The Washington Examiner’s Philip Wegmann ignited a furor when he reported that liberal radio host Rick Ungar endured a volley of jeers at this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) when he talked about “the beauty of naturalization ceremonies.” That wasn’t entirely accurate. In fact, Ungar was booed when he said his impression of Mexican citizens, after living among them for seven years, was that their values are generally conservative and that Republicans should be courting newly minted citizens, as Democrats do. When those on the right stops celebrating their successful outing of more “fake news,” they can explain why they find the truth of this episode in any way redeeming.
In simpler times, this kerfuffle would have been written off as a product of CPAC’s hothouse environment. Republicans no longer have that luxury. Not after the President of the United States’ CPAC address on Friday. Retreating into his comfort zone, Donald Trump exhumed some noxious themes from his campaign. He said the recipients of the immigration “diversity lottery” program are “horrendous,” and he performed a reading of “The Snake,” a poem by the civil-rights activist Oscar Brown Jr. retrofitted onto Trump’s anti-immigration activism.
Trump’s 2018 insistence that foreign countries are “giving us” their refuse is only a slightly more refined articulation of his 2015 claim that Mexico exiles their drug dealers and rapists to the United States. Trump’s conduct regularly destigmatizes behavior polite society declines to dignify. The president sets a tone for his party. It’s only reasonable to expect conservatives to mimic his crowd-pleasing nativist hostility.
This episode would appear to validate a liberal hobby that I discussed last week: the intellectual left’s self-validating habit of insisting that Donald Trump did not, in fact, commandeer the conservative movement after mounting a campaign that was largely critical of it. Rather, to this cohort, the president is the ultimate fulfillment of conservatism’s evolutionary trajectory.
Trump is the “apotheosis” of conservatism, wrote MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. According to Jonathan Chait, the GOP’s capacity to recommit to “democratic governing norms” means “freeing it from conservatism’s grip.” It is, therefore, a shame that “Conservatism has infected Trump,” and not the other way around. Corey Robin, the author of The Reactionary Mind, declared Trump to be the realization of decades—even centuries—of conservative tradition. Trump’s embrace of “violence” and “apocalyptic rhetoric,” “hostility to existing institutions, conventions, customs, traditions, established elites and the law,” and “appeals to the force of the multitude” are all supposedly indicative of conservatism’s intellectual heritage.
This genre of liberal commentary amounts to a self-affirmation. No conservative intellectual of the last 40 years would recognize Robin’s description of his or her ethos. It is the ego-fueled assertion that we, the enlightened observers, know you better than you know yourselves. The vanity required to render such a verdict on a movement as vast and varied as the modern right is enough to cast the observer out of the conservative intellectual tradition. Not that the observer would know that; “humility” didn’t appear on Robin’s list of conservative virtues.
Though it is a verdict rendered in error, it is still common to hear the refrain—sometimes melancholy, sometimes triumphant—that Trump and conservatism are, today, one and the same. The inconvenient revolt led by Mona Charen at CPAC demonstrated that the resistance endures.
Charen, a conservative intellectual in every sense, is a two-time author. She’s a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She worked in the Reagan White House and served as a speechwriter for Jack Kemp in 1988, and she has written for conservative publications like National Review and COMMENTARY for decades. According to the right’s morphologists, she should have been assimilated by now. And yet, when asked to weigh in with some jabs at the hypocrisy of the feminist left—standard fodder for a conservative gathering—Charen declined. The hypocrisy she felt was more deserving of scorn had been displayed on her side of the aisle.
Charen tore into the morally impaired conservatives who stood behind Roy Moore, a “credibly accused child molester,” in his bid for the U.S. Senate. She went off on conservatives for attacking Bill Clinton while a man who brags about his infidelities and is accused of abusing women occupies the Oval Office. She torched CPAC for extending a speaking invitation to Marion Le Pen, a member of a far-right nationalist party and an apologist for her grandfather, the “racist and Nazi” Jean-Marie Le Pen. This frontal assault on a room full of ostensible allies was, to put it mildly, not well-received.
“We built and organized this party,” Charen later wrote for the New York Times, “but now we’re made to feel like interlopers.” According to a certain style of liberal commentary, Charen and her ilk are as responsible for Trump as are the MAGA hat-wearing primary voters who wanted to burn the GOP to the ground. Those on the left who are not arguing this in bad faith are indulging in a self-flattering category error.
Conservatives who prefer sound policy to posturing have found a lot to like in the Trump administration precisely because he has abandoned his campaign trail bluster. The president has not withdrawn from the world, imposed self-injurious tariffs on foreign goods, or compelled the U.S. military to recommit to torture. For the most part, the president has surrounded himself with members of the responsible Republican governing class who matured politically in the Reagan era and speak conservatism fluently. Where Trump has resorted to his nativist or populist instincts, many members of the movement he captured criticize him freely. Amid policy failures like the several botched iterations of the travel ban or rhetorical flops—separating the “good people” out from a neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville and attacking immigrants from “s***hole” countries, for example—the fissures within the conservative movement become clear. And yet, to hear the self-appointed taxonomists of conservatism on the left tell it, those fissures don’t exist at all.
In 2015, when he wasn’t doing a bad impression of a conservative, candidate Donald Trump was explicitly running against conservatism’s excessive hostility toward government and its preening self-righteousness. In the process, he convinced even some Trump-skeptics on the right that conservatism had failed. More often than not, though, President Donald Trump has appealed to conservative policy and personnel out of necessity. There is no practical infrastructure in America for populist governance. Yet, for a movement that was supposedly so sternly rebuked in 2016, even this validation has not rendered Trump’s conservative detractors silent. They are as willing as ever to make the case that civility is not unilateral disarmament and expertise is not corruption. They are committed to presenting an alternative vision for leadership, both stylistically and substantively, when a provocateur proves he is ill-suited to the presidency.
What is happening on the right in the era of Trump is fascinating. It is a spectacle in its early days, and it defies classification, much less a comprehensive conclusion. Those commentators on the left forcing this political phenomenon into their preconceptions to score cheap points are doing their profession no favors.