Commentary Magazine


Topic: Donald Trump

What If Conservatives Threw a Revolution and No One Came?

Republicans are on edge. The “base” is restless. Incandescent outrage over the way that the GOP’s elected representatives have dismissed and ignored their core voters is boiling over. Donald Trump, we are told, is the walking, bloviating manifestation of their righteous ire. A full-scale revolt is in the works, we are forever warned by the commentary class. It’s only just over the horizon. And yet, the revolution never seems to materialize. A look at the polls in the summer of an off year suggests that much of this dissatisfaction with Republican leaders, real as it is, is not shared by a critical mass of the party’s core voters.  Read More

Republicans are on edge. The “base” is restless. Incandescent outrage over the way that the GOP’s elected representatives have dismissed and ignored their core voters is boiling over. Donald Trump, we are told, is the walking, bloviating manifestation of their righteous ire. A full-scale revolt is in the works, we are forever warned by the commentary class. It’s only just over the horizon. And yet, the revolution never seems to materialize. A look at the polls in the summer of an off year suggests that much of this dissatisfaction with Republican leaders, real as it is, is not shared by a critical mass of the party’s core voters. 

Surely, spectacular and unequivocal failure wasn’t exactly what North Carolina Republican Representative Mark Meadows had in mind when he mounted a quixotic coup against House Speaker John Boehner this week. While he had to know the effort was doomed to fail from the start, perhaps he thought that his martyrdom would spark a grassroots movement of likeminded conservatives who have had enough with the House GOP leader. The measure Meadows submitted to remove Boehner from his post must be passed out of the Rules Committee where the GOP members, all of whom have Boehner to thank for their positions, are unlikely to look favorably upon it. “It isn’t deserving of a vote,” the House Speaker said, signaling that the measure’s fate is sealed.

Boehner dismissed the failed coup as merely a quirk of the American system whereby any majority that is large enough will always be near impossible to control. “We’ve got a member here, a member there, who are off the reservation,” he averred. “No big deal.” True, the Republican conference is a herd of cats. Even Nancy Pelosi faced grumbling among Democratic House Caucus members following a historic Democratic victory in 2008 for failing to embrace sufficiently left-wing policy prescriptions. She even faced a primary challenge that year from the anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan. But there was no leadership challenge from a representative of the ascendant progressive Democratic base. Indeed, after the party expanded its majorities in 2008, the only substantial change in Democratic leadership occurred when Henry Waxman took control of the House Energy and Commerce Committee from John Dingell. If Boehner cannot keep his members in line, perhaps it is time for a change at the top.

It would be a mistake, however, to confuse a lack of faith in GOP leadership for a vote of confidence in the insurrectionists. The loudest and most boisterous voices within the conservative movement appear eager to register their dissatisfaction with GOP leadership in whatever way possible, but their prominence and overrepresentation among activist elements within the conservative firmament may be presenting a distorted view of their actual influence. Polls suggest that there is far less dissension in the GOP’s ranks than is apparent at first glance.

A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this month revealed that the GOP’s favorability ratings have collapsed, and that implosion is due almost entirely to a loss of faith among self-identified Republicans. “Republicans, in particular, are now more critical of their own party than they were a few months ago,” Pew revealed. “About two-thirds (68%) express a favorable opinion of their party, the lowest share in more than two years. Six months ago, 86% of Republicans viewed the GOP positively.” So you might expect to see some of that antipathy expressed as frustration with the party’s elected leaders and a reduction in support for its candidates. So far, that has not occurred.

A Quinnipiac University poll released on Friday indicated that the GOP is still winning the generic congressional ballot tests ahead of the 2016 election. By 39 to 37 percent, more voters would back the Republican candidate for House races. Similarly, the Senatorial GOP candidate bests the Democratic candidate by 40 to 38 percent. In both cases, the GOP secures the support of 90 percent of self-described Republicans. Democrats, by contrast, are only able to maintain 86 and 87 percent support respectively. That indicates that the Democratic “base” is slightly more restive than even the GOP’s.

As for disaffection, Republicans remain far more enthusiastic about voting in 2016 than are their Democratic counterparts. A CNN/ORC survey released this week showed that 31 percent of Republicans are “extremely enthusiastic” about voting in 2016 whereas just 18 percent of surveyed Democrats said the same. The story is not all that different for self-described conservatives. By 27 to 22 percent, more conservatives than liberals would describe themselves as “extremely enthusiastic.”

If there is a grassroots conservative revolt in the works against the GOP “establishment” that serves as the boogieman for so many political commentators, it’s so sub rosa that it’s virtually imperceptible. There is plenty of evidence that indicates that conservatives — and Americans in general — are deeply dissatisfied with their congressional representatives. There is not, however, much evidence to support the contention that the “establishment” is days away from a revolt of the masses that will result in a radical realignment. In fact, the opposite is the case; Republican voters seem prepared if not eager to affirm their support for the party next November.

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The Daily Beast’s Unfair Attack On Trump Will Benefit Him

I’m no great fan of Donald Trump, as readers of this site know. But I agree with Fox’s Howard Kurtz, who wrote that this story on Trump in The Daily Beast should not have been published — and certainly it should not have been published in this way. Justifying its story based on what Mr. Trump said about Mexicans coming across the southern border being “rapists,” The Daily Beast wrote. Read More

I’m no great fan of Donald Trump, as readers of this site know. But I agree with Fox’s Howard Kurtz, who wrote that this story on Trump in The Daily Beast should not have been published — and certainly it should not have been published in this way. Justifying its story based on what Mr. Trump said about Mexicans coming across the southern border being “rapists,” The Daily Beast wrote.

It was an unfortunate turn of phrase for Trump—in more ways than one. Not only does the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination have a history of controversial remarks about sexual assault, but as it turns out, his ex-wife Ivana Trump once used “rape” to describe an incident between them in 1989. She later said she felt “violated” by the experience.

But as Kurtz points out, “we’re talking here about a single allegation, made in the heat of a highly contested divorce, that Ivana [Trump’s first wife] largely walked back then — and dismisses today. And to tie that to Trump’s controversial comment about Mexican illegal immigrants including ‘rapists’ is to use a very thin reed indeed.”

I don’t pretend there are obvious standards regarding when and how to write a story like this. The past, at least parts of the past, are fair game for those running for president. The question here is one of judgment as to whether this story should have been published — and if so, what the proper tone, rhetoric, and placement of the story should have been. If you take everything together, I agree with Kurtz who said it “reads like a hit job calculated to harm Trump.”

That doesn’t excuse, by the way, the thuggish threat made against the reporters by Trump’s counsel, Michael Cohen, and which is quoted in the Kurtz story. It seems to me his words are newsworthy and indicative of something alarming about the ethos of the Trump campaign. It’s the original story, though, that troubles me.

My guess is it doesn’t particularly trouble Mr. Trump. He thrives on this kind of political combat, and this story will be perceived by many on the right as being more reason to support him. The thinking goes something like this: If liberal news outlets attack Trump, he must be doing something right. And: we’re obligated to rally to Trump’s side when he’s being unfairly targeted by the press. In this instance, I think he was.

I have multiple concerns with Donald Trump, but the story that appeared in The Daily Beast is not one of them. Reporters have to try to play it straight, even (and maybe especially) with candidates they like and don’t like. The story on Trump came across to me, at least, as advocacy journalism, as a story that was guided by ideology more than a disinterested analysis of the facts. If that’s true of me, I’m sure it’s true of those who are more favorably disposed to Trump than I.

The Daily Beast may have thought this story would hurt Donald Trump. My bet is it will help him.

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The Trump-Clinton Connection About More Than Cash

In detailing the four reasons why I think that Donald Trump’s current surge to the top of the Republican nomination race yesterday, I noted that the kind of scrutiny presidential candidates receive is different from that accorded celebrities. The real estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-politician is learning that lesson today as he is forced to endure the Daily Beast’s airing of the dirty linen from his first divorce. The site ran an article based on a gossipy book about Trump’s personal life published 25 years ago alleging that he had raped his first wife Ivana. The fact that the former Mrs. Trump denies the accusations she made at the time and is supporting Trump’s campaign should have taken the air out of the story. But what made it newsworthy were the vulgar threats Trump’s lawyer issued to the publication that the candidate has now walked back. It’s doubtful that anything the Daily Beast publishes will influence Trump’s fans, so perhaps we should simply file this sordid business away as another example of how nasty politics has become in the age of the Internet. But if anyone thinks this is anything but the start of the press’s excavation of his life, they are mistaken. If the last month of our national political life has been given over to the Donald show on the campaign trail, in the coming weeks and months we’ll be getting more information about Trump’s life than most of us will be able to stand.

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In detailing the four reasons why I think that Donald Trump’s current surge to the top of the Republican nomination race yesterday, I noted that the kind of scrutiny presidential candidates receive is different from that accorded celebrities. The real estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-politician is learning that lesson today as he is forced to endure the Daily Beast’s airing of the dirty linen from his first divorce. The site ran an article based on a gossipy book about Trump’s personal life published 25 years ago alleging that he had raped his first wife Ivana. The fact that the former Mrs. Trump denies the accusations she made at the time and is supporting Trump’s campaign should have taken the air out of the story. But what made it newsworthy were the vulgar threats Trump’s lawyer issued to the publication that the candidate has now walked back. It’s doubtful that anything the Daily Beast publishes will influence Trump’s fans, so perhaps we should simply file this sordid business away as another example of how nasty politics has become in the age of the Internet. But if anyone thinks this is anything but the start of the press’s excavation of his life, they are mistaken. If the last month of our national political life has been given over to the Donald show on the campaign trail, in the coming weeks and months we’ll be getting more information about Trump’s life than most of us will be able to stand.

The question of what is or is not the public’s business when it comes to presidential candidates can be a thorny one. There are plenty of reasons not to vote for Donald Trump for president without getting into his personal life. Moreover, the double standard by which Republicans are subjected to the sort of minute scrutiny that is usually not accorded liberals and Democrats also ensures that a lot of people on the right are going to instinctively sympathize with Trump or any other GOP candidate who is given a going over in this manner. The New York Times 2008 hit piece on John McCain alleging an affair that the article didn’t prove is a classic example. When, as in the case of Mitt Romney, there aren’t even hints of scandal in a candidate’s private life, the media will dig something else up like the Washington Post’s “expose” of his high school prank in which he and others gave another kid a haircut.

But when it comes to Trump, that sort of extensive digging won’t be necessary. He has spent most of the last 30 years more or less living on the New York Post’s Page Six gossip column. That won’t make it right, but it also ensures that there is a never-ending supply of embarrassing or undignified quotes or incidents to be brought up whenever possible. While a reality show or billionaire celebrity might want that kind of attention, this won’t help someone running for president. An example came this morning in the New York Times with a feature discussing the vast store of information about the candidate that can be culled from an examination of his testimony under oath in the countless lawsuits in which he has been involved during his decades in business. Compared to the fishing expeditions to put Mitt Romney’s largely exemplary business record under the microscope in 2012, examining Trump’s record will be like shooting ducks in a barrel for the media.

In response to the Beast story, some on the right are chirping about why it is that the same venues that are ready to recycle allegations of rape directed at him during the course of a nasty and expensive divorce battle when they never did the same with the credible evidence and allegations about former President Clinton raping Juanita Broderick. They are right about that. But that also points up a serious problem about Trump. In choosing him, Republicans would be embracing a candidate who is asking us to judge him by the same flexible standards that only a Clinton would demand.

Just as Clinton’s co-dependant claimed that those circulating unflattering information about the 42nd president were part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” so now we have Team Trump threatening to ruin journalists for even thinking about writing stories about his past. Having a representative that denies that spousal rape is a crime is an invitation for the Democrats to air out their faux “war on women” meme in a way that would never work against Clinton. Indeed, the connection between Trump and the Clintons goes beyond his contributions to Hillary’s Senate campaigns and the Clinton Family Foundation. In Trump, the Republicans have found their own Bill Clinton, minus the charm and the skill in governing.

For Trump, the rape story was a “welcome to the NFL” moment in which he was reminded that running for president involves the press going over a candidate’s life with a fine tooth comb and airing incidents that all concerned would prefer to keep buried. That won’t deter those of his fans who love him because he is outrageous and not in spite of it. Just as some voters embrace because of his vile comments about John McCain’s time as a POW in Vietnam, others will regard such stories as a reason to back him all the more. But this Trump-Clinton connection chips away at the notion that he is invulnerable or electable. It should also pour cold water on the notion that he is somehow different from politicians. To the contrary, Trump embodies all of the worst aspects of our political life in terms of his gutter attack tactics and a Clintonesque sense of entitlement and belief that he should never be held accountable for anything he does or says.

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Carly Fiorina: The Substantive Donald Trump Alternative

Political reporters are less vexed by the reasoning behind Donald Trump’s decision to mount a narcissistic campaign of self-aggrandizement disguised as a presidential bid than they are by the fact that it resonates with so many Republican primary voters. More than a few pieces have been penned amid the effort to understand the Trump surge and the primary voters that make up his base of support. The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel submitted one of the best dispatches on the subject after spending several days covering the Trump campaign on the ground. He discovered that Trump has staying power, and not merely because of what he represents but because of who he is and how he is running for the highest office in the land. But all those traits that make him attractive to GOP primary voters are present in another candidate: Carly Fiorina.  Read More

Political reporters are less vexed by the reasoning behind Donald Trump’s decision to mount a narcissistic campaign of self-aggrandizement disguised as a presidential bid than they are by the fact that it resonates with so many Republican primary voters. More than a few pieces have been penned amid the effort to understand the Trump surge and the primary voters that make up his base of support. The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel submitted one of the best dispatches on the subject after spending several days covering the Trump campaign on the ground. He discovered that Trump has staying power, and not merely because of what he represents but because of who he is and how he is running for the highest office in the land. But all those traits that make him attractive to GOP primary voters are present in another candidate: Carly Fiorina. 

Weigel’s excellent report should be read by all who cover political campaigns, and particularly those in the pundit class who – myself included – believed all the laws of political physics should apply to Trump and have been shocked to learn that they do not. Despite all the historic forces arrayed against his steady rise in the polls, perhaps because of them, Trump remains buoyed by the support of nearly a quarter of the GOP electorate. Weigel points to a variety of elements of the conventional wisdom that have failed commentators. Trump’s rude antagonism toward Republicans is a net plus among his supporters. Voters see his tactlessness as honesty. His wealth leads voters to believe he is beholden to no donor. The fun he is having on the trail is infectious. Finally and most consequentially, he has assembled the rudimentary staffing scaffolds that could become the foundation of a real campaign team.

On paper, these qualities are equally attributable to the former Hewlett-Packard CEO running for the Republican nomination. Fiorina is quite wealthy; with an estimated net worth of $60 million, she doesn’t have Trump’s $2.9 billion on hand (a far cry from the $10 billion his campaign alleged the real estate magnate to possess), but she is certainly in no one’s pocket. Fiorina is blunt and antagonistic toward those who deserve her scorn, although she reserves her barbs primarily for Democrats – a substantial stylistic distinction from Trump, who attacks Republicans almost exclusively. She’s an outsider and a patrician who is not a member of the political class – a fortunate outcome of losing her 2010 U.S. Senate bid against California’s Barbara Boxer.

“Regularly, she says things that don’t normally come out of politicians’ mouths,” National Review’s Jay Nordlinger discerned while profiling the former CEO. “For instance, she describes wind power as the pet of ‘ideologues in the environmental movement.’ Those turbines are ‘slicing up hundreds of thousands of birds every year.’ True, but who says it, among politicians?”

One intangible aspect of Trump’s allure that Weigel doesn’t touch on is the likelihood that the celebrity’s supporters are so drawn to him, at least in part, because the rest of the political universe is repulsed by him. This is one stylistic element of Trump’s approach to running for the White House that Fiorina will not be able to duplicate. Perhaps no Republican running for the 2016 nomination outside Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker so excites both “establishment” Republicans and the outside-the-Beltway activist class as does Fiorina.

“Every stop never gets off message,” observed radio host Rush Limbaugh last week. “She handles the media with aplomb and skill and it’s obvious she enjoys doing it, and she’s schooling people. She’s showing how it’s done.”

“[S]he is someone who Republicans need to have in the race because she is a woman and she is a successful woman,” GOP campaign strategist Ford O’Connell told Politico last January. From conservative talkers to the consulting class and many in between, Fiorina has struck a chord.

And, yet, she polls especially poorly among Republican primary voters. In a CNN/ORC survey of the national GOP primary electorate released on Tuesday, Fiorina secured just 1 percent of the vote with 4 percent of GOP voters dubbing her their second choice candidate. That lackluster performance may change, however, when Republican voters get a chance to assess Fiorina vis-à-vis her Republican opponents on the debate stage.

The Republicans in attendance rose to their feet at the conclusion of Fiorina’s foreign policy address at the Reagan Library on Monday night. In the address, she identified the threats facing the United States – from a nuclearizing Iran to Chinese revanchism – and she laid out a compelling case for a robust American defense of its interests abroad and those of its allies.

Taking questions from the audience at the conclusion of her speech, Fiorina was asked by an honest and frustrated Republican voter how she would, as president, force Republican congressional leaders to heed the will of the GOP’s base voters. “I believe ours was intended to be a citizen government; of, by, and for the people,” Fiorina replied. “I don’t know when we got used to this idea that only a professional political class can hold public office. It used to be, for most of our nation’s history, that leaders would step forward out of private life, and serve for a time, and return to private life.”

Rather than, as Trump has suggested, wrestled a co-equal branch of government into submission through sheer force of personality and, if necessary, imperial overreach similar to that practiced by Barack Obama, Fiorina went on to define how her administration would mobilize public pressure by, for example, using mobile technology to bombard elected leaders with text message and telephone calls. Those Trump supporters who have not entirely succumbed to fatalistic nihilism and continue to see aspects of the republic worth preserving will see this as a feasible and preferable alternative to governing through bombast.

“Margaret Thatcher, a woman I admire greatly, once said that she was not content to manage the decline of a great nation,” Fiorina said near the close of her address. “Neither am I. I am prepared to lead the resurgence of a great nation.” It was Trump’s “make America great again,” but with a touch more – well, the reality television star might call it “class.”

Don’t expect Trump’s supporters to bolt into Fiorina’s camp anytime soon. Stylistically, she is more a contrast to Trump than a compliment. His supporters want to make a statement and issue a vote of no confidence in the Republican Party. Fiorina will not satisfy that desire. On paper, however, she could serve as a capable and viable Trump alternative.

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Four Reasons Trump Will Fade

Yesterday, our John Podhoretz spoke for many Americans when he found it impossible to view the rise of Donald Trump in the polls with anything but despair. John’s description of Trump’s approach to issues was entirely correct. In a business where outsize egos are a dime a dozen, Trump’s megalomania is a defining characteristic and his bluster has served to cover up the fact that he has a deplorable record on conservative issues and has no coherent approach to governance or ideology. The size of the support he has engendered is troubling because he could well alter the outcome of the 2016 election by either capturing the Republican Party nomination outright or it could encourage him to try a third party run that will guarantee victory for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. But before we write off the GOP’s chances and begin the process of explicating the new political age of Trump, a moment of calm is called for. Though everything we are seeing in the last few weeks lends credence to the notion that the Trump phenomenon is real and permanent, it is important to remember that is it just as likely that the real estate mogul turned reality star turned presidential candidate will fizzle long before the votes start getting counted next winter. What follows are four reasons Trump will fade.

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Yesterday, our John Podhoretz spoke for many Americans when he found it impossible to view the rise of Donald Trump in the polls with anything but despair. John’s description of Trump’s approach to issues was entirely correct. In a business where outsize egos are a dime a dozen, Trump’s megalomania is a defining characteristic and his bluster has served to cover up the fact that he has a deplorable record on conservative issues and has no coherent approach to governance or ideology. The size of the support he has engendered is troubling because he could well alter the outcome of the 2016 election by either capturing the Republican Party nomination outright or it could encourage him to try a third party run that will guarantee victory for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. But before we write off the GOP’s chances and begin the process of explicating the new political age of Trump, a moment of calm is called for. Though everything we are seeing in the last few weeks lends credence to the notion that the Trump phenomenon is real and permanent, it is important to remember that is it just as likely that the real estate mogul turned reality star turned presidential candidate will fizzle long before the votes start getting counted next winter. What follows are four reasons Trump will fade.

Yes, I know. To even suggest that Trump is not the embodiment of a new political revolution will bring down on me both scorn and vitriol from the celebrity candidate’s many fans that will compete with each other to channel their hero’s trademark viciousness in excoriating critics.

The attacks from Trump loyalists on that score won’t be entirely unreasonable. Trump’s support may not last but until it does disappear his fans are entitled to see it as a substantial endorsement of his personality and combative nature if not every aspect of his candidacy. Before we try to bury Trump, it’s important to understand that his boomlet is a genuine reflection of frustration on the part of a portion of the Republican base.

The key element that Trump exploited was anger about illegal immigration. Some of that can be dismissed as rooted in prejudicial attitudes toward Hispanics. Trump’s offensive comments about Mexican illegal immigrants being rapists and drug dealers may have rightly earned him some harsh condemnations but there is a portion of the electorate that is actually turned on by a willingness to flout both convention and courtesy. He is, after all, a reality TV star and the same qualities that work for him in that format help him in politics.

But not all of this is about prejudice. Much of it has to do with resentment of the political establishment of both parties. The fact that he is not really a conservative and hasn’t much idea about how government works doesn’t bother those who are so angry that they applaud a simple-minded blowhard approach that can’t distinguish between the political process and the problems it is failing to address. As our Pete Wehner noted last week, this is a case of populism masquerading as conservatism but that won’t stop Trump from garnering a sizeable share of a GOP base that may have, at least for the moment, decided that a full-blown outsider like Trump is to be preferred to other genuine conservative insurgents who are working within the political system including someone like Ted Cruz who seems at times to be attempting to blow it up from within.

But while it may seem like the Trump tide will never recede, let’s remember a few key facts about Donaldmania.

First, polls taken in the July of the year before a presidential election are not a reliable barometer of what the situation will be in the fall let alone the following winter and spring. Trump’s poll numbers are a product of enormous media coverage, celebrity and a contrarian streak in the body politic that will always applaud a genuine outlier. It may be permanent, but it could also vanish as quickly as it arose.

Second, the first debates may, as John pointed out, be all about Trump. But there is no reason to assume that his bluster will carry the day in that kind of a forum where he cannot hush critics or control the questions. Even if he blithely assumes that the force of his personality and celebrity will crush his more conventional opponents, that blind confidence could wind up making him look like a fool when arrayed against policy wonks and champion debaters who, unlike Trump, actually know what they are talking about when it comes to policy questions.

Third, the assumption on the part of some that a public that has been watching Trump on TV for years already knows all it cares to learn about the man is equally unfounded. I doubt that most of those on the right applauding his outrageous act are aware of Trump’s long history of backing for liberal causes and even his financial support for Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaigns and their family charity that operates as a political slush fund for the former first couple. Will that matter? Trump thinks not, but he shouldn’t be so sure. Trump has been subjected to intense scrutiny as a celebrity, but he has yet to learn that the gossip page items that actually help a TV star will hurt a presidential wannabe.

Fourth, as I noted last week, the basic culture of American democracy is something that is designed to trip up demagogues. This wouldn’t be the first case of populism run amuck in American history and there are some obvious examples of outlier figures having a major impact on the outcome of elections. A charismatic figure like William Jennings Bryan may not have offered any more of a coherent approach to governance than Trump in the 1890s, but the force of his rhetoric captured the Democratic Party for a generation. And, as John noted, Trump may turn out to be the second coming of Ross Perot with equally disastrous implications for Republicans as that Third Party candidate that effectively handed the country over to the Clintons. Americans many not always see through charlatans running for office, but underestimating their ability to smell a fraud is a sucker’s bet.

Make a note to call me a false prophet if I’m wrong, but the bottom line is that I still say Trump won’t be the GOP nominee. More than that, I believe we’ll look back at the panic he caused in the GOP this summer as another example of how the political class and pundits can be so wrapped up in the moment that they fail to see the big picture. It’s time to take a deep breath and wait for the inevitable moment when the air starts to come out of his balloon.

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Conservatism and the Channeling of Popular Passions

Last week, in the context of the rise in political support on the right for Donald Trump, I wrote about the distinction between populism and conservatism. There is room for populism within conservatism, I said, but it should not define it.

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Last week, in the context of the rise in political support on the right for Donald Trump, I wrote about the distinction between populism and conservatism. There is room for populism within conservatism, I said, but it should not define it.

In expanding on this thought, it might be useful to invoke one of the most magnificent of the American founders. In his book Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father, Michael Signer writes about the importance James Madison placed on governing the passions. “The greatest danger Madison saw for America lay within the body politic itself,” Signer writes:

The passions were native to human beings and thus to democracy. His project since youth had been to discipline, tame, and channel the passions. The checks and balances Madison ultimately proposed in his constitution would help contain the passions, preventing them from taking over entirely. But to channel and govern them would require leaders like Madison – individuals with the mission of steering the anger and love and hatred and enthusiasm of the country’s people toward governance of themselves.

One of the 20th centuries greatest public intellectuals, Irving Kristol, made a similar point in his July 25, 1985 Wall Street Journal column (Adam White of the Manhattan Institute was the person who alerted me to it). Mr. Kristol wrote the following:

My friend the late Martin Diamond, one of the most thoughtful of political scientists, used to say that the American democracy is based on one key assumption: that the people are usually sensible, but rarely wise. The function of our complex constitutional structure is to extract what wisdom is available in the people, at any moment in time, and give it a role in government Our system of representation (as distinct from direct, participatory democracy) is supposed to play this role, as do the bicameral Congress, the separation of powers, our federal arrangements, and the Constitution itself with its careful delineation of rights and prerogatives. Ultimately, of course, the popular will cannot be denied in a democracy. But only “ultimately.” Short of the ultimate, the Founders thought it appropriate that popular sentiments should be delayed in their course, refracted in their expression, revised in their enactment, so that a more deliberate public opinion could prevail over a transient popular opinion.

The threat to a more deliberate public opinion was what we now call populism (the term wasn’t known at the time of the founders). But there are better or worse manifestations of populism, and in his column Kristol argued that the common sense of the American people had been outraged over the course of two decades by “the persistent un-wisdom of their elected and appointed officials.” To the degree that we are witnessing a crisis in our democratic institutions, he wrote 30 years ago, it was a crisis of our disoriented elites, not of a blindly impassioned populace. Which is why Kristol was rather untroubled by, and even somewhat sympathetic to, what he called a “new populism,” whose purpose was to bring the governing elites to their senses.

Which brings us to the here and now. We’re at a moment in which there’s tremendous anger among many Americans, who are deeply unhappy with our governing elites. This anger and unhappiness is largely justified, though it also needs to be said that the American people are also complicit in the government they have and the people they elected. (The messiness we see in our politics is a result, at least in part, of the public’s conflicting desires.)

One of the great tasks of conservative statesmanship today is precisely the one Madison so brilliantly understood, which is not to dismiss the passions and legitimate anger of the people but to channel and shape them in constructive ways – to advocate solutions rather than to stoke resentments, to affirm the better rather than the darker instincts of our nature. This Madisonian ideal is still the standard by which voters – especially those who say they revere the Constitution and its architects — should judge those who seek to lead this good and generous and remarkable republic.

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Trump: The Case for Despairing — About America

No sense pretending: Donald Trump is the only news of the 2016 race, and this fact says something very troubling about the Republican party, the conservative electorate, the mass media culture, and the United States in general. Sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not. Really it’s not.

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No sense pretending: Donald Trump is the only news of the 2016 race, and this fact says something very troubling about the Republican party, the conservative electorate, the mass media culture, and the United States in general. Sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not. Really it’s not.

Ted Cruz goes to war with the GOP Senate leadership; Hillary Clinton proposes the highest tax rates in 70 years; Marco Rubio goes after John Kerry on the Iran deal in a Senate hearing. Well, big deal. Phffft. They’ve all been crowded out by the Trump noise. There will be the first Republican debate in ten days. It’s the most important political event of the year thus far. And it will be all about Trump. He will see to that; the reporters will see to that, and the minor candidates looking to move up will see to it by trying to pick fights with him and best him.

It’s not enough to say that there are matters of deathly seriousness to be discussed, from Iran to ISIS to the possible collapse of the Euro and the Chinese economy to the harvesting of fetal organs, because there are always serious matters to be discussed as elections approach. The issue with Trump is that his approach can only be called “the politics of unseriousness.” He engages with no issue, merely offers a hostile and pithy soundbite bromide about it. He yammers. He describes how wonderful things will be when he acts against something or other without explaining how he will act, what he will do, or how it will work.

The Trump view, boiled down: They’re all idiots and I’m very rich and I know how to do things and if you say Word One against me I will say something incredibly nasty about you and who cares about how the Senate works or the House works or international alliances work or how treaties work or how anything works. That stuff is for sissies and losers and disasters. I know how to do it I me me me I me me I I me. And me. And I.

Politics and megalomania go hand in hand — otherwise, why would the ancient emperors have had someone whispering “Caesar, thou art mortal” in their ears as they paraded triumphantly through Rome to remind them they were not gods? To take one random example, Ed Koch, a very good politician indeed and one who did very good things, spent the last 20 years of his life literally incapable of speaking a sentence that was not in the first person. When I made a close study of the presidency of George H. W. Bush for my first book, Hell of a Ride, I discovered to my amazement that his speeches too were remarkably self-referential and his policies often came down to a kind of “what should a person like me in this situation do” rather than representing a serious grappling with the issues at play. In that book, I called Bush’s time in the White House a “solipsistic presidency,” and the charge still stands.

Trump is something different. He is not a politician whose success has turned him into a megalomaniac, but a megalomaniac who has decided to play politician for a while the way he played being a reality television star for a while. He’s free to do this, of course.

The problem is not with him. The problem has to do with his reception. He is garnering support that may actually be real, and may actually change the course of the 2016 election — and, therefore, American history — through nothing more than blowhardism.

Efforts to figure out how to coopt him and his issues on the part of other Republicans are doomed to failure because it’s not the message that people are attracted to; it’s the messenger. Or, if it is the message, it is a message that cannot be coopted because it is little more than a vile expression of open hatred toward Mexicans in a country where people of Mexican descent make up 11 percent of the electorate. For those who want Trump because of it, anything less than his defamation will strike them as the castrated bleating of what they have started to call a “cuckservative.”

And while happy talk (some of which I’ve indulged in myself) may dismiss Trump as this year’s flash-in-the-pan like the 2012 Republican also-rans, right now he’s more likely a version of Ross Perot in 1992 — the man who got Bill Clinton elected. Perot managed to convince people he was only in it to talk about the deficit and the national debt when it was probably more the case he was running out of a long-standing personal animus toward George H.W. Bush and a desire to deny him the presidency based on an imagined slight. Trump doesn’t even have a real issue to bring in Democrats and Republicans dissatisfied with their choices. Trump is Trump’s issue.

These are unhappy times in the United States, and unhappy times generate unhappy political outcomes. Last week I made the case for despair following the Iran deal. I know people always want commentary that offers a path forward, a way out of trouble, a hope for something better. Sometimes, though, you just have to sit back and despair at the condition of things, and maybe from the despair some new wisdom may emerge.

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The Donald is Still Hillary’s Best Friend

Hillary Clinton has long had good reason to like Donald Trump. The real estate mogul-turned-reality TV star-turned-Republican presidential candidate was a major donor to her campaigns for the Senate. He also gave $100,000 to the thinly-disguised political slush fund that is the Clinton Family Foundation, giving him the unique status as both a potential Hillary opponent and an enabler of the Clinton Cash scandals. But the former First Lady has even more immediate reasons to be grateful to The Donald. Trump’s domination of the news cycle the last few weeks has not only sucked all the oxygen out of the room for other Republican candidates. The relentless coverage of his every move and outrageous statement has also had the effect of obscuring the slow motion implosion of her presidential campaign. Had he stayed on the sidelines to kibitz as he has in previous election cycles, it might have been Hillary’s horrific poll numbers and her increasing weakness against an implausible Bernie Sanders candidacy might be leading the cable news shows. Instead, we’re treated to daily analyses of Trump putdowns of fellow Republicans and coverage of his appearances as if they were global summits. If this keeps up — and at this point, there’s no reason to think it won’t — Hillary may be able to ride out the summer and the fall without too much attention being paid to her troubles.

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Hillary Clinton has long had good reason to like Donald Trump. The real estate mogul-turned-reality TV star-turned-Republican presidential candidate was a major donor to her campaigns for the Senate. He also gave $100,000 to the thinly-disguised political slush fund that is the Clinton Family Foundation, giving him the unique status as both a potential Hillary opponent and an enabler of the Clinton Cash scandals. But the former First Lady has even more immediate reasons to be grateful to The Donald. Trump’s domination of the news cycle the last few weeks has not only sucked all the oxygen out of the room for other Republican candidates. The relentless coverage of his every move and outrageous statement has also had the effect of obscuring the slow motion implosion of her presidential campaign. Had he stayed on the sidelines to kibitz as he has in previous election cycles, it might have been Hillary’s horrific poll numbers and her increasing weakness against an implausible Bernie Sanders candidacy might be leading the cable news shows. Instead, we’re treated to daily analyses of Trump putdowns of fellow Republicans and coverage of his appearances as if they were global summits. If this keeps up — and at this point, there’s no reason to think it won’t — Hillary may be able to ride out the summer and the fall without too much attention being paid to her troubles.

There’s no point denying that Trump is the most entertaining presidential candidate we’ve had in a long time even if he’s also the least thoughtful and most vulgar. Every Trump event, such as the chaotic dog-and-pony show he put on at the border in Laredo, Texas yesterday, is transformed by the sheer unpredictability of his behavior into a global news event covered obsessively by the cable news networks. The same goes for every interview as pundits and journalists wait for Trump to insult one of his GOP rivals or to hint, as he has this week to the horror of his party, that he might run as a third-party candidate next year if the Republican National Committee offends him with “unfair” treatment.

For the moment, all this has the effect of leaving all the more credible would-be GOP opponents of Hillary flailing in frustration at Trump’s antics, insults and ability to rise in the polls. The more they hit back the more Trump likes it since it feeds his image as a “fighter” who is out to knock off a failed political establishment. But the cooler heads among them have to know that it can’t last. Sooner or later, Trump is going to start being scrutinized the way presidential candidates are examined and his record of support for liberals and liberal causes will start to take the air out of his balloon. Trump’s negatives are too high to allow him to be a legitimate threat for the nomination let alone the general election. Republicans should also be confident that his buffoonish persona is also bound to trip him up enough times to ultimately undermine any notion that he ride the support of a populist surge and anger about illegal immigration to the nomination.

But the help all of this is giving to Hillary is priceless. Trumpmania has enabled her to fly beneath the radar even when she weighs in on hot button issues. Her defense of Planned Parenthood in the face of their infant body parts sale scandal may impress the liberal base of the Democratic Party, but it also exposes her to attack. Yet no one is talking about Hillary allowing her to get away with continuing to refuse to talk to the press.

More important, the Trump factor has also almost silenced discussion of Hillary’s toxic poll numbers in battleground states against possible GOP opponents as well as the terrible results she gets on whether people trust her. In a normal political year, this would become the number one story lending further momentum to the surprisingly effective challenge to her coronation by Senator Bernie Sanders or even tempting other more plausible candidates like Senator Elizabeth Warren or Vice President Joe Biden into the race.

Clinton also has to hope that Trump is so enjoying the ride he’s on that he won’t want to get off even when he fails to win primaries next winter and spring. It’s easy to imagine Trump manufacturing some feud with the RNC and attempting a third-party run next summer and fall. Of course, that would be the ultimate favor for Hillary and the Democrats since it would more or less guarantee her election as president no matter how weak a candidate she proved to be.

The extension of the Trump campaign well into 2016 is the ultimate nightmare for Republicans, but there is little they can do about it other than to try and ignore him and hope, as they should, that the overwhelming majority of voters reject his brand of faux conservatism. In the meantime, he will continue to give aid and comfort to the Clinton campaign that is far more valuable than his past financial support for their fake charity or her Senate campaigns.

 

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When Populism Masquerades As Conservatism

The Donald Trump candidacy has revealed something important about a certain slice of the conservative world. Many right-wing personalities – including Fox’s Eric Bolling and Steve Doocy, radio talk show hosts Mark Levin, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh and the writer/commentator Ann Coulter – have come to the defense of Donald Trump when he’s been criticized by the “establishment,” in part because he’s been criticized by the “establishment,” the theory being the enemy of my enemy is my friend. (Forget for now that many people who claim to be “anti-establishment” in fact personify the establishment by any reasonable definition.)

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The Donald Trump candidacy has revealed something important about a certain slice of the conservative world. Many right-wing personalities – including Fox’s Eric Bolling and Steve Doocy, radio talk show hosts Mark Levin, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh and the writer/commentator Ann Coulter – have come to the defense of Donald Trump when he’s been criticized by the “establishment,” in part because he’s been criticized by the “establishment,” the theory being the enemy of my enemy is my friend. (Forget for now that many people who claim to be “anti-establishment” in fact personify the establishment by any reasonable definition.)

There have been notable exceptions, but even in the context of Trump’s comments on John McCain, the criticisms of Trump have been extremely muted. There were even some attempts to justify what Trump said. According to Trump’s defenders, his words were taken out of context. They praised Trump for not apologizing. It was Republican “midgets” who were attacking him. The reason Trump is being condemned is because he’s politically incorrect, it’s been said; he won’t play by the rules others do. The real offense was less what Trump said about McCain than the piling on by critics of the television host and hotelier.

“Donald Trump is like a Navy SEAL,” according to Fox’s Steve Doocy. “He never backs down when he’s in a fight.”

To be clear, not everyone I have mentioned supports Trump for president. But they all see things in Trump they admire; they are very reluctant to attack him, and they constantly give him the benefit of the doubt and praise what they consider to be his virtues. They repeatedly point to Trump as someone from whom other conservatives can learn, even someone they should emulate.

Now consider this: Most of the people I’ve mentioned have been critical, and often harshly critical, of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, on the grounds that he’s not a “true” conservative. Some have even argued that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are “two peas in the same pod.”

This is a rather bizarre charge. You don’t have to support Jeb Bush for president in 2016 to acknowledge he was among the most successful and conservative governors in several generations. (Jeb Bush’s record was, as George Will has pointed out, “measurably more conservative” than that of Ronald Reagan during his two-term governorship of California. I’ve documented Governor Bush’s conservative achievements here.)

Now let’s turn to Trump’s record, which I’ve laid out before, and is essential to re-state for the purposes of my argument. Mr. Trump has supported massive tax increases on the wealthy, a Canadian-style single-payer health care system and is a fierce protectionist. He once declared himself “strongly pro-choice” and favored drug legalization. Earlier this year he accused Republicans who want to reform entitlement programs – the essential task for those who favor limited government — of “attacking” Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Barack Obama couldn’t have stated it better.

That’s not all. For most of the last decade, Trump was a registered Democrat. As of 2011, he had given a majority of his $1.3 million political contributions to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Chuck Schumer.

Even on immigration, the issue that has won over the hearts of many on the right, Trump has been erratic. In 2012, he criticized Mitt Romney’s “crazy policy of self-deportation, which was maniacal. It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote … He lost the Asian vote. He lost everybody who is inspired to come into this country.”

Trump also said this:

For people that have been here for years that have been hard-workers, have good jobs, they’re supporting their family — it’s very, very tough to just say, ”By the way, 22 years, you have to leave. Get out.” … I have to tell you on a human basis, how do you throw somebody out that’s lived in this country for 20 years.

And in 2010, this:

You have American interests hiring [illegal immigrants], absolutely. And many cases, they’re great workers. The biggest problem is you have great people come in from Mexico working crops and cutting lawns that I’m not sure a lot of Americans are going to take those jobs. That’s the dichotomy. That’s the problem. You have a lot of great people coming in doing a lot of work. And I’m not so sure that a lot of other people are doing that work so it’s a very tough problem.

These are the kind of statements that, if said today, would cause Ms. Coulter to shake with rage. Yet the author of ¡Adios, America! The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole is among Trump’s strongest supporters.

Nobody in the GOP field has amassed anything like the liberal record of Trump. It makes Susan Collins’s political stands over the years look like Barry Goldwater’s. Yet some of those who fashion themselves as “constitutional conservatives,” principled and uncompromising, the heirs of Reagan, the keepers of the flame, have found themselves far more favorable to Trump than to Jeb Bush — a man who, unlike Trump, has sterling conservative achievements to his name. (What he and other conservatives like Marco Rubio don’t have is the serrated rhetoric of Trump.)

What this demonstrates – and why the whole controversy about Donald Trump is about more than simply Donald Trump – is that some of those who claim to speak for conservatism may not be quite as interested in conservative policies and conservative philosophy as they profess. At least, it’s become subordinate to other considerations. I say that because if policies and philosophy were as important as they claim, it seems reasonable to conclude that these same people would lacerate Trump (as they lacerate so many others they believe are insufficiently pure) rather than embrace and defend him.

There’s no rational reason self-described conservatives who accuse Jeb Bush of being a RINO, a “neo-statist,” and a Hillary Clinton clone would treat Donald Trump with respect and deference and find reasons to defend and praise him. Something quite odd is clearly going on here.

Mr. Trump is given a special absolution – amnesty, if you will – from his past/current liberal deeds and words. And that absolution, that amnesty, is granted by virtue of Trump’s style. He embodies what some on the right apparently believe politics needs more of. And that’s the problem for many of us. Trump embodies crudity and insults, anger and attacks, banalities and “barstool eruptions,” in the withering words of Charles Krauthammer. Yet it turns out that those qualities make a man like Trump, who has held left-wing positions, a star with some on the right. Being perceived as an enemy of the much-loathed “establishment” is a ticket to stardom. Nothing else really matters, or matters nearly as much.

Which leads me to my final point: What appears to be happening is that some of those who claim to be champions of conservatism are actually champions of populism. They are not the same thing, philosophically or temperamentally. (Populism has been defined as “an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.” It has different manifestations, some more responsible and some less, but resentment is often a key ingredient in populism. It’s also a movement that’s been historically susceptible to demagogues, a concern held by philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to the American founders.)

There is room for populism within conservatism — it can be a “cathartic response to serious problems,” in the words of George Will — but it should not define conservatism. Yet increasing, in some quarters, it is; and the sympathy and support some on the right are giving to Donald Trump is clear evidence of this.

This distinction between conservatism and populism goes a long way toward explaining why different people on the right, who might otherwise agree on a fair number of things, react in fundamentally different ways to Donald Trump. And it’s why the Trump candidacy may well catalyze a broader, clarifying debate about what the true definition of conservatism is. For many of us who are conservative, Donald Trump not only doesn’t define it; he’s antithetical to it.

 

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When ‘He Fights’ Matters More Than Whether He Wins

Among the many endlessly repeated refrains from those mesmerized by the solipsistic bombast sufficing for political rhetoric from the soapbox agitator presently sucking all the oxygen out of the 2016 presidential race is that “he fights.” The unfounded implication in this refrain is that his competition is composed of weak-kneed capitulators. What this expression of support does not take into account, however, are victories, losses, or the strategic draws. The fight is, in and of itself, an end. The same might be said for those members of the Greek public that elevated the far-left leader of the Syriza Party, Alexis Tsipras, to prime minister. He and the party he led were “fighters” who would take the Greek public’s dissatisfaction with the terms of their endless bailouts from their European creditors to Brussels. But the Greek leader’s fecklessness did little to improve his country’s position. For the Greeks, however, the fight is apparently more important than any victory. Read More

Among the many endlessly repeated refrains from those mesmerized by the solipsistic bombast sufficing for political rhetoric from the soapbox agitator presently sucking all the oxygen out of the 2016 presidential race is that “he fights.” The unfounded implication in this refrain is that his competition is composed of weak-kneed capitulators. What this expression of support does not take into account, however, are victories, losses, or the strategic draws. The fight is, in and of itself, an end. The same might be said for those members of the Greek public that elevated the far-left leader of the Syriza Party, Alexis Tsipras, to prime minister. He and the party he led were “fighters” who would take the Greek public’s dissatisfaction with the terms of their endless bailouts from their European creditors to Brussels. But the Greek leader’s fecklessness did little to improve his country’s position. For the Greeks, however, the fight is apparently more important than any victory.

Alexis Tsipras promised the Greek public the world. During the campaign, he pledged to end the austerity measures imposed on them from far-flung European capitals. He insisted that he would restore the “dignity” that had been stolen from the Greeks by a Europe that underwrote a lavish lifestyle the modest Greek economy could not sustain on its own. But the stubborn laws of economics did not bend to Tispras’ rhetoric. Politics is the art of the possible, and Tispras’ government overestimated its ability to expand the realm of feasible outcomes. The promises he made sounded lovely and the roaring crowds, fed up with the stark and unpleasant realities of indebtedness, were eager for a fairytale. Syriza spun the yarn.

When he failed to deliver his people to this Promised Land, Tispras returned to the Greek people with a convenient excuse: His best intentions had been thwarted by nasty foreign elements. Only the righteous fury of the Greek public would dissuade Europe from further humiliating them further. So Tsipras and his government abandoned their responsibilities as the leaders of a republican government who are often tasked with choosing the better of two bad options. Instead, they abdicated their roles as national leaders and put a referendum to the people. Would the Greek public accept the terms of another bailout which included further austerity measures or would they demand that the laws of economics be repealed? The outcome was never truly in doubt.

“[W]e have just witnessed Greece stand up to a truly vile campaign of bullying and intimidation,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman averred, “an attempt to scare the Greek public, not just into accepting creditor demands, but into getting rid of their government.” Krugman wasn’t the only liberal celebrating Greece’s definitive “no” vote. The eccentric academic-turned-Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, promised the Greek public that a stunned and broken Europe would amend the terms of new lending that would include debt forgiveness within 48 hours of the referendum. Instead, within 24 hours, he resigned.

In the wake of the Greek referendum, Tsipras seemed to expect that he would stride victorious into the halls of power in Brussels and encounter only chastened bureaucrats cowering before a mighty display of Greek sovereignty. He was wrong. Instead, the terms Europe was prepared to offer Greece in order to ensure that their banks would reopen and it might stay within the European Union were harsher than those the Greek public had just rejected. Tsipras was compelled not only to return home to now sell those pitiless bailout terms, but he was compelled to eject from his party’s governing coalition the idealists who were foolish enough to take Tsipras at his word. In the midst of jubilant celebration in the wake of the Greek referendum, Tsipras claimed that “continued kowtowing” to Europe was over, but it had only just begun.

Bearing the brunt of Syriza’s broken promises, it is reasonable to expect that the Greek public would be irate. They had been misled by political figures with only a tenuous grasp on policy and an unduly inflated sense of their own abilities. That is not the case. “If snap elections were to happen now, 42.5% of Greeks would vote for the Syriza party, nearly double the level of support for the main center-right opposition party, New Democracy, at 21.5%, according to a survey published over the weekend by polling company Palmos Analysis,” the Wall Street Journal reported this week. “Syriza’s support remains high despite the party split, with about a quarter of the party voting against the premier in parliament last week.”

For some – the disaffected, the despondent, the disgusted – the fight is more important than the victory. For some, even quixotic battles are worth fighting, if only to register their dissatisfaction and make known the extent of their cynicism and estrangement. It’s a lesson that some in the United States would do well to internalize. What some might see as a strain of nihilism, an urge to storm the Bastille and tear it down to its foundations, those in the crowd would view as their only remaining option. Even though they know in their hearts that it is ill-fated and desperate, it’s worth the effort. That kind of terrifying hopelessness is dangerous. For the Greeks, Syriza is the physical representation of their desperation. Americans might recognize this as a familiar phenomenon.

 

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Has John Kasich Been Trumped?

Ohio Governor John Kasich entered the presidential race today with a loaded resume and a strategy aimed at getting him onto the first tier debate stage on Fox News next month in Cleveland. Kasich’s credentials as a veteran House member, Fox News host, and a successful governor ought to make him a serious contender for 2016. And his decision to wait until only a couple of weeks before the August 6th debate before officially announcing his entry into the race ought to ensure that an announcement bump in the polls will help him make the cut. That may yet happen and Kasich — the 16th and probably the last GOP candidate to declare — could come from out of nowhere and have chance to win next year. But the resume and the timing don’t appear to be having the impact he hoped for. Rather than following in the footsteps of his idol Ronald Reagan as the leader of the conservative movement, Kasich enters the race being seen by much of his party’s base as the second coming of Jon Huntsman, whose disastrous 2012 presidential run is a model of everything a Republican shouldn’t do. And rather than benefit from his timing, Kasich’s announcement lands smack in the middle of the Donald Trump media frenzy meaning that, unlike other candidates, he may not benefit much from the late start.

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Ohio Governor John Kasich entered the presidential race today with a loaded resume and a strategy aimed at getting him onto the first tier debate stage on Fox News next month in Cleveland. Kasich’s credentials as a veteran House member, Fox News host, and a successful governor ought to make him a serious contender for 2016. And his decision to wait until only a couple of weeks before the August 6th debate before officially announcing his entry into the race ought to ensure that an announcement bump in the polls will help him make the cut. That may yet happen and Kasich — the 16th and probably the last GOP candidate to declare — could come from out of nowhere and have chance to win next year. But the resume and the timing don’t appear to be having the impact he hoped for. Rather than following in the footsteps of his idol Ronald Reagan as the leader of the conservative movement, Kasich enters the race being seen by much of his party’s base as the second coming of Jon Huntsman, whose disastrous 2012 presidential run is a model of everything a Republican shouldn’t do. And rather than benefit from his timing, Kasich’s announcement lands smack in the middle of the Donald Trump media frenzy meaning that, unlike other candidates, he may not benefit much from the late start.

Given Kasich’s strong conservative credentials dating back to his earlier support for Reagan and his impressive record in the House, any comparison to a man like Huntsman that served in the Obama administration and then ran against the GOP base seems deeply unfair. But the analogy fits and not only because he seems to have hired many of the same consultants that guided the former Utah governor’s fiasco of a campaign. Kasich’s stands on common core and Medicare expansion, as well as his willingness to challenge the base on social justice issues, has given him the aura of a Jeb Bush-lite. That positions him to compete against both Bush and Chris Christie for moderate Republican voters but without the advantage of spending the last several months out on the campaign trail trying to establish his candidacy.

The Huntsman example is instructive for more than just Kasich. In both 2008 and 2012, Republicans nominated moderates rather than conservatives. But in neither of those cases did either John McCain or Mitt Romney run against the party base. No matter how many right-wingers are competing for the loyalty of the Tea Party and seemingly leaving an opening for a moderate to win, antagonizing those who make up the backbone of your party is a formula for disaster, not victory.

But the biggest problem at the moment for Kasich is the way the timing of his announcement has been Trumped by the media’s Donald obsession. Throughout the spring, each announcement has given each candidate a bump in the polls though some have been bigger than others. But even a minor boost in the polls would be a lifesaver for Kasich if it enabled him to break into the top ten and thus ensure his place on the main stage at the Fox debate. Kasich currently ranks 11th in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. If that doesn’t change, he’s going to be left on the sidelines on August 6th along with Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum and George Pataki.

But it’s not clear that with arguments about Trump dominating the news that Kasich will get much attention. Nor, to be fair to the media, is it likely that the Ohio governor’s lengthy and rambling announcement speech likely to generate much enthusiasm among the voting public the way the speeches from Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker did. In a weaker field that might not matter, but our first impression of Kasich was of man who couldn’t match his competition in terms of his ability to speak about his vision for the country or the rationale for his candidacy.

There may have been a rationale for a John Kasich candidacy but his decision to play the moderate rather than compete for conservative votes and his collision with the Trump juggernaut may reproduce the same results a far less worthy candidate like Huntsman obtained. Waiting until July may have seemed smart in the spring, but it turned out to be a serious mistake that will lengthen the odds against him.

 

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The GOP Entertainment Wing’s Flight of Fancy

Donald Trump is not running for president.

Oh, he acts like he is a candidate on a stage. And Trump has filed the requisite paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, as have hundreds of others. But he is not running a presidential campaign. Read More

Donald Trump is not running for president.

Oh, he acts like he is a candidate on a stage. And Trump has filed the requisite paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, as have hundreds of others. But he is not running a presidential campaign.

It might come as no surprise that the gaffe-a-minute reality television star has claimed that he has no use for pollsters. “I don’t want a pollster,” he told the New York Times. “Because if a pollster’s so good, why aren’t they running?” The logic is impeccable. But pollsters are not the only political professionals whose services Trump has eschewed. If the alleged presidential candidate had hired a consulting firm with a graphics department, he probably would not have promoted his candidacy by sending out an image with the American flag superimposed over the soldiers of the Nazi Waffen-SS that someone on Trump’s team apparently mistook for American troops. Say what you will about political consultants, at least they know the difference between U.S. soldiers and the German division responsible for their massacre at Malmedy. Perhaps that lapse explains Trump’s evident low regard for American servicemen and women who endure torture and deprivation in enemy custody.

Nor has Donald Trump or his team displayed much interest in the technical aspects of running for the president. Little things like developing an organization in the early primary states that is tasked with winning the requisite delegates to secure the party’s nod and transitioning into a grassroots general election support structure. “I met Mr. Trump for 30 seconds on May 9. Gave him my card. He hasn’t called me thus far,” South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore revealed. Moore’s frustration is shared by Iowa and New Hampshire’s GOP operatives who say they have had little contact with Trump or his organization. That does not, however, mean the reality TV star has ignored the early states entirely. Earlier this month, Trump hired as his Iowa campaign co-chair a former contestant on his canceled reality television program The Apprentice. The move generated quite a few headlines and, for the Trump campaign, that seems to be an end in itself.

Anyone with even a passing understanding of how political campaigns are waged and won knows that what they are witnessing is a spectacle. This is not a presidential candidacy; it’s a vehicle for self-promotion. That makes the unwavering support that Trump has received from prominent members of what constitutes the “entertainment wing” of the GOP, its popular radio talk show hosts and commentators, that much more egregious. Showmen and women themselves, they recognize one of their own when they see him.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board admirably drew fire from the right this week when it briefly scolded an unnamed cadre of “conservative media elites” who serve as Trump’s “apologists,” but those the Journal admonished do little in the way of apologizing for the target of their affections. “Abettors” is perhaps a more apt description of those who would willingly facilitate a grift. Some of the most accomplished, seasoned, and bright members of the conservative movement’s commentary class have inexplicably given succor to a figure who is flagrantly misrepresenting himself and misleading their audiences.

Mark Levin, a constitutional scholar and a deservedly successful radio host, bizarrely declined to challenge Trump in the same way that he has other Republican candidates who have joined him on his radio program. “You know, your biggest problem is going to be the Republican establishment,” Levin advised after noting how his candidacy has resonated with the public and lamenting how the Republican members of the legislative branch are too quick to seek compromise with the country’s executive. This is a far cry from the Mark Levin of 2011 who called Trump an “airhead” whose tenuous grasp on free market economics sounded “stupid” to him.

When Trump refused to express support for Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposal that reformed entitlement spending — very much an “establishment” Republican goal from an “establishment” Republican officeholder — Levin savaged the real estate developer for spouting the same vacuous platitudes he spouts today. When Trump advised Ryan to “sit back and relax” on the issue of entitlements, Levin reprimanded him furiously. “Apparently all your supporters are going to give you a pass on every damn thing you’ve ever said or done,” Levin exclaimed. “But not me.” What changed? Trump certainly hasn’t.

One of Levin’s radio colleagues, the accomplished radio host and Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham, appears equally blinded by frustration with congressional Republicans. “Trump filled a vacuum existing in GOP,” she said in praise of his willingness to attack “Bushism” and congressional Republicans. “Prediction: Trump numbers will not change — could go up after McCain dust-up. Establishment approval will go down.”

That’s a bizarre prediction, considering the pollster in the field on Sunday after Trump’s insulting remarks about Senator John McCain’s service record noted that the candidate who drew nearly 30 percent support over the weekend was down in the single digits after those comments generated publicity.

“So Trump won’t commit to supporting GOP nominee if not chosen,” Ingraham said of Trump’s refusal to rule out a third-party bid for the White House. She asked if Senator Marco Rubio or former Governor Jeb Bush would support Trump if he secured the requisite delegates, but she must know that there is a rather substantial distinction between not supporting a party’s nominee and actively trying to handicap him or her.

Even the astute Rush Limbaugh has succumbed to the passions of the moment. “The American people haven’t seen something like this in a long time,” Limbaugh said in praise of Trump’s refusal to apologize for questioning McCain’s record as a North Vietnamese hostage. “They have not seen an embattled public figure stand up for himself, double down, and tell everybody to go to hell.”

“Trump can survive this,” Limbaugh averred. He’s right, but only as long as Trump can count on the help of his friends in the GOP’s entertainment wing.

All the while, Hillary Clinton is relishing the attention she isn’t getting. The New York Times reported that Clinton’s team is weighing how best to give the GOP what it wants and inexorably link Trump, a doctrinaire liberal and Democratic donor, to the Republican Party. Reporting on its own poll of Republican primary voters, ABC News described those of his supporters who are most incensed over the issue of illegal immigration in America “nativists.” The conservatives behind the microphone in this country know exactly what’s happening here. While the Republican Party brass should welcome the chance to repudiate a vile self-promoting pretender like Trump, the conservative movement’s most booming voices seem intent on rendering that effort impossible.

Making one’s way in the business of political entertainment is incredibly difficult. Those who are successful in that profession have achieved their position only after dogged perseverance, years of hard work, and repeated displays of inborn aptitude. No one gets to where these and other accomplished personalities are today unless they are possessed of great talent, prudence, and a wealth of knowledge on history and civics, which makes this whole affair all the more demoralizing. Those who continue to prop up this faltering carnival act based on the mistaken premise that it somehow advances conservatism are making a grave error. All that is being advanced are individual careers. The Americans who truly count on the conservative program to better their lives and right the course this country is on are those who will suffer the most if Trump is allowed to indelibly tarnish their movement.

 

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American Democracy and Donald Trump’s Inevitable Collapse

Are the obituaries the mainstream media are publishing for Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy premature? That’s the line Trump apologists are bound to take today as the fallout over his attempt to question whether Senator John McCain is a war hero continues. The kerfuffle over Trump’s branding of most illegal immigrants from Mexico as rapists and drug dealers only endeared him further to a sizeable portion of potential Republican primary voters. They shared his anger about a porous border and instinctively distrusted the herd mentality of media and business figures that rushed to label him a political untouchable. But the real estate mogul turned reality star and his backers should not labor under the delusion that he will get a similar pass for his egregious comment about McCain even if he is getting some support from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, whose antipathy for the conventional wisdom of the day appears to be overwhelming his normally sound political instincts and judgement. If his bid is, as our Pete Wehner wrote on Sunday, “toast,” then the moral of the story isn’t so much about the sheer nastiness and lack of character that Trump demonstrated when he made that remark and then doubled down on it, as it is the way the democratic process has of sorting out the political wheat from the chaff. While many observers on both the left and the right, often speak as if the voters are fools that are easily manipulated by media puppet-masters, Donald Trump’s inevitable collapse will illustrate the ability of the American public to sort out the presidential race.

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Are the obituaries the mainstream media are publishing for Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy premature? That’s the line Trump apologists are bound to take today as the fallout over his attempt to question whether Senator John McCain is a war hero continues. The kerfuffle over Trump’s branding of most illegal immigrants from Mexico as rapists and drug dealers only endeared him further to a sizeable portion of potential Republican primary voters. They shared his anger about a porous border and instinctively distrusted the herd mentality of media and business figures that rushed to label him a political untouchable. But the real estate mogul turned reality star and his backers should not labor under the delusion that he will get a similar pass for his egregious comment about McCain even if he is getting some support from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, whose antipathy for the conventional wisdom of the day appears to be overwhelming his normally sound political instincts and judgement. If his bid is, as our Pete Wehner wrote on Sunday, “toast,” then the moral of the story isn’t so much about the sheer nastiness and lack of character that Trump demonstrated when he made that remark and then doubled down on it, as it is the way the democratic process has of sorting out the political wheat from the chaff. While many observers on both the left and the right, often speak as if the voters are fools that are easily manipulated by media puppet-masters, Donald Trump’s inevitable collapse will illustrate the ability of the American public to sort out the presidential race.

Let’s concede that the popularity of Trump is based on more than the name recognition that comes with both wealth and a popular television show. His good poll numbers are the product of his willingness to say outrageous things and to position himself as outside the regular political process. While his isn’t the only candidacy rooted in the idea that the voters are hungering for a non-politician, Trump’s notoriety, instinctive populism, and impulsive willingness to say whatever is on his mind makes him a magnet for the disaffected and disillusioned regardless of the merit or the consistency of any of his positions. Saying aloud whatever such voters are thinking at any given moment is neither a sign of wisdom or statesmanship but it would be obtuse to deny Trump’s raw political talent.

But no one should think Trump’s likely decline in the coming weeks will be an accident of fate. It was inevitable that Trump would eventually say something that even most conservatives would abhor. But it was also inevitable that once his comments and his record started getting the sort of scrutiny that goes with a presidential race, even some of that rationalized his illegal immigration remarks would abandon him.

That isn’t because the establishment is working its way with the press or that he is being taken out of context or unfairly criticized. Rather, it is merely the normal function of American democracy in which thoughtless extremism and gutter character assassination is always going to be seen as not keeping with the sort of behavior we expect in presidents.

Many conservatives rightly lament the way the same liberal media failed in 2008 to hound Barack Obama over some outrageous statements he made and his radical associations the way they would a conservative with similar liabilities. But the reason Obama won had less to do with media bias than his ability to act like a president in the midst of a tough race against a Clinton machine that was willing to fight dirty. His presidential temperament was not a substitute for an ability to govern but, along with the good feelings generated by the historic nature of his candidacy, it distracted most voters from his extreme agenda that was only revealed in office. Yet both our political process and the basically moderate nature of both most voters inevitably gives a boost to those candidates who understand that the exercise of great power requires more than sound bytes. They must act as if they understand the gravity of the responsibilities to which they aspire whether they actually do so or not.

As Obama’s victories demonstrated, that doesn’t ensure that we won’t elect bad presidents. But the genius of American democracy is such that candidates that are obviously unqualified to even pretend to the presidency are usually discarded long before even the nomination races heat up. If you don’t believe me about that, then ask President Michele Bachmann who seemed to be riding a wave of populist enthusiasm exactly four years ago before crashing and burning as voters — and journalists — learned more about her and heard more of her foolish statements that marked her as someone who had no business being considered for the post of leader of the free world.

Conservatives often lament with good reason the bias of a mainstream media that seeks to take out their candidates with hit pieces and prejudiced coverage. But no matter how much the process of scrutinizing candidates may be distorted by the prejudices of many in the press, not even their skewed reporting can deceive American voters for long about the essential nature of those in the race.

While he retains the capacity to harm the Republican Party’s more viable presidential candidates by focusing all attention on his gaffes and may yet do even more damage as a potential third party candidate, Trump could not hide in plain sight for long. Say what you will about the influence of money or a biased press. Denounce a nomination process that has turned into a four-year marathon if you like. But what we are witnessing is something that is natural to American politics and highly commendable. Long before the parties choose their nominees, candidates like Trump will be found out and discarded by the overwhelming majority of voters. Even if the polls are still looking positive for Trump before they take into account the McCain comments, those inclined to doubt the future of American democracy should have more faith in the American people.

 

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As the GOP Confronts Its Demons, Democrats Indulge Them

Those who cover and discuss politics for a living tend to exhibit a bias in favor of the moment; overemphasizing the impact of non-events and the influence of figures who are, in retrospect, forgettable. Presidential campaigns, in particular, are prisoners to the news cycle. For the most part, particularly in the summer of an off-year, the daily machinations and intrigues on the campaign trail do not matter. Those all-consuming controversies that seem so urgent are, in fact, passing and trivial. Without overstating the case, Saturday July 18 may be remembered as an exception to that rule. It was a remarkably consequential weekend on the campaign trail, and its effects on both the Republican and Democratic Parties may not long be forgotten.  Read More

Those who cover and discuss politics for a living tend to exhibit a bias in favor of the moment; overemphasizing the impact of non-events and the influence of figures who are, in retrospect, forgettable. Presidential campaigns, in particular, are prisoners to the news cycle. For the most part, particularly in the summer of an off-year, the daily machinations and intrigues on the campaign trail do not matter. Those all-consuming controversies that seem so urgent are, in fact, passing and trivial. Without overstating the case, Saturday July 18 may be remembered as an exception to that rule. It was a remarkably consequential weekend on the campaign trail, and its effects on both the Republican and Democratic Parties may not long be forgotten. 

In the coming days, a deservedly significant amount of energy will be spent analyzing and dissecting the political impact of Donald Trump’s crass and irresponsible comments about Senator John McCain. You’ve probably already heard the most insulting quips: “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said when asked about McCain’s suggestion that Trump’s candidacy has made the “crazies” emerge from the woodwork. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

The comment did not sit well with the audience of conservatives in Ames, Iowa. While the vanity and simple-mindedness of Trump’s statements have been the subject of extensive deliberation, what has gone largely unremarked upon is the amateurish way in which he tried to clean them up.

The Weekly Standard’s Stephen F. Hayes grilled Trump over his impolitic comments about a man who spent years being tortured in a North Vietnamese prison camp. He recalled their interchange:

I asked Trump if he was blaming John McCain for his capture, as his comments implied. “I am saying John McCain has not done a good job,” Trump responded, dodging the question.

When I repeated the question, Trump said: “I am not blaming John McCain for his capture. If he gets captured, he gets captured.”

“Why would you say you like people who don’t get captured?”

Trump: “The people that don’t get captured I’m not supposed to like? I like the people who don’t get captured and I respect the people who do get captured.”

To his credit, Hayes refused to move politely on to a new topic. His doggedness exposed the fact that A) Trump understood that he had made an error simply by virtue of his refusal to repeat the incendiary comment about McCain’s service record and B) that he lacked the political skill to defuse the controversy. Rarely does an adept politician stumble into a minefield, and they are usually far more competent at controlling the damage when they do. Trump has been defanged; those Republicans in the 2016 field who were reluctant to be too critical for fear of alienating his supporters have shed that caution.

During Trump’s infamous remarks in Ames, the reality television star refused to rule out a third-party bid for the White House in 2016. That might be a remote possibility, but the Republican Party should be preparing for it today. The GOP cannot provide Trump a face-saving way out of the losing confrontation he has inaugurated, and the billionaire real estate developer may calculate that he has invested enough of his credibility and lost so much of his stature to this quixotic candidacy that it would make little sense to end it merely because he cannot secure the GOP nomination. But the GOP should welcome a long, slow-motion Sister Souljah moment in which the party and its reputable candidates denounce a figure that represents all the obnoxious elements of opportunistic populism. Polls indicate that most voters, including Hispanics, still believe Trump speaks for himself when he debases American political dialogue. Republicans would do well to cement that impression, continue to cast Trump as an opportunist and erstwhile liberal, and neuter him as a political force.

Fifteen-hundred miles away, on the other side of the aisle, another event with potentially far-reaching consequences was unfolding. At the annual Netroots Nation conference of progressives in Phoenix, Arizona, another candidate was challenged by the unattractive elements of his party’s fringe base voters.

On Saturday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley were confronted by aggressive and unreasonable members of what the press has dubbed the “black lives matter” movement. Both candidates were rudely interrupted by those protestors who stormed the stage on which the candidates were seated, seized the microphone, and commandeered the event. But the most shocking episode to emerge from Phoenix involved a repudiation of the notion that all people of every racial background deserve to live.

When confronted by chants of “black lives matter” during his address to the conference, O’Malley replied: “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” Contrary to press reports that suggested the crowd erupted in protest when O’Malley dared contend that “all lives matter,” video of the event clearly indicates it was his contention that “white lives matter” that proved truly unacceptable for the event attendees. For this perfectly reasonable contention, O’Malley was compelled by the unreasoning mob to apologize.

“I meant no disrespect,” O’Malley told the hosts of the web-based program, This Week in Blackness. “That was a mistake on my part and I meant no disrespect. I did not mean to be insensitive in any way or communicate that I did not understand the tremendous passion, commitment and feeling and depth of feeling that all of us should be attaching to this issue.”

The nation’s political press will no doubt devote far more attention to the Trump spectacle than a Democratic candidate’s apology for daring to contend that all lives have value. That will not reduce the impact of this moment. When a crowd of Democratic National Committee attendees erupted in a chorus of “boos” when the party platform was amended to add a reference to God and the city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the discomforting moment did not dominate the evening news but it was both powerful and consequential. Even today, that episode lives in infamy in the minds of voters. The press will not prompt Democrats to confront the excessive and irrational elements within their party. For Democrats as well as Republicans, they run the risk of allowing the nastier elements of their bases to come to typify both parties in the minds of unaffiliated voters. With the prodding of the press, however, only one party is busily confronting that condition.

The Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee will never be compelled by the press to weigh in on this matter. To ask Hillary Clinton to address this embarrassing debacle is to demand she sacrifice either some of her support among Democratic primary voters or the general electorate. As such, this moment and the ugly impulse it exposes will never be neutralized; it will fester, metastasize, and threaten to spread to healthier Democratic organs.

The third weekend in July of 2015 will soon be forgotten by voters and pundits alike, but the events that were set in motion this weekend will have lasting consequences. For the 2016 campaign and the trajectory of American politics, it was a significant weekend.

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Trump Is Toast

The ugly and malicious attack by Donald Trump against Senator John McCain and all POWs — “He’s a war hero ’cause he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” – is a tipping point for the Trump campaign. It’s the moment it all blew apart for The Donald.

It’s about time. Read More

The ugly and malicious attack by Donald Trump against Senator John McCain and all POWs — “He’s a war hero ’cause he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” – is a tipping point for the Trump campaign. It’s the moment it all blew apart for The Donald.

It’s about time.

Many of us have been repeatedly warning people, including our fellow conservatives, that Trump is a stain on the Republican Party and the conservative movement. That he is a nasty, small-minded, conspiracy-minded, and a shallow opportunist. That his vitriol was going to consume him. And that speaking sympathetically about Trump was a really bad idea that was going to backfire.

Now it has. And hopefully this cringe-inducing charade – aka the Trump presidential campaign — is about to come to an end.

In saying this, I don’t mean it will formally end. I don’t expect Trump to drop out of the race anytime soon. Nor will he lose all his support. But his slanderous comments about Senator McCain – and implicitly against all POW – have fundamentally altered things. Many people who had been speaking favorably of Trump – you know the litany by now; it was said Trump is a fresh face, fearless, a truth-teller, a marvelous communicator, anti-establishment, a master at channeling anger, et cetera — will see him in quite a different light. He no longer seems all that “refreshing,” a word Fox’s Eric Bolling, a Trump admirer, has used to describe Trump.

During an interview at a Family Leadership Summit in Iowa on Saturday, the ugliness of Donald Trump was on display. This time, because the target was a heroic war veteran rather than illegal immigrants, it finally broke through. Mr. Trump will continue to act as if nothing has changed. Except that everything has changed. And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t be able to put The Donald back together again.

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Donald Trump and the No Accountability Zone

I’m on a vacation this week, and when the conversation with members of my extended family turned to politics, it turned, as it inevitably seems to these days, to Donald Trump. Read More

I’m on a vacation this week, and when the conversation with members of my extended family turned to politics, it turned, as it inevitably seems to these days, to Donald Trump.

The people I spoke with are, to a person, critics of Trump. (Several of them are Republicans.) They were curious to discuss, and at a loss to explain, his rise in the polls. I took the interest in Trump himself to be anecdotal evidence to support my belief that Trump can’t be ignored by the Republican Party; he needs to be confronted. The reason is that he’s generating enormous attention to himself, whether others disregard him or not, and to remain silent in the face of Trump’s provocations is to look weak or complicit. That doesn’t mean candidates need to obsess on him, but they do need to make their differences with him clear and emphatic. To their credit, several – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, and George Pataki among them – already have.

Rather than recapitulating my case against Trump, I want to make an observation about Trump’s appeal to some parts of the Republican base. Before doing so, it’s necessary to start with the premise that Trump is no conservative, a case I’ve made before, as has National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. Mr. Trump once supported a Canadian-style single-payer health care system, massively higher taxes on the wealthy, and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He was “totally pro-choice.” He gave money to Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, John Kerry and Ted Kennedy. He was a registered Democrat for most of the last decade. And he praised President Obama for doing “a very good job.”

Some of Trump’s flip-flops have been vividly captured in this video.

Any other Republican with this record would find his candidacy crippled. Yet for Trump, it hardly seems to matter. He operates in an Accountability Free Zone, where past stands, past statements, and past financial contributions are forgotten or forgiven.

The reasons for this, I think, is that Trump’s supporters don’t care about his past, his governing philosophy, or his governing agenda; all they care about his style. They believe he’s fearless, a fighter, politically incorrect, anti-establishment, hated by liberals, a man giving voice their frustration and rage at the political class. They believe the nation is collapsing, government doesn’t work, America is being beaten at every turn – and no one expresses that better than Trump. This deep disenchantment is what Trump is tapping into and what explains his appeal.

Now it needs to be said that Trump’s appeal is limited and his negatives even among Republicans are sky-high. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans, according to this poll, have a negative view of him. But what is disturbing is some conservatives not only find the Trump style impressive; it’s that they find the Trump style so impressive that it makes him immune from criticism. He gets a free pass on everything he’s said and done. The only thing that matters now is he’s targeting our enemies. He’s giving voice to our grievances. We on the right need to learn from The Donald.

In fact, the Trump style – crude, emotive, erratic, narcissistic, demagogic — should by itself be a disqualifier. That it’s not – that, for at least some number of self-described conservatives, it’s what makes him appealing — is a sad turn of events. They are embracing Donald Trump for the very reason they should be rejecting him.

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How the GOP Can Neutralize the Donald Trump Threat

Republican Party officials are, apparently, paralyzed with fear and indecision. This lamentably familiar condition was not brought about by the deft maneuvering of their Democratic opponents, but by someone who purports to be a member of the tribe: reality television star and 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump. The GOP’s incapacitation in the face of this relatively minor challenge ahead of what is sure to be a testing presidential cycle does not bode well for the party’s electoral prospects. The conundrum posed by Trump’s self-aggrandizing, scorched earth candidacy is not an insurmountable one; in fact, it’s relatively modest. The Republican National Committee’s impulse has thus far been to attempt to contain Trump and mitigate the damage done by his irresponsible rhetoric, but in doing so the party has taken some unnecessary ownership of his candidacy. Trump cannot be contained. He cannot be reasoned with. The GOP has but one course available: neutralize him.  Read More

Republican Party officials are, apparently, paralyzed with fear and indecision. This lamentably familiar condition was not brought about by the deft maneuvering of their Democratic opponents, but by someone who purports to be a member of the tribe: reality television star and 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump. The GOP’s incapacitation in the face of this relatively minor challenge ahead of what is sure to be a testing presidential cycle does not bode well for the party’s electoral prospects. The conundrum posed by Trump’s self-aggrandizing, scorched earth candidacy is not an insurmountable one; in fact, it’s relatively modest. The Republican National Committee’s impulse has thus far been to attempt to contain Trump and mitigate the damage done by his irresponsible rhetoric, but in doing so the party has taken some unnecessary ownership of his candidacy. Trump cannot be contained. He cannot be reasoned with. The GOP has but one course available: neutralize him. 

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was not without reason when he reportedly put a call into Trump’s office asking him to rein in his nativist rhetoric. The celebrity candidate has leveraged his name recognition and tapped into a sense of economic fatalism among Americans who have borne witness to wage and opportunity stagnation over the course of the Obama presidency. Trump has adeptly, if not admirably, fomented deep animosity toward the millions of illegal immigrants who live and work in this country. By definition, all illegal immigrants are criminals, and Washington’s refusal to stem the tide – indeed, policy makers are more eager to accommodate the nation’s illegal population and create incentives for new waves of border-crossers – is indicative of a lack of courage and seriousness on the part of American policymakers. But Trump’s contention, one that has been powerfully resonant among his conservative supporters in the activist grassroots, is that there is also an epidemic of violence perpetrated by illegal immigrants. This claim is simply not supported by anything other than anecdote.

Nevertheless, a great many honest, forthright, capable American citizens believe this myth and are convinced that Trump alone is speaking the “hard truths” that others won’t. The opposite is the case; his “hard truths” are, in fact, comforting fictions. Democrats are not fools. They know an opportunity when they see one, and the president’s party has taken to labeling the GOP the “ReTrumplican Party.” Their aim is to frame the GOP as a xenophobic institution and rob it of the Hispanic support that it needs to win the White House. To stop the bleeding, Priebus asked Trump kindly to “tone it down.”

It was a well-meaning move, but a misguided one. To acknowledge Trump’s reckless comments is to take ownership of them, and that has only enabled Democrats in their quest to cast Trump as the quintessential Republican. What’s more, Priebus was feeding the beast. Trump’s “anti-establishment” bona fides is only lent credibility by the RNC chairman’s handwringing. Finally, the deeply unprincipled Trump took the opportunity to contend that all the reportage on this call was wrong. Not only was he not reprimanded by the RNC chair, the reality television star claimed that Priebus congratulated him for telling it like it is. After all, the chairman of the RNC “knows better than to lecture me,” Trump claimed. “We’re not dealing with a five-star Army general.”

So much for Mr. Nice Guy.

But the GOP remains terrified of alienating Trump and his conservative supporters. They fear, according to a well-reported New York Times dispatch, that the real estate mogul might go rogue, mount a self-financed independent bid for the White House, and rob the Republican Party of what should be a good election cycle.

“Any top-down campaign by Republicans to marginalize Mr. Trump might encourage him to follow through with a threat to run on a third-party ballot,” the Times reported, “a scenario reminiscent of Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign, which diverged critical votes from President George Bush.”

When Trump’s Republican presidential bid flames out – and it will flame out, as any candidate with negative GOP voter disapproval as high as his must – Trump will consider the prospect of running an independent campaign. To do otherwise would be interpreted as a retreat, and the self-assured celebrity would probably rather sacrifice an exorbitant amount of money on a quixotic endeavor like an independent White House bid if only to save face. Those who make the case that 2016 could be 1992 all over again have a point, but the parallels are perhaps a bit overstated.

A superficial take on the 1992 election was that the populist H. Ross Perot exploded onto the political scene by denouncing the “sucking sound” of American jobs heading to Mexico if the NAFTA free trade agreement were ratified, and he cost George H. W. Bush just enough votes to allow Bill Clinton to win a plurality of the popular vote and 370 Electoral College votes. But the exit polling in 1992 indicated that Perot voters were split at 38 percent each on whether they would have voted for Bush or Clinton if the Texas businessman wasn’t on the ballot. The third-party candidate drew the support of 30 percent of self-described independents but also 18 percent of Republicans and 13 percent of Democrats to win 19 percent of the overall popular vote.

“Fully 53% of Perot’s vote came from self-defined moderates, 27% from conservatives and 20% from liberals; so about 10 points of his 19% came from self-described moderates, with 5 points coming from conservatives and 4 points from liberals,” Polling Report’s Tim Hibbitts noted. He added that voters who cast a Perot vote were angrier at the political system than were Bush or even Clinton voters, suggesting that they would not have voted for the incumbent if they had the chance. “And even in Ohio, the hypothetical Bush ‘margin’ without Perot in the race was so small that given the normal margin of error in polls, the state still might have stuck with Clinton absent the Texas billionaire,” the Washington Post reported at the time. As MSNBC host and political analyst Steve Kornacki accurately observed, the recessionary economy, not the third party candidate, cost the 41st President a second term in the Oval Office.

Now, back to Trump. His appeal to the conservative electorate is certainly founded in antipathy toward illegal immigration, but this is really an outgrowth of his populist, protectionist approach to international trade relations. As the liberal revolt over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement demonstrated, antipathy toward free trade is not the province of conservatives alone. Polls suggest that a substantial number of partisan Democrats agree with Trump that the TPP is a “disaster.”

Trump’s suspicion of free trade is not the only position that is more in line with orthodox liberal thinking on policy matters. As the Washington Post’s Hunter Schwarz observed, Trump was not all that long ago the “liberal’s liberal.” In 1999, he considered himself “very pro-choice,” and told CNN host Larry King that he was “very liberal when it comes to health care.” Indeed, Trumps embrace of virtually every European aspect of “universal health care” was far more aggressively liberal than most of what was passed in the Affordable Care Act. In his book published the following year, Trump back an assault weapon ban and longer waiting times for gun purchasers. As recently as 2005, Trump lavished Hillary Clinton with both praise and campaign contributions. The billionaire has donated to liberals more than he has conservatives, including Democrats like Harry Reid, Ed Rendell, Rahm Emanuel, John Kerry, Charlie Rangel, Charles Schumer, and the late Ed Kennedy. The surest way to identify whether Trump has the country’s rather than his best interests at heart would be, as National Review’s John Fund noted, to ask him if he would eventually support the party’s nominee over Clinton. Few expect him to answer with an emphatic and unhesitant “yes.”

It’s unlikely that Trump will attract a significant number of Democratic votes if he did mount an independent presidential campaign given how viciously he has attacked Barack Obama over the course of his presidency. If, however, the Republican Party cannot through surrogates make a prolific Democratic donor with a history of embracing liberal positions toxic for conservative voters, they should just close up shop today. This is a surmountable hurdle, and Republicans are far more imperiled by contorting themselves in the effort to keep Trump inside the tent than they would be by casting him out and temporarily alienating his fickle, discouraged base of supporters. It’s only 2015, and the fundamentals do not suggest that Democrats will have the wind at their backs by November of next year. The GOP should stop being so scared of its own shadow and show Donald the door.

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Rick Perry Shows the GOP How It’s Done

The pusillanimity that has characterized much of the sprawling GOP 2016 presidential field’s reaction to the cascading series of injudicious comments that regularly stream from the mouth of alleged presidential candidate Donald Trump has been breathtaking. Nothing should have been easier than denouncing a prolific Democratic donor, a self-described former friend of Hillary Clinton’s, who soaked up news cycle after news cycle contending, erroneously, that Mexican illegal immigrants are uniquely likely to commit violent crimes and leadingly asking cable news anchors “who’s doing the raping?” A handful of the GOP’s presidential candidates have cautiously condemned Trump’s rhetorical excesses, but the 2016 field’s bottom tier has perhaps unsurprisingly, submitted the harshest critiques of the reality television star. None, however, has distanced themselves from Trump more elegantly than former Texas Governor Rick Perry.

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The pusillanimity that has characterized much of the sprawling GOP 2016 presidential field’s reaction to the cascading series of injudicious comments that regularly stream from the mouth of alleged presidential candidate Donald Trump has been breathtaking. Nothing should have been easier than denouncing a prolific Democratic donor, a self-described former friend of Hillary Clinton’s, who soaked up news cycle after news cycle contending, erroneously, that Mexican illegal immigrants are uniquely likely to commit violent crimes and leadingly asking cable news anchors “who’s doing the raping?” A handful of the GOP’s presidential candidates have cautiously condemned Trump’s rhetorical excesses, but the 2016 field’s bottom tier has perhaps unsurprisingly, submitted the harshest critiques of the reality television star. None, however, has distanced themselves from Trump more elegantly than former Texas Governor Rick Perry.

While Trump’s generalizing and stereotypical comments about illegal immigrants were unproductive (and offensive), a presidential campaign would be careless if it failed to take note of how deeply they resonated within a segment of voters for whom economic uncertainty is a palpable, driving concern. This perhaps accounts for the tepid way in which the GOP presidential field’s frontrunners have addressed Trump’s tactless comments. Perry has joined Republicans like former New York Gov. George Pataki and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in condemning them unequivocally, but he also skillfully took the opportunity of that denunciation to demonstrate the depth of his understanding of immigration issues.

In a video released by Perry’s campaign on Wednesday, the former Texas governor took the opportunity to highlight his own considerable record addressing border security and immigration-related affairs in his three terms as governor of one of the Union’s largest states. Perry took the time to detail the steps he has taken, and those that will be necessary, to effectively stem the tide of illegal immigration. It was, as attorney and RedState contributor Dan McLaughlin submitted, a Republican Sister Souljah moment.

While it might not have been advisable for Perry to respond directly to Trump in any fashion, thus inevitably elevating him to a stature he does not deserve, the contrast the former Texas governor drew couldn’t be more stark. While the reality television star sells disenchanted Republican primary voters on the notion of a great wall of the Rio, constructed at no taxpayer cost, which would alone succeed at keeping border-crossers out where other barriers have failed, Perry identified the effective, human elements necessary to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. He also projected a sincerity Trump lacked when accurately noting that citizens of Mexican descent are an integral part of the American social fabric. Such comments may sound trite, but these are the wages demanded of a party that elevates a figure like Trump to frontrunner status – however fleeting that condition might be.

This is not the first time Perry has spoken candidly and masterfully on a matter related to race. In a speech last week addressing the uniformity with which African-Americans turn out to vote for Democratic candidates on the presidential level, Perry had the boldness to concede that he fully understood why they do so.

“States supporting segregation in the South cited ‘states’ rights’ as a justification for keeping blacks from the voting booth and the dinner table,” the Southern governor confessed after criticizing the GOP’s 1964 nominee Barry Goldwater and his opposition to the Civil Rights Act’s anti-federalist elements.

“As you know, I am an ardent believer in the Tenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights,” he continued. “Too often, we Republicans – myself included – have emphasized our message on the Tenth Amendment but not our message on the Fourteenth – an Amendment, it bears reminding, that was one of the first great contributions of the Republican Party to American life, second only to the abolition of slavery.”

It was a skillful, high-minded appeal to unity – a stark contrast from the divisive way in which this administration has handled issues of race. It’s no small feat to speak eloquently on racial subjects and over the heads of a media establishment that is deeply committed to perpetuating the myth that Republicans are, by nature, racially suspect.

Since entering the race for the White House, Perry has been turning in a string of stellar performances. The rest of the Republican field would do well to take a page from his playbook.

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The GOP’s Snake Oil Salesmen

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.  Read More

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.

 

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When Conservatives Latch on to the Wrong Causes

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. Read More

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.

 

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