Election 2016

It's Too Late for Conservative Writers to Wish Trumpism Away

Republicans will sink even deeper into denying the truth.

In 2008, voters en masse rejected Republican “borrow and borrow, spend and spend” policies that funded the disastrous Iraq war. They also rejected Republicans’ contradictory domestic austerity and deregulation policies, which hobbled an effective response to Hurricane Katrina and which, three years later, threw millions of Americans nationwide out of the ownership society conservatives had promised them.

Also in 2008, responding to these upheavals, Ross Douthat (now a New York Times columnist) and Reihan Salam (now executive editor of the conservative National Review) published Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. 

The book grew from their essay, “The Party of Sam’s Club,” published in 2005 in William Kristol’s (and Rupert Murdoch’s) conservative Weekly Standard magazine. Challenging some of conservative Republicans’ pro-capitalist, antigovernment ideology, Douthat and Salam argued that “Sam’s Club” voters—white workers stressed by economic and social instability—had swung to Republicans two decades earlier not because they loved small government, free markets or “extremism in defense of liberty,” but because they resented left liberal ideas and policies concerning family, welfare, crime, and race.

In my book Liberal Racism, I acknowledged and assessed liberals’ blunders, but Douthat and Salam were right to warn fellow-conservatives that “their” voters didn’t share the right’s determination to shrink government support for health care, education or the environment. Rather, the authors observed, most working-class Republican voters “wanted to keep the welfare state in place, but didn’t want the Democrats to run it.” If Republican legislative majorities tried to wreck the entitlement system, the GOP would lose the working class.

I summarized and endorsed many of Douthat’s and Salam’s arguments in a 2009 review for the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal, though I warned that their “smart but wishful” book wouldn’t persuade Republicans. In fact, the party has doubled down since then on the bad premises and policies Douthat and Salam criticized. And it has circumvented voters’ clear preferences on most social and economic issues by masterminding state-legislative and congressional districting schemes that, as David Daley shows in Ratf**ked, have locked many statehouses and the U.S. House of Representatives into the same bad, blind policies for at least another decade.

Republicans have done this even while losing their working-class “home” to the dark, empty Trumpian hurricane that has rushed in to fill the vacuum they’ve left in American public life and in Americans’ private lives.

So how do Douthat and Salam explain this default? You can read their almost pathetic non-answer in "A Cure for Trumpism" in the Sunday New York Times. There, they merely repeat themselves, arguing, with what is at best willful naivete, that Republicans will change course abroad and at home by sacrificing a few exhausted conservative orthodoxies and plutocrat-protection maneuvers.

Talk about bad timing! This week, Republicans will sink even deeper into denying the truth: There is no way on this earth, short of fascist demagoguery, to proclaim Mike Pence’s familial and civic-republican values and virtues while at the same time performing knee-jerk obedience to the casino-like financing and the predatory, intrusive, degrading marketing that subvert family and civic virtues (and American republican sovereignty) with the political equivalent of the speed of light. Trump, the casino financier and predatory marketer, has no answers.

Instead of foreseeing this failure and its swift, dark, escapist consequences, conservative Republicans have abetted it by generating a lavishly funded, “on-message” noise machine of talkers, squawkers, apparatchiks, and greedheads that Jacob Weisberg dubbed "the Con-intern." Its social ideas are sustained by a capitalist materialism that’s as soulless as the Marxist dialectical materialism which the squawkers rush to attribute to anyone who criticizes what their capitalism has become. (Even Trump referred to Bernie Sanders as “our communist friend” during the primaries.)

All this imparts an increasingly false ring to conservative rhapsodies about civic-republican virtue. It replaces the New Deal's supposed "make-work" programs with its non-responses to crises such as Hurricane Katrina or the poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water. It has countered "Vietnam syndrome" with America’s worst foreign-policy blunder since 1975, if not in American history, period.

The noise machine ignores the so-called free market’s displacement of the dread liberal counterculture of the ‘60s with a degrading over-the-counter culture that’s marketing everything conservatives claim to loathe. Conservative as well as liberal investors, legislators and judges abet an immensely profitable deluge of pornography (including the pornography of gratuitous violence itself) with their dollars, votes, rulings.

When I described this scam for Salmagundi magazine, the conservative Dallas Morning News re-published a portion of it, and conservative readers who posted comments agreed, in anguish, with my analysis—an early indication that, beneath the Con-intern's civic chimes and patriotic bombast, the civic republican spirit writhes in silent agony, forsaken by conservatism itself.

Instead of facing such hypocrisies and their swift, dark consequences squarely enough to abandon both Republican conservatism and Democratic neoliberalism and to challenge turbo-capitalist premises and protocols that would appall John Locke and Adam Smith, Douthat and Salam are still knocking on the door of a party that has locked itself into those premises and protocols and is resorting to monstrous, devastating strategies in their behalf.

A writer’s obligation is to tell the truth, even when the truth is so painful it risks losing the writer a marketable, “acceptable” perch that pays him to normalize what can no longer be defended. An honest writer must be ready to take long sojourns in the wilderness, fortified with little more than Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that “Thought is not, like physical strength, dependent on the number of its agents; nor can authors be counted like the troops which compose an army…. The words of one strong-minded man have more power than the vociferations of a thousand orators… Thought is an invisible, subtle power that mocks all efforts to tyranny.”

Two months ago,I argued that Americans still have the civic-republican capacity to banish the tyranny on the horizon. Maybe I, too, was wishful. But now is the time for Douthat and Salam to take more than the half-step they took in 2005, and for other conservative writers to join them in breaking from what’s broken and to make themselves worthy of Tocqueville’s words and of the decent America which conservatives and the Republican Party wooed deceptively and then abandoned to Trump.

Neoliberal Democrats face an analogous challenge, but that’s a topic for another essay, and given our winner-take-all presidential system, a time after November, when I expect to shift from fighting for Hillary against the Donald to making life beneficially uncomfortable for President Clinton.

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Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).