Party. He has no clue as to what needs to be done for our Country.” You may not find that especially persuasive. But you can’t have any doubt about what he’s trying to say.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.