Conservative Movement Inc. and the Strange Case of Jonah Goldberg

By Alex Knepper

Here’s an article typical of the hyperventilating it’s-my-ballism circulating among Conservative Movement, Inc. It’s written by Jonah Goldberg, and while I surely don’t mean to pick on him in particular, this is such a strange and revealing piece:

Those who do not yield [to Donald Trump] can hear the executioner’s axe sharpening against the wheel. Trump has dispatched one of his top minions, Sarah Palin, to punish Ryan for his effrontery in second-guessing Trump’s commitment to conservatism. She said she’ll work to defeat Ryan’s reelection bid this fall. “His political career is over,” Palin said on CNN.

She’ll probably fail, but the message is clear. The litmus test in the new Republican party boils down to loyalty, not to a principle or conviction, but to a man: Trump. … It’s a cult of personality, pure and simple…

… “I have to stay true to my principles also,” Trump told Stephanopoulos. “And I’m a conservative, but don’t forget: This is called the Republican party, not the Conservative party”…

Conservatives who still have the courage of Perry’s former convictions have no role in the party so long as Trump’s running it. He has admitted that he doesn’t want or need Reaganite conservatives; he’d rather rely on the rank-and-file supporters of a socialist instead.

Can we imagine for one moment what Mr. Goldberg’s reaction might have been if the sitting Republican Speaker of the House had refused to support the Romney-Ryan ticket in 2012? National Review would have condemned him — rightly and justly — as a fanatic and a factionalist, and would have issued commandments from on-high to dissenters: Thou shalt unite behind the nominee! And this would have been a very good thing for them to say, since party loyalty is indeed essential to forming and maintaining a long-term coalition that can consistently win a majority. But since Goldberg is a self-aware man, he must know all this. So why is he refusing to follow the same instructions he expected others to obey not so long ago? Loyalty to the nominee, we must conclude, is a virtue when Goldberg approves of the nominee — but loyalty to the nominee is reminiscent of a ‘personality cult’ when Goldberg disapproves of the nominee; he suddenly discovers he is above the noise of party politics.

gop-split

The mental gymnastics required to believe Trump is markedly deviating from the standard behavior of presumptive nominees must be exhausting. The notion that nominees should not try to reach out to disaffected supporters of the losing candidates of the opposition party is strange, since ‘electability’ and appeal to the ‘other side’ has been one of the major selling points of ‘establishment’-oriented center-right nominees for ages. The notion that the winning faction of the party is required to defer to the losing faction is stranger still. Trump’s rhetoric is — obviously — full of theatrics and bluster, but he has embraced high-profile endorsements from figures with unquestionable right-of-center pedigrees from all over the Reaganite spectrum, from Sarah Palin to Chris Christie to Rick Perry to Kevin McCarthy. Of course, the likes of Palin, Christie, and Perry are surely looking for a new lease on their political lives through Trump — he is an awfully convenient vehicle for their continued relevance — but that’s no great psychological insight; whether Goldberg can see the Palinesque nature of his lashing out at the winning faction of his is a far more edifying inquiry — especially after the sturm und drang of the self-important ‘Against Trump’ issue amounted to approximately nothing.

Moreover, polls show Trump already securing over 80% of the Republican vote — during peak it’s-my-ball season. Trump is right: It’s really not the ‘conservative party’; the ‘tent’ is much bigger than the people who pretended to want a Big Tent thought — big enough, in fact, for non-orthodox (that is: non-Reaganite) perspectives — and he proved it. The Reaganites must now learn to live as one faction among many rather than as the unquestioned domineers of the party and legislators of its orthodoxy.

Goldberg is also behind the times: the presidential nominating process has become so democratized and sensationalist that it is increasingly difficult to separate politics from entertainment. Candidates’ histories of drug use, sexual deviance, and bizarre statements are now ‘fun facts,’ not disqualifying ones; to be the president is to be, among many other things, a celebrity, and celebrities thrive when they are interesting and entertaining, not when they are virtuous. (Maybe the most interesting celebrities — and politicians — are the ones who publicly practice vice and privately practice virtue.) Nobody believed Mitt Romney when he said he was a ‘severely conservative’ governor, and nobody believes Donald Trump’s most ridiculous assertions, either. The public has become desensitized to bullshit. Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 — and 1996 — in part by implying to the people: “All of us are a little crooked, but I’m gonna be upfront about it.” What is Donald Trump’s behavior but an exaggeration of the Clinton Principle? We should note here that Hillary Clinton’s lying is repulsive to people not because of her petty misdeeds, but because she is so unconvincing — people love a convincing liar, but we are so habituated to bullshit that many of us now prefer honest liars like Trump to dishonest liars like Clinton, whose insistence on paying a proprietary homage to virtue looks downright quaint. Nobody believes she doesn’t believe she’s above the rules. Trump believes he’s above the rules, too, of course — but he knows how to flaunt it — because certainly everyone in America wishes to be above the rules.

The very idea that we can organize electoral politics around principles rather than people is novel; America has yet to fully demonstrate that its ‘propositional’ experiment is truly sustainable. America’s greatest presidents are revered as demi-gods in the civic canon, and even passionate, loyal old Thomas Jefferson would never deny that Washington — rather than Locke — was the father of his country. We believe what Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt (or — allowing for taste — Reagan) did were good and just because Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt did them; we simply don’t question these things — we know that they worked on behalf of our liberty. In a phrase: “I, Lincoln, am liberty” — and we believe it. Those who don’t are not fully American, and they know it.

And those Republicans of Conservative Movement Inc. who refuse to unite behind their party’s nominee are certainly not fully Republican — and therefore have inferior standing to tell the party’s nominee what to do. Many of the above-mentioned deifying impulses, excited by the novelty of a new leader and new possibilities, were at work when Romneycare was surely not Obamacare Jr., when Romney’s changes of heart on abortion and immigration were surely sincere, and when treating by-then-birther Donald Trump with elevated status all were acceptable — nay, articles of faith — ones to be propagated publicly, at least. When Romney was the nominee, a history of dissent from right-wing orthodoxy was — had to be — explained away: the highest goal was removing Barack Obama from office. To be a Republican was to be a Romney supporter, which meant affirming Romney’s positions as acceptable. Conservatives acclimated themselves to Romney’s beliefs, and Trump’s populist supporters were asked to accept them. Interestingly, by and large — they did! Who are the truly disloyal ones, here? Who are the ones not open to compromise? (If we must be disloyal, let us wear our disloyalty as a badge of honor..!)

Trump won the Republican nomination handily. It wasn’t close. It wasn’t close to being close. No longer can National Review look at itself and say: “Le parti, c’est moi!” In the final analysis, the race for the nomination was never close: Trump swept the early contests and Super Tuesday and then went on to start forming solid majorities in the final third of the race — just like Mitt Romney. Why should the Jonah Goldbergs and other high priests of Conservative Movement Inc., decide that there is one set of rules for them — and another, entirely different set of rules for other factions of the party?

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