Even the sainted William F. Buckley derived no small part of his appeal from the fact that he could always one-up any condescending liberal egghead. That was a big part of his legacy. At a time when the media wanted desperately to paint conservatives as paranoid, anti-intellectual bigots in the George Wallace mode, Buckley’s sesquipedalian erudition served as a kind of reassurance.
But Buckley brought something else to the table: civility, self-deprecation, and a playful wit that could be intellectually devastating without being humiliating. Even when he explained that Robert F. Kennedy was ducking his invitations to appear on Firing Line — “Why does baloney reject the grinder?” — liberals had to chuckle in admiration.
It’s that touch which has largely gone missing of late. Intellectually, Buckley was a passionate believer that liberalism was the Enemy. But liberals themselves were merely the opposition (Gore Vidal notwithstanding).
Where did that come from? Again, much of it is a product of the times, stemming from new technology, economics, and other deep-rooted causes. But I want to focus on one. Over the last decade, conservatives have developed a severe case of Alinsky envy.
It is one of the oldest insights into human nature that envy corrupts the soul. (Aquinas defined envy as sadness for the good of others.) But Alinsky envy is corrupting in a different way. For years now conservatism has convinced itself that the Left wins by, in effect, cheating. They lie. They only care about power. They demonize and slander their opponents. I’m not going to sit here and claim that there’s zero merit to that argument. There’s a lot of merit, even if it’s often an exaggeration.
My objection is the conclusion conservatives draw from it: We’ve got to take the gloves off and play by the same rules! Alinsky’s rules! As David Kahane (eye roll) puts it: “Become what you behold.”
A whole cottage industry on the right has thrived around this argument, and on the whole, it’s grotesque. You cannot argue that your enemy is evil and uses evil means and at the same time argue, “We should do it too!”
It’s particularly hypocritical given that Alinsky envy blossomed alongside obsessions with conservative purity. It is a circle that will not square: Our ideology has a monopoly on virtue, but in order for virtue to triumph we must act like people we claim are virtueless. The effort to make this argument work is inherently corrupting because it inexorably replaces ends with means. “Winning” gets redefined before our eyes into anything that fuels our ecstatic schadenfreude over the suffering of our opponents. Whenever Trump did something indefensible the “defense” “But he fights!” would pour forth.
. . .
Bill O’Reilly grew up in Long Island before the city started to decline, but he is incontestably a product of the nostalgia-besotted working-class worldview that Giuliani tapped into. He doesn’t call himself a conservative, but a “traditionalist.” And his vision of tradition isn’t Burkean, Oakshottian, or Hayekian. He doesn’t harken to Russell Kirk’s Mecosta, but to Levittown. And to an extent that’s fine. America could use a bit more 1950s Levittown morality. Sean Hannity, born in New York City but raised in Long Island, is another who largely fits that mold. More broadly, as I’ve written dozens of times, Fox News was always more populist than conservative, but its populism is often infused with a New York sensibility.
This was always the core of Donald Trump’s act, even when he was a proud Democrat. A bridge-and-tunnel billionaire, he always had a chip on his shoulder about New York elites. It wasn’t quite the same Irish-Catholic chip that O’Reilly had, but the similarities are more interesting than the differences. O’Reilly’s intellectual insecurity drives him to churn out gimmicky histories, written by someone else. Trump’s spills out in boasts about his grades and his superior brain. They both insist they’re the smartest man in the room and that people who disagree with their meniscus-thin judgments are not just wrong, but bad or stupid.
Trump’s nostalgic appeal to Make America Great Again using common sense to defeat the pinhead elites combined with his implied promise to humiliate his enemies with his strength and will was simply a variant of O’Reillyism. Indeed, Bill O’Reilly was the John the Baptist of Trumpism long before Donald Trump appeared on the political scene.
I should say that I wish Donald Trump were a Rudy Giuliani, and I hold out the barest glimmer of hope that he could turn into one. But my suspicion is that he is a creature who mimicked the aesthetics and style of a Giuliani without anything like his discipline or expertise. And that in itself is a sign of the toxic corruption of celebrity conservatism that David French describes. Too many people think being a conservative is all about the public posture, the performance in front of the camera and not the performance on the job.
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