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Are ‘Principled Conservatives’ Merely Ideologues?

Denouncing Trump and Trumpists is a way for establishment conservatives to shirk responsibility

Damon Linker is right. Excerpt:

Those are the remaining Never Trump Republicans. Their political stance is aristocratic because it amounts to saying that the country was better off when virtuous people like themselves were running the show, instead of the corrupt and ignorant peons currently calling the shots.

Even if that’s true — and I think it is — it’s obviously not an especially compelling political message. The fact is that it’s only in comparison to the uniquely loutish and mean-spirited ineptitude of the Trump administration that the well-meaning but nonetheless bumbling incompetence of the last Republican administration looks like a model of good governance. Can anyone in 2018 seriously believe that the path forward for the right involves giving power back to the paragons of political wisdom who devised or cheered on the world-historical debacle of the Iraq War and presided over the economic collapse of 2008?

The battle’s been lost. The GOP has been Trumpified. And one reason why is that the very same people currently enjoying widespread acclaim for their outspoken criticism of the president failed so miserably when they were the ones in charge.

One needn’t think that those who come out on top in a revolution deserve their victory in order to recognize that the deposed deserved their fall.

That’s really true. My own problems with Trump are that he is vulgar, cruel, stupid, corrupt, and not half the populist he claims to be. But the question that these conservative elites can’t seem to ask of themselves in any serious way: how is it that what we stand for was so unpopular that GOP primary voters chose a vulgar, cruel, stupid, corrupt con man over what was widely thought to be the finest Republican primary field in years?

Now, it is possible that a majority of Republican primary voters were foolish. In a democratic polity, you’re not supposed to say that the people were at fault, but that is certainly a possibility. Nobody forced anybody else to vote for Trump. In my particular wheelhouse, I well understand conservative Christians who voted for Trump out of a fear of what a Hillary Clinton presidency would mean for religious liberty and for the pro-life cause. What I don’t understand is those conservative Christians who have actually convinced themselves that Trump is one of us, or that he can be in any way trusted to bring the country closer to a Christian standard.

If the NeverTrumpers are standing athwart GOP history yelling, “Y’all are a bunch of idiots!”, well, it is possible that they are right.


Do you remember the January 2016 GOP primary debate in South Carolina? Do you remember how shocking it was when Donald Trump said on the stage that the Iraq War had been a mistake? Do you recall how Jeb Bush got all indignant at Trump insulting the honor of his brother, the ex-president, and how Marco Rubio joined in the pile-on? Here’s what Trump said, from the transcript:

TRUMP: Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. All right? Now, you can take it any way you want, and it took — it took Jeb Bush, if you remember at the beginning of his announcement, when he announced for president, it took him five days.

He went back, it was a mistake, it wasn’t a mistake. It took him five days before his people told him what to say, and he ultimately said, “it was a mistake.” The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don’t even have it. Iran has taken over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world.

Obviously, it was a mistake.


TRUMP: George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.

DICKERSON: But so I’m going to — so you still think he should be impeached?

BUSH: I think it’s my turn, isn’t it?

TRUMP: You do whatever you want. You call it whatever you want. I want to tell you. They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.

Here was how Jeb Bush responded:

BUSH: So here’s the deal. I’m sick and tired of Barack Obama blaming my brother for all of the problems that he has had.


BUSH: And, frankly, I could care less about the insults that Donald Trump gives to me. It’s blood sport for him. He enjoys it. And I’m glad he’s happy about it. But I am sick and tired…

TRUMP: He spent $22 million in…


BUSH: I am sick and tired of him going after my family. My dad is the greatest man alive in my mind.


BUSH: And while Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe. And I’m proud of what he did.

And here’s Rubio’s response:

RUBIO: I just want to say, at least on behalf of me and my family, I thank God all the time it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore.


And you can — I think you can look back in hindsight and say a couple of things, but he kept us safe. And not only did he keep us safe, but no matter what you want to say about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein was in violation of U.N. resolutions, in open violation, and the world wouldn’t do anything about it, and George W. Bush enforced what the international community refused to do.

And again, he kept us safe, and I am forever grateful to what he did for this country.

I never liked Trump, but I cheered for him that night. Of course I agreed with his position, but I cheered for him at least as much for daring to speak heresy in that forum. It had been 13 years since the start of the Iraq War, yet aside from Ron Paul (who never had a chance to win), no Republican presidential politician had dared to say what Trump said. The Republican Party’s stale pieties, and refusal to look at itself critically, and to learn from its mistakes, brought the Trumpocalypse upon itself.

Last week, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen spoke at CPAC. We all know who her grandfather was, and what the National Front is. But her speech was really good, defending the nation as a historical and cultural inheritance, and denouncing the commodification of children, and gender ideology, under the technocratic consumerist paradigm. American conservatives don’t talk like this. We are so constrained by liberal-libertarian categories that we can’t seem to think outside of them. As a friend put it to me, it’s quite a commentary on the imaginative poverty of American conservatism that so many could only receive Le Pen’s speech as a manifestation of dark blood-and-soil nationalism.

Again, I do not know enough about MMLP’s politics and personal background to say that I endorse them, or her. It seems to me, though, that the Never Trumpers may be replaying their mistake in confronting Trump early in his campaign. On February 17, 2016, I wrote a post called “A Social Conservative Case For Trump,” in which I made an attempt to understand why a social conservative GOP primary voter could justify a vote for the least socially conservative in the GOP primary field. A number of conservatives on social media jumped on me hard, accusing me of legitimizing Trump. In response, I said in an update to the post:

Like many people in my line of work, it took me a long, long time to understand why anybody would take Trump seriously, much less vote for him other than malign reasons. I think he’s a man of low morals and bad character. But I think George W. Bush is a true-believing Christian and generally an honorable man — Trump is neither — who led America into disaster. This is a disaster none of the Republicans other than Trump even recognize (publicly) as a disaster. (And by the way, George W. Bush also supported torture.) I think there are many reasons for social conservatives not to back Trump, and we see these reasons talked about every day on the Right. If you’re a social conservative who votes against Trump, that’s fine, you have reason, and maybe more reason than the social conservative who votes for him. But just be clear that on the political issues that have mattered most to social conservatives — abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty — it is by no means obvious that the non-Trump Republicans are going to be any better, and they may be worse.

UPDATE.2: Daniel Larison, responding to my post about Patrick Ruffini’s analysis of the GOP field, said:

What struck me about Ruffini’s comments was the absolute contempt he had for both Trump and for his supporters. In a matter of minutes, Ruffini referred to Trump’s supporters as a “cancer” that had to be contained, and said that it “wouldn’t be a stretch” to compare Trump’s tactics to those of jihadists. If you think that at least a third of your own party represents a “cancer” that needs to be kept in check, you won’t have the first clue how to respond to it. Trump serves as the vehicle to return the contempt that party elites and strategists have had for his supporters for decades. So naturally the “answer” that one these same clever strategists has is to heap more contempt on them.

Similarly, if it is impossible to understand why social conservatives may believe Trump, for all his sins and failings, is a better risk for them as social conservatives than the Republican Party regulars, the GOP is in more trouble than we thought.

Nine months later, Donald Trump was elected president.

To repeat: I did not vote for Donald Trump, and I think he’s a bad president who doesn’t know how to govern. But the fact that the pre-Trump GOP establishment has been poleaxed by him is not a bad thing. The idea that some kind of restoration of the status quo ante is desirable is just bonkers. The most important piece of journalism concerning Donald Trump and his relationship to the Republican Party establishment remains Tucker Carlson’s January 2016 essay in Politico, titled, “Donald Trump Is Shocking, Vulgar, And Right.” Excerpt:

Trump is in part a reaction to the intellectual corruption of the Republican Party. That ought to be obvious to his critics, yet somehow it isn’t.

Consider the conservative nonprofit establishment, which seems to employ most right-of-center adults in Washington. Over the past 40 years, how much donated money have all those think tanks and foundations consumed? Billions, certainly. (Someone better at math and less prone to melancholy should probably figure out the precise number.) Has America become more conservative over that same period? Come on. Most of that cash went to self-perpetuation: Salaries, bonuses, retirement funds, medical, dental, lunches, car services, leases on high-end office space, retreats in Mexico, more fundraising. Unless you were the direct beneficiary of any of that, you’d have to consider it wasted.

Pretty embarrassing. And yet they’re not embarrassed. Many of those same overpaid, underperforming tax-exempt sinecure-holders are now demanding that Trump be stopped. Why? Because, as his critics have noted in a rising chorus of hysteria, Trump represents “an existential threat to conservatism.”

Let that sink in. Conservative voters are being scolded for supporting a candidate they consider conservative because it would be bad for conservatism? And by the way, the people doing the scolding? They’re the ones who’ve been advocating for open borders, and nation-building in countries whose populations hate us, and trade deals that eliminated jobs while enriching their donors, all while implicitly mocking the base for its worries about abortion and gay marriage and the pace of demographic change. Now they’re telling their voters to shut up and obey, and if they don’t, they’re liberal.

Here’s another good piece of journalism to read along those lines: Austin Bramwell’s essay on “principled conservatism,” appearing in American Affairs. It’s impossible to excerpt, I find. Bramwell draws a distinction between those who called themselves “principled conservatives” — something he more neutrally describes as “axiomatic conservatives” — and “classical conservatives.” He observes that the “principles” of the self-described principled conservatives amount to a particular ideology — one that is not congruent with classical conservatism. Bramwell’s is an important piece in large part because he points out that conservatism does not begin and end with the rhetoric and categories of the postwar Republican Party.

To go back to Linker’s column, and Tucker Carlson’s: one big reason, perhaps the main reason, that the GOP has Trump is because the GOP establishment botched so much while they were in charge. Is it too much to ask them to check their principles, and see if those principles are still sensible? One expects a church to hold on to doctrinal and dogmatic teachings, no matter what, because a church speaks for the eternal God. One does not expect the same thing of a political party — unless one is an ideologue. Bramwell writes:

The core disagreement between axiomatic and classical conservatives—namely, the extent to which liberty is contingent and socially embedded—explains their differences on particular issues. In foreign policy, for example, axiomatic conservatives believe that liberty, like the ideology on which they believe it is founded, is relatively easy to transmit. Consequently, they urge confrontation with undemocratic governments, up to and including waging war against them. George W. Bush thus asserts that advancing ideals “is the mission that created our Nation,” while John McCain claims that “we have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause” of championing our ideals abroad.

Axiomatic, “principled” conservatism’s principle calling for crusading for liberal democracy ought to have died in the desert of Iraq, and in the mountains of Afghanistan. And saying so doesn’t make one a Donald Trump enthusiast. And saying that whatever the sins of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen and her family, Anglo-American conservatism has something important to learn from the European conservative tradition, and needs to think about it, does not make one an anti-Semite or a blood-and-soil nationalist.



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