by John Kirke 9/17/15
Author’s Note: As before, I’m writing an open letter to a public conservative pundit, in part to encourage a substantive response that more than one person would read. If he’s already answered the sort of questions I raise, I would appreciate being directed to those answers.
And, wholly apart from such answers, I believe the questions I have may be useful to others, as they shed light on the issues of the day. I believe the following questions are worth asking.
I see that you’ve already addressed one open letter at the end of last week, and so I hope you’re willing at least to read one more. It’s lengthy, but I’m trying to be thorough since I cannot assume that we’ll have any kind of ongoing dialogue.
I do think you may find this open letter worthwhile. After all, this site was started by a few NRO commenters, past and present, who believe in standing athwart history but are frustrated with the disparity between National Review’s stated mission and the writing it has published over the last few years.
I myself remain grateful for your earliest G-Files in how they helped lead me to a world of conservative thought beyond talk radio’s focus on the issues of the day; I believe that, alongside McCarthy’s The Grand Jihad and Kurtz’ Radical-in-Chief, Liberal Fascism remains a key book for understanding the modern political landscape; and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting you at Emory University in 2008 and again in Chattanooga at the beginning of this year.
At the same time, I find myself less than impressed with your recent writing, as nothing has been as persuasive and explosive as the arguments in your first book, and on social issues especially you no longer seem all that conservative.
I was stunned by your rejecting Christian sexual ethics – the call to chastity, i.e,, sex only within lifelong marriage between a man and a woman, and celibacy otherwise – dismissing the standard as explicitly immoral and irrational, or as you put it, “cruel and absurd.” I have no idea what makes you “very much doubt” that the courts will invent a constitutional right to polygamy since they’ve already jumped the higher hurdle of so-called same-sex marriage: if only animus could motivate the belief that marriage is limited to the union of a man and a woman, what could possibly justify our limiting the union to two people of indeterminate sex? And I don’t see how you can credibly argue for a “reification of the names” – for calling things what they are – when you write that “good manners” require you to call a man “she” if that’s his wish.
But I’m writing, not about these issues, but about the candidacy of Donald Trump.
I don’t personally support Trump. A few months back, I explained to my friends on Facebook that my reluctance to support ANY candidate is grounded in my conviction that Mark Steyn is right, that we’re in very deep trouble. I concluded:
Does ANY candidate recognize the gravity and enormity of Big Government and its even bigger debt? Is he or she willing and able BOTH to articulate the problem to the electorate and to fight for serious reform in Washington?
If not, the GOP’s inevitable managerial progressive might be better than the Dems’ radical progressive, and it might be unfair to say that there’s no significant difference between the two, but the difference WILL NOT be enough. It’s not enough to have a Republican with the car on cruise control rather than a Democrat with the pedal to the metal, when the car is still heading very quickly toward the cliff.
Trump probably is just another progressive, and so his candidacy probably isn’t worth considering, except that there is one conservative argument for Trump: if every other candidate cannot be trusted in their opposition to amnesty for illegal aliens, it may be worth supporting Trump. Support for his candidacy would keep the heat on everyone else, including Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, it could help ground the debate in those “three core principles” that would be taken for granted in a saner society, and one could hope that a President Trump would actually work to implement most of his plan.
But even that conservative argument for Trump wouldn’t make the man a conservative himself, and supporters should be very clear-eyed that they’re probably voting for a progressive who has, out of conviction or political calculation, taken the right position on one very crucial issue.
They should be reminded of what I call Sowell’s Law – Thomas Sowell’s observation that there are no solutions, only trade-offs – but I do see that it’s a tempting trade-off in light of the treacherous leadership in the Republican Party: if the alternative is an establishment choice that will betray the base on literally every major issue, it may be worth the risk to support a candidate who might keep his promise on one fundamental issue.
But apart from any considerations about supporting Trump, I appreciate his candidacy because of the light it has shined on the conservative commentariat. It’s been an unflattering light, but not a dishonest light, and what matters most isn’t the blowhard billionaire’s mockery of the pundits, it’s their own comments in attacking him and his supporters.
There’s a great line attributed to J.P. Morgan: “A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.”
The line is, along with Sowell’s Law, one of my favorites. It’s a cynical observation, and it’s certainly not how a man of integrity ought to live, but it’s clear that it’s how a lot of people do live.
The good news is that, as the Lord teaches, we can judge a tree by its fruits, and so we can discern a man’s real motivations by his actions in the aggregate. Suppose a man says he’s ordering surf and turf rather than pasta because he’s going low-carb: his claim is plausible only until he orders a slice of cheesecake for dessert.
You made a similar point in my brief discussion with you after your talk in Chattanooga. In the formal Q&A, you said that leftists really are trying to do good, despite their politics being cancerous. When people were getting photos with you, I mentioned that, as a secular religion, Leftism could very well have an informal analogue to the Muslim doctrine of taqiyya – a practice of deliberate deceit – since Kurtz’ book makes the case that Obama is part of a movement that hides its real radicalism. You replied that our job isn’t changing Leftists’ minds but rather persuading the audience: I still have problems with the idea that we shouldn’t point out the Left’s dishonesty, as it’s not only a kind of preemptive surrender, it results in enabling their deceit and marginalizing the people who are bold enough to point out their deceit.
But you also said that, if Leftists have false motives, debate and Socratic dialogue will bear that out.
It’s not only Leftists whose deceit can be found out through extended communication. The conservative punditry’s reaction to Trump has been very revealing indeed.
Or, for me at least, the reaction to Trump isn’t a revelation, just a confirmation of exactly the sort of misleading arguments I saw in during the 2012 election, in the fortnight between Todd Akin’s extemporaneous comment that risked alienating moderates and John Boehner’s deliberate actions that infuriated the base’s most attentive activists.
In an interview with a local reporter on August 19, 2012, Todd Akin made his garbled remark about “legitimate rape,” but having watched the relevant video segment, I have never thought the remark was or ought to be career-ending. It’s common advice that women who want to conceive should seek to reduce stress in their lives, so I can see how someone would think that stress reduces the odds of conception, but no matter how egregiously wrong Akin was on his claim, his basic point was sound: pregnancies resulting from rape account for a tiny percentage of abortions – and so we can discuss restricting the majority of abortions, since they are performed in less extreme circumstances – and it’s more moral to punish the rapist than the innocent child who happened to result from his wicked act. The reaction to the Planned Parenthood videos released this year by The Center for Medical Progress demonstrates that it’s the supporters of abortion who have the most to answer for, not their opponents even when they misspeak.
But never mind all that. The very next day, National Review’s editors called for Akin to drop out of the race, despite having already won the Republican nomination. Among the pundits, the drumbeat for his head was loud and clear, and the rationale was pretty constant, that the 2012 election was too important to allow this one minor politician to derail the GOP’s efforts.
That was certainly your explanation. That week, you wrote about Akin’s comment – “idiocy,” “asininity,” “buffoonery,” and even “jackassery” in case you somehow weren’t clear enough about how awful it was – and you gave reasons for everybody else’s high-pitched wailing and gnashing of teeth.
The simple fact is that the theatrical outrage – on both sides of the political aisle – is only partly attributable to the actual outrageousness of Akin’s comments. Much of it has to do with the fact that Republicans are desperate not to lose a Senate seat they thought they had in the bag (and which could hold the deciding vote on Obamacare’s repeal). And Democrats are just as giddy about saving the seat – and hanging Akin around Mitt Romney’s neck.
And how did that work out for Romney, distancing himself from Akin? The Dems’ strategy should have been obvious from that January, when former Clinton advisor George Stephanopoulos pretended to be an objective debate moderator only to raise the absurd specter of government bans on contraception. Considering how much hay the Left later made out of “binders full of women” – an odd but ENTIRELY innocuous phrase, indicating how Romney made efforts to hire qualified women – maybe his campaign should have tried to take the fight to the Left and thus reassure the pro-life social conservatives that Romney was capable of doing something other than folding at the first sign of controversy.
Your article was published on August 24th, and just four days later, John Boehner presided over a voice vote at the Republican National Convention, for a proposed rules change that would weaken the state parties and the grassroots, both by allowing the presidential nominee to have veto power over state delegations and to allow the RNC to change nomination rules between conventions.
Boehner ignored the point-of-order calls to have a roll-call vote, and despite the fact that there the ayes were not clearly more numerous than the nays, Boehner claimed “the ayes have it” – and video subsequently showed that the TelePrompTer had that conclusion foreordained. The move was dishonest and despotic, and it’s not the sort of thing the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives would have done accidentally.
It was an outrage, a deliberate outrage, but the silence from the conservative pundits was deafening, except for a few honorable writers like Michelle Malkin, who covered the farce in real time.
Why were Republicans calling for Akin to step down? Supposedly, the elections were too important; as you put it, they were “desperate not to lose a Senate seat they thought they had in the bag.”
But, if they were so very desperate, why did they risk pissing off the most informed grassroots activists by proposing a rules change that would weaken these activists, then pushing it through by literally lying to their faces while they stood on the convention floor?
“The November election is too important” was apparently just a good reason to bring out the long knives for Akin. Quite transparently, it wasn’t the real reason.
I would summarize the attack against Akin in this way.
- Along with other conservative pundits, NR’s editors opposed Akin’s continued candidacy.
- Akin’s continued candidacy threatened to undermine the GOP’s 2012 electoral efforts.
- NR’s editors claimed to oppose Akin’s candidacy because it threatened the election.
Point 1 was obvious, and point 2 was at least arguable, but point 3 was a transparent lie: if the editors were really concerned about threats to the GOP’s electoral chances, they would have been equally vocal in their opposition to Boehner’s continued leadership , which also threatened the Republicans’ victory at the ballot box by enraging the base.
Jonah, I would formulate your argument from your September 4th G-File similarly.
- You oppose Donald Trump.
- Donald Trump isn’t a conservative.
- You oppose Trump because he isn’t a conservative.
Point 1 is obvious, and I think point 2 is equally obvious, though “Trump ain’t conservative” doesn’t imply that some of his stated positions aren’t conservative – OR that there aren’t good tactical reasons for conservatives to support his candidacy. If Bill Buckley could endorse Joe Lieberman over the Republican Lowell Weicker in 1988, why couldn’t conservatives support Donald Trump over Jeb Bush?
But Point 3 is a joke.
I thought of the same 2012 article of yours that Ben Shapiro cited, and I think his point and your counterpoint miss the big picture. Shapiro seems to make a congenial call for even-handedness: sure, Trump isn’t a conservative, but golly maybe we should apply the same standards to other Republican politicians.
The stronger conclusion to draw is that you’re being hypocritical and less than forthright in attacking Trump: object all you want, but there’s good reason to conclude that you’re not arguing in good faith.
After all, in that 2012 article, you didn’t just write in support of Mitt Romney despite his not being a conservative, you presented that fact as a feature rather than a bug.
Even if Romney is a Potemkin conservative (a claim I think has merit but is also exaggerated), there is an instrumental case to be made for him: It is better to have a president who owes you than to have one who claims to own you.
This is a clear repudiation of the Buckley Rule to support electable conservative candidates. There are implicitly two variations of the rule – find the most conservative candidate of those you think are electable, or find the most electable candidate of those who are actual conservatives; the two approaches may not always produce the same result – but you reject both versions to say that the pragmatic, “instrumental” choice is a moderate (read: managerial progressive) Republican who would be “on a short leash.”
You wrote, “If elected, Romney must follow through for conservatives and honor his vows,” never mind how conservatives would force his hand. Romney is “a man of duty and purpose” who “does his assignments,” so voting for him “isn’t a betrayal, it’s a transaction.”
Now, how the tables have turned.
It’s apparently not possible to support Trump on the expectation that he would owe us conservatives and honor his vows regarding the crucial issue of immigration: it’s impossible to view a vote for Trump as a transaction, as it can only be an outright betrayal.
It couldn’t be a shrewd calculation, even one you personally reject; it’s only “catharsis masquerading as principle, venting and resentment pretending to be some kind of higher argument.”
(Masquerading? Pretending? Please tell us more about your insistence that you’re arguing in good faith while you indict the readers’ motivation, making the insinuation of bad faith or – at best(!) – a Marxist-like false consciousness.)
About Trump, you wrote, “If I sound dismayed, it’s only because I am. Conservatives have spent more than 60 years arguing that ideas and character matter.”
But this was four years after your trying to make the case for Romney, who also failed on both counts.
You now urge your readers to “consider the fact that for the last five years no issue has united the Right more than opposition to Obamacare,” and to consider Trump’s praise for single-payer, but earlier you wrote in support of Obamacare’s state-level predecessor, a Republican candidate who never renounced his support for the single most repellant feature of Obamacare, the individual mandate.
You say Trump isn’t trustworthy on being pro-life, and you’re probably right, but Romney changed his mind twice on the issue, late in his life as a politician, when the only plausible explanation for being against abortion, then for it, then against it is political expediency.
You say that, like Newt Gingrich, Trump has serious character flaws, but Romney proved to have a fatal flaw in the arena of partisan politics, a capacity for being harmless to his enemies and treacherous to his friends, as seen in the scorched-earth tactics he deployed against conservative challengers in the primary race followed by the predictably disastrous Mr. Nice Guy routine in the general election.
In 2012, a managerial progressive ran for the presidency, the conservative base opposed him in favor of pretty much anyone else, and you tried to convince the base that supporting him was a “transaction” worth making: “such a bargain may just be necessary before judgment day comes.”
Now, another managerial progressive is running, the conservative base supports him, and you write that maybe we should “stop the movement long enough for me to get off.”
You mentioned Newt Gingrich, and that reminds me of the last time National Review’s editors and writers just lost their gourds in an effort to derail a candidate they didn’t like.
I think Mark Steyn had a strong position, that a race between “Tweedlemitt and Tweedlenewt” presented a choice not worth making, between two progressives neither of whom would be up to the challenge of what we’re facing. Myself, I think Newt had an edge, because he was a fighter with an actual record of conservative political accomplishments – the Contract with America, deficit reduction, and welfare reform – but Steyn’s position was understandable and honorable.
That wasn’t the case with National Review, whose editors transparently tried to clear a path for Mitt Romney with the prominent “Against Gingrich” editorial and the Marvin the Martian cover; with the former, the editors also threw Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann under the bus, while saying that the statist Huntsman and the long-shot Santorum were still worthy of consideration.
NR then committed the most disgraceful act imaginable, publishing Kevin Williamson’s despicable cover story ostensibly about Mormonism: while NR was firing the race-essentialist atheist John Derbyshire for being politically incorrect, it trumpeted Williamson’s slander against Christians who recognize that Mormonism falls far outside of small-o orthodoxy, smearing us as unhinged and uninformed hypocrites and doing so with an explicit eye toward Mitt Romney’s electoral chances.
During the 2012 election season, Glenn Beck explicitly stated that only racial animus could explain a person’s simultaneous support for Gingrich and opposition to Obama, never mind the basic difference between the two men’s understanding of America, the former growing up as an Army brat and writing books about restoring and saving America, the latter surrounding himself with Marxists and domestic terrorists and proclaiming the need for the country’s fundamental transformation. Now, The Federalist’s Ben Domenech writes that Trump is leading the Republican Party toward “white identity politics for the American right.”
It’s clear that, in both cases, plenty of other pundits are willing to go guano loco, but NR seems determined to take the lead in embarrassing itself and destroying what’s left of its increasingly useless reputation. National Review was never as hysterical over Obama as it was over Gingrich, and those who missed Williamson’s cover story on Mormonism cannot have missed his recent series of petulant freak-outs against Trump.
I keep wondering, why? Why the hysteria over these two candidates?
- Is it cultural? Between Newt and Trump, I wonder if the problem is just a visceral reaction to the larger-than-life personalities of two loud iconoclasts. Trump is filthy rich, but he’s so déclassé, and Newt is a career politician whose style never fit in with the rest of the DC establishment.
- Is it personal against Trump? Is it that crack on July 8th about your not being able to afford pants? Is there an unstated rule that pundits can mock pols with wild abandon (“witless ape,” Kevin Williamson on Trump, June 16th), but politicians can’t punch back and must treat our oh-so respectable media with deference?
- Is it arrogance? Is it the sneering presumption that the chattering class is always right, that those of us who dare disagree with some select group of pundits are not merely opposed to those particular intellectuals but are inherently “anti-intellectual”?
- Is it Trump’s threatening the grand plans of the GOP establishment? The Conservative Treehouse credibly argues that the RNC has gamed the primary process to ensure a victory for Jeb Bush under the guise of a fair and wide-open election, but Trump has completely sabotaged their plans. Was Gingrich threatening to do the same thing in 2012, and is the real problem with Trump the possibility of things going well and truly off-script?
- Or is it Trump’s threatening the establishment’s agenda on the key issue of immigration? You mention your 2006 support for a border wall, but you seem determined to discredit the loudest voice for sanity on immigration, and I don’t think your G-File even alluded to the subject.
Others are clear in their desire for amnesty. In supporting Rick Perry’s in-state tuition for illegals in Texas, Kevin Williamson wrote in 2012 that the illegals “have to be on their way to becoming legal permanent residents of the United States.” Ben Domenech has repeatedly played the race card against those who believe in enforcing immigration law, accusing us of hating “dirty brown people.” And – in a recent syndicated article reprinted by National Review – George Will actually compared enforcement to the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
Today’s big government finds running Amtrak too large a challenge, and Trump’s roundup would be about 94 times larger than the wartime internment of 117,000 persons of Japanese descent. But Trump wants America to think big. The big costs, in decades and dollars (hundreds of billions), of Trump’s project could be reduced if, say, the targets were required to sew yellow patches on their clothing to advertise their coming expulsion. There is precedent. [The emphasis mine, the lunacy is entirely Will’s.]
(He invoked the Holocaust to denounce the meaningful enforcement of reasonable and necessary immigration laws: I frankly don’t care what great things George Will has written in the past, I don’t see how you can say that the conservative movement cannot possibly embrace Trump while National Review makes space for this son of a bitch.)
This would be the real irony, that pundits are invoking conservatism to attack the conservative position on immigration, and yet they are acting like Leftists in playing the race card to promote the Leftists’ dream of amnesty.
You say Trump’s popularity is damaging conservatism. Never mind the damage you invited by trying to cajole conservatives into supporting Romney: what about the GOP leadership in Congress?
The American people gave the Republicans first the House and then the Senate to challenge Obama’s radical agenda, and the politicians have betrayed both the base AND their stated platform at every turn.
The fiscal conservatives see that government spending is out of control, but in the wake of the historic midterm elections, the Republicans weakened the power of the coming reinforcements with the Cromnibus bill, and the leadership has shown that it’ll fight for corporate welfare like the Ex-Im Bank when it’s too cowardly to use the power of the purse and risk even a partial shutdown of non-essential government functions.
The social conservatives are appalled by the revelation that Planned Parenthood is run by monsters in human form, sociopaths whose cold cruelty can hardly be exaggerated, but McConnell says that Congress will refuse even to contemplate the simple and obvious act of defunding the world’s largest abortion provider until after Obama’s successor is sworn in.
The hawks recognize that it’s reckless in the extreme to allow Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, especially while they openly desire our destruction and the destruction of our allies, but the Republicans gave Obama the authority to do exactly that, even while pretending to fight with what futile power they didn’t surrender.
From stopping Iran’s nuclear program to thwarting Obama’s illegal amnesty, the Republicans talk a good game during election season and do nothing with what power the voters subsequently give them – and at times, they do worse than nothing, what Ace of Spades calls “Failure Theater” and what Andrew McCarthy calls “Surrender Then Play-Fight.”
Their behavior is a treacherous attempt to deceive the American people, and it means that the entire political apparatus is dishonest: one party pretends to be moderate while being run by stealth radicals, and the other party cooperates with that radicalism while pretending to resist it.
McCarthy acknowledges the context of Trump’s high poll numbers, recognizing that the kabuki feeds the “anger that is the wind beneath Donald Trump’s wings.”
Why is McCarthy the only one?
More to the point, Jonah, you write, “The case against the GOP establishment is not the case for Trump, no matter how much it feels like it is in your head or your heart.”
You may be right about that, but the conservative argument against the establishment is AT LEAST as strong as even the pragmatic argument for Trump. The establishment is causing AT LEAST as much damage to conservatism, to the Republican Party, and to the nation.
Why aren’t you guys demonstrating as much outrage against them as you are against Trump?
McCarthy is a notable exception in his series of coolly written but eviscerating takedowns of the Republicans in Congress, but most of the writers at NRO issue only the mildest disapproval toward Boehner and McConnell; you guys reserve your contempt and unhinged rage for Trump and his supporters.
Until you share our entirely justified fury against the GOP Establishment – our righteous anger against their consistent duplicity – your readers will have good reason to doubt that your opposition to Trump is rooted in a principled defense of conservatism.
Conservative principle might remain a good reason for you to oppose Trump, but we’ll all know it’s not the real reason.
And I will remain justified in reading your work warily, no matter how much I like you personally and appreciate your earlier writing.
Lawrence Bubba Beasley, writing at Stubborn Things as John Kirke
John R.W. Kirke is a pseudonym of a Christian husband, father, and engineer who has written elsewhere under other names, including “Lawrence” in the comments at National Review Online. He remains deeply moved by the unpublished memoirs of Professor D. Kirke (1888-1949). • (2240 views)