Like everyone else inside the Beltway, the conservative ecosystem has found itself engrossed in the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. But, unlike its left-leaning counterpart, the hodgepodge of conservative radio hosts, magazine writers, and media personalities has been fractured offering a diversity of opinions and arguments about how the conservative movement ought to respond to the situation at hand.
To start, conservative media can be divided—albeit crudely—into two parts: Trump supporters and Trump critics. The president’s supporters have largely towed the party line, attacking the process of the inquiry and claiming it is a partisan, political attack rather than the sober execution of the legislative branch’s solemn duty to hold the executive to account. But, things get more interesting when you look at Trump’s critics.
Let’s start with David French, a leading figure among intellectual conservatives. Mr. French has used much of his time with the new conservative media publication, The Dispatch, pushing back against the narrative that the impeachment inquiry is illegitimate. French and his cohort have argued that, “if the House impeaches (and it likely will), it will do so on the basis of testimony of live witnesses who’ve been subject to thorough cross-examination. That’s entirely fair,” and conservatives ought to support such a process steeped in legal norms.
However, while French is willing to put political realities aside for now, many of Trump’s other conservative critics are not. Take Jim Geraghty for example, one of Mr. French’s former colleagues at the National Review, who used a hypothetical dialogue between a Democrat and a “Trump-skeptical conservative” to illustrate the fact that a successful impeachment—one where Donald Trump is impeached by the House and removed by the Senate—would almost certainly severely weaken the GOP going into 2020 and result in unified Democratic control of Washington after the elections, allowing them to institute all of the hard left proposals that have become the centerpieces of their presidential hopefuls’ campaigns; and so conservatives ought to really ask themselves whether the president’s actions—as bad as they are—actually warrant an impeachable offense. The underlying idea here is that impeachment cannot be considered in a vacuum, it has major political consequences that must be taken into account.
This amounts to a major problem for Trump’s conservative critics: their disdain for the president is based on conservative ideals which include deference for long-standing political and constitutional norms including the idea that no one is above the law and impeachment is the process by which a lawbreaking president is held to account. Therefore, if President Trump committed a crime, he ought to be impeached, without consideration of the politics. Some conservatives (like French) have tried to apply this standard and just be done with it, but even French acknowledges that the chances of Trump being convicted in the Senate are next to zero; and while there have been other conservatives, like the Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis, who have tried to make the argument that, as Trump continues to make decisions (primarily in foreign policy) unpopular with the Senate GOP, a successful conviction in the Senate could enter the realm of possibility, but there is largely a consensus across the entire right that impeachment only ends one way and the inquiry only serves to dig up and provide information to voters as they prepare to cast their votes in 2020. Ultimately, the American right is highly fractured and it is hard to ascertain what a post-Trump conservative movement will look like. But, the American right has a strong history of ideological diversity and debate and has often looked towards its intelligentsia to be the incubator for the ideas that eventually become the policy prescriptions of the next generation of conservative lawmakers. That is to say that the future of the conservative movement in America is being decided in the pages of the aforementioned magazines and journals, not in the White House or in Congress, and that future may very well be determined in large part by how conservatives choose to respond to and rationalize the impeachment of Donald Trump.