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TAC Bookshelf: Few Profiles in Courage in the Republican Civil War

W. James Antle III, TAC editor:The pipeline from the conservative press to the mainstream media is more robust than you might think, especially when Republicans are in power. GOP election victories necessitate reporters with GOP sources. Many of these journalists go on to do excellent work. Less often are they allowed to pursue storylines substantially different from their more liberal colleagues.

Tim Alberta, who moved from Politico to National Review and back, may be the most significant exception to this rule. His perceptive story on the challenges libertarian-leaning Republicans faced under President Donald Trump anticipated Justin Amash’s departure from the party more than two years ahead of time. His piece on fellow Freedom Caucus member Raul Labrador’s disillusionment with Washington was a first-rate sequel. His generally sympathetic profile of TAC founding editor Pat Buchanan gave the three-time presidential candidate his due as a precursor to the current political moment.

All of these pieces are richly reported but also dependent on a deeper understanding of conservatism than prevails in many elite newsrooms. That doesn’t mean Republicans are always the heroes of his stories. In his book American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump, there are few profiles in courage. But there are many good anecdotes. As his campaign swayed in the balance after the Access Hollywood revelation, Trump worried what Mike Pence’s wife—who the future vice president calls “Mother”—would think. “Mother is not going to like this,” Trump said after briefing Pence.

Following the failure of the House bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, George W. Bush texted former House speaker John Boehner to ask if he was still in contact with his successor Paul Ryan. “Yeah,” Boehner replied. “If he calls, I give him advice.” Bush responded: “He needs to call you more.”

American Carnage is perhaps too kind to the pre-Trump GOP, and will be widely, even somewhat justifiably, read as simply an account of Republicans selling out to Trump. Read more carefully, however, it gets at the party leadership’s legitimacy crisis with its rank-and-file supporters. The grassroots flirted with Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and other upstarts, only to eventually settle on safe, establishment choices. They turned to Trump only after all the warning signs had been ignored. The victories over the Soviets and stagflation, important as they were, happened a long time ago. What, its voters asked, had the conservative party actually conserved since then? The answer was depressing enough to make them take their chances with a human wrecking ball.

In the unlikely event that your summer reading isn’t intended as a respite from the endless campaign, Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight That Broke the Democratic Party by Yahoo News’ Jon Ward is also highly recommended. Like Alberta, Ward performed stints in conservative media (he has written for the Daily Caller and the Washington Times), though this is a book about the Democrats’ earlier upheavals. The party was changing, and though Ted Kennedy was unable to wrest the nomination away from him, Jimmy Carter’s administration did not adapt quickly enough. Some have wondered if there is a lesson in Carter’s failure for the GOP, where Trump’s half-hearted attempts to change his party did not go far enough and could leave him vulnerable to a challenger once considered too ideological (Elizabeth Warren), too old (Joe Biden), or too much of both (Bernie Sanders) to be elected president.

Grayson Quay, TAC contributor: My recent honeymoon was a fairly fast-paced tour of Italy, but due to the several beach days we’d planned and my wife’s habit of taking afternoon naps, I knew I’d need to bring something to read. I didn’t feel like tackling anything too hefty during the vacation, and even if I had, suitcase space was at a premium. I decided to limit myself to three slim paperbacks: Graham Greene’s The Third Man, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, the latter two of which I was reading for the second time.

Orthodoxy is often marketed as a work of Christian apologetics, and that label is not entirely inaccurate, but it’s apologetics of a very strange sort. Chesterton makes no attempt to prove the existence of God or the historicity of Jesus or any of the other theological propositions usually asserted and defended in such books. Instead, he uses his witty and aphoristic style to guide the reader through the process by which Chesterton realized that only Christianity offers “an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of poetical curiosity” by providing a basis for believing the things that he always felt most deeply and instinctively to be true. Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy in response to a snide comment from a critic who disliked his previous collection of essays, describing himself as “a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.” One wonders how he’d have survived in the era of Facebook comments.

My edition includes a foreword by Charles Colson, the Watergate conspirator, who went to prison, converted to evangelical Christianity, and went on to start a major prison ministry organization. But Chesterton’s fan club also includes economic distributists, Catholics pushing for his canonization, and even the Marxist atheist philosopher Slavoj Žižek. These paradoxes should come as no surprise. Chesterton himself was a lover of paradox, and the underlying thesis of all his work seems to be that no sane view of the world is possible without paradox. His politics were no exception to this rule. Chesterton was a fierce patriot and an anti-imperialist, an anti-Marxist who rejected free markets, and an advocate for traditionalism as “the democracy of the dead” who also scoffed at pessimists who do not “love the city enough to set fire to it.” Is Chesterton a conservative or a revolutionary? The answer is, of course, “Yes!” The fact that the two seem irreconcilable in 2019 America should tell us how narrow our politics have become.

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