“It is time to read last rites over the American conservative movement,” E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote in the Washington Post last weekend. “Principled conservativism continues to exist,” Max Boot argued on the same page. Dionne is a thoughtful, well informed liberal. But in this debate, I’d give Boot a definitive edge. Because without a serious dose of introspection, resistance to Trumpian politics is a losing cause.
For any liberal opposed to foreign military intervention, Boot might be considered the worst kind of conservative. He was an enthusiastic supporter of invading Iraq and argued bombing Iran was necessary to prevent them from building a nuclear weapon. On the domestic side, he advocates for drastic spending cuts to social security, Medicare and Medicaid.
So what am I doing reading his column? For one, he didn’t support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. And he hasn’t compromised his convictions by falling in behind him since the election.
But while he’s quick to point out Trump’s weaknesses and transgressions, that’s not the value I get from writers like him. In the words of T.A. Frank, he and much of the conservative opposition to this president are reexamining “the soul of their political philosophy.”
The problem, Boot points out, is that kind of discussion is “increasingly disconnected from the stuff that thrills the masses.” He says it’s mostly happening at small conservative magazines which, despite the Republican’s triple crown reign in Washington, lost their seat at the table because they opposed Trump.
Frank agrees. “Conservative magazines are working to bring a plausible intellectual order to this new reality — and figure out what comes next,” he wrote in a January feature published by the Washington Post. He’s not part of the group though. Before moving to Vanity Fair, he was a writer at The New Republic. Both are decidedly liberal. But he sees those magazines united by “an almost quaint belief in debate as an instrument of enlightenment rather than as a mere tool of political warfare.”
It wasn’t like that during the Obama presidency. “There’s an argument on part of the right that the left is utterly remorseless and we need to be like that,” Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, explained to Frank. “That’s the way you lose your soul.”
Lose it they did. The strategy of uncompromising opposition may have mobilized voters. But it didn’t prepare them for the actual work of governing. And the unintended consequence was Trump’s populist rise.
As Lowry implied, the mirror sees both ways. The left’s cynicism and overwhelming sense of disgust with Trump and his congressional supporters is reminiscent of how many conservatives responded to Obama. Instead of Fox News as the opposition echo chamber, it’s MSNBC and television’s late-night comedy shows. They may be keeping viewers appraised of Trump’s daily tweets, gaffes and propagandist relationship with the truth. But it’s preaching to a receptive choir.
What’s worse is how the expression “political warfare” evolved from metaphor to a declaration that the opposition is an enemy of the republic. It’s epidemic on both sides.
I have big philosophical disagreements with Boot, George Will, David Brooks, Ross Douthat and David Frum. But they aren’t the enemy. I’m impressed with their defense of conservative values that distinguishes opinion from fact and ideas from the people expressing them. They offer much more to learn from than the anti-Trump rants of many progressives.
And I’m encouraged when people like Mona Cheran speak truth to power. At last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and Rep. Jack Kemp called out her fellow conservatives for the hypocrisy of excusing Trump’s sexual behavior and endorsing a candidate for the U.S. senate who was “credibly accused of child molestation.” For her effort she was booed but afterwards wrote, “There is nothing more freeing than telling the truth.”
That’s something we can all aspire to, because like Matt Labash of the Weekly Standard told Frank, telling the truth is “pretty revolutionary behavior in these hopelessly tribal times.”
Sacrificing the truth to gain, hold or challenge those in power was a practice of all sides long before the 2016 election. The imperative of our time is to restore it to the place it once held in our public discourse. And after that, to raise it to a level we never thought possible.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. He contributes a regular “My Turn” to the Juneau Empire. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.