In 2016, Erick Erickson could not have been clearer. Donald Trump was “a racist” and “a fascist.” It was no wonder, Mr. Erickson wrote, that “so many people with swastikas in their Twitter profile pics” supported him. “I will not vote for Donald Trump. Ever,” he insisted, adding his voice to the chorus of Never Trump Republicans.
Last week, Mr. Erickson, a well-known conservative blogger, titled one of his pieces “I Support the President.” In three years, he had come completely around, a transformation that is a testament to President Trump’s remarkable consolidation of support inside the Republican Party. The effort to impeach the president, Mr. Erickson wrote, was a desperate move by people “who have never come to terms with him.”
“Never Trump” no more, conservatives have largely resigned themselves to a more accommodating state of mind: “Never mind Trump.” And their change in attitude helps to mute the much smaller group of conservative voices who remain highly critical of the president and have questioned his conduct.
Glenn Beck, the radio host who once called Mr. Trump “an immoral man who is absent decency or dignity,” now says that his defeat in 2020 would mark “the end of the country as we know it.” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who so bitterly feuded with the president during the 2016 primaries that Mr. Trump gave out Mr. Graham’s cellphone number on national television, declared last week that impeachment was nothing but “a political set up.”
It can be difficult to remember that indignation and contempt for Mr. Trump once simmered in every corner of the conservative world. In August 2016, dozens of the most senior Republican national security officials signed a letter warning he would “put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.”
Women leaders of the anti-abortion movement joined together before the Iowa caucuses in 2016 and issued a joint statement declaring themselves “disgusted” at his behavior, saying he had “impugned the dignity of women.” National Review published an “Against Trump” issue that featured essays from 22 prominent conservatives who all made a case for why he should be not be the Republican nominee.
At least half of those writers are now on the record making supportive comments about the president. Some, including Mr. Erickson and Mr. Beck, now fiercely defend Mr. Trump, joining many former foes who are speaking out loudly against the impeachment inquiry. Others who contributed to the issue like Ed Meese, the attorney general under Ronald Reagan, has helped Mr. Trump plan his transition and build his administration.
The “Never Trump” taint still lingers three and a half years later. National Review’s editor, Rich Lowry, said that, regrettably, that week’s magazine was remembered as the “Never Trump” issue. “I wish they’d never come up with that phrase,” he said. Mr. Lowry, who spent three weeks recruiting and assigning writers for the issue, still does not shy away from publishing or writing pieces that are harsh toward the president. But he acknowledges that Mr. Trump has helped conservatives like him “stress test your assumptions,” and has forced him to rethink issues like the need to take a tougher approach with China.
“Had I known this was going to be perceived as the bible of the anti-Trump movement, I never would have written it,” said L. Brent Bozell III, who in his National Review essay wrote, “Trump might be the greatest charlatan of them all.” He now counts himself as a Trump convert.
There is significant exposure in airing even the most mild criticism of the president, as Mr. Bozell was reminded the other day when he pointed out on Twitter that China, whom Mr. Trump had just congratulated on its 70th anniversary as a communist republic, was a repressive regime.
“The fury is absolutely there for anyone who criticizes this president,” he said. Still, he offered nothing but scorn for the few remaining Never Trump Republicans, whom he accused of being self-righteous and politically shortsighted. “For a lot of the purists, they would rather go down in flames than look at any political equation,” he said. “These are the people who supported George W. Bush when he did nothing for conservatives, and they don’t have any leg to stand on when it comes to passing judgment on Trump.”
Mr. Bozell has also discovered that there is a significant market for defending Mr. Trump against impeachment. Through the organization he founded, the Media Research Center, he has helped provide the Trump-friendly news media with a steady stream of videos and articles alleging bias in the mainstream news media’s coverage of impeachment. He has also co-authored a book this year on a similar theme: “Unmasked: Big Media’s War Against Trump.”
In the Republican national security community, many still openly criticize Mr. Trump. But some of the most prominent signatories of the 2016 letter have taken a more charitable view of the president today, like Tom Ridge, the former Homeland Security secretary, and John Negroponte, the former director of national intelligence, who said earlier this year: “I certainly don’t think his presidency has been catastrophic.”
And at least one of those officials who signed the letter, James Jeffrey, now works for the Trump administration. He has a high-profile posting in the State Department as the special representative dealing with Syria.
The motivations for getting on board are considerable: a job, a bigger audience, a white knight-like belief that you can change things from the inside. “Some of this is pure opportunism and careerism,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a State Department official in the second Bush administration who signed the letter and also helped recruit like-minded Republicans to join an earlier anti-Trump letter that called the then-candidate “fundamentally dishonest.”
“Some people have an inflated notion of the good they can do from the inside,” Mr. Cohen added. “One of my pet hobbies is the study of the technocrats of Vichy, and there were a lot of people like that — some of them indeed making things less bad. And sometimes they were getting seduced by power.”Few changes of heart have been as head-spinning as the social conservatives and evangelical Christians who now consider Mr. Trump a hero. Many of the conservative women who once saw him as a boor have come to believe that for too long they were focused on the wrong qualities in presidential candidates. They wanted someone pious when they should have been looking for someone who could throw punches.
“I endorsed Rick Santorum in 2012. And Mike Huckabee,” said Penny Young Nance, who signed the statement in 2016 of anti-abortion activists opposing Mr. Trump. “But at the end of the day, I’m not sure those guys I love and admire would have had the guts to do what Trump has done,” she added.
Among the other considerations of “late adopters,” as Ms. Nance called herself, is how Mr. Trump relentlessly and savagely attacks the left and its leaders. “American women want a street fighter,” she said, “and this is the guy who puts the knife in his teeth and swims the moat.” She called Mr. Trump, “a gutsy New Yorker,” resisting the urge to use a less polite term that Mr. Trump might have used himself. “I could use a different word, but I won’t.”
For the few remaining holdouts, the willingness of so many conservatives to support Mr. Trump’s behavior is troubling. “I’ve heard from countless people who argue and believe that this is an existential moral moment and if a Democrat wins, darkness will descend on the land,” Peter Wehner, a speechwriter in the second Bush White House, said. “If that’s your mind-set, then of course you’ll engage in a lot of unholy alliances to defeat Satan.”
“I’m trying to determine what’s the limiting principle for a person when it comes to casting a vote for Donald Trump,” Mr. Wehner added. “And I’m not sure there is one.”