Monday, February 1, 2016

Donald Trump and the Course of American Conservatism

Donald Trump may win Iowa tonight. It remains to be seen whether he can win the nomination. But he has already emerged as a far greater political force than anyone imagined when he announced his candidacy last summer. In the process, he has unleashed passions that profoundly unsettle me and nearly everyone I know, conservative and liberal alike. We ask ourselves, do we really know our own country? Is bigotry and mean-spiritedness really so popular? Could an authoritarian demagogue really rise to the presidency? Here, in the United States? Time will tell.

I've read dozens of conservative writers make their case against Trump. They are horrified by him. So I can't help but ask, where have they been for the past two decades while the conservative movement has accepted or excused all manner of bigotry and falsehood? When did they confront the proud racism, misogyny, and homophobia of Rush Limbaugh, the apocalyptic paranoia of Glen Beck, and the lies of pseudo-historian David Barton? Where were they when a cable channel full of ignorant pundits stoking racial resentment became conservatism's premier news source? Oh, I guess many of them were too busy making sure they had a seat at the table.

The very same publications that have attacked Trump have also run articles accusing President Obama of purposely destroying America. Marco Rubio has now started saying this! It's no longer enough to say that you disagree with the President. Conspiracy theory has become common sense, and basic facts have become liberal bias. What's the message here? Trump is bad, but Trump-lite is ok?

People are wringing their hands about Trump's bigotry, constant falsehoods, and outlandish rhetoric, as if it's in any way different from what you can hear on talk radio every single day. It's not different. Is it really so surprising that a political figure has emerged to provide conservative voters a choice that echoes the views of their most popular news sources? After conservative elites have refused to say in clear terms that bigotry will not be tolerated, that figures like Rush Limbaugh are not welcome in the party, they are shocked--shocked!--that a candidate is so powerfully channeling the cultural resentment that is Limbaugh's bread and butter.

Many conservative pundits and politicians are acting as though they are not complicit in Trump's rise. But the party has been playing with fire for years. Look at the last two presidential election cycles. The jovial ignorance of Herman Cain. The routinized lying of Michele Bachmann. The cultural resentment and white identity politics of Sarah Palin. All of these unqualified figures were beloved by evangelicals in their moment, and tolerated by party elites. Trump launches a campaign of their greatest hits, and now the party suddenly realizes the downside?

Though Trump is a dangerous man, there is still time for good to come from his rise. It will start with this realization: if you don't like Trump, you actually don't like much of modern American conservatism. This doesn't mean you're not a conservative. It doesn't mean conservatism isn't valuable and absolutely needed. In many ways, I am deeply conservative. I hear the word revolution and I run the other way. Because to be a conservative is to understand that, actually, it could be worse, and change must be implemented carefully because there are always unintended consequences. In many ways--believe me, I'm not trolling, and I don't yet know who I am supporting this year--Hillary Clinton offers a more philosophically conservative vision than do many of the Republican candidates.

I believe Trump's demagoguery will pass and there will be a better and more responsible conservatism in the nation's future. But that might not begin until we face the fact that Trump is not a weed in the garden of contemporary conservatism. He is its fruit.

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