For months I’ve been making the point that the natural and predictable compulsion to defend Donald Trump will have the effect of corrupting conservatism. For example, the notion that conservatives place a high value on personal character and sexual probity has already been dealt a brutal blow. Any attack on a Democratic politician who behaves like a cad will now — justifiably — be rebuffed with a “Well, you supported Trump.” If you want to argue that such prudish comstockery had outlived its utility or that it placed an unfair double standard on conservatives, fine. We can have that argument. But as a matter of basic political analysis, I would think even Trump’s more passionate fans can understand that in any partisan debate over sexual impropriety “What about Donald Trump?” is the new “What about Bill Clinton?”
Well, what’s done is done. Trump is president now and we’ll deal with such problems as they come. But the morphing of conservatism continues on other fronts. Yesterday, Donald Trump appointed Steve Bannon to be his senior adviser (a.k.a. the new Karl Rove) and Reince Priebus to be his chief of staff. Most conservatives are, rightly, pleased by the appointment of Priebus. Bannon is another matter. Priebus defended Bannon this morning, because he has to. And I wouldn’t expect him to do otherwise. He is all in for the Trump administration and his political fate is bound up with it for all time. But that’s not true for conservatives generally or even other Republican officeholders.
Even if you want to take a sympathetic or even supportive stand on Bannon, it’s simply a fact he is not a typical conservative. He is a supporter of the alt-right, which stands for the alternative right, which as a matter of semantics and logic, never mind ideology, is not part of mainstream conservatism. It wants, by its own claims, to replace the conventional right with an alternative right. Bannon has said this explicitly. And even if you buy his disingenuous denials that his “alt right nationalism” is in any way racist or anti-Semitic, you should at least take him at his word that it is not conservatism as we know it.
And yet last night I saw Indiana congressman Todd Rokita on Fox News responding to criticisms of Bannon by saying something like (I’m quoting from memory, I can’t find the transcript or clip anywhere) “I think people are just saying that because they object to any conservative in the White House.” If I substantively misinterpreted his remarks, I’ll be the first to apologize. But I’m certain I didn’t.
This is folly. First, if Bannon is just a typical conservative, why aren’t people complaining about Priebus’s support for white nationalism? Answer: Because he’s not a white nationalist. By all means, if you think the charges against Bannon are unfair, make that case. Or if you agree with Bannon’s ethno-nationalist ideology, please tell us that. But please don’t smugly dismiss the concerns by suggesting that Bannonism is simply conservatism. It’s not. And even Steve Bannon says so.