Welcome to The Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about politics, language, culture, pedantry, partisan pyromania, and suchlike.
The Right loves a factional brawl, and the past week brought a pentagonic crossfire between Peggy Noonan, Mona Charen, Charlie Sykes, Ramesh Ponnuru, and David French, five right-leaning Trump critics who, as it turns out, don’t agree on very much. The battle has been joined, the injured moan in agony. . . . Somebody has to go around and bayonet the wounded, and I have a newsletter to write. So, away we go.
The question is, “Burn It Down, or No?”
Or, to put it another way: “What’s the more pleasing way to march Republicans onto ice floes and shove their sorry asses out to sea — one at a time, or all at once?”
“Burn It Down!” has become a shorthand for the less easygoing kind of anti-Trump conservative. (Apologies, Millennials and nitwits: I do not think or write in hashtags, and if that is what you are looking for, look elsewhere.) For members of the Burning faction, to see Donald Trump lose in 2020 would be insufficient — their view is that the Republican Party as a whole must be punished for its energetic embrace of Trump and Trumpism. For some, such as the gentlemen of the Lincoln Project, that means not only actively supporting Joe Biden’s presidential campaign but also working to pick off congressional Republicans, especially vulnerable senators — some make the case for voting straight-ticket Democrat as a matter of civic hygiene.
The Not For Burning faction argues that this is an overreaction and that it is counterproductive, inasmuch as taking down Lincoln Project targets such as Senator Susan Collins of Maine would leave the Republican Party not only smaller but also Trumpier — it would be easier to knock off the last New England moderate than it would be to take down Ted Cruz or Jim Inhofe. Surely, the Not For Burning faction argues, the answer cannot be a Republican Party that is both politically weaker and politically worse than it already is?
In Mona Charen’s estimate, a November bloodbath for the GOP would represent in real terms a small political loss, maybe even an almost inconsequential one, and a price worth paying. One by one, Republicans rolled over and cowered at the fear that the president might . . . mean-tweet them. Lindsey Graham went from Dr. Jekyll to Senator Jackass in a flash and never looked back. Senator Cruz buddied up to a guy who called his wife ugly and his father an assassin. Jeff Sessions . . . oh, Jeff Sessions. “They believed that they were powerless and acted accordingly,” Charen writes. “Since they were powerless when it counted, what difference would it make if voters were to make it official?” Charen’s column is in many ways persuasive, but there it leaves an aftertaste of “It couldn’t possibly be worse.”
It can always be worse.
Ramesh Ponnuru sees such Burners as “engaged in an ideological dispute disguised as a tactical argument.” And, as tactics go, they ain’t much. “Most of the people who vote for a post-Trump Republican candidate in 2024 are going to be people who voted for Trump,” Ponnuru writes. “Any competitive center-right party after Trump will by necessity represent substantially the same voters who put him into power in November 2016 and have sustained him in it since then. Any strategy for changing the Republican Party that fails to reckon with that fact is doomed.”
My guess is that the overwhelming majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters will vote for Trump in November without much of a second thought, being, as they insist that they are, somewhere between satisfied and ecstatic about his performance.
While I appreciate, share, and endorse Ponnuru’s pessimism, I do not think Republicans are fully considering their options. Educated, affluent suburbanites used to vote Republican in large numbers, and now they do not. They didn’t just all misplace their golf clubs and their penny loafers at the same time. The GOP chose to become the National Farmer-Labor Party. Ponnuru is right that a party numerically dominated by Trumpy voters is going to be a Trumpy party, but the Trumpy voters aren’t the only voters to be had. And if the non-Trumpy right-leaning voters would have an easier time winning elections with the Trumpy ones on their side, the reverse also is the case. November is going to be a test of whether the Trump tendency can do it on its own — or, more accurately, of whether the GOP can do without the anti-Trump Right.
(Two quick things before I go on: First, it is worth noting that this conversation mostly assumes that Trump is going to lose in November, which probably will be the case but may not be the case. Second, it is easier to write up the differences within the anti-Trump Right than within the Trumpy Right because all the anti-Trump people have columns and the Trumpy people have radio shows. The medium is the message, after all!)
David French frames this in part as a question of “grace,” asking us to consider “the monumental pressures that Donald Trump has placed on the entire GOP and the lack of good options that so many GOP officeholders faced.” Oh, I don’t know about that: Congress is full of men and women who have utter contempt for their positions, but who feel very strongly about having a position of some kind, and if the fear of returning to the private sector is “monumental pressure” for a bunch of second-rate lawyers . . . well, they asked for the damned job. (“Begged,” as one of those schmucks who has watched too many mob movies likes to sneer, “like a dog.”) I, too, believe in grace. If you ask for my forgiveness, my forgiveness will be forthcoming. And if you ask me for a loan, I am going to check your credit. We can treat people with grace without also trusting them with great power knowing that we have good reason not to trust them with that power.
French suggests we pick and choose: Most of Republicans currently under fire are “not the chief offenders or culprits who led the United States to its present national predicament.” Instead, he writes, “each Republican should be judged on his or her own merits,” and that we should reserve our wrath for “individual Republicans” who have “displayed excessive individual flaws that should disqualify them from office.”
French knows his Bible, and he is here playing the part of Abraham pleading for Sodom: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” What if there are 50 righteous men in the city? What if there are 45? What if there are 40? What if there are ten?
What if it’s just Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse?
I am not sure that making an exception for the few Republicans who have stood tall in the past four years would actually put that much practical room between David French’s position and Mona Charen’s: Everybody likes Ben Sasse, Justin Amash has had enough and is calling it quits, and Mitt Romney doesn’t face another election until . . . 2024. I’m probably forgetting somebody.
We’re going to need a bigger ice floe.
Peggy Noonan raises an important question, maybe the most important question in this debate: How should we think about the state of the Republican Party before Trump?
That is a real dividing line: The Lincoln Project view is that there is no “clean” GOP, that the modern American Right has always really been about boobism, racism, and money-grubbing, from William F. Buckley Jr. to Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan. A less categorical version of that argument (and a more plausible one) is that the conservative political movement, like any major social movement, has always had its share of cranks, grifters, and careerists, and that the politicians associated with that movement have been content to “hunt where the ducks are,” as Senator Goldwater put it, taking votes (and donations) from where they are available without asking too many questions about it unless they were forced to. Yes, National Review did important work in chasing out the Birchers and various other nut-cutlets of the midcentury Right, just as on the left a few labor leaders in those same years did heroic work in excluding the Communists. You meet whackadoodles in politics, everywhere: I’ve met them at Trump events, at Hillary Clinton events, at Bernie Sanders events (Oh, my!), at the Republican National Convention, at the Democratic National Convention, at a Louis Farrakhan speech, at a meeting of the San Bernardino city council — everywhere.
But in 2016, the whackadoodles ended up actually running the Republican show for a minute, and the whackadoodle voice is at the moment quite prominent on the right, part of the intellectual race to the bottom led by social media and cable news. For this, Peggy Noonan blames . . . the current anti-Trump Republicans, who “never seem to judge themselves.”
Mr. Trump’s election came from two unwon wars, which constituted a historic foreign-policy catastrophe, and the Great Recession, which those in power, distracted by their mighty missions, didn’t see coming until it arrived with all its wreckage. He came from the decadeslong refusal of both parties’ leadership to respect and respond to Americans’ anxieties, from left and right, about illegal immigration. He came from bad policy and bad stands on crucial issues.
Noonan is partly conflating politics and policy here. Yes, the Bush-era wars ended up being unpopular, but that does not necessarily mean that Bush was wrong on the policy question. (He was, not because his initiatives ended up being unpopular but because they ended up being ineffective.) Noonan is right to point to immigration. In the United States as in Europe the failure — the refusal — of responsible political parties to respond to immigration concerns created opportunities for demagogues such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Marine Le Pen, although once again we should emphasize the fact that the responsible parties’ having got it wrong on immigration does not necessitate that Trump et al. have it right. They mostly don’t. Her argument is in that sense too narrow (this is not a Bush phenomenon or even a uniquely American phenomenon) and also ahistorical: Trump is not the first Trump-style presidential candidate we have seen, and Trumpism did not arise from the financial crisis or the failure in Iraq. Trump’s shrewd insight was in running Ross Perot’s campaign inside the Republican Party rather than as a third-party candidate. Trump, remember, was for a time affiliated with Perot’s startup Reform Party — he even made a half-assed run for the presidency on the Reform ticket in 2000.
Trump’s campaign was not the result of a “perfect storm,” as Noonan says, but is rather the expression of a gathering storm that has been with us since the beginning of World War II. There’s a reason Trump often sounds like a pre–Pearl Harbor isolationist and why he embraced a slogan from 1940: “America First.” Part of the old tariffs-and-neutrality Fortress America Right ended up in the Murray Rothbard orbit, and part of it ended up in the Republican Party, where it has never been entirely comfortable alongside the free-traders and Big Business types and the Wilsonian “make the world safe for democracy” types. They raged against Rothschild and Morgan a generation ago, and they rage against Bezos and Zuckerberg today.
Another way of saying that is that the spiritual descendants of Bill Buckley and Milton Friedman are on one side of the table while the epigones of Robert Taft are on the other, and what’s no longer obvious to everybody is why they are sitting at the same table at all when it is increasingly clear that their fundamental values, intellectual tendencies, and moral frameworks are not only distinctly different but incompatible. Somebody is going to have to go.
That is why Charlie Sykes is so obviously irritated that Peggy Noonan declines to name names. To whom is her improving advice offered?
Can you purge Trumpism but still embrace, say, Marsha Blackburn? Should we make a place at Peggy’s tasteful table for Seb Gorka? Or Stephen Miller? Or Judge Jeanine? Or Louie Gohmert? Trump is a problem, but he is not the alpha and omega of what ails the conservative movement. His ascension suggests that we were all wrong about a great many things.
Sykes and Noonan are on opposite sides of the looking glass: Sykes sees the Republican error as accommodating and exploiting proto-Trumpism for all these years, whereas Noonan sees the Republican error as not embracing it with sufficient fervor, allowing it to fester in unsupervised alienation. There is a coherent case to be made for either position. How much corporate blame you want to put on the GOP for Trump and Trumpism will necessarily reflect in large part your attitude toward the pre-Trump Republican modus operandi, and how much you think Trump is a unique and special case vs. how much you think he is an utterly predictable case of political emphysema after four packs of outrage a day for 30 years, Newt Gingrich with an inheritance instead of an education.
Everybody loves a good purge, but real progress means recruiting new allies and forming new alliances. And that is what the Trump movement in fact did, aligning the soft xenophobic tendency (anti-trade, anti-immigration) with the entitlement mentality (“Don’t touch my Social Security!”) and a whole Chalmun’s Cantina of social anxieties, while promising a salubrious purge (“Drain the swamp!”) of effete elitists who secretly run the world while being, at the same time, entirely irrelevant. That alliance worked, to an extent, in 2016. It didn’t work for George Wallace, Pat Buchanan, or Ross Perot, and it probably won’t work for Trump in 2020, but it might work again for somebody else in 2024. It may be electorally viable, but I wouldn’t want any part of it, and neither would a fair number of other people who were generally aligned with Republicans for the past 40 years or so. Are they enough to matter? We’ll have an answer on November 4, but that will not be the end of the disagreement.
Hence the current crossfire.
Words about Words
When I was in college, a friend of mine introduced me to a friend of his, who recently had finished up at the University of Texas and taken a job teaching in a public school. She seemed very nice and said that she was surprised by how much she was learning on the job while preparing her lessons plans.
“Really?” I asked. “What all have you been learning while teaching . . . second grade?”
“Well, did you know,” she said, “that Africa is not a country? It’s a whole continent made up of lots of other countries!”
I thought of that conversation when reading this New York Times headline: “My Torture at the Hands of America’s Favorite African Strongman: Yoweri Museveni, the country’s president and the Pentagon’s closest military ally in Africa, deploys security forces to assault opposition lawmakers.” We have “African strongman,” “ally in Africa,” and “the country’s president,” but no indication of what country we are talking about.
(It is Uganda, and the author is a member of the Ugandan parliament.)
Headline writing is a tricky business, and trickier if you are stupid and dishonest. ABC News: “Protesters in California set fire to a courthouse, damaged a police station and assaulted officers after a peaceful demonstration intensified.” It takes an American journalist to combine “peaceful” with “assaulted” and “set fire to.” One would think that if a “peaceful demonstration intensified,” it would become more intensely peaceful, or perhaps more intensely demonstrative. But the issue here is violence and the unwillingness of the left-leaning American press to speak and report plainly about the violence done by its political allies. One of the problems with the media is that they are biased; a bigger, related problem is that they will not do their job.
A reader writes in to insist that people in Texas talk about the futility of a “mute point,” but I have never heard of it. Then again, I also know Canadians who swear they never say “aboot.” The same reader asks for an official Rampant Prescriptivist ruling on “orientated.”
“Orientated” is “chiefly British,” says Merriam Webster. It comes to us from the Latin word for “rising” and, by solar analogy, “east,” hence “Orient,” “Oriental,” etc. To be oriented is to know which direction is which. (This is sometimes said to be related to the Muslim practice of facing east, toward Mecca, for prayers, but the usage predates Islam.) I can see no useful difference between oriented and orientated, but if the British like it that way, I am inclined to make accommodations for our elder brothers in the language.
Home and Away
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