The Passionate Irrelevancy of “True” Conservatism in 2016
George Will, well-known journalist and author of the 1983 book Statecraft as Soulcraft, is on the verge of spitting full-forced paroxysms in the direction of a man he sees as lacking the proper “virtue” and conservative credentials to lead the GOP–Donald J. Trump.
Whereas Will’s Statecraft as Soul is a somber, “other directed” communitarian call for the government to “instill virtue” in the populace, Trump’s The Art of the Deal is a self-praising memoir and advice manual in which Trump reveals many of his deal-making techniques, including what Trump calls “truthful hyperbole.”
Listening to George Will today, I can’t help but wonder if he’s been taking lessons from Mr. Trump on how to make people believe what you’re selling is, as Trump says, “the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular…It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.”
Speaking to the establishment interlocutor of conservative talk radio, Hugh Hewitt, George Will had this to say about the potential GOP nomination of Trump:
[Y]ou would have to also figure that there would be movement to have a third party candidate because if the election is Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump, this will be the first election since God knows when there was no real conservative candidate. And I don’t think those of us who started our political careers — and I cast my vote for Barry Goldwater, who valued that classic, creative defeat of his because he took the Republican Party and said, ‘henceforth it will be a conservative party.’
Those of us who feel that way are not about to sit idly and see the Republican Party — which was saved by William Howard Taft in 1912 for conservatism, that was reclaimed by Barry Goldwater in 1964 for conservatism — we’re not going to let it disappear in 2016.
Now, I would hardly call Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump conservatives, but how can Mr. Will say with a straight face that their matchup would be “the first election since God knows when there was no real conservative candidate?”
Oh yes, George, when I think of carrying the mantle of Barry Goldwater, I immediately think of Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, and George H. W. Bush.
Either George Will is engaging in “truthful hyperbole” or he really believes what he is saying. I hope it is the former, but if Mr. Will really is serious, I must say the term “conservatism” is a nearly meaningless word or is being used in a post-modern way; a simulacrum born of a long gone era now bereft of its initial significance. If we are to believe Mitt Romney’s conservatism was the stuff of Barry Goldwater’s, then we must also be prepared to say margarine is literally butter.
To call for a third-party would most likely do harm to the “conservative” cause as well. I am tempted to say good riddance. Let those in the tea-party, those who love the constitution, those who love the Bill of Rights, drop the label “conservative” altogether. Let them reclaim the banner of “classical liberalism.” Their project ahead–restoring the liberties of the nation and putting it back on a sound fiscal and monetary footing–hardly demands conserving anything. No, the project ahead calls more for the spirit of 1776 than Taft’s 1912 or Goldwater’s 1964.
I am no fan of Mr. Trump, but it’s not because I have a great deal of respect for “conservative” ideals or love for the GOP establishment. No, if I am being honest, I must tell you I don’t want anyone to be president, and I expect to be mightily disappointed later this year. I am resigned to watching this 2016 farce with glee and contempt, hoping the farce won’t soon turn to tragedy.
What is it about a presidential election cycle that spurs the American people to such fits of hyperbolic pronouncement, meaningless speculation, and false hope that their choice will truly lead to a government representative of their ideals?
This isn’t a rhetorical question. I’m genuinely asking. I am bumfuzzled by the current partisan and intra-party haranguing. When I look at the civil war of “ideas” being carried on by the politicians, the pundits, and the people, I have trouble making sense of their fervor. Despite their intense disagreements on the surface, I see little difference between the parties.
Or rather, I see all of us in this nation as beholden to the momentum of history. Our government institutions seem to be controlling and constraining us when it should be the very opposite.
Maybe, I am not alone in this assessment. Maybe, just maybe, this is why there is, for better or worse, such a populist sentiment sweeping the nation. The people are tired of being told they must be good party members and that “intellectuals” such as George Will and Hugh Hewitt should be seen as members of a priestly class defending the true faith of “conservatism.”
Mr. Will is a man of ideas. Mr. Trump, undoubtedly, is a man of action. And in this current political climate where tried and true political ideas seem untrustworthy, I do not think it is too bold to say Trump and his throng of supporters will continue to show the contemplative George Will that “conservatism” has been dead on the vine for some time now. And this populist show will probably not stop with Mr. Will.
For instance, remember the “Conservatives against Trump” issue of National Review?
Gore Vidal once said to William F. Buckley Jr. in the heat of one of their famous 1968 debates, “If there were a contest for Mr. Myra Breckinridge, you would unquestionably win it. I based her entire style polemically upon you–passionate and irrelevant.”
Fast forward nearly half a century later, and we find in the pages of Buckley’s legacy publication, National Review, a new contest for who can seem the most passionate yet irrelevant in denouncing the newest demagogue to appear on the American political scene–one Donald J. Trump.
Whereas, Vidal’s Myra was an exploration into the mutability of gender and the power dynamics underlying sexual relations, National Review’s symposium “Conservatives against Trump” reads as an exploration into the mutability of the “conservative” identity and the power dynamics underpinning the right wing. And their passionate appeals may very well have driven them into further irrelevancy–after publishing the collection, National Review received an extra lesson in the right’s power dynamics, as they were booted by the RNC from co-hosting the next GOP debate.
The symposium includes a hodge-podge of the well-known and the lesser-known, Tea Partiers and Neoconservatives, Libertarians and “movement” activists, all denouncing the rise of Donald Trump as the standard bearer for the disaffected working class. Many of the commentators focus on Trump’s political evolution, pointing out that Trump’s political persuasions seem about as pliable and open for change as Myra’s gender. The whole collection is quite strange, androgynous even, a mix of establishment critiques and grassroots rants.
The only thing that seems to unite the writers assembled is their opposition to Trump. I am too opposed to Trump, but I know the true threat is not the Donald whatsoever, a lesson in democracy, I fear, we will all learn soon enough.
Glenn Beck kicks off the passionate irrelevancy:
While conservatives fought against the stimulus, Donald Trump said it was “what we need,” praising Obama’s schemes of “building infrastructure, building great projects, putting people to work in that sense.” While conservatives fought against the auto bailouts, Donald Trump claimed “the government should stand behind [the auto companies] 100 percent” because “they make wonderful products.” While conservatives fought against the bank bailouts, Donald Trump called them “something that has to get done.” Let his reasoning sink in for a second: “[The government] can take over companies, and, frankly, take big chunks of companies.” When conservatives desperately needed allies in the fight against big government, Donald Trump didn’t stand on the sidelines. He consistently advocated that your money be spent, that your government grow, and that your Constitution be ignored. Sure, Trump’s potential primary victory would provide Hillary Clinton with the easiest imaginable path to the White House. But it’s far worse than that. If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, there will once again be no opposition to an ever-expanding government. This is a crisis for conservatism. And, once again, this crisis will not go to waste.
David Boaz from the Cato Institute then chimes in:
From a libertarian point of view — and I think serious conservatives and liberals would share this view—Trump’s greatest offenses against American tradition and our founding principles are his nativism and his promise of one-man rule. Not since George Wallace has there been a presidential candidate who made racial and religious scapegoating so central to his campaign. Trump launched his campaign talking about Mexican rapists and has gone on to rant about mass deportation, bans on Muslim immigration, shutting down mosques, and building a wall around America. America is an exceptional nation in large part because we’ve aspired to rise above such prejudices and guarantee life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to everyone…Without even getting into his past support for a massive wealth tax and single-payer health care, his know-nothing protectionism, or his passionate defense of eminent domain, I think we can say that this is a Republican campaign that would have appalled Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan.
Brent Bozell then plays the movement loyalty card:
A real conservative walks with us. Ronald Reagan read National Review and Human Events for intellectual sustenance; spoke annually to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Young Americans for Freedom, and other organizations to rally the troops; supported Barry Goldwater when the GOP mainstream turned its back on him; raised money for countless conservative groups; wrote hundreds of op-eds; and delivered even more speeches, everywhere championing our cause. Until he decided to run for the GOP nomination a few months ago, Trump had done none of these things, perhaps because he was too distracted publicly raising money for liberals such as the Clintons; championing Planned Parenthood, tax increases, and single-payer health coverage; and demonstrating his allegiance to the Democratic party.
Skip ahead a few people, and we have the neoconservative Bill Kristol railing against Trump via Leo Strauss and the specter of Caesar. One can hardly wonder from his use of the phrase “two-bit Caesarism” if Kristol would rather have a first-rate Caesarism:
In a letter to National Review, Leo Strauss wrote that “a conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity; but the argument which is concerned exclusively with calculations of success, and is based on blindness to the nobility of the effort, is vulgar.” Isn’t Donald Trump the very epitome of vulgarity? In sum: Isn’t Trumpism a two-bit Caesarism of a kind that American conservatives have always disdained? Isn’t the task of conservatives today to stand athwart Trumpism, yelling Stop?
Thomas Sowell then strikes closest to the heart of the matter, saying (emphasis mine):
In a country with more than 300 million people, it is remarkable how obsessed the media have become with just one—Donald Trump. What is even more remarkable is that, after seven years of repeated disasters, both domestically and internationally, under a glib egomaniac in the White House, so many potential voters are turning to another glib egomaniac to be his successor. No doubt much of the stampede of Republican voters toward Mr. Trump is based on their disgust with the Republican establishment. It is easy to understand why there would be pent-up resentments among Republican voters. But are elections held for the purpose of venting emotions?
To answer your question with respect, Mr. Sowell: yes, elections are held for that purpose. They are held for any purpose “the people” want. And let’s be clear: all politicians, political parties, and pundits play on the people’s emotions. Trump is just playing this game better than any of the people claiming to stand on principle against him.
When will the “intelligentsia” learn their lesson and stop fooling themselves? Democratic elections aren’t about enshrining high ideals or sober policy prescriptions; elections are about winning power by any and all means. Rather than worrying about Trump as the new Caesar, these writers should be worried about America’s true collective emperor: the people.
For, “the people” are authorized somehow someway to do as they please. They are the authority by virtue of their strength in numbers. And if an opinion is unpopular–such as the anti-Trump sentiment these days–then its passion, truth, and wisdom is of little to no consequence.
In fact, such an opinion may very well be irrelevant.
"The fool doth think he is wise..."