Martini in hand, his lovely wife Alissa by his side, my friend Michael Knowles was in a leisurely mood when I saw him last at the Yale Club. There we discussed critical matters such as men not being women, and the restoration of the rightful Jacobite heir, Prince Joseph Wenzel of Liechtenstein.
Yesterday, however, having spent the past three weeks discussing the impeachment in a basement for his podcast Verdict with Ted Cruz, Michael exuded a different, D.C. kind of energy. Just hours after we spoke by phone, the Senate delivered the trial’s final verdict, acquitting the president from the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
“The House is abusing its power,” Michael told me by phone. “It’s attempting to remove a president for purely partisan interests without even attempting to accuse him of a crime.” Joined by Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas), a former litigator with an active role in the drama, Michael dissected the Senate impeachment trial proceedings every night into the wee hours, attracting an audience of over a million and soaring to the top of the podcast charts.
Michael thinks that impeachment has already backfired for the Democrats because, for all the president’s most glaring faults, it “just seems so unjust.” He may be right. According to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating is currently sitting at 49 percent, its highest since 2017: with 94 percent among Republicans, and 42 percent among independents, though as little as 7 percent among Democrats. Biden, who had more of a supporting role in the impeachment drama, may have emerged the villain if current polls are anything to go by.
Michael thinks that the State of the Union address also highlighted Trump’s “list of deliverables,” which are “objective and desired by the American people.” The Democrats, meanwhile, have little to show for their monomaniacal anti-Trump efforts:
They investigated the president for Russian collusion, and that fell apart. Then they investigated him for his taxes, and that fell apart. Then they investigated him for having a phone call with Ukraine. And that fell apart. They don’t have any discrete accomplishments that they can push. And I think that wasting all this and money on an impeachment farce is only underscoring that point.
I push back on this. The impeachment circus was corrupt and cynical from both sides, surely — a frantic scramble to win the media narrative during an election year.
“We’re not a cheerleading squad for president Trump,” Michael insists. He cites the involvement of Alan Dershowitz, a “lifelong liberal Democrat who did not vote for president Trump in 2016 and who will not vote for president Trump in 2020,” who joined the president’s defense team for its legal and constitutional merits. In reverse, Senator Mitt Romney (R., Utah), who broke party lines, told the New York Times that he agrees with much of what the president has said and done policy-wise but had to vote to convict given the evidence and his conscience.
Michael obviously likes the overall Trump effect. He describes the president as a total “political surprise,” who appeared to be “terrible” in theory but who is “terrific” in practice. He thinks Trump’s mentality is basically I love my country. I want my country to be strong. I want good trade deals. I want to get the bad guy and help the good guy, which is “a simple concept that anybody can understand intuitively,” he says. “But there’s reason that we intuit those things.”
I remind Michael of the distinction made by the late conservative philosopher Roger Scruton: “Trump is an interesting phenomenon, but not an interesting thinker, supposing he is a thinker at all.” The president is a reactionary, not a conservative. Sure, the Trump phenomenon may have revolutionized American politics, effecting some positive changes, but at what cost and to what end?
“Well, I remember Sir Roger was asked what a conservative is,” he replies. “And he said simply: A conservative wants to conserve things. And by that elegant definition, I think president Trump certainly fits the bill.” After all, he says, it was Russell Kirk who said that the single greatest conservative consolation is that “reality reasserts itself in the end.” (Though if that’s so, this cannot be the end.)
Michael says that Trump had tapped into something deep and fundamental in the American psyche that the Right had long failed to engage. Here, I agree. “Nobody wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because the marginal tax rate is a couple of points too high,” he says. “Everything that matters to us has a spiritual basis to it.”
Michael certainly knows his cultural conservative canon: Burke, Newman, Kirk, Buckley, and Oakeshott. As for the living, he is a “longtime admirer” of — surprise, surprise — Ted Cruz, whom he voted for in 2016. The ordinary values of everyday American life have never been more important. With the Democrats moving so far to the left, is 2020 the Right’s opportunity to reclaim the center?
“We honestly didn’t expect the show to take off,” he tells me, sounding delighted if tired. “We’re hoping to keep it going in some form or another.”
My own suspicion is that they will do just that; that the podcast will evolve and enjoy greater longevity. And that, for better or worse, so will the bizarre and cataclysmic convulsion on the Right — Mr. Donald J. Trump.