Sykes vs. Trump et al

Author and radio and TV show host Charlie Sykes was one of the leaders of Wisconsin’s conservative movement.

How influential was Sykes? State legislators talked about the “Sykes Effect,” his influence on Republican legislators within the range of the radio station that carried his morning talk show, and his lack of influence on GOP legislators outside the station’s signal (it is the most powerful AM radio station in the state).

And for a while I got to participate.

Things change. Sykes isn’t on Milwaukee radio or TV anymore. “Sunday Insight” is no more. Journal Communications (former owner of my business magazine, R.I.P., Sykes’ radio and TV stations, and the biggest newspaper in the state) is no more. And thanks to Donald Trump, Sykes evidently doesn’t consider himself a Republican supporter anymore.

Dan McLaughlin comments thereupon:

C. S.Lewis, writing in 1941, coined his famous definition of the logical fallacy of Bulverism:

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. . . . I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” . . . Its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver . . . heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third — “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and . . . our age will thrust you to the wall.”  . . . But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds — a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.

If Lewis thought that Bulverism was pervasive in 1941, he would have been horrified to see the state of political argument in 2020. Its symptoms are everywhere: the woke tendency to value every statement by the identity of the speaker and attribute bigotry to all disagreement, the MAGA columnists who rant constantly about what Never Trumpers are getting out of opposing Trump, the socialists who prattle about Citizens United and the Koch brothers and see everything in our political system as a smokescreen for the influence of Big Money. Motivations are of course fair game in political argument, but the Bulverists who just skip over the argument to talk about motive are doing their audience a disservice.
On Friday, both Charlie Sykes and Jonathan Last of The Bulwark went after me in their newsletters for the sin of “anti-anti-Trumpism,” by which they mean criticizing the Biden-Harris ticket in something other than the spirit of a friendly ally engaged in a common cause. Their immediate shift to ascribing motivations to me rather than engaging with the seriousness of that criticism is a doleful sign of the Bulverist tendency. I would have expected better of two longtime conservatives whose work I once respected. It should not be so hard for people who spent so many years in the conservative movement to believe that some of us actually mean what we say.
Consider Sykes, who opens with a lengthy discussion of Dante that all but explicitly says I am going to Hell for not voting for Joe Biden. To Sykes,

[Dante] got me thinking about the anti-anti-Trumpers and their season of agita. A cry went up this week from the precinct of the anti-anti-Trumpers suggesting that the selection of Kamala Harris was the moment for their decisive break into formal indecisiveness. As much as they loathed Donald Trump, they insisted, there was no way that they could support a Biden-Harris ticket. But the choice of Harris wasn’t really a tipping point, because the anti-antis were never going to support a viable opponent to Trump. The essence of anti-anti-Trumpism is the full recognition of the awfulness of Trump and all of his works, but a firm resolve not to actually do anything to confront them. They have found a sweet spot where they can criticize the president, but also sneer at his critics, thus keeping their conservative credentials (if not their consciences) intact.

Much of the newsletter goes on in that vein, accusing those who won’t support the Biden-Harris ticket of “a simple matter of business model prudence” or a desire to “stay ‘relevant’” in GOP politics, assuage donors, and escape blame for a Trump defeat” and asserts that any criticism of Biden or Harris “carries a heavy whiff of guilty conscience.”

Rather than attempt to psychoanalyze what brought Sykes to this point, let me take him at his word, and ask what he has to say about my criticism of Kamala Harris as Biden’s VP choice. Sykes quotes my immediate comments on Twitter:

There are many ways in which Kamala Harris is bad — indeed, the worst in the entire Democratic field — but this is the biggest: her willingness to directly threaten America’s rule-of-law system. . . . We can talk about Harris on issues & ideology, where she’s been bad but also inconsistent. What is much more consistent is her continual willingness to break norms & disdain limits on executive powers & the rule of law. The most anti-Constitution candidate you could pick.

She is seriously worse than Trump, and worse because she is serious. She would, in 180 degree contrast to Trump, have a tailwind of institutional Washington behind every assault on constitutional government.

Now, space obviously does not permit a complete recounting here of the Harris, Biden, and Trump records, but my most specific grievance with Harris — for which I cited evidence in that thread — is her support during her presidential campaign for adding to the number of justices to pack the Supreme Court. As I have previously discussed at length, Court-packing for the purely ideological/partisan purposes of changing the Court’s decisions is the single gravest threat to our constitutional system among anything done or proposed in American politics over the past decade. It is a crossing of the Rubicon. It would, in a single stroke, destroy the Supreme Court as a guardian of the rule of written law, reducing it to a banana-republic appendage of whoever happened to be in power at any particular time. The nation in 1937 properly saw Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Court-packing scheme as dangerously authoritarian and stopped an exceptionally popular president from doing it at the peak of his power.

Moreover, Court-packing would break the essential bargain of American politics over the past century, by which people accepted the Court’s ever-expanding undemocratic power on the understanding that if you win enough elections and build large enough majorities, you, too, can eventually install a majority on the Court that sees the Constitution your way. This is, by design, a lengthy and deliberative process, and for all the partisan shenanigans over how seats on the Court get filled, we have long accepted that the outside limits are set by the stable size of the Court since 1869. To snatch away from pro-lifers, in particular, the ability to undo Roe v. Wade through the indirect political process of winning presidential and Senate elections would undoubtedly send more extremists to take up the John Brown route against the greatest moral evil of our time. Hardly anything could be more calculated to provoke the breakdown of trust in a system of law.

Moreover, as far as Sykes’s claim that this is all a new posture on my part, it might have done him some good to do his homework. I’ve been warning for a long time that Harris was the Democrat most likely to imitate the worst aspects of Trump and add her own. I’ve been quite open for a long time that I was never going to vote for the Democratic ticket in 2020, just as I did not vote for the Democratic ticket in 2016 (I voted for Evan McMullin). What I have remained formally undecided on is whether or not I could pull the lever for Trump — which I did not do in 2016 and have grave reservations about doing this time — or cast another third-party protest vote. The “burn it all down” candidates focused on permanent, irrevocable changes to our system of government — worst of all Harris and Elizabeth Warren — were always the ones most likely to push me into the view that four more years of Trump might be a lesser evil.

Sykes, ignoring what I spent the entirety of the primary system saying about Harris, Court-packing, and the other evidences of her authoritarian, anti-constitutional approach, writes of my comments:

That may seem like rather an audacious leap, but it’s what you have to believe if you are anti-anti-Trump. If you recognize Trump as a corrupt threat to the Republic, you can’t regard the Democrats simply as conventional progressives. Kamala Harris cannot be seen merely as an opportunistic Democratic politician with a somewhat inconsistent ideological streak. No; she must be seen as much worse than Donald Trump. Seriously worse.

If Sykes believes that nobody could possibly sincerely believe the things I have been writing for some time now about Court-packing, how does he address that issue? He doesn’t even mention it. Not a single word of his column discusses Court-packing or Harris at all. Sykes would, it seems, prefer to remain strictly anti-anti-Harris.

Court-packing is hardly the only way in which Harris is not only terrible on just about every public-policy issue under the sun, but dangerously authoritarian and contemptuous of the essential norms that have allowed our system of constitutional democracy to survive this long. There is no question that Harris would use every lever of power available to circumvent Congress and bring the machinery of government down on anyone who stands in the way of her agenda. Let’s just round up here a sample, much of which has been covered by my colleagues since the nomination was announced:

  • As California attorney general, Harris used her office’s criminal-enforcement powers to go after David Daleiden for exposing Planned Parenthood’s involvement in illegal fetal-tissue trafficking — including raiding his apartment — then, working hand in glove with Planned Parenthood, lobbied for the legislature to empower her successor to prosecute Daleiden for undercover journalism. Many of Harris’s charges against Daleiden were later thrown out in court. This is a blatant assault on free speech and a free press.
  • Harris pledged to issue a gun ban by presidential executive fiat; when Biden objected that the Constitution might be an obstacle to that, she laughed out loud at the idea.
  • Harris ran on rewriting immigration law by presidential executive fiat, a platform David French characterized at the time as “Why run for president when you can run for queen?”
  • Harris pledged another executive fiat on prescription drugs: “I’ll give Congress 100 days to send legislation to my desk to stop Big Pharma from raking in massive profits at the expense of Americans. If Congress won’t act, I will.”
  • Harris pledged to bulldoze the legislative filibuster, interring two centuries of Senate tradition, if Congress does not pass the Green New Deal.
  • Harris demanded, with no basis whatsoever in the Constitution, that states be required to “pre-clear” changes to their abortion laws through the federal executive branch.
  • Harris weaponized her office as California attorney general to pursue Americans for Prosperity and other groups over their dissent from left-wing climate orthodoxy. Harris’s effort to force nonprofits to disclose their donor lists was later found to violate the First Amendment, but not before a court found that Harris’s office “systematically failed to maintain the confidentiality” of those records. Of course, intimidating the donors out of giving was the point.
  • In 2017, Harris opposed Justice Gorsuch’s confirmation on the grounds that he was too concerned with the law to serve on the Supreme Court, saying that he “valued legalisms over real lives.”
  • Harris has publicly embraced on multiple occasions “my dear friend” Al Sharpton, the most toxic figure in American political life, responsible for inciting murder, riot, and arson, leading a hoax rape accusation against innocent men, anti-Semitism, and tax evasion, among other things.
  • By contrast, Harris grilled a judicial nominee on his membership in the longstanding, mainstream Catholic group the Knights of Columbus.
  • Remember when people professed to be shocked by “lock her up” because Americans aren’t supposed to advocate jailing their political opponents? Harris said during her campaign that she would have “no choice” but to criminally prosecute Trump if elected.
  • In California, Harris pushed to jail parents for truancy, using a law whose passage she advocated.
  • During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Harris ran with the most scurrilous smears against him, reading into the Congressional record the ludicrous and since-discredited gang-rape charge peddled by Michael Avenatti. Harris tried to get Kavanaugh impeached from the D.C. Circuit. Truth was beside the point; Kavanaugh was in the way.
  • Harris frequently defended her hardline stances as attorney general by claiming that she was bound to defend the law, but she refused to defend the popularly enacted Proposition 8 (barring same-sex marriage) in court.
  • Finally, there is Harris’s record as a criminal prosecutor. While I have no objection to the aggressive use of proper law-enforcement powers against crime, there is an enormous paper trail of criticism of Harris for, among other things, defending unjust convictionswithholding evidenceprotecting prosecutorial misconduct, and even arguing that prisoners should not be released because the state needed their labor.

Some of this, admittedly, is very much mainstream thinking and behavior among Democrats. The idea that the “living Constitution” is a malleable thing of no practical importance in constraining Democrats when “the people” want something has been orthodoxy among Democrats for 108 years, as has the accretion of governing discretion in administrative agencies and courts unanswerable to the voters. Harris is hardly the only prominent Democratic senator threatening the independence of the judiciary these days. And we have not even touched on the longstanding habit of today’s Democratic Party rejecting the legitimacy of election losses. But my objection goes beyond Harris’s ideology to her character. The overall picture of Harris’s record is one that ought to alarm anyone who believes in limited constitutional government and individual liberty.

Sykes acts as if he has never even heard of these objections to Harris.

Sykes sees Trump as “a corrupt threat to the Republic.” I agree that Trump is corrupt in multiple ways — his personal morals, his public rhetoric, his general contempt for truth and law. And I agree that the Trump tendencies, if left unchecked, could indeed threaten the Republic. The most obvious way in which they could do so is by undermining the will and power of Republicans to stand against people such as Kamala Harris.

Trump, after all, is an essentially weak and personally indolent president, unfamiliar with how the levers of power work. At every turn, when he does good things or bad things, he finds himself thwarted by a solid wall of opposition from the judiciary, the legal profession, the federal civil service, the mainstream media, the universities, and a constellation of other powerful American institutions. Our nation has a strong immune system against threats of the sort Trump presents. It has a very weak immune system against threats of the sort Harris presents. Virtually every abuse of power she champions would have all of those institutions lining up to support her. The notion that anyone in the Democratic Party would stand against any of this is laughable to anyone who lived through the Obama and Clinton administrations. Even if I concluded, yet again, that I could not in good conscience vote for Trump, the last thing I would want to do with a candidate such as Kamala Harris is lend my endorsement, when it is likely that Biden and Harris will win and we shall all badly need to raise the alarm against what is likely to follow.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Last characterizes the idea of Biden-Harris as anything but a centrist ticket as a product of “anti-anti-Trump fantasy land,” linking to my Tweet to drive home his view that I am a contemptible fantasist. He asks:

So which view is correct? Is Biden, after crushing the party’s progressive wing in the primaries, now just waiting to give in to radical politics that he has never espoused over the course of five decades in public life? Or has he successfully waged a battle to bring the party’s progressive elements to heel so as to restore a center-left coalition? Well, the future is always uncertain and we won’t know until we get there. But one of these views is based on a pile of concrete evidence. And the other almost entirely on feelings, personal preferences, and special pleading.

So “we won’t know until we get there” what’s in Biden’s actual platform or campaign pledges, or anything at all about his running mate’s record? Those of us writing about these things are doing so based “almost entirely on feelings, personal preferences, and special pleading”? As I have documented at length, anyone who reads progressive pundits these days can see them saying quite loudly that Biden is not pursuing a centrist agenda, and can hear people such as former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau finding it “hilarious to me that [Harris] is being called in all this coverage a moderate, like Joe Biden has found a fellow moderate or centrist.” Last apparently also ignored GovTrack scoring Harris’s voting record in the Senate as being to the left of Bernie Sanders’s (a progressive group reached the same conclusion). Sadly, Last is too busy sneering at “fantasy land” to be bothered with such details as her actual record.

Last does concede that “Biden gave a little on some issues” such as “the Hyde amendment” in the primaries, a to-be-sure on which Last does not dwell. This is a very big thing for Last — who was once a pro-lifer, and maybe still claims to be — to just yadda yadda. The Hyde amendment prohibits federal funding for abortions. For many years, Catholic Democrats such as Biden who claim to be merely “pro-choice” but not pro-abortion could argue that stance by saying that abortion was a private matter, the state should stay out of it, but they were against subsidizing it. That was Joe Biden’s position on the Hyde amendment for 40 years. Whatever vestige of principle it had, however, went out the window when he did a complete about-face in 2019 to oppose the Hyde amendment, which he now pledges to repeal, to “restore funding for Planned Parenthood.” These are unambiguously pro-abortion stances: You don’t subsidize something with taxpayer money unless you think it a good thing worth encouraging. A presidential ticket that wants to expand taxpayer subsidies for abortion is not one that I, in good conscience, could ever vote for. That Last sees this as a small matter says much more about what things he can sleep with at night.

The moral and practical questions of voting in this election deserve a fuller response another day, but for four years now, I have argued that we should at least try to understand the perspectives that have led different people, starting from conservative positions, to support or oppose Trump. I did not vote for Trump in the general election in 2016, but I tried at the time to present a fair defense of the thinking of those who did. As I explained in my recent review of the Saldin/Teles book on the Never Trump movement, moreover, those of us who refused to support Trump came to that decision from a variety of different perspectives, and a fair understanding of those decisions requires grappling meaningfully with that diversity of experience and values. Sykes and Last would benefit from a little more willingness to deal with the actual thinking of those who have come to different conclusions since 2016, and a lot less Bulverism.

I don’t have time to psychoanalyze Sykes (though that would be an interesting project to compare current Sykes to the commentator who was on the front lines of every worthwhile conservative fight in this state for three decades).

Facebook Friend Devin observes of Trump that “Trump has passed the most conservative agenda while being the least conservative Republican since Eisenhower. Further, Trump is the least fiscally conservative president in my lifetime (I was born in 1985).” Another Facebook Friend suggests that Sykes feels “a bit smarter and more principled than the rabble,” which, he adds, is not an approach likely to persuade people. (It works almost as well as insulting people, a lesson Democrats resolutely refuse to learn.)

Ronald Reagan famously observed that “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally, not a 20 percent traitor.” I think Trump passes the 80 percent test, as far as what he has done (as opposed to said or Tweeted) while president, but I may be wrong about that precise number. I am positive Biden will not pass that test. It requires a valid explanation of why someone who claims to be conservative should vote for someone who will not do remotely conservative things while in office.



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