THERE are many lessons that conservatives need to learn from the rise of Donald Trump. There are elements of his message that the party should embrace. There are grievances among his voters that the Republican Party must address.
But for conservatives to support Trump himself, to assist in his election as president of the United States, would be a terrible mistake.
It would be a particularly stark mistake for conservatives who feel that the basic Reaganite vision that’s dominated their party for decades — a fusion of social conservatism, free-market economics, and a hawkish internationalism — still gets things mostly right.
In large ways and small, Trump has consistently arrayed himself against this vision. True, he paid lip service to certain Reaganite ideas during the primaries — claiming to be pro-life, promising a supply-side tax cut, pledging to appoint conservative judges. But the core of his message was protectionist and nativist, comfortable with an expansive welfare state, bored with religious conservatism, and dismissive of the commitments that constitute the post-Cold War Pax Americana. And Trump’s policy forays since clinching the nomination have only confirmed his post-Reagan orientation.
Reaganite conservatives who help elevate Trump to the presidency, then, would be sleepwalking toward a kind of ideological suicide. Successful party leaders often transform parties in their image. William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson between them turned a conservative Democratic Party progressive. Dwight Eisenhower all but extinguished G.O.P. isolationism. Reagan himself set liberal Republicanism on the path to extinction.
A successful President Trump (and to support him is to hope for such a thing) could easily do the same to Reaganism. In a fully-Trumpized G.O.P., Reagan’s ideological coalition would crack up, with hawks drifting toward the Democrats, supply-siders fading into crankery, religious conservatives entering semi-permanent exile. And in its place a Trumpized Republican intelligentsia would arise, with as little interest in Reaganism as today’s conservatives have in the ideas of Nelson Rockefeller or Jacob Javits.
The things conservatives are telling themselves to justify supporting him — at least he might appoint good judges — miss this long-term point. The Reagan coalition might — might! — get an acceptable Supreme Court appointment out of the Trump presidency. But that could easily be the last thing it ever got.
But what if you’re a conservative who isn’t a Reaganite, or you believe that Reaganite ideas have long passed their sell-by dates? What if you agree with Trump about the folly of the Iraq War, the perils of open immigration policies, or the need for a different right-wing economic agenda? What if you think his populism might bring about some necessary creative destruction to a backward-looking G.O.P.?
Then supporting Trump for president could make ideological sense, and the crackup I’ve just described might seem like an advertisement for doing so.
But there still remains the problem of Trump himself. Even if you find things to appreciate in Trumpism — as I have, and still do — the man who has raised those issues is still unfit for an office as awesomely powerful as the presidency of the United States.
His unfitness starts with basic issues of temperament. It encompasses the race-baiting, the conspiracy theorizing, the flirtations with violence, and the pathological lying that have been his campaign-trail stock in trade.
But above all it is Trump’s authoritarianism that makes him unfit for the presidency — his stated admiration for Putin and the Chinese Politburo, his promise to use the power of the presidency against private enterprises, the casual threats he and his surrogates toss off against party donors, military officers, the press, the speaker of the House, and more.
All presidents are tempted by the powers of the office, and congressional abdication has only increased that temptation’s pull. President Obama’s power grabs are part of a bipartisan pattern of Caesarism, one that will likely continue apace under Hillary Clinton.
But far more than Obama or Hillary or George W. Bush, Trump is actively campaigning as a Caesarist, making his contempt for constitutional norms and political niceties a selling point. And given his mix of proud ignorance and immense self-regard, there is no reason to believe that any of this is just an act.
Trump would not be an American Mussolini; even our sclerotic institutions would resist him more effectively than that. But he could test them as no modern president has tested them before — and with them, the health of our economy, the civil peace of our society and the stability of an increasingly perilous world.
In sum: It would be possible to justify support for Trump if he merely promised a period of chaos for conservatism. But to support Trump for the presidency is to invite chaos upon the republic and the world. No policy goal, no court appointment, can justify such recklessness.
To Trumpism’s appeal, to Trump’s constituents, conservatives should listen and answer “yes,” or “maybe,” or “not that, but how about…”
But to Trump himself, there is no patriotic answer except “no.”