Writing in TAC today, Matthew Sheffield says he doesn’t feel sorry for establishment Republicans who are vexed by Trump. Excerpt:
The time to stop Trump was in the 1990s, when the movement’s intellectuals were busy prostrating themselves before Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as they sought to remake the GOP into a party for white Christians. The time to stop Trump was during the George W. Bush administration, when Republicans swallowed the nonsense that deposing secular dictators was a great way to promote moderate Islam. The time to stop Trump was in 2009, when Sarah Palin was dumbing down conservatism into an alternative lifestyle that glorified anti-intellectualism. The time to stop Donald Trump was in 2013, when Ted Cruz was opportunistically telling Republican voters that obstreperousness was the equivalent of conservative philosophy.
2016 was far too late to stop the Trump Train.
I would quibble with his Falwell/Robertson point, but overall I agree. Sheffield’s broader point is that the Republican Party elites were fine stoking the Trumpish sentiments within the base, thinking they could control them. A good piece to look at is John Derbyshire’s 2009 essay for TAC, talking about how talk radio is ruining conservatism. Excerpts:
Much as their blind loyalty discredited the Right, perhaps the worst effect of Limbaugh et al. has been their draining away of political energy from what might have been a much more worthwhile project: the fostering of a middlebrow conservatism. There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. It’s energizing and fun. What’s wrong is the impression fixed in the minds of too many Americans that conservatism is always lowbrow, an impression our enemies gleefully reinforce when the opportunity arises. Thus a liberal like E.J. Dionne can write, “The cause of Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, Robert Nisbet and William F. Buckley Jr. is now in the hands of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. … Reason has been overwhelmed by propaganda, ideas by slogans.” Talk radio has contributed mightily to this development.
It does so by routinely descending into the ad hominem—Feminazis instead of feminism—and catering to reflex rather than thought. Where once conservatism had been about individualism, talk radio now rallies the mob. “Revolt against the masses?” asked Jeffrey Hart. “Limbaugh is the masses.”
In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar. Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right. But however much this dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand, it appeals to millions of Americans. McDonald’s profits rose 80 percent last year.
I repeat: There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. Ideas must be marketed, and right-wing talk radio captures a big and useful market segment. However, if there is no thoughtful, rigorous presentation of conservative ideas, then conservatism by default becomes the raucous parochialism of Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, and company. That loses us a market segment at least as useful, if perhaps not as big.
Conservatives have never had, and never should have, a problem with elitism. Why have we allowed carny barkers to run away with the Right?
And now the barkiest carny of them all is going to be the GOP standard bearer this fall.
It’s interesting to contemplate who, and what, lost the Republican Party to Trump. Was it too much dependence on crude talk-radio populism? Yes, that was part of it. It was cringeworthy to listen to the way leading Republican politicians kowtowed to talk radio over the years. And not only politicians, but conservative public intellectuals too often ballyhooed radio talkers, or at least greatly tempered their criticism, probably because it made them feel connected to the People.
Was it a failure of intellectual leadership? I mean, was it the case that the party’s elites were incapable of admitting error and learning from their errors, and failed to come up with new ideas for a changing nation? Certainly that’s right.The No-Enemies-To-The-Right tribalism dominant in GOP circles in the 1990s and 2000s prevented any dissent from being taken seriously. The GOP leadership became bound to outdated dogmas, and remained deaf to the sources of discontent among their own voters. Trump has no ideas, only slogans, but his greatest asset is that he’s Not Them.
His greatest defect is that he’s Donald Trump.
You know what I would like to see in the comments thread? A dispassionate discussion of the Who Lost The GOP To Trump? topic. No shrieking, just plain talk. Please?