Amid a truly devastating period for conservative culture warriors, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed last week that those who consider themselves allies of the social conservative movement so often do it a disservice. “Politicians who stand with them on policy mislead them on politics,” he observed. The events that occurred following this remark proved Douthat prescient.
Prisoners as they are of the news cycle, Republicans in the political consulting class have taken to rending garments over the reality television star Donald Trump’s alleged entry into the presidential race (a complete financial disclosure must be filed in 10 days in order to participate in the first debate) and the negative impact he will have on the GOP brand. I have written that I believe they are overestimating the impact Trump will have on the electorate and his fellow candidates. But what these consultants fear most, and what they say freely and honestly, is that Trump will tap into a strain of ascendant populism within conservatism that will infect the party’s grassroots. They fear that a sizable minority of aggressive, xenophobic self-described Republicans will rise up and happily express their impolitic attitudes for the media’s cameras.
Trump’s supposed popularity within the GOP presidential field is wildly overstated. It is no great feat for a figure with near universal name recognition to secure the support of roughly 10 percent of barely tuned-in voters. That performance is only estimable relative to the rest of the crowded presidential field, and Trump’s star is likely to fade as the race’s frontrunners break away from the pack. Still, Republican Party officials are consumed with fear over what Trump represents, and the damage he can do in the interim between his announcement and the inevitable suspension of his campaign.
When conservatives are asked why they think Trump’s candidacy is resonating with the right, they most commonly reply, “He is saying things that people want to hear.” This says less about the electorate than it does about the candidate capturing so many disaffected imaginations. When voters are faced with unpleasant realities, there will always be a market for comforting fictions; just ask the Greeks. A legitimate problem for the GOP is, however, that too many believe that Trump is disseminating hard truths when the opposite is the case.
Republican voters love to hear Trump contend that a new Great Wall across the Mexican border, inexplicably paid for by the Mexican government, will permanently curtail illegal immigration. They love to hear the claim that America is getting a raw deal when it engages in exchanges with its second-largest trading partner, the People’s Republic of China. They love the notion that a more steely-eyed negotiator would pacify Russia without the commitment of substantial treasure and the requirement of sacrifice on the part of the West. Everyone loves a salesman when he’s pitching the deal of the century.
What’s more, those on the right who fairly resent illegal immigration and who oppose the incentives this administration has created for border crossers appreciate hearing Trump express the most acerbic condemnations of illegal immigrants. “If you look at the statistics on rape, on crime, on everything, coming in illegally to the country, they’re mind-boggling,” Trump recently insisted. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Conservatives who instinctually nodded their heads along should have the intellectual consistency to resent the fact that the only person misleading them in this case was Trump.
“Foreign-born individuals exhibit remarkably low levels of involvement in crime across their life course,” observed University of Massachusetts Sociology Professor Bianca Bersani in a study published in Justice Quarterly. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted, the Pew Research Center helped quantify Bersani’s work and discovered that native-born Americans are most likely to have committed one crime in the last 12 months followed closely by second generation Americans. “Since undocumented immigrants are more than a quarter of the immigrant population, it’s nearly impossible that the overall-immigrant crime rate could be so much lower if the undocumented-immigrant crime rate were significantly higher,” Bump observed.
It’s not unreasonable to expect a subset of bright, honest, demoralized conservatives to reject this data in favor of the bias-confirming fiction weaved by Trump; particularly because he has attracted at least one prominent enabler: Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
While the rest of the field of GOP presidential candidates was condemning Trump and the rhetoric he used to mislead his supporters, Cruz saluted him. This is not a surprising move for the former Texas attorney who is cursed with being acutely aware of his own considerable intellectual faculties. Too often, the junior Texas senator succumbs to the instinct to manipulate his supporters in a transparent manner that is, at times, too clever by half.
Take, for example, Cruz’s decision to stoke the flames of revanchism among aggrieved cultural conservatives in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the country. “Those who are not parties to the suit are not bound by it,” said the former Texas Solicitor General in an interview in which he advised states to, likely illegally, ignore the Court’s mandate which compels states to recognize gay unions in order to comport with the Fourteenth Amendment. Ted Cruz knows that course of action is ill advised, but he apparently finds this manner of misinformation useful in his quest to cast himself as a Washington outsider nobly confronting establishment Republicans who have sold out their enervated base.
Cruz’s contention that he would support a constitutional amendment that would subject Supreme Court justices to retention elections also exemplifies his apparent intention to deceive his way to the top of the GOP heap. In the modern era, calls for a constitutional amendment is simple buck-passing; the modern equivalent of a defeated army sending its remaining partisans into the hills to ignite a quixotic guerilla rebellion. If a GOP-dominated congress couldn’t pass a marriage amendment supported by a Republican president in 2004, it’s not happening today. Similarly, the fact that a Democrat-led Senate could barely secure the votes required to debate an amendment that would limit the First Amendment freedoms loathed by the likes of Bernie Sanders was a concession that their cause was an obscure one. For true believers, however, the amendment process remains a viable option, and those who oppose it simply lack the passion. Again, Cruz misled his supporters for temporary personal gain.
Even if such an amendment could pass, its effects on the constitutional order would be disastrous – a reality of which Cruz is likely aware. As the columnist George Will observed, Cruz’s retributive amendment is as “progressive” as anything Hillary Clinton has proposed. “[Teddy Roosevelt] embraced the core progressive belief that the ideal of limited government, and hence the reality of the separation of powers, are anachronisms,” he wrote. “Imagine campaigns conducted by justices. What would remain of the court’s prestige and hence its power to stand athwart rampant executives and overbearing congressional majorities?”
Cruz has calculated that, like Trump, the fleeting value gained by embracing these maximalist positions is worth the damage his reputation will endure. For some on the activist right, however, Cruz and Trump will suffer no consequences advancing a series of comforting fictions. There is no reward for honesty when that forthrightness dashes cherished hope. The conservative movement would, however, do well to ask itself whether it is best served by the charlatans in their midst who are more concerned with selling their product than preserving the integrity of their party or addressing the problems facing the republic.