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.
Posts tagged ‘Trump’
During the campaign, Donald Trump published a “Contract with the American Voter,” and he may even have read it. He described the document as “my pledge to you.” If anybody had been listening, they might have learned from his former business partners what a Trump contract is worth and from his ex-wives what value he puts on a solemn pledge.
I have some bad news, Sunshine: Ya got took.
. . .
In reality, Trump is a New York Democrat who is being advised by other New York Democrats — Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner prominent among them — who are more or less the sort of people who brought you the Obama and Clinton administrations: business-friendly corporate Democrats, people who think of themselves as post-ideological pragmatists, consensus progressives who are much more interested in opening up backdoor channels to Planned Parenthood than they are in the priorities of people they consider nothing more than a bunch of snake-handling rustics and talk-radio listeners stockpiling gold coins and freeze-dried ice cream in their basements. Trump was a Clinton donor and a Chuck Schumer donor, and he is acting like one.
Rush Limbaugh was right in his way: What Trump said during the campaign was, in fact, a load of nonsense deployed for the purposes of steamrolling the other side in difficult and delicate negotiations. What Limbaugh and the rest of Trump’s admirers missed is that it wasn’t NATO and the Chi-Coms and Enrique Peña Nieto on the other side of the negotiating table getting hornswoggled.
It was them.
The Carrier bailout is awful, of course. It is a case of two politicians’ using public funds to bribe a business into doing things that benefit them personally and politically while creating no real long-term economic value. Pence, who dropped his free-market principles like the world’s hottest potato once he got within sniffing distance of presidential power, can burnish his populist credentials at the taxpayers’ expense, and Trump can get ready to flit on to the next publicity stunt.
But the emerging “Superman” politics here are truly poisonous. One of the genre conventions of superhero stories is the compression of all the world’s drama into the immediate presence of the hero — only his actions and intentions are relevant. People may be dying all over the world, but Superman saves Lois Lane. (Comic-book movies have lately subverted that convention by focusing on the collateral damage done by superheroes to the cities in which they live.) What that means in the context of our contemporary presidential politics is that no one takes any note of the fact that Carrier is not the only HVAC company in the United States or the only industrial concern in Indiana. Carrier has competitors that employ Americans, pay taxes, and produce real economic value, and they have been put at a relative disadvantage by the political favoritism extended to Carrier. What about them? They’re not on the stage, so they do not matter.
What is important to understand here is that this is not part of an economic-development agenda: It is theater. It is an adolescent fantasy of political power, and wherever Superman happens to land is where the action is. Nothing else is relevant. It does not matter that there is no broader logic at work: Small displays of efficacy can work to create an illusion of general efficacy. It is busyness as business.
. . .
Trump’s big idea so far is spending $7 million of other people’s money to delay an embarrassing headline. Some deal. Some deal-maker.
Cronyism has a new moral preener and Crony Capitalist in Chief.