There was a time when a former president dining with a White nationalist and a rapper who has voiced antisemitic views would have been roundly condemned by members of both parties.
Now is not that time.
After Donald Trump’s meeting with Nick Fuentes and Kanye West at Mar-a-Lago last week, Republicans have, by and large, been silent. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, however, has not.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for a leader that’s setting an example for the country or the party to meet with (an) avowed racist or anti-Semite,” Hutchinson told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.” “And so it’s very troubling and it shouldn’t happen and we need to avoid those kind of empowering the extremes. You want to diminish their strength, not empower them. Stay away from it.”
Hutchinson’s latest comments are in keeping with how he is positioning himself for a potential 2024 presidential bid: as the conscience of the conservative movement.
The notion is that, especially following the 2022 midterm election, there will be a reckoning within the Republican Party about its fealty to Trump – a reckoning that Hutchinson is trying to lead.
“He’s a known quantity now, we know the chaos that comes with him, and that’s really not the kind of leadership that’s good for America and really the future of our party,” Hutchinson said of Trump earlier this month.
And, as far back as May, Hutchinson was making the case that the party needed to move on from Trump.
“I’ve made it clear: I think we ought to have a different direction in the future,” Hutchinson said at the time. “I think [Trump] did a lot of good things for our country, but we need to go a different direction.”
It’s unclear a) whether the party is ready for Hutchinson’s reckoning or b) whether Hutchinson is the right person to lead it.
Hutchinson’s resume is impressive. He is finishing his second term as governor in Arkansas after serving in the US House and as the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration during the George W. Bush administration. He has carved out a niche in Arkansas as a “pragmatic conservative,” according to the Almanac of American Politics, and won reelection in 2018 with 65% of the vote.
But Hutchinson registers as little more than a blip in the potential 2024 Republican field, where Trump remains well ahead. Politics is, of course, a changeable business and longshot candidates have managed to have a real impact on presidential primary fights, and even win.
There will also likely be others within the GOP who will seek to play that conscience role – most notably Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, both of whom also condemned Trump’s decision to dine with Fuentes and West.
Still, Hutchinson’s appeal to the conscience of the conservative movement is an intriguing one. The question now is if anyone will listen.