As we approach the last Republican Debate before Super Tuesday, it’s “reap just what you sow” day from the Left across the Center and to all points beyond the Movement Conservative Right.
It’s been a long run of Republicans accepting, encouraging, and exploiting uncivil discourse, anti-Obama hatred, and right-wing anger. (Republicans also welcomed nearly $300,000 in campaign contributions from Trump since he went birther.) The GOP raised the expectations of its Obama-detesting base and primed the pump for Trump. There is not much wonder that a xenophobic and misogynistic bigot and bully who bashes immigrants and calls for a Muslim ban—and who also slams the Republican insiders for rigging the system—should now find a receptive audience within the GOP’s electorate. For years, Republicans gave their voters a taste for the reddest of meat. That increased the appetite for more. And here comes Trump the butcher with a heaping plate.
Oh, the clichés abound. You play with fire. The chickens come home to roost. Hoisted on your own petard. You reap what you sow. The call is coming from inside the house. The GOP elite laid the foundation on which Trump is building the biggest, classiest—really classy—most beautiful insurgent presidential campaign in all of US history. And there may be no emergency exit.
When figures like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin brushed aside detailed policy critiques as the picayune obsessions of Washington insiders, Republicans cheered their vapid anti-intellectualism as the righteous populist folk wisdom. It has been a bracing experience for conservative elites to behold when the forces they have successfully harnessed for so long shake free and turn against them. Conservatives are right that Trump does not represent their ideas perfectly, or even very well. What he represents instead is the actual constituency for those ideas.
Today, the very pathologies that conservatives who should’ve known better indulged as a matter of shortsighted convenience are being exploited by a reality-TV populist whose agenda is far from “libertarian.” His ascension poses an existential threat to movement conservatism. And he cannot be stopped in part because, over many years, conservative media trained its audience to respond to tribal signaling more than rigorous debate; to reflexively dismiss any complaints about speaking disrespectfully about others as bogus “political correctness;” to respond to mainstream-media criticism of public figures by redoubling their trust in them ; to value the schadenfreude of pissing off ideological opponents more than incremental policy gains; and to treat Sarah Palin as a credible candidate for the vice-presidency.
Trump could not succeed but for a large faction that grins at indecency; cheers attacks on Mexicans; sees no need for governing experience; has lost its immunity against populist misinformation and manipulation; believes that establishment officials are trying to destroy the country; elevates cultural cues over substance; and dismisses the possibility of improvement through compromise.
The uniformity on the above statements should not be surprising. ((If you prefer your left-liberal lullaby in a more demotic key, you can try John Cole at Balloon Juice, as per recommendation of OT commenter Chip Daniels.)) If you, dear user, have not been saying something along the above lines, or nodding along with someone else saying it, or have not had it thrown at you, then you must not be an American zoon politikon – and, by the way, what are you doing here?1
Before Corn, Chait, and Friedersdorf likely had completed the posts quoted above – though each can be said to have started years ago – I got a quick preview on Twitter. A left liberal tweep-friend and I were discussing a representative polemic from within conservatism against Trump by Commentary’s Noah Rothman.2 My friend was unimpressed.
— Tahar (@laseptiemewilay) February 24, 2016
I called his statement myopic, suggested that Trump’s people were the Left’s orphans, and predicted they would be coming for his side, too.
The first problem with the perspective, or cause for suspicion regarding it, is that it is so impressively self-congratulatory.3 The second problem is that the perspective, because it is so utterly (literally) irresponsible, it is also utterly useless. For the same reason it is utterly predictable and utterly uninteresting on its own terms..
Like it or not, the forces, impulses, and, arguably, the political necessities culminating in Trumpismo, and appearing at just this moment to be destroying, or already to have torn apart, the Republican coalition, did not emerge from a vacuum, ready for exploitation by bad, bad men – or even less from a compact that Rush Limbaugh or Roger Ailes, or both together, reached with the Prince of Darkness sometime in the 1990s.4 To say so is not to forgive the immensely well-paid mostly Republican forerunners of today’s Republican frontrunner, and even less is it some straw man claim that Trumpismo is “all the liberals’ fault.” It is merely to suggest that the problem facing the Republican coalition is not going away, even if the Republican coalition might be. The problem is perhaps especially not going away if, as the conservative dogmatists fear, and as the liberal opportunists hope, Trump triumphant in the one party prepares an all the more sweeping victory for the other party, leading to quick passage of its agenda such as it is.
To believe the problem is going away, or, if so, in some way less rather than more likely to return in a new form, is to believe what has never been true on Earth, as far as I am aware: That a nation has ever been governed or governable for long by “detailed policy critiques,” by “rigorous debate,” by “incremental policy gains,” and so on – or that government by the left or the right has ever been anything other than the “successful harness[-ing]” of “anti-intellectual” “forces.”
Rightwing political intellectuals are far from the only political intellectuals subject to self-complimentary delusion regarding the critical centrality and singular appeal of their ideas – or what they call “ideas” – and therefore of the ideologues themselves – themselves – to political success. Like all of the rest of us, left-liberals will also be by nature resistant to explanations for their victories other than those confirming their comparative virtues.
If self-questioning had not gone out the window long ago, writers like Corn, Chait, and Friedersdorf might ask themselves what other reasons there could be for delay in the coming to light of sweet and obvious justice, than that someone of ill intent fooled people into opposing it.
Our notions and our customs and our attitudes and our tidy well-researched blog and magazine posts and we ourselves are good and sound and, all things considered, quite marvelous – isn’t that correct? Where we have triumphed, the victory has always been the victory of exquisite truth over self-interested lies and of un-diminishable good over barbarous evil. Whatever else could it have been? Only some twisted cretin, or, worse, a Republican!, could think otherwise – or, in the present instance, put down the popcorn long enough to wonder if a failure of the Reagan coalition’s operative theory of mass governance presaged the failure of the counter-coalition’s theory, too, sooner5 or later.
- When I severed my transitory personal connections to the American Conservative Movement years ago, I myself was saying something like that. I even had the opportunity at the time to advise, futilely, some leading conservatives to treat the Tea Party and allied forces more warily. [↩]
- I will note – and not merely for the sake of accuracy, but because the real, uneven record is illustrative of the larger, contradictory problem – that Rothman’s Commentary, including writers like Peter Wehner, Max Boot, John Podhoretz, and Jennifer Rubin have generally (if by no means perfectly consistently) stood apart from those making excuses for the undignified excesses of the talkradio right. National Review under Rich Lowry has also at least sought to set boundaries: He and his publication may have celebrated and defended Sarah Palin once upon a time, and they may harbor theorists of a Grand Jihad against America facilitated by the craven cur Obama, and so on, but they did also very publicly break with Ann Coulter and fire John Derbyshire: In other words, NR was “cuckservative” before it was cool, and long before Donald Trump was being widely declared nominee in all but name of the party of Abraham Lincoln. As for The Weekly Standard under Bill Kristol, a book could be written about its peculiar stance toward populist currents over this period. Or maybe it has already been. [↩]
- Self-stroking may not always be the best stroking, but it remains the most intimate and irresistible stroking. [↩]
- The problem of the few and the many has always existed, and is the central problem of every polity, including and especially including mass democracy, and every party that ever forms and someday polls above a fraction of 1%. [↩]
— John Nichols (@NicholsUprising) February 25, 2016