Conservatives Need to Remember, Presidents Affect Culture

(Reuters: Kevin Lamarque)
If Trump distorts our culture, his agenda won’t redeem his presidency.

Last night there was an important exchange on Fox News, one that highlighted the growing divide on the right. In one corner was Trump supporter Laura Ingraham, in the other Trump critic Charles Krauthammer. Their exchange is below:

The entire conversation is worth watching, but in a nutshell it boiled down to this. Ingraham began with mild criticism of the president, based largely on the argument that his press conference was a distraction from his agenda. It was essentially an unforced error, and he needs to pivot quickly back to his policies. It was classic small-ball political analysis:

He’s not there to win every debating point. People want to see a calm president in the storm. I think today he made some points that were factually right. . . . But he’s not there to win every point. He’s there to calmly guide the nation through what at the moment is a very troubled time and advance an agenda of economic empowerment, streamlining regulations, and keeping very optimistic and positive about the American spirit. When he does that, it’s very positive. Today, he got caught in the pundit trap. He became a pundit. What people want is Trump the president, and when he does that, it’s really powerful.

Krauthammer, by contrast, went big — calling out the president not for making a political blunder but rather for making a profoundly immoral statement:

To critique what [President Trump] did today on the grounds that it distracts from the agenda or was a tactical mistake, I believe, is a cop-out. What Trump did today was a moral disgrace. What he did is he reverted back to where he was on Saturday and made it very clear that what he read on Monday, two days later, was a hostage tape. Clearly reading off a prompter, saying these denunciations by name of the KKK et cetera — that wasn’t Trump speaking, that was the aids speaking. . . . What Trump is missing here is the uniqueness of white supremacy, KKK, and Nazism. Yes, there were bad guys on both sides. That’s not the point. This was instigated, instituted — the riot began over a Nazi riot, a Nazi rally. And the only killing here occurred by one of the pro-Nazi, pro-KKK people.

Or, let’s put it differently. Ultimately, culture matters more than politics, and when the leader of the free world inflicts cultural damage this severe, he’s doing far more harm than a few judicial appointments can remedy. Conservatives used to understand this reality. In fact, we once made this argument with great clarity and power.

In 1998, Bill Clinton damaged the culture for the sake of preserving his political hide, and his party aided and abetted him every step of the way. And why not? The economy was booming, they liked his agenda, and some of his enemies were unlikeable, angry hypocrites (here’s looking at you, Newt Gingrich.)

Thoughtful conservatives responded forcefully. Regardless of the state of the economy or the size of the budget surplus, adultery and perjury matter. The president lied to the American people, changed his story only when DNA evidence left him no room to run, and he won anyway. Moreover, to help him stay in office, his henchmen did their best to destroy his political opponents, they mocked the rule of law (“he only lied about sex”), and they sometimes veered into mocking fidelity itself. Some of them openly longed for European moral norms, where husbands, wives, and mistresses supposedly all learn to get along.

Conservatives found this appalling. Conservatives were right. Indeed, what is Clinton’s most enduring legacy? Not the policies that Democrats now reject. It’s his corrupt brand of politics, a form of political combat that his wife tried to emulate but could never perfect.

Fast-forward less than two decades, and now a GOP president is inflicting even deeper wounds. I’m getting messages like this from GOP friends on the Hill. “Sure we don’t like him, but we need him for tax reform, for judges, and to repeal Obamacare. Folks are keeping their heads down and hoping to accomplish a few good things.” There’s no appreciation for his larger impact, for the larger damage.

The pundit version of this cop-out is simply “calling balls and strikes.” Praise him when he’s right, critique him when he’s wrong, and keep your eyes focused firmly on that strike zone. Don’t think too hard about the larger implications of his words and actions. In this world, Trump makes “unforced errors” or he “shoots himself in the foot,” as if he’s Bill Buckner in 1986 — trying his hardest but, gosh-darnit, sometimes he screws up.

Trump’s persona is — certainly for now — more influential than his policies.

It’s time for conservatives to remember the cultural power of the presidency. It’s time for us to understand that Trump’s persona is — certainly for now — more influential than his policies. Sure, seek lower tax rates and better judges. Sure we praise him when he’s right and critique mistakes. But we must lift our eyes from the strike zone and look at his overall impact. And that means not holding back from speaking the larger, more important truths.

Krauthammer was right. Trump’s conduct yesterday was a “moral disgrace.” He exacerbated divisions that have existed since before the nation’s founding. He gave the vicious and vile alt-right it’s most important public victory. If he keeps it up, his “agenda” will be a footnote to history. Hate, division, and rage will be his true legacy, and that legacy will have far greater consequence than any policy he manages to pass.


    Conservative Culture Wars

    How the Alt-Right Hurts Conservatism

    Two Blocks From the Culture War

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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