Michael Gerson’s Tedious Anti-Trumpism
He and others like David Frum seem obsessed by the president. Haven't they noticed they aren't relevant anymore?
In an old SNL skit from the ’90s called “The Denise Show,” a jilted ex-boyfriend, Brian, played by Adam Sandler, obsesses over his ex-girlfriend Denise (Shannon Doherty). Brian explains: “Tonight’s subject is Denise: uh, have you seen her? Has she said anything about me?” The ex-boyfriend’s antics become increasingly ridiculous: “Now is the part of the show where I like to give Denise a call and hang up on her. …Now is the part of the show where I lose it and my dad calls me up and yells at me. …Now is the part where I look at Denise’s picture and I talk to it.”
Every time I see a Michael Gerson op-ed in The Washington Post, I’m reminded of Sandler’s character. Gerson was once front and center in American conservatism, or at least neoconservatism, serving as President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 until June 2006. Beginning in May 2007, he began his tenure as one of a handful of WaPo columnists who identified as conservative, alongside the likes of Charles Krauthammer and George Will. With the rise of Donald Trump as a legitimate political contender, Gerson quickly and unabashedly hitched his wagon to “Never Trump” conservatism.
Since then, he’s found it hard to write of much else except his disdain for Trump and all those who have allied or come to terms with the president. Just last month, Gerson’s op-eds have been titled: “Never have GOP votes against impeachment seemed more shortsighted,” “Trump’s coronavirus address was an opportunity. He butchered it,” and “Public health officials can beat coronavirus — if the White House lets them.” In February, we had titles like “Republicans owe Vindman a public apology: A pattern of presidential misbehavior has become a crisis in the rule of law,” “It is difficult for pro-lifers to vote Democrat. But it’s better than Trump,” “By any measure, Buttigieg is Trump’s proven superior,” “Trump’s politicization of the National Prayer Breakfast is unholy and immoral,” and “To cheer Trump is to submit to him.” You get the picture.
Gerson has become so predictable, it’s rarely worth bothering to read beyond the titles of his op-eds. Nor is it just him. Consider also Max Boot (“Trump is risking a terrible tragedy to avoid responsibility for the recession”), Jennifer Rubin (“When the president is the problem”), and David Frum (author of the upcoming Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy). All are self-professed conservatives; all were neocon supporters of Bush’s interventionist foreign policy. And all have become banal broken records of formulaic anti-Trump rhetoric. (On the plus side, it means savvy readers can get through the daily opinion section a lot faster.)
There are about 327 million people living in the United States. Almost 520,000 of them are politicians (535 are federal, 18,749 are state, and the rest are local, in case you were wondering). Gerson and his allies choose to focus their energies largely on one individual. Their modus operandi demonstrates how far from the Founders’ vision many conservatives have strayed.
Conservatives once spoke of the need for a strong legislature, strong judiciary, and strong decentralized governing system of states to blunt the power of the executive branch. Federalist No. 47 and No. 51, among others, come to mind. In the post-Bush era of excessive executive orders and federal government expenditures, writers like Gerson, Boot, Rubin, and Frum prove how disdain for Trump takes precedence over the need to curtail the power of the presidency. I had hoped that frustration with a Trump executive, be it from the Right or the Left, would convince many of the need to recalibrate our political institutions and weaken the executive branch. Alas, I was mistaken. What it has proven is that the political vision of many conservative writers is largely ideologically undecipherable from liberals and the Democratic Party.
Let the reader understand—this is no defense of The Donald. There are plenty of reasons for conservatives to critique our current commander-in-chief. Indeed, based on conversations with TAC writers over the years (and reading many of their articles), I perceive a broad spectrum of conservative opinions regarding Trump. Readers at TAC will find commentary on the president ranging from hopeful to annoyed to frustrated to despondent and everything in between. This is more or less the same perspective TAC had towards Bush during his presidency. Moreover, there are plenty of prominent conservative writers who periodically voice their complaints about the Trump administration without tethering their entire editorial portfolio to Trump’s Twitter feed. Ross Douthat and George Will come to mind, among others.
In obsessing over Trump, Gerson, Boot, Rubin, and Frum project a poverty of political imagination and creativity. There is little willingness to seriously grapple with the “America First,” “common-good capitalist,” pro-religious brand of conservatism found among so many of Trump’s supporters. Indeed, these columnists remain largely tone-deaf to this shift. They seem to believe that if they simply write enough op-eds arguing that America’s post-Cold War pursuit of economic and political globalism has brought millions of people out of poverty and encouraged democracy, everyone will just forget the costs of that project.
Are they unaware that millions of American voters are fed up with almost 20 years of the global war on terrorism, which wasted billions of dollars, killed thousands of Americans, and incited destructive instability in a dozen countries? Are they unaware that millions of Americans are frustrated by an economic system that seems to prioritize other nations’ citizens over its own? Are they unaware that our economic globalism has accelerated the spread of the coronavirus, and through weakening industrial capacity, enfeebled our ability to defeat it?
Are they unaware that millions of Americans care more about the opioid crisis and failing infrastructure than they do about what happens in Yemen, Syria, and Libya?
Granted, most of the crew cited above was “conservative” only when that word was unfortunately associated with an interventionist foreign policy and unfettered free trade. All the same, they still claim the conservative mantle, likely because it gives them a kind of currency among liberal mainstream media at a time when actual conservatives are no longer listening. So they write for places like the WaPo, largely ignored by conservatives and giddily exploited by the Left. They are irrelevant, interesting only as a humorous example of what happens when a person simply can’t let go. Not unlike Brian’s infatuation with Denise.
Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.