Yesterday, while I was indulging in tinfoil-hat theories about what might happen if Texas Democrats actually bothered to seriously compete in this year’s general election, I promised to offer some thoughts about the decision that Texas Republicans are now confronting, over whether to support Donald Trump, their party’s nominee for president. And the distress that Texas conservatives have been grappling with this week has obviously been ratcheted up several notches since then. Rick Perry announced yesterday evening that he had done his grappling with the issue at hand, and had, like Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, decided to endorse Donald Trump. Not only that, he went a step further than Abbott and Patrick, by saying that he would be open to serving as Trump’s running mate and would, in any case, make active efforts to help Trump win the general election.
This was a surprising turn of events. Perry was among the handful of national Republican leaders who had seemed likely to take a Charles de Gaulle-type stance in response to Trump’s nomination. He was the first major political figure, from either national party, to publicly rebuke Trump’s glibly divisive rhetoric, and when he ended his own bid for the Republican presidential nomination, his closing remarks were uncompromising about Trump, who he then described as “a cancer on conservatism.” Some on the right had even been hoping that should Trump somehow manage to win the nomination, Perry would ride to their rescue, by running as an independent conservative candidate.
Beyond that, Perry’s endorsement of Trump was particularly painful for Texas conservatives, especially the young ones. “ERICA. WTF,” one such source texted me, as the news broke; this might not be intuitively obvious to national observers, but there are about five million Texans who never lived in the state during any gubernatorial administration other than Perry’s until Greg Abbott was elected, and millions more of us for whom the pre-Perry era in Texas politics is a hazy childhood memory. Many of the state’s young conservatives, then, have a natural emotional connection with Perry—a reassuringly familiar presence and, if not exactly a father figure, at least their lifelong yell leader.
My own reaction to the news was relatively stoical. Perry, in my view, was a more effective governor than people give him credit for; he would have been my top choice for this year’s Republican presidential nomination, and I would have liked to see him stand his ground on Trump, as Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush have done. Ultimately, though, his endorsement of Trump feels more puzzling than painful to me.
What does pain me, though, is how much pain Perry’s endorsement has elicited among Texas conservatives. The anger, distress, and confusion they were expressing yesterday, like the anger, distress, and confusion Wisconsin conservatives were feeling in response to Scott Walker’s (much more tepid) endorsement of Trump, is, in a way, a measure of the leadership those two governors have provided. I know some Democrats are enjoying the schadenfreude, but let’s all act like human beings for a moment and consider the situation.
Let’s say you’re an American conservative who genuinely cares about the principles the Republican Party purports to stand for, or who has been naive enough to believe that the leaders who’ve proclaimed their commitment to those principles weren’t lying about everything all this time. You’re being asked to support a vicious, vulgar candidate who has no record of caring about conservative principles, or any flavor of principles, or anything other than his own self-interest. Conservatives are looking for leadership, and they have a reasonable expectation that their actual leaders—the Republicans who had earned their confidence well before Trump lurched onto the scene—will provide it.
Such leaders, obviously, are rare enough in the first place; the presidential primary proved that much, at least. In states like Texas and Wisconsin and Utah, where Republican leaders like Perry and Walker and Romney hold sway, Trump was defeated; those states were the exception rather than the rule, though. And all too many of those leaders, the ones conservatives were dumb enough to believe in, are letting them down. Even a tepid endorsement of Trump, like Walker’s, or Abbott’s, is tantamount to saying that none of the concerns conservatives are raising, many of which are about principles their leaders used to pretend to share, actually matter. To date, when pressed on the question of why, exactly, Hillary Clinton would be worse than Trump, Republicans have managed to provide only one actual reason: there’s a chance—a chance—that Trump might appoint conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.
To me, that has to be weighed against the chance that Trump might nuke a random country, or decide that he’s not going to appoint any justices to the Supreme Court at all until the eight who remain start behaving and writing the opinions that he asked them to, and so on. But I accept that there is, indeed, a chance that Trump, in nominating the person that made him feel good and happy, might happen to nominate someone who shares certain commitments to constitutional principle. And I can believe that some Republican leaders care about the Supreme Court enough to grimly board the Trump Train; that’s probably why Abbott, specifically, is suffering this fool.
Meanwhile, though, we obviously need Republican leaders to step it up right now. Regardless of the outcome of the election, the way GOP leaders respond to Trump’s nomination is going to have long-term effects: there are young conservatives in Texas who will never again have as much confidence in their political leaders as they did before Perry endorsed Trump. (And if Ted Cruz endorses Trump? Boy howdy. It’s a good thing he’s not going to. At least I really don’t think he will.) And a leadership crisis in one party, obviously, might have broader effects for society at large. Even Democrats, some of whom are reveling in conservatives going through this humiliating public comeuppance, must have noticed the potential dangers of having Trump as the Republican nominee for president.
So, for any Texas Republican leaders who might be reading this: Look, I really don’t see what’s so hard about this. In a state where the most notable endorsement Trump secured before Tuesday was Tom Leppert’s, I doubt you’re prepared to go to any great lengths on his behalf. That being the case, I really don’t see the point of endorsing him, especially considering that by doing so you’re bound to incur some reputational damage, and distress some of your supporters—the ones who actually care about conservative principles. This is, as Cruz used to say, a time for choosing, though the choice is no longer between Trump and Cruz, but between Trump and Texas conservatives. Hardly seems like a tough call.