Sometimes there are moments in which the differences within your own political and philosophical movements become particularly clear. That happened to me over the course of two days last week.
I was driving in my car and, as is my wont, skipping around to different radio stations, some carrying sports shows and others carrying conservative talk programs. On consecutive days, I tuned into The Mike Gallagher Show. Gallagher’s show is popular, rated #10 on the list of Talkers.com’s most important radio talk show hosts. I’ve been on his show several times over the years, and I’ve always had a cordial relationship with Gallagher, although sometimes we’ve had some sharp disagreements.
In any event, while tuning in to parts of his program over two days, Gallagher was speaking out in defense of Donald Trump, flying the Confederate flag, and parents who oppose vaccinations for their children. And I thought, “This branch of conservatism is one I don’t particularly identify with.”
Gallagher is, in my judgment, wrong on each of these issues. But it’s not just that I believe he’s wrong; it’s the passion he brought in defense of them that was striking to me. Why would he feel moved to give defense to the anti-vaccination movement when vaccinations are one of the greatest achievements of biomedical science and public health? (Gallagher tends to frame this as a parental rights issue, but also argues that “we don’t know” whether autism is caused by vaccinations, when in fact there’s no link based on any credible science.) Why, given the fact that the Confederate flag was the symbol that represented succession and slavery, would Gallagher criticize South Carolina Representative Mick Mulvaney for reversing his stance on flying the flag on state grounds? (Gallagher argued that the same logic that led to bringing down the Confederate flag could lead us to bring down the American flag.) And why defend Donald Trump, who is hardly a conservative, for his crude and misleading statements on illegal immigrants from Mexico? (Trump didn’t say that we should secure the southern border and there are bad people who sometimes come across it illegally; he said Mexico is sending us people who are criminals, drug deals and rapists — and some, “I assume,” are good people.)
I don’t want to overstate things. Gallagher and I come down on the same side on most public policy issues. We’re both critical of President Obama and liberalism. We both disagree with the most recent Supreme Court decisions on the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage. We both respect the Founders, the Constitution, and Ronald Reagan, in whose administration I worked.
Yet there I was, listening to Gallagher over the course of two days defending with some passion people and positions in ways I find quite problematic. And it did underscore for me how there are competing impulses and tropisms within conservatism today. This doesn’t make us enemies or unable to find common cause and co-exist in the same movement. There are already too many loud and agitated voices on the right urging excommunication for those who disagree with them.
But it’s clear, too, that there are real differences rooted in temperament and to some degree in philosophy; in how we view empirical evidence and science; and in how we understand conservatism, where it needs to go and who best represents it in our time. And I will add this: If conservatism is associated in the public mind with defending Donald Trump, the Confederate flag, and the anti-vaccination movement, it’s going to rapidly shrink in size and influence and intellectual seriousness.