Regular readers know how many times I’ve said this, but I need to say it again. I didn’t vote for Trump. I’m not writing here as a dyed-in-the-wool Trumpista. I have some significant differences with his policies, and I don’t dispute that he has flaws.
That doesn’t mean I think he’s horrifying, or that I don’t want him, his voters, and America to get a fair shake. In fact, it seems like I spend most of my blogging time now pointing out that he’s not getting a fair shake. And I certainly want him to succeed on the things I agree with him on, such as reforming the tax code, repealing Obamacare, and otherwise reducing regulation.
At any rate, if you must pigeonhole me, call me a Reagan conservative. I think of myself as a “legacy conservative,” having been one from before there were “neo-cons” and “Moral Majority” cons and Compassionate Conservatives and Social-versus-Fiscal-Con Gladiators. It wouldn’t do a lot of good to enunciate a laundry list of positions; some people would nod in pleased agreement, and other would simply start reacting negatively if their own positions weren’t being endorsed or reflected in the terms they prefer. Such is the time we live in.
Better to move on to my main topic: the editorial published by Jeff Flake at Politico this week, excerpted from his new book, Conscience of a Conservative. In it, he takes responsibility, on behalf of Republicans, for “ensuring the rise of Donald Trump.”
It’s a promising beginning. That proposition, by itself, is one I could get behind. Flake blames both Republicans and Democrats for the rise of Trump, and on that generic point, I certainly think he’s right.
The problem is everything else he wrote. As I read through it, I was increasingly discouraged to find not a single thing I agreed with. Frankly, most of it amounted to vaguely worded bromides, interspersed with hysterical-sounding scare words: “despair,” “oversimplified,” “denial,” “dysfunctional,” “diseased.” It’s like nobody can write anything now without sounding like a Soviet political agent, orchestrating the ritual confessions and denunciations at the Friday night meeting of the workers’ collective.
The dissonant whack in the head for me is reading an essay from a nominally moderate-to-right Republican senator, and not finding anything to concur with. In fact, it’s wrongheaded right out of the gate:
Who could blame the people who felt abandoned and ignored by the major parties for reaching in despair for a candidate who offered oversimplified answers to infinitely complex questions and managed to entertain them in the process?
Nonsense. “Infinitely complex questions”? There are no infinitely complex questions of public policy. When there are too many moving parts, that’s an artificial condition created by politics and the arrangements of government. The underlying questions themselves are simple.
Usually not easy, mind you, in terms of the political courage it takes to deal with them. But trying to deflect accountability by appealing to “complexity” is a dodge – and one of the easiest for the people to recognize.
Moreover, Trump didn’t win over so many voters by being superficially entertaining. He won them over precisely by not speaking in euphemisms, bromides, and admonitory scare words. He was crude and over the top at times, no doubt. But that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with refraining from euphemisms, bromides, and scare words.
It just goes downhill from there.
It was we conservatives who, upon Obama’s election, stated that our No. 1 priority was not advancing a conservative policy agenda but making Obama a one-term president—the corollary to this binary thinking being that his failure would be our success and the fortunes of the citizenry would presumably be sorted out in the meantime.
Huh? I don’t remember conservatives stating it as “our No. 1 priority” to make Obama a one-term president, to the exclusion of advancing a conservative policy agenda. Of course, conservatives wanted to elect a Republican in 2012. But nothing about that hope meant focusing away from a conservative policy agenda.
It was we conservatives who were largely silent when the most egregious and sustained attacks on Obama’s legitimacy were leveled by marginal figures who would later be embraced and legitimized by far too many of us.
This doesn’t even make sense. I assume Flake is talking here about “Birtherism.” But I’m blamed if I can see how his version of events led to the rise of Trump. In fact, I don’t remember any high-profile conservatives embracing or legitimizing Birtherism (or other fringe claims like the certainty in some people’s minds that Obama is actually a closeted, practicing Muslim).
I never thought of the Birther thing as playing a part worth mentioning in the rise of Trump. But say I accept Flake’s non-parsable proposition that it did. What exactly were conservative leaders supposed to do about it, other than what many of them did, which was to affirm in public their belief that Obama was born in Hawaii, and there was no need to pursue the matter further?
Flake goes on:
[O]ne doesn’t ever want to believe that the government of the United States has been made dysfunctional at the highest levels, especially by the actions of one’s own party. Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist and former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote, four months into the new presidency, “The conservative mind, in some very visible cases, has become diseased,” and conservative institutions “with the blessings of a president … have abandoned the normal constraints of reason and compassion.”
That’s pretty heavy, man; or it would be if it seemed to have a discernible meaning. Whose conservative mind has become diseased? And how does that relate to the government of the United States being made dysfunctional at the highest levels?
I think there’s no question that conservatives are flailing right now to decide who represents them. The Republican Party is internally divided. There are big problems of political organization and philosophical definitions.
But if you want to know why Trump got the nod in 2016, it’s because he didn’t run around complaining that the collective mind of the people on his side was diseased. Seriously, dude, that’s a buzzkill. It doesn’t make the voters and their thoughts sound despairing; it makes you sound despairing, like it’s probably not a good idea to rely on you for very much.
Trump appealed to actual people, not theoretical types, and appealed to them straightforwardly, based on the issues and policies he knew they cared most about. The absence of melancholy psychoanalysis in his approach was a feature, not a bug.
I can find no way to deem that evidence of disease. It looks like common sense to me.
As for conservative institutions, let’s stop right there. What is a conservative institution? Name one, please. Flake quotes Gerson to the effect that conservative institutions “have abandoned the normal constraints of reason and compassion.” I will certainly man the barricades over that – hand me a flaming arrow; quick! – but first you’ve got to identify the enemy assault force for me. What are these “conservative institutions” that have abandoned reason and compassion?
Just a couple more.
There was a time when the leadership of the Congress from both parties felt an institutional loyalty that would frequently create bonds across party lines in defense of congressional prerogatives in a unified front against the White House, regardless of the president’s party. We do not have to go very far back to identify these exemplars—the Bob Doles and Howard Bakers and Richard Lugars of the Senate. Vigorous partisans, yes, but even more important, principled constitutional conservatives whose primary interest was in governing and making America truly great.
Now there’s a tone-deaf passage. “Institutional loyalty” creating cross-party bonds in Congress? The Trump voters don’t think that’s a good thing. If you don’t get that yet, perhaps you never will. They see it as precisely the problem. Their representatives are more loyal to the institution than they are to their voters.
As for the great exemplars Bob Dole, Howard Baker, and Richard Lugar, we need not make fun of them or ignore their good qualities to acknowledge that the voters don’t think of them as heroes, but as journeymen in a largely undifferentiated Congress that has done nothing but increase spending and regulation for decades.
But it becomes pointless to look for plain, declarative statements in the Flake op-ed. Last one, I promise:
If by 2017 the conservative bargain was to go along for the very bumpy ride because with congressional hegemony and the White House we had the numbers to achieve some long-held policy goals—even as we put at risk our institutions and our values—then it was a very real question whether any such policy victories wouldn’t be Pyrrhic ones. If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it. If ultimately our principles were so malleable as to no longer be principles, then what was the point of political victories in the first place?
This seems to mean that using the Republican majority in both houses to repeal Obamacare, with a Republican White House at last to sign and seal it, would be a Pyrrhic victory. And a Faustian bargain, to boot.
Hmm. Although well-meaning people can disagree on what’s Pyrrhic (if not so much on what’s Faustian), this is about as self-defeating as it gets. If your purpose in politics is not to implement your agenda when the voters have awarded you a majority across the board, what the heck are you doing in politics?
How can it possibly be a sign of overly malleable principles, to propose voting for the change you stood for, once you’ve been given the opportunity to do it? To a normal person, that sounds like keeping a promise.
It’s high-flown defeat-talk like this that has driven millions of Americans to give up on old-consensus Republicans and turn to Trump.
In one sense, it could be praiseworthy that Flake ranges himself among the culpable. He speaks throughout of how “we conservatives” have screwed things up – and I agree there’s a case to be made for that.
But the more he expands on what “we conservatives” have done, the more the question grows in my mind: “What you mean ‘we,’ keemosabe?”