In the last couple of years, conservatives have been asked to unlearn some things — some things they once knew, or thought they knew. These include words and phrases.
For decades, “America First” was a smelly old slogan, giving off whiffs of isolationism, nativism, and, of course, anti-Semitism. Pat Buchanan revived it for his presidential runs, but it did not catch on.
Then came Donald Trump. And, in a flash, “America First” was virtually the guiding principle of the Republican party, and of much of the conservative movement (if we can still speak of such a movement).
(Earlier this year, Buchanan told Tim Alberta, “The ideas made it. But I didn’t.”)
For centuries, people have died — been killed — for being “enemies of the people.” That is the blood-chilling phrase. People were killed in revolutionary France, Soviet Russia, Maoist China, and so on. Recently, I wrote about a Russian pianist named Maria Grinberg. Her father and her husband were executed in 1937 as “enemies of the people.” A lot of families experienced this.
Conservatives always derided and warned against the label “enemies of the people.” Then came Trump — who applies it to news outlets he doesn’t like. I’ve had it explained to me, by supporters of the president, that he is innocent of history. That he knows not what he says and does.
Oddly, Trump supporters can be more insulting of the president than Trump opponents.
Actually, they say two things, diametrically opposed: 1) He plays 3-D chess, far above your head. He is so sophisticated, you can’t possibly keep up with him. 2) He really doesn’t know much — so cut him some slack and lighten up.
Now we get to “cosmopolitan.” That one, too, has long been stigmatized: It was deployed in smelly, demeaning ways. “Rootless cosmopolitan” was a popular Stalinist phrase. Woe to you if you were tagged with it.
In the last two years, I’ve heard “globalist.” Good, patriotic Americans versus the “globalists.” I regard “globalism” as a cousin of “cosmopolitanism.” Anyway, I’m not crazy about either.
Language is important. Anyone who came up in a conservative movement led by William F. Buckley Jr. can’t fail to think so. But conservatives have been asked to unlearn some things that go far beyond the linguistic.
Take the matter of character in office, especially high office, especially the White House. There are people who once thought this was a very big deal – and who now shrug and say, “MAGA!”
So, listen: If people like me are slow to get on the Trump Train, it may be because we are slow learners — or unlearners. It’s hard to dump the old language, principles, and values. We cling to them as to guns and religion.
Some are speedier, for sure. The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine, a longtime Goldwaterite and Reaganite. He used “globalists” as an epithet as if he had been doing it all his life. He has adapted to the lingo. I have a feeling “deep state” can’t be far behind.
It’s certainly true that there are people who are innocent of what they say — of the histories and connotations of words. In the 2008 campaign, a Republican congressman from Georgia referred to Barack and Michelle Obama as “uppity.” Jaws dropped across the nation. The congressman later explained that he had had no idea that “uppity” was ever applied to blacks in a derogatory way.
I wrote about this in Impromptus (my regular Web column). A lot of readers contacted me to say, “I had no idea either.” And I believed them, and the congressman.
Yesterday, I jotted a tweet about “cosmopolitan,” “enemies of the people,” etc., and a guy tweeted back that I was talking about “old-person slurs.” I say, be patient with those of us who can’t turn on dimes and jettison understandings that were gained long ago.
P.S. I knew “prime the pump” long before Trump invented it a few months ago!
P.P.S. We used to knock President Obama for his Year Zero mentality. Before him, nothing. The world began with him. Yet I’m not sure he has anything on DJT.