The conservative thinkers in Britain and the U.S. I most admire are the ones who can complete a sentence on the achievements of Trump’s presidency without ending it “but personally, I find him deplorable.”
I admire these mavericks because they are so brave, clear-headed and rare.
It takes courage to speak up for Trump in a climate where even conservative publications like my own beloved Spectator run pieces like this – ‘Trump’s presidency has imploded – in less than two years’ and this – ‘Trumpworld is spinning out of control’.
It also takes a certain career-suicidal cussedness. In the UK I cannot think of one newspaper or publication – not one, even among those supposedly on the right – which has given a fair and balanced assessment of Donald Trump, let alone a favourable one.
So if you happen to think, as I do, that Trump is shaping up to be one of the truly great presidents, no commissioning editor is going to welcome your contribution as the intriguing, considered viewpoint which might shake the readers out of their complacency. They’re just going to go: “This guy’s a loon! He’s probably only saying it get attention. And anyway, he works for Breitbart so it’s probably written into his contract…”
American conservative commentators, I know, have similar problems. If you want to be taken seriously as one of the right-wing intellectual elite, you basically need to advertise yourself as a NeverTrumper.
Sure this requires a certain cognitive dissonance: you’ve got a guy, in the White House, rapidly working his way through every conservative’s wish list of all the good, important things that need to be done – and somehow you’ve got to ignore all that and delude yourself and your readers that Crooked Hillary would have been the vastly preferable, conservative-friendly option.
But the intellectual contortions are worth it for the pay back. By dissing Trump, by holding your nose every time you talk about him, by distancing yourself from his character and his policies, you get to achieve every spineless conservative commentator’s dream: you get to show that despite being a conservative you’re also a really, really nice guy whom even non-conservative readers should love and take seriously because, hey, you’re free-thinking and you care and, by the way, did you mention how much you deplore Donald Trump?
Props, then, to one of my favourite conservative commentators – Victor Davis Hanson – for bucking the trend in one of the NeverTrumpers’ house journals, National Review.
Hanson has done a brilliant job, gently and politely explaining to the NeverTrump class (and anyone else who cares to listen) why it might be that they’ve got their president wrong.
It’s titled ‘Was the pre-Trump world normal or abnormal?’
Much of the controversy that surrounds the policies of Donald Trump can be explained as a reaction to the past. He was either clumsily disrupting the sacrosanct or trying to resurrect what was lost.
In other words, what you feel about Trump is inseparable from what you think of the world before Trump.
China, for example. Was the only option to go on appeasing it, as all Trump’s predecessors did?
Beijing never has believed in either free or fair trade. Instead, at worst, it assumed that deluded Westerners in Europe and the U.S. would appease China. “Live with it” was the unspoken shrug from the West.
At best, as a post-revolutionary, reforming, and still-troubled power, China felt it deserved exemptions from normal behavior. The Western conventional wisdom was mostly to placate and coax China now; and then, soon, when rich and powerful, in gratitude, Beijing would either willingly democratize or the sheer power of its free-market opulence would transform it into a sober and judicious player on the world stage.
Meanwhile, China freely strong-armed Western companies inside China. It ran up huge trade surpluses by way of dumping, conducting technological espionage, ignoring health and safety norms, levying asymmetrical tariffs, and mocking copyright and trademark treaties.
It bullied its neighbors, empowered North Korea to hound the U.S. with the threat of its nuclear arsenal, and created the Spratley Islands hinge in hopes someday of adjudicating trade routes in the South China Sea.
And what about the Culture Wars? Were we just supposed to go on losing them because taking a stand had seemed too difficult before?
Conservatives took it as a given that the universities were overwhelmingly hostile to free speech and thought, and permanently so. The media mostly were antithetical to conservativism, and were enhanced by the rise of Silicon Valley social media that equated traditionalism with inflammatory speech to be shunned or even banned. Journalism had become near-advocacy, given that the noble ends of equality of result justified the means of selective reporting.
Open borders and the salad bowl, in cultural terms, had replaced the ideas of sovereignty and the melting pot. Everything from late-night television and Hollywood movies to the NFL and sitcoms had become politicized, or perhaps even weaponized as useful in the cultural struggle to create a progressive U.S. liberated from its past traditions and norms. Antifa, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other groups were branded as mainstream progressive voices and their critics as haters, racists, and fascists.
Again, Republicans’ iconic answers in past decades to the Democratic party’s transformation into an engine of cultural progressive activism were mostly regretful compliance.
Hanson has put his finger on what may be the real, deep-seated psychological reason why so many supposedly right-wing commentators are down on Trump: he reveals them for the moral eunuchs they really are.
These people talk the talk about conservative ideas. But when push comes to shove, when there’s a guy in the White House with the determination to turn these ideas into reality, they run shrieking like lustful but repressed Victorian virgins for the smelling salts.
I can forgive their cowardice: no one wants to die, whether literally or figuratively; most of us would rather be liked than not liked.
What I find less easier to forgive is the damage they are doing to the conservative cause.
I’ll give you just one brief example. Just recently I was talking to a prominent conservative commentator about the battle of ideas which defines our time: the fight for truth, tradition and free speech against the false narratives of neo-Marxism and post-modernism.
My conservative friend totally got this. What he couldn’t accept was that Trump wasn’t part of the problem.
Here’s what this conservative friend and so many other NeverTrumpers think. It comes from a piece by Andrew Sullivan, who is not a real conservative. But liberals like Sullivan and NeverTrumpers are at one on this issue:
Polarization has made this worse — because on the left, moderation now seems like a surrender to white nationalism, and because on the right, white identity politics has overwhelmed moderate conservatism. And Trump plays a critical role. His crude, bigoted version of identity politics seems to require an equal and opposite reaction. And I completely understand this impulse. Living in this period is to experience a daily, even hourly, psychological hazing from the bigot-in-chief. And when this white straight man revels in his torment of those unlike him — and does so with utter impunity among his supporters — there’s a huge temptation to respond in kind. A president who has long treated women, in his words, “like shit,” and bragged about it, is enough to provoke rage in any decent person. But anger is rarely a good frame of mind to pursue the imperatives of reason, let alone to defend the norms of liberal democracy.
In other words, rather than being a necessary reaction to the rise of the extreme left, Trump is somehow partly responsible for it.
To borrow Sullivan’s glib, patronising phrase, I completely understand this utter stupidity.
It’s hard, really hard, living in a world where all the really bad stuff is being perpetrated by the left – the aggression, the contorted thinking, the suicidal policies – and where people on the conservative side of the argument are basically the sensible, decent people who just want to do the right thing.
It’s hard because it goes against everything we’ve been taught by our “progressive” culture these last few decades: the idea that the middle is the only place to be.
But in these weird times, moving away from the conservative position to try to accommodate yourself with the revolutionary left or the eco-fascists or the Islamists isn’t a form of sensible compromise – it’s just a form of dangerous appeasement. It feeds the regressive left’s delusions that it is justified in its grievances.
Every time I hear a conservative deploring Donald Trump or saying “but Charlottesville”, I hear not the voice of moderation but of an intellectual and moral coward happy to sell his own comrades to an implacable enemy for the reward of being placed slightly lower down on that enemy’s death list.
Let’s get this straight. We – at least the vast majority of us – on the side of the argument that Donald Trump is currently representing believe in stuff like: national borders, free speech, protecting citizens’ interests, equality of opportunity, lower taxes, smaller government, democratic accountability, the family, personal responsibility, rising standards of living, property rights, the rule of law, checks and balances, the Constitution, liberty. There is nothing in any of this we should feel awkward or guilty about. It does not make us Nazis. Or even semi-Nazis. Or alt-right. Or any of the other pejorative terms which – according to our opponents – make it wholly acceptable to punch the teeth out of anyone in a MAGA baseball cap.
Trump Derangement Syndrome has caused some conservatives – not all of us, thankfully – to lose sight of why it is that we fight.
We fight because we’re right. And yes – as Trump is one of the few conservative presidents to get – it really is that simple.