Politics & Policy

The Rise of the Tough-Guy Right

President Trump confronts the White House press corps, February 16, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
Too many conservatives mistake the admission of inconvenient truths for weakness.

It’s not worth spending much time talking about Donald Trump’s press conference yesterday. He was the same guy we’ve watched since he came down that escalator on June 16, 2015. Heck, he was the same guy we watched at WrestleMania 23, body slamming Vince McMahon and shaving his head in front of 80,000 screaming fans at Michigan’s Ford Field. The same guy who could seize the spotlight even from the likes of Gary Busey and Dennis Rodman on Celebrity Apprentice.

The only thing astonishing about the press conference is that people are still astonished when Trump acts like Trump.

What’s far more worrisome is the way Trump feeds some of the worst impulses in the conservative movement, turning otherwise sane and smart people into Facebook commandos and Twitter SEALs. Trump is a man of the moment, and that moment belongs to the tough-guy Right.

We conservatives love to point and laugh at liberal melodrama. Thanks to a brilliant 2015 piece from Lutheran pastor Hans Fiene, we even have a term for it: “Selma envy.” Scratch away at all too many liberal activists and you’ll find that they pine for the noble, heroic moments of yore. They wish they had been there standing for justice when the dogs were turned loose, so they cast their present activism in the most dramatic terms. They’re not just the opposition; they’re the #Resistance. They’re not just fighting for, say, police reform; they’re declaring that black lives matter.

Unfortunately, conservatives embrace their own dramatic narrative; they just have different kinds of heroes. Scratch all too many conservative keyboard warriors and you’ll find that they pine for their own heroic moment — not Selma, but perhaps Omaha Beach or Fallujah. They wish they had been there fighting evil when the bullets flew, so they cast their present activism in the most dramatic terms. They’re not just typing; they’re “fixing bayonets.” They’re not just tweeting; they’re “firing back.”

They are the tough-guy Right, and you can always tell when you’re dealing with them. Express concern that, say, Trump’s first national-security adviser lasted less than a month on the job before being fired, and you’re “pearl-clutching.” Call out lies on your own side and you’re accused of angling for a gig at the New York Times, or of attempting to curry favor with the crowd that frequents those ubiquitous Beltway cocktail parties. Criticize these tough guys and they’ll call you a mealy-mouthed “beta male,” looking at the liberal elite and begging for love. (Trump is, of course, an “alpha,” and they all want to be one, too.)

Unless your argument is honest, principled, and consistently applicable to both sides, you’re just being tribal.

The irony is that these tough guys are followers, part of a conservative herd that is right now mistaking lying for “fighting” and incompetence for “disruption.” While I understand and agree with the idea that we should give a new administration time to find its sea legs before making judgments about its ultimate success or failure, mistakes are still mistakes and lies are still lies. In fact, one of the primary ways that administrations improve is through hearing and responding to legitimate and informed critiques.

But don’t tell that to the tough-guy Right, which collectively acts as Trump’s Pravda, turning a blind eye to the man’s faults in acts of collective rage against both the “deep state” and the mainstream media. While the media’s activism and bias is open and obvious — you have to love the spate of stories about how journalists “strike back” and have a “renewed sense of mission” — all too many conservatives’ blatant and reflexive double standards are also beyond parody.

Remember when it was a problem that Barack Obama aggressively prosecuted leakers? Remember when it was a distraction for Democrats to cry bloody murder about Russian hacking in the wake of WikiLeaks’ publication of the Podesta e-mails? Trump would rather you didn’t. The Bat-Signal has gone up, you see. The man who relished every WikiLeaks disclosure in the 2016 campaign now says this:

And just like that, in lockstep, the tough-guy Right pivots. The herd moos aggressively and goes to war. It’s just as big a joke as a Democratic party that once pitched its own fits about hackers and leakers and now casts leaking in the most heroic possible terms.

None of this is honorable. It’s low and partisan. I don’t care how many war allusions you use, how insulting you are on Twitter, or how many times you accuse your opponents of “pearl-clutching” and “bed-wetting.” Unless your argument is honest, principled, and consistently applicable to both sides, you’re just being tribal.

There’s nothing tough about tweeting and nothing weak about telling the truth. Selma envy is driving the activist Left to extremism and hysterics. The tough-guy Right is doing the same thing to conservatives. But try as they might, they won’t find Omaha Beach online.

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