In one of the more amusing moments of the Cold War relationship between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan is reputed to have asked Gorbachev if the two superpowers could put aside their differences to defend Earth from an alien invasion. “No doubt about it,” replied Gorbachev. “We too,” said Reagan, and thus was born an informal Earth-defense pact, one that (probably) has never been put to the test.
It’s the premise of countless movies. Aliens enter orbit, and the nations of Earth unite to meet the threat. And no doubt we would. If the Starkiller base suddenly entered the system, all previous geopolitical disputes would fade away. The emergency would override all other necessities, and all people of good will would and should unite to bring it down.
American politics are now distorted by a misguided view — that Donald Trump is the alien invasion of American politics, and all other previous priorities must be put aside to bring him down. This is the heart of the disagreement, I believe, between my colleague and editor, Charlie Cooke, and the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin and The Atlantic’s David Frum. Charlie wrote an essay yesterday arguing that Rubin is just as obsessed in her opposition to Trump as his most devoted fans are in their support — even to the point of changing her long-held opinions for the larger purpose of fighting Trump.
Frum today takes strong exception to Charlie’s essay, calling it a savage personal attack (it was no such thing) and arguing that “conservatism can’t survive Donald Trump intact.” Frum claims that Rubin sees “patterns” where Charlie only sees “incidents.” Rubin, Frum writes, “speaks out even when Cooke deems it prudent to hold his tongue.” And why does Charlie take that approach? Because “the conservative intellectual world is whipsawed between its distaste for Trump and its fear of its audience.”
Frum then justifies the movement of some conservatives not just from anti-Trumpism but to opposing policies they once supported by declaring that “politics is dynamic” and that “new facts call forth new responses.”
Finally, Frum takes issue with Charlie’s argument that conservatism soon “will have survived Trump.” This isn’t “even slightly true,” says Frum. “Trump is changing conservatism into something different.”
Coming from the heart of the National Review wing of the “conservative intellectual world,” I have a different diagnosis. My colleagues and I aren’t driven by fear of our audience but rather a desire to keep our heads in a world that seems to be losing its mind.
If, for example, one of the primary conservative fears about Donald Trump was that he’d listen mainly to the Bannon wing of his movement, embrace “economic nationalism” (whatever that is), prove unreliable on judges, scorn NATO, and hightail it out of Afghanistan, then his decisive turn towards more “establishment” GOP positions on all those matters is cause for genuine encouragement. Bannon’s out. Flynn’s out. The GOP is on the verge of passing a rather-conventional GOP tax plan. ISIS has been routed. The federal judiciary is moving incrementally towards originalism.
Those aren’t the actions of the Starkiller Base of American politics but rather the actions of a deeply flawed man who influences conservatism, yes, but who is also influenced by conservatism. Thus, when conservatism wins, it’s our obligation not to “hold our tongue,” but rather to cheer its victory while — at the same time — still seeing Trump (and his flaws) with cold-eyed clarity.
As a consequence, it’s hardly the case — as Frum contends — that we act as if every day is a “blank slate.” Far from it. We are in the midst of a dynamic process where conservative writers and thinkers are trying to influence a presidential administration and influence a conservative public. That conservative public is rightly appalled at massive, unconditional resistance to Trump. Is a tax cut not a tax cut if Trump signs the bill? Is a good judge a bad judge because Trump nominates him? Is possible partisan bias in the Mueller investigation not a problem because Trump is the target?
I believe Trump is temperamentally and morally unfit for the presidency, but that does not mean his every action is wrong or his every adviser is corrupt or incompetent. There are capable, moral men and women in his administration.
Moreover, I also know that he is the president of the United States, and he cannot and must not be removed from that office absent a constitutional process based on concrete and credible claims of wrongdoing. That’s the standard that applies to every American president, and departing from it for the sake of deposing Trump risks a “cure” that exacerbates the disease.
Remember the utterly absurd “Flight 93 election” essay so beloved by folks on the hysterical anti-Clinton right? Charge the (Democratic) cockpit, or you die? It’s now reversed on the left and the single-minded anti-Trump right. Charge the Trump cockpit, or we die.
As I argued ad infinitum during the 2016 presidential election, the American political system was built from the ground-up to resist the corrupting or authoritarian impulses of any single president, even unfit presidents. Presidents can do damage, certainly, but their ability to fundamentally transform America absent agreement with two other branches of government and the sustained consent of the American people is nearly nonexistent. Thus, there was no emergency that justified casting a vote for an unfit candidate from either party.
The American political system, however, while protected from politicians is vulnerable to Americans. As John Adams famously stated, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Thus, the GOP embrace of Donald Trump — like the Democratic embrace of a thoroughly corrupt and unfit Hillary Clinton — is but a symptom of a larger and worse cultural malady. But, again, improper treatment of the symptoms can make the disease worse.
For example, if the media becomes so oppositional that it’s gullible and prone to making mistake after mistake — and calling out those mistakes is scorned as somehow “discrediting” the Fourth Estate — then we’re doing nothing but magnifying negative polarization, fueling hostility, and undermining public trust in vital American institutions.
We are not in the midst of an emergency so grave that it justifies double standards and political hypocrisy. Every single honest progressive knows that if a Democratic president was under investigation by a special counsel who stocked his office with Republican donors (and one key investigator texted his mistress about a mysterious “insurance policy” against that Democrat), then they’d have justifiable concerns about that investigation. They’d demand transparency. They’d demand impartiality and accountability.
Similarly, every single honest conservative knows that if a Democratic president had fired an FBI director in the same way that Trump did — or if Democratic operatives had revealed an eagerness to cooperate with Russians in the same way that Trump’s son did — then they’d demand a rigorous investigation, including a special counsel.
But to give an inch in either direction is now considered to be an act of grave betrayal. In fact, any deviation from either the direct frontal assault on Trump or the reflexive defense of Trump is seen as evidence of weakness or cowardice. I’ve never seen the insult “Vichy” — a reference to the French collaborators to Nazi rule — thrown around with more gusto or more venom. Vichy Republicans critique Trump. Vichy Republicans attack Trump. The ghost of Marshal Pétain hovers over American politics.
To give an inch in either direction is now considered to be an act of grave betrayal.
I’m beyond weary of the accusations that folks like Charlie (and other principled conservatives) are motivated by fear or naked self-interest. It’s a constant refrain. We’re “afraid” of our audience when we praise Trump. We’re forever seeking entry to those magical Beltway cocktail parties when we attack Trump. Cheer his accomplishments and we’re angling for a Fox contract. Critique his tweets and we want to be an MSNBC contributor. Perhaps we are simply saying what we believe?
I think Rubin and Frum say what they believe as well. I think they see Trump as a singular and unique threat. The very fact of his involvement is enough to genuinely taint the way they view even the policies they once supported. They’re puzzled and distressed by conservatives who don’t see things the same way. But one can act in good faith and still be wrong. One can genuinely and sincerely misdiagnose the true dangers to American democracy, and that’s what I fear that many of my friends on the anti-Trump right have done. They’ve exaggerated the importance of Donald Trump.
In reality, we’ve met the true threats to the American republic, and in many instances, they’re staring us right in the mirror. Aliens didn’t arrive, teleport Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump into the Democratic and Republican conventions, and demand the nomination of corrupt candidates to thunderous applause. Until we can deal with the maladies that led to that applause, you can oppose any politician you want, but you will not heal our land.