There are those who say that the Left is “taking scalps,” and they have a list of Republican victims to prove their thesis. Roger Ailes is out at Fox News. Bill O’Reilly is out at Fox News. Michael Flynn is out at the White House. Those three names — the head of the most powerful cable news network, the highest-rated cable news personality, and the national-security adviser — represent a stunning wave of resignations and terminations.
But this isn’t scalp-taking, it’s scalp-giving. Time and again prominent conservative personalities have failed to uphold basic standards of morality or even decency. Time and again the conservative public has rallied around them, seeking to protect their own against the wrath of a vengeful Left. Time and again the defense has proved unsustainable as the sheer weight of the facts buries the accused.
Moreover, the pattern is repeating itself with the younger generation of conservative celebrities. The sharp rise and meteoric fall of both Tomi Lauren and Milo Yiannopoulos were driven by much the same dynamic that sustained O’Reilly for years, even in the face of previous sexual-harassment complaints — Lahren and Yiannopoulos were “fighters” who “tell it like it is.” O’Reilly was the master of the “no-spin zone” and seemed fearless in taking on his enemies.
What followed was a toxic culture of conservative celebrity, where the public elevated personalities more because of their pugnaciousness than anything else. Indeed, the fastest way to become the next conservative star is to “destroy” the Left, feeding the same kind of instinct that causes leftists to lap up content from John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Stephen Colbert. Liberals use condescending mockery. Conservatives use righteous indignation. That’s not much of a difference.
The cost has been a loss of integrity and, crucially, a loss of emphasis on ideas and, more important, ideals. There exists in some quarters an assumption that if you’re truly going to “fight,” then you have to be ready to get your hands dirty. You can’t be squeamish about details like truth or civility or decency. When searching for ideological gladiators, we emphasize their knifework, not their character or integrity.
Of course, this notion reached its apex in the person and personality of Donald Trump, but Trump had an advantage that O’Reilly, Ailes, and others simply didn’t enjoy. When he was under fire, especially in the general election, he could argue that the choice wasn’t between truth and lies but between him and Hillary, between lies and lies. Which liar do you want? The one allegedly on your side, right?
The message sent when conservatives try to defend the indefensible is the same one that Democrats sent as they continued to prop up the Clinton machine through scandal after scandal.
Make no mistake, there are conservative “fighters” who are men and women of integrity. Fox News still has a number of journalists and pundits whom I trust and admire. But when we ask for fighters first, and we elevate aggression over truth and competence, we ask for exactly the kind of scandals we’ve endured.
Moreover, the degradation to our culture far outweighs any short-term, tribal political benefit. The message sent when conservatives rally around the flag to defend the indefensible is exactly the message the Democrats sent so loudly as they continued to prop up the Clinton machine through scandal after scandal. Only winning matters. Ambition is everything. Political movements are about personalities, not ideas — so you’re left with the political equivalent of warring mafia families in which the highest value is loyalty, and the ends always justify the means.
But ambition isn’t everything, and the single-minded quest for winning ultimately creates a class of losers. O’Reilly and Ailes together built a cable news empire. Yet their legacies will forever be marred by the tawdriest of scandals: two men (pathetically) proving unable to control their petty lusts and desires. Michael Flynn was a hero. Now he’s an object lesson. And people like Lahren and Yiannopoulos? They didn’t even achieve “real” fame before their corruption emerged. Do a few viral Facebook videos justify diva behavior? Does telling off feminists on YouTube insulate you from the consequences of advancing the worst of ideas?
But, as the saying goes, in crisis there is also opportunity. As Fox News and other conservative organizations consider the path forward, there’s a chance to not just elevate the next best mouthpiece for righteous indignation but to consider a broader range of virtues. There do exist conservatives who fight hard but fight fair, and there also exist conservatives who won’t ask you to overlook or even defend them from credible accusations of serious wrongdoing.
The conservative movement includes some of the best and most admirable people I’ve ever met. It also includes its share of grasping, ambitious fame-hounds, people who live for the next Fox hit and angle to write this year’s version of the “liberals are sending this country to hell” bestselling book. But bad character sends a country to hell just as surely as bad policy does, and any movement that asks its members to defend vice in the name of advancing allegedly greater virtue is ultimately shooting itself in the foot.
O’Reilly’s fall can be an important act of public hygiene, but only if it represents the beginning of the end of a conservative culture that makes us behave like the cultural enemies we purport to despise. Otherwise conservatives will hand the Left more scalps, forfeit more public trust, and ultimately lose because of their single-minded quest to win.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.