Politics & Policy

Never Trump Isn’t ‘Preening’ — It’s Mourning

(Eric Thayer/Reuters)
While Trump’s enablers further a con, his opponents weep for the damage he’s done.

Thanks in part to Bill Bennett, the knives have come out for Never Trump conservatives. It’s personal now. Gone is the always-fantastical claim that we would hand the election to Hillary, replaced with the notion that we’re simply exhibiting a “terrible case of moral superiority” and putting “our own vanity and taste above the interests of the country.”

Echoing Bennett, the Huffington Post interviewed a number of “establishment” figures who’ve thrown in with Trump, and their words about anti-Trump holdouts are scathing. It’s “slick moral preening,” said one anonymous critic. “These are mostly self-serving political hacks,” said another. We have a “desperate need to be accepted in the liberals’ putative morally superior universe.”

Look, this was bound to get ugly. It’s been ugly for a long time. Because Trump represents such a radical departure from decades of Republican leadership, the choice to support him involves a host of moral compromises that are atypical for a Republican primary, much less the general election. And since most of us in the conservative movement scorn notions of moral relativism, we’re simply not going to be content with reasoning that says, “My choice is right for me; your choice is right for you.”

But this isn’t “moral preening.” It’s moral argument. It comes not from a place of “moral superiority” but from a deep anguish, especially as concerns the fate of Trump’s alleged base, the struggling working-class and middle-class voters who so need positive change.

As I’ve written many times before, I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, not far from the communities J. D. Vance describes in his remarkable book, Hillbilly Elegy. My wife’s family is from the mountains outside of Chattanooga, Tenn. When I talk about this segment of Trump voters, I’m talking about people I’ve lived around and worked with almost my entire life.

I’ve seen the unraveling of communities, the rise of substance abuse, and the splintering of families first-hand. I’ve watched it happen to friends. Working with church ministries, my wife and I spent years of our lives laboring mightily to reach some of the most vulnerable kids in our town.

As a result of my own life experiences, I’ve emerged with a number of deep convictions. First, the crisis afflicting working-class communities goes far, far beyond politics, so the more we sell a political solution to a spiritual crisis, the more we sell a lie. Second, these problems aren’t always near-term artifacts of closed factories and mills, but instead — especially in the South — often reflect cultural habits that have developed over centuries. Third, the last thing these communities need is more family instability, more drug abuse, more sexual libertinism, and less church.

Like the snake-oil salesmen of years past, he promises the cure as he exacerbates the disease.

What’s staggering, infuriating, and ultimately upsetting, then, is watching Donald Trump stride into their lives, and — helped considerably by billions in free media and a spineless GOP establishment — capture their hearts and minds with lies and outright nonsense. Like the snake-oil salesmen of years past, he promises the cure as he exacerbates the disease. There are few things in life more frustrating than watching your friends become victims before your very eyes and being powerless to stop it.

The Kentucky church my wife and I frequented early in our marriage was one of the best churches I’ve ever attended. Never before or since have I seen such zeal for the Gospel or such a desire to reach the most desperate and vulnerable members of society. It wasn’t a wealthy church. I was the only lawyer in the congregation, and there was only one doctor. Many people struggled to make ends meet.

Sadly, that rendered them vulnerable to scams, and when a diet-pill pyramid scheme started racing through the congregation, I was aghast. People were spending money they didn’t have to join networks and create “down lines,” firmly believing that economic salvation was at hand. The sales pitch was slick, but the pills scarcely disguised the pyramid. One presenter even said, “You can get rich without even selling any pills.”

I’d worked on consumer fraud cases before, and I thought that I could help stop the madness. I went to the presentations, I researched the materials, and then I started talking to friends. Some listened, but most got mad and a few got furious. To this day, those are some of the most painful conversations I’ve ever had, and I realize now why: My friends were hearing two voices. One of them was speaking authoritatively about numbers and dollars and selling hope. The other was speaking with the same degree of assurance about numbers and dollars but was instead trying to extinguish hope. I never stood a chance.

#related#Yes, voters have a responsibility to exercise good judgment. But the greatest responsibility lies with the con artist and his knowing enablers. Trump — like Obama before him — is selling hope. But that hope is a false hope, and all those “establishment” figures who scorn the alleged “moral preening” of Never Trump know it. They’re aware of the pyramid scheme, and they choose to further it anyway, like the minions who circulate to cheap hotels across the land, pitching scams in meeting rooms. They’re co-conspirators.

No one likes to be told they’re wrong. But it is, in fact, wrong to support Trump, and when I see a member of the GOP establishment selling the Trump brand, I’m transported back to Kentucky, watching a huckster exploit people I love.

There is nothing this political season that gives me satisfaction. And the saddest reality of all is that the cost of the GOP’s failure will be borne — as it always is — by the people who can afford it the least. So, no, I’m not preening. I’m mourning.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.

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