House Speaker Paul Ryan had a good story to tell when he took to the lectern on Tuesday. Flanked by House Republican leadership, Ryan touted the positive effects of Republican reforms on the economy and individual take-home pay, the quality of health care available to American veterans, and successful efforts to combat human trafficking and opioid addiction. The headlines that emerged from that event were not, however, about Republican legislative accomplishments but about the GOP’s intraparty conflicts. When Ryan was asked about the president’s apparent desire to punish his critics who served the country under a Democratic president by stripping them of their security clearances, he dismissed that prospect offhand. “I think he’s trolling people, honestly,” the Speaker said. In other words, the president wasn’t seriously contemplating the grotesque abuse of his authority. He was just owning the libs.
Actions and statements with no higher purpose than triggering an instinctual response from Republican critics have been elevated to an art form in the Donald Trump era. To some of the president’s devotees, Trump’s greatest talent is his capacity to drive his opponents crazy. His facility for incitement, gas-lighting, and incivility compels his critics to abandon prudence and to mirror his worst impulses. There is a strategy here. By provoking an emotional response on the part of Trump’s critics, the president’s supporters believe that they appear sober and rational by comparison. And they’re not always wrong about that.
And yet, when the thrill of political combat subsides, a survey of the field of battle reveals that little has been gained. No minds were changed. No hearts were won. Not much of value has changed hands. Losses, however, can be quite high. The credibility of combatants on both sides of the contact line has been compromised. Uncommitted observers who witness these petty displays of cynicism and bad faith resolve only to avoid behaving in such a similarly contemptable fashion.
That was the message United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley took to the belly of the beast on Monday. In an appearance before an audience of high-school students sponsored by Turning Point USA, a group of young conservatives that has made a virtue of self-abasement so long as it provokes an irrational response in their critics, Haley informed them in the most sympathetic way possible that they were humiliating themselves.
“I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good, but step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this,” Haley said to a group that once encouraged its members to wear diapers and suckle pacifiers to communicate something to someone. “Are you persuading anyone?”
“We’ve all been guilty of it at some point or another,” she continued, “but this kind of speech isn’t leadership; it’s the exact opposite.” Haley contended that “real leadership is about persuasion” and in setting an example that others want to follow. Her speech was correctly interpreted not just as a criticism of Charlie Kirk, the young conservative who helms TPUSA and who has cultivated a reputation for subordinating principle and sound judgment to whatever Trump’s political imperative is at any given moment, but also of her boss and the movement that produced him.
Before Donald Trump won the Republican presidential nomination, the conservative activist class developed an unhealthy attachment to provocateurs. The value people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich, Richard Spencer, and others brought to the table was their capacity to send their opponents into fits of rage that, on occasion, culminated in violence. In the process of owning the libs, however, conservative activists blurred the distinctions between vacuous carnival barkers and conservatives of substance, such as Heather Mac Donald and Charles Murray, both of whom manage to inspire in their critics frothing fits of manic intemperance while still advancing conservative principles.
Haley’s friendly admonition was reportedly well received. A dutiful and effective servant of Donald Trump’s administration with nothing to prove, the ambassador is the perfect messenger for this vision of how the post-Trump conservative movement should conduct itself. Her message, however, was drowned out by Donald Trump’s embattled attorney general.
In his address to TPUSA’s student activists, Jeff Sessions attacked American universities for raising a “generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.” He mocked the students who beg to be infantilized by their colleges, and he scolded those schools for obliging. “They have cry closets, safe spaces, optional exams, therapy goats, and grade inflation,” he said. This is all reasonable and a broadly shared conservative critiques of higher education, though articulated in a combative style. But Sessions’s critique of censorious campus liberalism didn’t make the headline. What did was the refusal of America’s top cop to do tamp down the calls from this group of students to jail Donald Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“Lock her up,” Sessions laughed to chants of the same. “I heard that a long time over the last campaign.” Clinton will not be prosecuted for her conduct as Secretary of State, of course. But no one in that room cared much about the rule of law in that moment. The point of this exercise was to trigger the libs and thereby own them. Somehow.
As long as the Republican Party’s stakeholders believe that pantomiming Donald Trump’s act is a pathway to electoral success, it will be Jeff Sessions, not Nikki Haley, whose vision for the future of the GOP more reflects the desires of its activists. Only when prickly affectation and faithless provocation is demonstrated to be a losing proposition will conservatives render a negative verdict on the thoughtlessness that suffices for modern political discourse. Call it a turning point, and it might not be far off.