The Morning Jolt

White House

The Road That Brought Conservatives and Republicans to This Point

President Donald Trump participates in a formal signing ceremony in Washington, D.C., October 7, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

At some point in your development, probably in your younger years, you stepped into the world of politics out of curiosity and it lit something within you. While lots of your peers found it boring, you started to feel like it was a grand crusade in the best sense. You had a set of values you believed in, ideas you wanted to defend, and policies you wanted to enact — you grew to believe that in some way, nothing less than the fate of the country is at stake. We’re lucky to be born or to become Americans, but this country can be greater. We can solve our problems. And you — little, humble, never expected to amount to much, you — can be a part in this grand effort to make the country a better place. You found something bigger than yourself to believe in, and suddenly, everything had a clear purpose. You have a mission.

And you had heroes! Depending upon your age, they likely included William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, John Paul II, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, maybe Newt Gingrich or Jack Kemp, or plenty of others. You found leaders you thought were smart, wise, and farsighted. When they spoke, they filled you to the brim with confidence and optimism and determination.

And as you started to become some sort of activist — even if it was just as a listener to talk radio, or reader of political magazines or columns in the newspaper — you learned that engaging in politics meant you would have enemies or at least an opposition. And you noticed that in addition to being wrong politically — blithely dismissive of the consequences of tax increases, blindly faithful that new federal programs solve problems, swooning over whatever decadent trend strikes them as transgressive and daring that week, naive about foreign threats — quite a few big names on the other side also seemed like terrible people. The Kennedys used people and discarded them like tissue paper. Bill Clinton was a predatory horndog who didn’t mind destroying other people’s reputations to protect his. An astounding 450 House members wrote bounced checks and were never penalized. Dan Rostenkowski, the guy on the Ways and Means Committee shaping tax policy, had no-show jobs, used office funds to buy gifts and pay for personal transportation, and traded in officially purchased stamps for cash at the House Post Office. You grew to realize that a lot of powerful folks believed the rules didn’t apply to them.

You also noticed a lot of the folks on the other side didn’t merely disagree with you, they demonized you. They also demonized a lot of institutions you thought everybody liked — the men and women in uniform, the police, churches and religious institutions, Western literature. Meanwhile, they ignored their own glaring flaws. You watched John Kerry and John Edwards and Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden vote to invade Iraq and then turn against the war the moment it became unpopular. In both Bush administrations, Democrats insisted every problem could be easily solved. Once Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were in office, they started lecturing others about their impatience about complicated problems and unrealistic expectations.

Your side had its share of creeps too — Nixon and the Watergate crew, everybody involved with Iran-Contra, Bob Packwood — but you noticed those guys always got chased out of town by the opposition and a media that touted its own fairness. When it came to the Democrats, a lot of folks in media seemed to bend over backward to make excuses. James Carville said of Gennifer Flowers, “If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,” and everyone in the smart set seemed to laugh and agree. At the height of the Lewinsky scandal, Gloria Steinem insisted the president’s affair with an intern merely demonstrated that Bill Clinton needed sex-addiction therapy and did not warrant an official rebuke. You began to conclude that the other side’s operating principle was, “no matter what we have said before in any other situation, our guy always has to win.”

You really start to dislike the opposition, maybe even hate them. You don’t think of yourself as a hateful person, but it’s abundantly clear that they hate you. You think abortion is wrong, and they accuse you of wanting to impose a theocracy. You don’t want to pay more in taxes, and they accuse you of being greedy. You remember all the times a new government program was supposed to solve a problem and didn’t, and they contend you hate government. They blame you for mass shootings and the Oklahoma City bombing and anti-American extremism overseas and melting polar ice caps. You start to notice they seem to enjoy sticking the thumb in your eye; they sue the Little Sisters of the Poor over providing birth control. You realize they won’t allow anyone to deviate from their vision of how things ought to be.

But at least you had your allies. Throughout the Bush and Obama years, you found writers who make strong arguments, who jabbed at the opposition forcefully, who called out their hypocrisies, who made you laugh, and who, metaphorically, are right there in the trenches with you, fighting the good fight. Writers like David French and Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes and Mona Charen and Jay Nordlinger and Bill Kristol and Max Boot and Jen Rubin and Rick Wilson and David Frum and John Podhoretz and a bunch of others. No matter how bad it got, you always had them to read, lifting your spirits and reassuring you.

And then one day in 2015, this outlandish celebrity came along who seems to agree with you most of the time. He’s a bit of a jerk, but you kind of like that; he treats everybody who disagrees with him with contempt, the same way the other side treats you with contempt. As time goes by, you realize he’s perhaps more than a bit of a jerk, he’s a raging narcissist and maybe a maniac, but you still like the way he responds to everyone you don’t like — the mainstream media, Democratic politicians — with this constantly erupting volcano of scorn. You feel like you’ve been mistreated for decades; now turnabout is fair play.

But much to your shock, a bunch of your favorite writers don’t like him at all. They see him as almost as bad as the opposition. You’re stunned; life has finally given you a guy who treats the other side as bad as they treat you, but guys like David French are insisting the goal all along was to get everyone to treat each other better. Fox News turns itself into a mirror image of MSNBC, but guys like Jonah don’t seem to like it; he’s saying righty agitprop is as bad as lefty agitprop. Swaths of the Republican Party’s leaders want nothing to do with this guy. You conclude that guys like John McCain and Mitt Romney must be wrong when they recoil from this new guy, too. After all, they lost their presidential campaigns, what do they really know?

For a long time, you saw these writers and GOP officials as staunch allies; now they see Trump so differently than you do that you feel betrayed by them. They must have some secret, hidden motive to drive this otherwise inexplicable antipathy to Trump — they must have secretly craved a gig on MSNBC, or the approval of Democratic officials, or to attend those Georgetown cocktail parties. That’s the only way this makes sense, right? It couldn’t possibly be that they genuinely don’t believe that Trump’s presidency will pay off for conservatives and Americans in the long run.

If American society has taught you anything in the past few decades, it’s that when somebody wins, it means they were right. Ask anybody in Hollywood who’s had the biggest hit movie. Studies indicate the richest and most successful CEOs often treat people badly, often unnecessarily so. Steve Jobs was a colossal jerk, but people loved him with a cult-like passion anyway. Nobody remembers Bill Belichick’s “Spygate” and inflation scandals. Barry Bonds still has the Major League Baseball career home run record. Michael Jordan reportedly had a serious gambling habit during his playing days, and some people wonder if his sudden, short-lived retirement was a deal to avoid a suspension. Few remember; all they remember is every young man in America wanting to “be like Mike.” Winning cures everything.

None of these guys seem to “get it.” You’re convinced this is how the Left won throughout the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s. They stuck with their leader, no matter what happened. They changed their positions overnight if that’s what it took to weather the storm. They ignored every allegation of wrongful behavior and scandal and attacked the accusers. Ben Franklin told his compatriots, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” If the other side gets power, they’ll tear this country apart and target everyone who opposed them for retribution. That means we all just have to accept whatever Trump does in any given day. It’s never that bad, anyway.

So now when you see somebody like David French, you’re convinced he was never on your side all along. Sure, he was there, and he was saying all the right things, and in fact, he was fighting in courtrooms for all of the right causes. But clearly, he defined “winning” very differently than you do. David doesn’t even seem to enjoy it when Trump unleashes against somebody on Twitter. You’re cheering, but David seems to think it doesn’t have any point, that each little daily news cycle about a tirade comes and goes, leaving no lasting impact, other than coarsening our discourse even further. You point out that Trump’s given us tax cuts and judges, but David seems to think any Republican president could have delivered that.

Doesn’t he see the importance of defending Trump now? The Democrats have the House, the Senate’s hanging by a thread, the GOP keeps getting wiped out in suburbs, House Republicans are retiring in droves, and young people are more enthusiastic about socialism than ever before!

Beyond that, alt-right nuts are shooting up Wal-Marts and synagogues and Jewish centers. People with significant public platforms are insisting National Security Council officials aren’t really Americans because they were born overseas. Schools are grappling with a surge of hateful slurs and bullying, the number of swastika graffiti incidents in the New York City area is up 76 percent in two years, anti-Semitic attacks are soaring, and members of all kinds of American citizens are hearing “go back to your country” with disturbing frequency.

A wave of hateful bigots just coincidentally happened to emerge from under rocks during the past three years, as if they perceived some sort of national green light, some sort of giant signal that it was okay to express these views and behave this way. God only knows what could have given them that idea. Either way, the country is coming apart at the seams, so this is no time to abandon the president!

You want to ask David if he’s tired of all the winning yet. But you know how he would respond, and it sticks in your craw. David would probably ask, “what have we really won?”

Because you’re certain you’re winning, in all kinds of ways you’ve never won before. Because if David was right, that would mean you were a fool, somebody who traded a whole lot for a crazy bet that paid off in 2016 but has had diminishing returns since then. And you couldn’t ever, ever possibly be a fool.

ADDENDA: Sorry for the big long one today. A lot of people who loved the first half will probably hate the second half, and a lot of people who hated the first half will probably love the second half . . .

Over on The Editors’ podcast, Rich, Charlie, Michael, and I discuss Gordon Sondland’s Wednesday testimony, conservative disagreements over capitalism, and this week’s Democratic debate . . .

A new episode of Star Wars’ The Mandalorian arrives tonight. I discuss it, as well as lots of NFL news and other non-political oddities like chicken sandwich-related violence, on the pop culture podcast with Mickey . . .

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