Politics & Policy

Refusing to Be Reflexively Anti-Trump Isn’t Selling Out

(Reuters photo: Mike Theiler)
It’s not capitulation to resist unthinking passion in favor of facts and skepticism.

I don’t have much to contribute to the Charles Cooke vs. Jen Rubin issue. I thought Charlie made some tough but fair points, and I don’t think Jen Rubin has acquitted herself well in response. I’ll just leave all that there.

But I do want to reply to David Frum’s defense of Rubin, beyond what Charlie has already written. For the second time David ascribes — or at least insinuates — to me motives and views that, at best, he merely imagines to be true. The thrust of his argument can be found in the subhead:

As reflexive support for the president redefines their movement, most conservative commentators have caved to pressure, following along.

The context of all this is to defend Jen Rubin’s reflexive anti-Trump position in all things. In order to do so, David must do two things. First, he must make the argument that Jen is adhering to a higher principle and a more intellectually rigorous consistency:

Rubin’s crime is that rather than waking up every morning fresh for each day’s calling of balls and strikes, she carries into her work the memory of the day before. She sees patterns where Cooke sees only incidents. She speaks out even when Cooke deems it prudent to hold his tongue.

I’ll leave it to others to judge if this an accurate description of what Rubin does or of Charlie’s brief. But David’s basic position seems to be that saying “Trump is right about X” when he is right about X is inferior to saying “Trump is wrong about X” even when he is right about X. That strikes me as . . . odd.

Second, he must claim or insinuate that anyone who does not follow this model is “caving” or selling out.

He runs through examples of what he claims to be such caving. As someone who has written and spoken at great length about what Trump is doing to the conservative movement (I named my podcast “The Remnant” for a reason), I’m certainly willing to acknowledge that some people on the right have indeed done precisely this. But others haven’t. Charlie hasn’t. Just the other day I heard Charlie say Trump was “unfit for office” on The Editors podcast, and he wrote it again today in the Corner.

David points out that Erick Erickson’s contract is not being renewed at Fox News because he doesn’t fit the required mold there. And I agree with David that this is unfortunate. More on this in a moment.

David then uses something that I wrote as an example of how conservatives bend to pressure either from the conservative audience or from conservative institutions, which, according to David, have become corrupted by Trumpism. He writes:

But it’s not merely cable news that insists on those boxes. So does the conservative think-tank world. So does the conservative public-speaking circuit. So do the passengers on National Review’s lucrative cruises. After one such cruise, back in the spring of 2016, one National Review editor, Jonah Goldberg, wrote about the pressure exerted even then by conservative audiences upon conservative writers.

He then quotes from a piece I wrote in 2016, before the election:

NR Cruises are special things. They are filled with friends of National Review, often lifelong friends. No one who hates the magazine plunks down that much hard-earned money to spend a week drinking, eating, and touring with its writers and editors (and other passengers who are fans of the magazine). As a result, nearly all disagreements are like family disagreements. And so it was an interesting focus group, a kind of microcosm of what is happening across the conservative movement. There were some true Trumpers and anti-Trumpers, but there were many more people who simply think supporting Trump is making the best of a bad situation. I understand that position and I have sympathy for it.

Then David tees up his point by writing “So much so, in fact, that:”

During a panel Q&A, a passenger on the cruise made a strong case for voting Trump. He ably argued that we know Hillary will be terrible, while we can only suspect Trump will be. Trump will probably do some things conservatives will like—Supreme Court appointments, etc.—while we know for a fact Hillary will not. And here’s what I said: I agree. If the election were a perfect tie, and the vote fell to me and me alone, I’d probably vote for none other than Donald Trump for precisely these reasons.

David has used my stated position that I would probably have voted for Trump if it had been a tie before. And in both instances, I find it at best deeply mistaken and more plausibly a deliberate distortion (a view others shared and brought to his attention). He leaves out the rest of the passage:

The questioner declared victory, and many in the audience applauded.

And then I said, “But I will never vote for Donald Trump.”

My vote won’t decide the election. And I am not bound by hypotheticals like that. As I told the gentleman, I can come up with an endless number of hypothetical choices between two horrible options.

The only one I could come up with in the heat of the moment was being forced to choose between being shredded to death by a giant cheese-grater or fed to a pack of half-starved wolverines. In that hypothetical situation, I’d vote to be grated to death. But I’m not in that situation nor am I in a situation where I get to, or have to, choose between Clinton and Trump. I have other options. I can vote — sigh — for Gary Johnson. Or I can write-in Phil Gramm. Or I can just not vote. But here’s the really important point: In neither situation would I be obliged to lie about my choices. I wouldn’t be required to say how much I love peckish wolverines or how much I admire Donald Trump. I wouldn’t be duty-bound to tell my fellow Americans that death-by-cheese grater really isn’t that bad, or that Hillary Clinton isn’t a corrupt and inveterate liar. 

This is hardly a ringing endorsement, never mind capitulation. If all David wanted to do is argue that many conservatives are under pressure to fall in line, he could do so without — twice — insinuating that I have caved to the pressure. He’s a very good and deliberate writer. He has chosen to do otherwise, which is disappointing. The piece in question was literally titled “Sorry, I Won’t Ever Vote for Donald Trump.”

In this he reminds me of Rick Perlstein, who tried to do something similar in the New York Times after I explained that I thought the “Never Trump” movement was over, for the simple reason that I always considered Never Trump to be about opposing Trump’s candidacy and nomination. (The Times to its credit issued an editor’s note repudiating the claim that I had embraced Trump and Perlstein apologized.) What I’ve said countless times is that I won’t lie. My job is to tell the truth as I see it. If recognizing the capital of Jerusalem is the right thing to do, I won’t say it’s the wrong thing to do just because Trump agrees with me. It’s akin to the commonly shouted and silly claim that if you oppose abortion or favor tax hikes, you’re “supporting” Trump by supporting “his agenda.”

In this, I think David shares Jen Rubin’s worldview, which as Charlie argues, mirrors that of Trumpists in important respects. The Trumpists want all conservatives to share their reflexive support of everything Trump does. The Resisters want everyone to share their reflexive opposition to everything he does. In other words, the important criterion is enthusiasm not reasoning. Charlie’s position, like that of many of my colleagues at NR, as well as that of Ben Shapiro, Erick Erickson, John Podhoretz, Steve Hayes, and many others, is to resist reflexive, unthinking, passion in favor of facts and skepticism.

It’s fine to disagree with this position from the pro- or anti-Trump camps. What is unfair is to claim that if you don’t fall in line with one team or another it must be because of corrupt motives, cowardice, or some other mental defect. Indeed, one could argue that it is much more difficult, costly, and risky to not get swept up in either movement.

For instance, unless trends change, I suspect that when my Fox contract is up, I’ll be going the way of Erickson. I have not “caved” to that possibility. Rather I have spoken out against the excesses of Fox more than once while defending the good work it does (including last week). I’m sure I’ll do it again. In other words I make meaningful distinctions, which is what I thought I’m supposed to do. David may think what I am doing is not enough. That’s fine. But that is not a justification for some of the things he’s written.


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