Trump & the Conservative Intelligentsia
There’s one thing this dispute symbolizes, aside from the ongoing (and long-running) battle for the soul of the modern Republican Party. And that is this: Many or even most of the people who make a living working in politics and political commentary—even those who think of themselves as outsiders, such as nonpartisan libertarians—inevitably begin to view their field as one dedicated primarily to ideas, ideology, philosophy, policy, and so forth, and NOT to the emotional, ideologically unmoored cultural passions of a given (and perhaps fleeting) moment. Donald Trump—and more importantly, his supporters, who go all but unmentioned here (Ben Domenech is an exception)—illustrate that that gap is, well, yuuge.
Yes, Trump is nobody’s conservative, but it’s not at all clear that many voters really care about such things. His rise is a rebuke to the stories that political commentators have long told themselves, and to the mores they have long shared even while otherwise disagreeing ideologically with one another. You can despise Donald Trump (and oh Lord I do), and appreciate National Review’s efforts here, while simultaneously wondering whether his forcible removal of a certain journalistic mask might also have some benefit.
I think this is true. As someone who lived and worked in that NY-DC world for years, and who has been in its orbit for longer even than I lived there — for example, I exchange more e-mail with, say, Ross Douthat in a given week than words with my next-door neighbor — I know exactly what Welch means. When I worked at National Review in 2002, I took pride at being part of the team of conservative standard-bearers, and believed that we were articulating what American conservatives felt. This continued after I left NR, but kept up my work as a conservative opinion journalist.
But a funny thing kept happening. When I would go back to south Louisiana to visit my family, I often got into (friendly) arguments with people about conservative principles and policies. I noticed that we were at loggerheads over many things. It frustrated me to no end that reason was useless; “ideologically unmoored cultural passions” weren’t just something, they were the only thing. This was a tribal conservatism, one that had very little to do with ideas, and everything to do with nationalism and a sense of us-versus-them. To be a conservative is to agree with Us; to disagree with us means you must be a liberal.
I remember getting into it with my dad once after I moved home. I was driving him to the VA clinic for a check-up. This was during the Obamacare debate, and he started complaining about welfare spongers who expected the government to pay for their medical care. I pointed out that he was an avid user of Medicare and of veterans’ medical benefits, and that if not for those government programs, he would have died a long time ago.
“That’s different,” he said.
“How?” I asked.
He just got mad, and changed the subject.
This kind of thing happened more than a few times. Moving back to Louisiana to live really did reveal to me the gap between the conservative punditocracy and those for whom they — for whom we — presume to speak. Ideas and reason matter far less to most people than they do to people like us (this is true of the left as well), not because most people are stupid, but because their mode of experiencing life is not nearly as abstract as ours.
I made fun of myself for this in my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, contrasting myself unfavorably with my late sister. If you had given us both an ice cream cone, I would have been standing there looking at it from all different angles, analyzing the flavors and the texture, while the thing melt down my hand. Ruthie would have just eaten it and gotten on with her business, and thought me a fool for making such a big to-do over ice cream. There’s a lot of value in that approach, but it also blinded my sister to some big-picture realities that had a lot to do with the shape of everyday life, but which were only apparent if you took the time to look more deeply into abstract principles, instead of just going with your gut.
The point I want to make is not that one way is better than the other way — though I do believe as a general matter it’s better to stand on reason and principle than on instinct — but that conservative theoreticians (like me) get so caught up in our ideas that we fail to see some important things, even as many of us tell ourselves, as we have for a generation now, that we are the spokesmen for “real” America.
It’s a narrative that is irresistible to intellectuals. The Left, of course, always loves to think of itself on the side of the People, never mind what actual people think. Trouble is, the Right is the same way. It’s hard to overestimate the power of this narrative. Here’s an excerpt from a Washington Post interview with NR editor Rich Lowry, about the magazine’s anti-Trump issue:
FIX: So if Trump paints you as part of the establishment, you would resist that label?
LOWRY: We’re not the Republican establishment; we’re conservative. We’re coming at it from a perspective of conservatism. We’re not a business interest. We’re not a donor. We exist outside the system, in that sense, and always have and always will.
I have no doubt in my mind that Rich, who is a very good guy, is being completely sincere here. But come on. Of course National Review is part of the Republican establishment! I don’t say that as a criticism. The American Conservative is not part of that establishment, but I hope one day the ideas we stand for become so popular that they do find champions within the conservative Republican establishment. It’s how you get things done. It’s how you make change happen. If you want to know how the Republican and conservative establishments (a distinction without a lot of difference) think, you read National Review and the Weekly Standard. Again, I underline that this is not a criticism of those magazines, but rather a tribute to their influence in senior circles of the GOP and its constellation of conservative activists.
The problem with this is that you come to think of the interests of your own leadership class — lawmakers, lawyers, think-tankers, journalists, academics — as completely consonant with the interests of American conservatives at the grassroots. In historian Barbara Tuchman’s popular historical study The March of Folly, she writes that the Renaissance popes provoked the Reformation because they couldn’t see how alien they had become to Catholics on the ground:
Their three outstanding attitudes — obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status — are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.
Conservative elites — GOP leaders, donors, journalists and others — are in the heat of battle now. I certainly understand why they feel that they don’t have the luxury of going all introspective at this moment. But at some point very soon they (again, we) should all ask ourselves why none of us saw Trump coming, and what that says about how out of touch we are with the conservative-leaning people of this country.
Last summer, as my father lay dying, I sat by his hospital bed watching a Trump rally in Mobile with him and my mother. I listened to the things Trump was saying, and thought it was absurd, and surely the American people would wake up to the demagoguery. But my parents liked what he had to say. Trump’s words resonated with their own thoughts and experiences.
You know what? They might have been wrong in their political judgment. I believe they were. The point here is not that my parents were wrong and I was right. The point is that I could not grasp how anybody could believe what Trump was saying. Nobody I knew from my circle of intellectual conservatives could grasp it either. We assumed it would evaporate. And here we are, on the verge of the Iowa caucuses, with Trump poised to sweep to the nomination.
Trump voters may be blind, but so are we who did not see him coming, or foresee the political, economic, and cultural conditions that produced him.
This wouldn’t be the first time the GOP/conservative establishment, with its NY/DC focus, haughtily disdained a populist Republican for veering from orthodoxy. Remember what they did to Mike Huckabee in the ’08 cycle over taxes? Remember “Go Back To Dogpatch, You Stupid Hillbilly”? Again, it wasn’t that they were necessarily wrong about Huckabee, it was the attitude.
I’ll leave you with this memento of the last time National Review excommunicated folks on the Right for being disloyal to Conservatism™: David Frum’s infamous “Unpatriotic Conservatives” cover story for the magazine, published on the brink of the Iraq War in 2003. Excerpts:
From the very beginning of the War on Terror, there has been dissent, and as the war has proceeded to Iraq, the dissent has grown more radical and more vociferous. Perhaps that was to be expected. But here is what never could have been: Some of the leading figures in this antiwar movement call themselves “conservatives.” These conservatives are relatively few in number, but their ambitions are large. They aspire to reinvent conservative ideology: to junk the 50-year-old conservative commitment to defend American interests and values throughout the world — the commitment that inspired the founding of this magazine — in favor of a fearful policy of ignoring threats and appeasing enemies.
And here is Patrick Buchanan that same day gloomily asserting that the United States would be as baffled by Osama bin Laden as the British Empire was by George Washington: “We remain unrivaled in material wealth and military dominance, but these are no longer the components of might. . . . Our instinct is the strongman’s impulse: hit back, harder. But like British Lobsterbacks dropped in a colonial wilderness, we don’t know this battle, and the weapons within our reach are blunt.”
From the perspective of 2016, who was more correct, Frum or Buchanan?
The entire NR article was a slashing rebuke of the paleoconservatives, including those at this magazine. It ended like this:
There is, however, a fringe attached to the conservative world that cannot overcome its despair and alienation. The resentments are too intense, the bitterness too unappeasable. Only the boldest of them as yet explicitly acknowledge their wish to see the United States defeated in the War on Terror.
But they are thinking about defeat, and wishing for it, and they will take pleasure in it if it should happen. They began by hating the neoconservatives. They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.
War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen — and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.
You know, I re-read that piece this morning, and I agree with a lot of Frum’s criticism of the paleocons. But the paleos got one big thing right: the catastrophic foolishness of the Iraq War. It would be have been nice in the ensuing fallout to have observed some humility among the conservative elites, a sense that they may actually have no idea at all what’s going on, or what to do about it. It would be nice to see a realization that they (one more time: we, because I too favored the Iraq War) have lost a lot of credibility with ordinary people, whose intense resentment and unappeasable bitterness grows to no small degree from the soil fertilized by the bullsh*t of us conservative elites.
To be clear, I think NR is mostly right about Trump, but I question the prudence of its frontal attack. If I were Trump, I would go to rallies asking out loud just why the magisterial magazine that once dramatically excommunicated conservatives who opposed the Iraq War believes it has standing to excommunicate Donald Trump.
UPDATE: I think reader Borachio has it about right:
As an intellectually serious conservative who supports Trump, I’ll tell you the problem with “intellectually serious conservatism” as practiced on K Street, Wall Street, and the various precincts of power and money:
It’s a pack of lies.
Establishment conservatism is just an ideological smokescreen to camouflage the pauperization and dispossession of the American middle class for the benefit of a kakistocracy at the top and various special-interest client classes at the bottom.
My support for Trump is not based on his being an intellectually serious conservative, which he obviously isn’t.
I’m not sure if Trump can help our country. However, I DO know for sure that none of the establishment-approved candidates will do anything but enrich themselves and their friends at the expense of what is still the American majority.
Trump is our Hail Mary pass, our last desperate attempt to salvage something of what America was before the whirlwind destroys the last of it.
He’s right that Trump is not an intellectually serious conservative. But I have to concede that that might actually be to his benefit. George W. Bush surrounded himself with the wisest Wise Men the Republican Party had to offer … and they got us into Iraq. A well-known Beltway conservative e-mailed today, about Trump, “He’s destroying the GOP and the conservative movement? OK. Who, exactly, was benefitting from them? Not many people.”
What if Borachio is right? What if the anti-intellectual Trump is actually revealing that Conservatism, Inc., is run by sophists? You have to read this Byron York report from deep inside the New Hampshire GOP bubble. An excerpt:
After that conversation, I began to ask everyone I met: Do you know anyone who supports Donald Trump? In more cases than not — actually, in nearly all the cases — the answer was no. I asked one woman Friday night, and she said she hadn’t thought about it. I ran into her the next morning at breakfast, and she said, “That was a good question you asked me last night, and I’ve given it some thought.” And no, she didn’t know any Trump supporters.
Given Trump’s big lead in the polls, if so many politically active Republicans don’t know even one Trump supporter, either the polls are wrong or there is some serious GOP Pauline Kaelism at work in the nation’s first primary state.
That’s a reference to the apocryphal legend that the New Yorker film critic said, unironically, “How did Nixon win? I don’t know a soul who voted for him.”