You may have noticed that I’ve largely tried to stay out of the whole “Burn it Down” versus—um, what is the other side called? “Mend it, don’t end it?” Naw. Well whatever, the anti-burn-it-down camp.
I’d call it the Frenchist camp, after my colleague David French who rejects the burn-it-down position. But “Frenchist” is already taken by Trumpists and Trump-adjacent intellectuals to describe socially conservative classical liberalism and a politics of decency (though they think it describes the cowardly capitulation to cultural Marxists who want your children to be taught by illegal immigrant drag queens).
As well-argued as I think David’s position is, and as much as I agree with most of it, I actually think the best argument for why the burn-it-all-down folks are wrong comes from my friend and our former National Reviewcolleague Ramesh Ponnuru. Read the whole piece, but the gist of his argument is: It won’t work. Problems without solutions aren’t really problems, James Burnham said. This is a very hard concept for people to grasp—and in some realms of life, that’s a good thing. The faith that seemingly insurmountable obstacles are actually surmountable is how the airplane was invented.
But in politics, the refusal to understand there’s no solution—or at least no immediate solution—to inconvenient facts of life leads to an enormous waste of time, resources and cable TV “debates.”
Let me put it this way: Even if the burn-it-down folks are right that the ideal option would be to raze the current GOP and build it anew, they can’t do it. (Indeed, it’s funny: Anti-Trump conservatives have spent three years being told we don’t matter, and many of us have said we’re okay with that. But now suddenly we’re debating—as if it were a real possibility—whether or not we should tear down the existing GOP and redesign it on our terms.)
And sometimes if you can’t succeed, the worst thing you can do is try. Say I’m in a boat with Steve Hayes, far from both shore and medical assistance. Now, suppose Steve has appendicitis. We know the best solution is to remove his appendix. Well, possibly the worst thing I could do is bust out my Swiss Army knife and start cutting away at his abdomen in search of his appendix. Even if I found it, I wouldn’t know how to remove it, never mind sew him back up. Better to leave it in there and figure out the best possible way to get help.
To the extent that the Lincoln Project folks have the power to do anything to Republicans, most of the Republicans they can actually take down aren’t the Trumpiest ones. They’re the least Trumpy. Indeed, the fact that they’re the least Trumpy is the reason they hate them the most. It’s analogous to the way hardcore leftists hate moderate liberals so much. When two camps agree on a lot of first principles, deviation and compromise are seen as acts of cowardice or betrayal. Everyone knows that Sen. Susan Collins isn’t a Trump stooge, which is why her concessions to Trumpism enrage the fiercest Trump opponents the most (including me, sometimes). On a psychological level, you expect more from people who you think should know better. And because she’s a fairly liberal Republican from a liberal state, she can be hurt by the charge of being a Trump stooge in ways that, say, Tom Cotton or Rand Paul can’t. So that’s why the Lincoln Project is running ads calling her a “Trump Stooge.”
Let’s say they succeed in getting rid of Collins and those like her. Will that make the GOP more or less Trumpy? The answer is more. The GOP is on path to becoming a rump party for a while, no matter what. I don’t really see why anyone would want to see it be run by the most Trumpy Republicans—except, that is, for Democrats.
Indeed, part of Ramesh’s argument is that the divide among “NeverTrumpers”—a term I dislike—is really an ideological dispute masquerading as a tactical one. Those who basically agree with Democrats on issues like gun control, abortion, and high taxes are going to be more comfortable with unified Democratic control of government. They use “Trumpism” as a Trojan Horse to smuggle in ideological assumptions.
Whether Republicans will move away from Trumpism depends on what that word means—and the term resists precise definition. The journalist Ronald Brownstein predicts a Trumpist party after Trump’s presidency, but he thinks any Republican who wants 500,000 legal immigrants a year instead of 1 million is a Trumpist. So is anyone who calls for a harder line with China. (Which would seem to make Joe Biden a Trumpist, too.)
One of the least persuasive arguments against Trump’s GOP from the left and chunks of the anti-Trump right is when they point out often senator-so-and-so votes X percent of the time for the “Trump agenda.” The vast majority of these votes are for things that Republican senators would have voted for under a president Rubio or Cruz. In other words, that stuff isn’t “Trumpism.” I mean, should Republicans not have voted for Neil Gorsuch, just to send a message to Trump? Their voters wanted them to vote for Gorsuch.
I get the argument that they lent political support to Trump’s “record of accomplishment” by voting “with” him, but I just don’t buy the argument that elected Republicans shouldn’t vote like traditional conservative Republicans just because it might benefit Trump.
Moreover, as I’ve written countless times, Trumpism isn’t an ideology, despite many desperate and often embarrassing attempts to make it one. It’s a psychological phenomenon that begins with the president’s own deformed psychology and extends outward like a radiation cloud, mutating all those not immune to its seductive Eldritch energies. Today’s GOP and much of rightwing media is a vast Rube Goldberg (no relation) machine powered by a hyperactive hamster with improbable fur, spinning a wheel as it runs after its own reflection in a mirror. That hamster is Donald Trump’s id.
If Trumpism were an ideology, there would be a consistency to the Trump presidency that could be explained by a coherent ideological program. On a few issues, like trade and immigration, that’s possible. But even these ideological commitments have little explanatory or predictive power when compared to what comes with understanding Trump’s irritable mental gestures, intellectual laziness, cavernous appetite for attention and praise, and the manifest incompetence they all produce. The people who say anti-Trump conservatives need to rally around the president ask much of people who care little and nothing of a president who—daily—undermines himself and their cause with a superhuman determination to step on his own Johnson on an international stage. Endorsements from every NeverTrumper would carry a fraction of the weight a week of competence and dignity in office by Trump would. But they demand nothing from him, and everything from those who refuse to lie on his behalf.
Indeed, the bulk of my contempt for Republican politicians—and conservative commentators —these days is reserved for those who cater to this definition of Trumpism at the expense of their principles, both ideological and civic. Mike Pompeo’s refusal to reject postponing the election yesterday is all I need to know about the guy. Any radio host or scribbler who celebrates Trump’s genius, character, or statesmanship has revealed themselves to either be in the fanservice business while doing party work by proxy or—in the rare cases they’re sincere—members of a cult of personality. I’m sick of hearing how radiant the emperor’s new clothes are.
Much of that garbage will go away with Trump, thank God. But I think it will go away faster if the GOP isn’t simply reduced to the Matt Gaetz crowd.
But you know what? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s a genius to the Lincoln Project’s effort to, like the hero of the old Adventures of Letterman cartoon, put a “T” in front of the coming rump party. Maybe giving the Democrats control of the Senate and the ability to get rid of the legislative filibuster is the best path to reviving conservatism. I honestly don’t see it, and since I’m being honest, I don’t put a lot of stock—any, really—in the idea that Jon Weaver and Steve Schmidt are the Top Men we need to usher in a new GOP.
But there are sincere conservatives who take this view—Charlie Sykes, George Will, and Bill Kristol come to mind—and if they could fashion such a thing I’d be open to it. But I don’t think they can.
Which is to say that at least among actual conservatives, and to the extent this debate matters at all, it is a prudential question. “Prudence,” Edmund Burke wrote, “is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all.” I have significant prudential disagreements with Bill, but I am unaware of any significant ideological ones. You can be a conservative and vote for Donald Trump or a straight Republican ticket. You can also be a conservative and vote a straight Democratic ticket. There’s nothing in conservatism that says conservatives can’t be wrong on tactical questions.
Which gets me to why I’ve been reluctant to weigh in on this stuff. I’ve spent a lot of time condemning the tendency to confuse partisanship for ideological purity. So much of this debate is really a NeverTrumper version of what I’ve criticized in Trumpers. Liz Cheney, we’re told, isn’t a real conservative because she hasn’t been sufficiently loyal to Trump. That’s nonsense on stilts. Every day, people call me a RINO and a “lib” as if the terms were interchangeable. You know who is—or was—a real RINO? Pat Buchanan. His (misguided, by my lights) version of conservatism mattered a hell of a lot more to him than party loyalty, which is why he arguably cost George H.W. Bush a second term (he certainly tried to). Is Buchanan a “lib?” So many of the Trumpers proved themselves to be CINOs whenever the choice came to siding with Trump or with the positions they long held.
Now some NeverTrumpers come along and say that you’re not a “True Conservative” unless you vote straight Democrat. If I rejected the argument that conservatives mustvote for the Republican nominee in 2016, I’m hard pressed to understand why I must now vote for Democrats in 2020 to prove my bona fides. And it’s not just voting, which I don’t care much about. The same argument for what I should be doing as a writer is now coming at me from the NeverTrump side. For almost four years, I’ve been told that it is my duty to make the best case for the GOP or the worst case against the Democrats. And for that entire time, I’ve said, “That’s not my job.” I honestly don’t see what’s changed.
This isn’t a black and white thing, either. Prudence enters into it. I write about politics for a living. It is impossible to do that without trying to influence the debate and taking a side in various controversies. If there was a bill in Congress to legalize pedophilia, I’d write a column saying, “Call your congressman and tell them to vote no on the Jeffrey Epstein Act.” But I’m not going to write as if my job is to make the best case for a political party or a faction determined to replace it. And one reason I won’t is that I don’t think it’s prudentially necessary. Despite the perpetual effort to turn every presidential election into an existential crisis, I don’t see one. If I did, maybe I would write accordingly. But I’m not going to try to rally the passengers on Flight 93 if I don’t think the plane is being hijacked. To do so would be to join a partisan marketing campaign masquerading as a conservative crusade, which I have no interest in. Similarly, I have no interest making the same argument, just in reverse. Even if Steve Schmidt, the Cicero of MSNBC, thinks I have to.