George Will and AEI’s Jonah Goldberg discuss the broad changes affecting American politics and conservatism.
(14:00)This is an outgrowth of the Flight 93 election syndrome which is that the end is nigh unlesspeople listen to people like us.It’s a way of pumping up the grandeur and magnificence and importance of people whosay, “We stand at Armageddon, and things have never been worse, but they might get worsetomorrow unless radical things are done.”Jonah: Right, and people who disagree with you must shut up for we are at an existentialcrisis.George: Exactly, existential crisis, but the self-dramatizing, things aren’t that bad.I mean, I’m not happy.No one writes political philosophy if they’re content, right?Because you’re irritated about something or anxious or afraid or something.But I just think this hysteria is to be ignored.Jonah: I quote you in one of my previous books.There’s a story you tell about how when you first got your syndicated column, you calledGeorge…William F. Buckley, “How the heck am I going to write two columns a week?”What was his advice to you?George: He said, “The world irritates me three times a week.”He wrote three times a week.He said, “The world irritates me.”And it turns out it’s true, the world irritates or amuses or piques my curiosity 100 timesa year.I’ve never had a day when I didn’t have three or four things I wanted to write about.
the other day, EJ Dionne praised a piece by Ramesh and me on the need to criticize Trump. I responded:Thanks.
That’s fine and I agree (and have been). But I think liberals should also think about how they invited the backlash that Trump rode. There’s plenty of blame across the ideological spectrum.
My tweet elicited a torrent of question-begging, self-righteous bilge from liberals who couldn’t imagine that liberals have any role in the mess that we are in. Assaults on free speech, the constant mockery and condescension from the commanding heights of Blue America, the refusal to consider any reasonable reforms to immigration, Hillary Clinton’s dynastic entitlement and contempt for “deplorables,” and the pushing of identity politics seem always to be noble do-goodery without a smidgen of overreach.
.. Michael Anton, who penned “The Flight 93 Election” back when he was hiding behind a pen-name, articulated very well in an exchange with me what millions of conservatives believe to be true:
The old American ideal of judging individuals and not groups, content-of-character-not-color-of-skin, is dead, dead, dead. Dead as a matter of politics, policy and culture. The left plays by new rules. The right still plays by the old rules. The left laughs at us for it — but also demands that we keep to that rulebook. They don’t even bother to cheat. They proclaim outright that “these rules don’t apply to our side.”
.. I disagree with Anton’s prescription — to surrender to identity politics and cheat the way our “enemies” do — but I cannot argue much with this description of a widespread mindset. Many on the right are surrendering to the logic of the mob because they are sick of double standards. Again, I disagree with the decision to surrender, but I certainly empathize with the temptation. The Left and the mainstream media can’t even see how they don’t want to simply win, they want to force people to celebrate their victories (“You will be made to care!”). It isn’t forced conversion at the tip of a sword, but at the blunt edge of a virtual mob.
.. Kevin Williamson’s views on abortion put him outside the mainstream. And he was fired from The Atlantic merely for refusing to recant them.
Meanwhile, extreme views on the left are simply hot takes or even signs of genius. Take the philosopher Peter Singer. He has at least as extreme views on a host of issues, and he is feted and celebrated for them. He is the author of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on “Ethics.” He holds an endowed chair at Princeton. He writes regularly for leading publications. And he argues that sometimes it’s okay to kill babies, as in his essay “Killing Babies Isn’t Always Wrong.” “Newborn human babies,” he writes, “have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.” He cutely asks whether people should cease to exist. (He ultimately and grudgingly answers “No.”) Oh, he also argues in favor of bestiality.
And he’s been profiled favorably in the pages of The Atlantic.
2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.
Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.
.. To ordinary conservative ears, this sounds histrionic. The stakes can’t be that high because they are never that high—except perhaps in the pages of Gibbon. Conservative intellectuals will insist that there has been no “end of history” and that all human outcomes are still possible. They will even—as Charles Kesler does—admit that America is in “crisis.” But how great is the crisis?
.. “even if [Trump] had chosen his policies at random, they would be sounder than Hillary’s”—is unwarrantedly ungenerous. The truth is that Trump articulated, if incompletely and inconsistently, the right stances on the right issues—
- trade, and
—right from the beginning.
.. the unwillingness even to entertain the possibility that America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad.
.. conservatives routinely present a litany of ills plaguing the body politic. Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can’t (or won’t) discipline disruptive punks, and at the higher levels saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege.
.. Conservatives spend at least several hundred million dollars a year on think-tanks, magazines, conferences, fellowships, and such, complaining about this, that, the other, and everything. And yet these same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo.
.. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?
.. If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.
.. But it’s quite obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff.
.. But how are they going to save, or even meaningfully improve, the America that Continetti describes? What can they do against a tidal wave of dysfunction, immorality, and corruption? “Civic renewal” would do a lot of course, but that’s like saying health will save a cancer patient. A step has been skipped in there somewhere. How are we going to achieve “civic renewal”? Wishing for a tautology to enact itself is not a strategy.
.. Continetti trips over a more promising approach when he writes of “stress[ing] the ‘national interest abroad and national solidarity at home’ through foreign-policy retrenchment, ‘support to workers buffeted by globalization,’ and setting ‘tax rates and immigration levels’ to foster social cohesion.” That sounds a lot like Trumpism.
.. acknowledgment that the crisis is, indeed, pretty dire.
.. our liberal-left present reality and future direction is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society—and yet also believe that things can go on more or less the way they are going
.. if you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first, few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism.
.. They will say, in words reminiscent of dorm-room Marxism—but our proposals have not been tried!
.. The tsunami of leftism that still engulfs our every—literal and figurative—shore has receded not a bit but indeed has grown. All your (our) victories are short-lived.
.. The whole enterprise of Conservatism, Inc., reeks of failure.
.. One of the Journal of American Greatness’s deeper arguments was that only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise. It is therefore puzzling that those most horrified by Trump are the least willing to consider the possibility that the republic is dying.
.. It will be coupled with a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent hitherto seen in the supposedly liberal West only in the most “advanced” Scandinavian countries and the most leftist corners of Germany and England. We see this already in the censorship practiced by the Davoisie’s social media enablers; in the shameless propaganda tidal wave of the mainstream media; and in the personal destruction campaigns—operated through the former and aided by the latter—of the Social Justice Warriors. We see it in Obama’s flagrant use of the IRS to torment political opponents, the gaslighting denial by the media, and the collective shrug by everyone else.
.. For two generations at least, the Left has been calling everyone to their right Nazis.
.. This trend has accelerated exponentially in the last few years, helped along by some on the Right who really do seem to merit—and even relish—the label.
.. the deck is stacked overwhelmingly against us. I will mention but three ways. First, the opinion-making elements—the universities and the media above all—are wholly corrupt and wholly opposed to everything we want, and increasingly even to our existence. (What else are the wars on “cis-genderism”—formerly known as “nature”—and on the supposed “white privilege” of broke hillbillies really about?)
.. Our “leaders” and “dissenters” bend over backward to play by the self-sabotaging rules the Left sets for them.
.. Third and most important, the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.
.. consider this. Trump is the most liberal Republican nominee since Thomas Dewey. He departs from conservative orthodoxy in so many ways that National Review still hasn’t stopped counting.
.. On trade, globalization, and war, Trump is to the left (conventionally understood) not only of his own party, but of his Democratic opponent.
.. there’s that other issue. The sacredness of mass immigration is the mystic chord that unites America’s ruling and intellectual classes.
.. many of them, also believe the academic-intellectual lie that America’s inherently racist and evil nature can be expiated only through ever greater “diversity.”
.. The junta of course craves cheaper and more docile labor. It also seeks to legitimize, and deflect unwanted attention from, its wealth and power by pretending that its open borders stance is a form of noblesse oblige.
.. The Republicans and the “conservatives”? Both of course desperately want absolution from the charge of “racism.”
.. Do they honestly believe that the right enterprise zone or charter school policy will arouse 50.01% of our newer voters to finally reveal their “natural conservatism” at the ballot box? It hasn’t happened anywhere yet and shows no signs that it ever will.
.. This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die.
.. I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity.
.. only Trump-the-alleged-buffoon not merely saw all three and their essential connectivity, but was able to win on them.
.. The alleged buffoon is thus more prudent—more practically wise—than all of our wise-and-good who so bitterly oppose him. This should embarrass them. That their failures instead embolden them is only further proof of their foolishness and hubris.
.. When America possessed a vast, empty continent and explosively growing industry, high immigration was arguably good policy.
.. It hasn’t made sense since World War I. Free trade was unquestionably a great boon to the American worker in the decades after World War II. We long ago passed the point of diminishing returns.
.. The Gulf War of 1991 was a strategic victory for American interests. No conflict since then has been.
.. for most of the other #NeverTrumpers, is it just a coincidence that they also happen to favor Invade the World, Invite the World?
.. Trumpism, broadly defined as
- secure borders,
- economic nationalism, and
- America-first foreign policy.
.. We Americans have chosen, in our foolishness, to disunite the country through stupid immigration, economic, and foreign policies. The level of unity America enjoyed before the bipartisan junta took over can never be restored.
.. No more importing poverty, crime, and alien cultures.
.. simply building a wall and enforcing immigration law will help enormously, by cutting off the flood of newcomers that perpetuates ethnic separatism and by incentivizing the English language and American norms in the workplace.
.. These policies will have the added benefit of aligning the economic interests of, and (we may hope) fostering solidarity among, the working, lower middle, and middle classes of all races and ethnicities.
.. Who cares if productivity numbers tick down, or if our already somnambulant GDP sinks a bit further into its pillow? Nearly all the gains of the last 20 years have accrued to the junta anyway. It would, at this point, be better for the nation to divide up more equitably a slightly smaller pie than to add one extra slice
.. ? If you recognize the threat she poses, but somehow can’t stomach him, have you thought about the longer term? The possibilities would seem to be: Caesarism, secession/crack-up, collapse, or managerial Davoisie liberalism as far as the eye can see … which, since nothing human lasts forever, at some point will give way to one of the other three.
A year in, Trump has delivered on many of his specific promises, particularly where judicial appointments are concerned. At the same time, there’s a great deal of angst within religious circles about what his personal moral defects and his administration’s deep unpopularity mean for Christian cultural witness, and (among evangelicals, especially) whether the Trump era is setting up a kind of generational schism that will contribute to institutional Christianity’s crisis going forward.
.. John Zmirak: Thanks, Ross. So far, I must say that I’m genuinely pleased and impressed by Trump’s performance on most of the issues of concern to socially conservative voters and Christians. It contrasts sharply with how mainstream Republican candidates and presidents treated such voters.
.. Think back to 1996, when a handful of evangelical leaders were able to steer their flocks away from Pat Buchanan — who would have been their champion — to Bob Dole, who muttered reluctant compliance with a few of their interests, but clearly didn’t care a fig about abortion or other culture issues.
.. What we saw in 2016 is that a small group of “respectable” ministers or lobbyists no longer has the power to “deliver” Christian voters. And I think that’s a good, healthy thing. It gives us more leverage, as we seem to have with Trump.
Furthermore, and I have this from pastors who met with Trump for many hours: He genuinely listens to them. They’re the kind of people most playboys from Queens never encounter. He connected with some of them personally. He saw their concern for his soul. And he took and takes their concerns seriously.
Trump sees that the church is a big part of what made America great, and he sees that the state persecution that President Obama began hurts the country. I hope that he sees more, sees Christ as his savior. But in his role as Caesar, protecting our rights is quite enough.
.. I know it’s fashionable to scorn “mainstream” or “respectable” politicians or ministers, but these individuals at least had the virtue — as imperfect as they were — of a degree of personal honor and integrity. The church always must be mindful of its witness, and it can’t sacrifice its moral credibility to a culture by declaring, “I did it for the judges.”
I belong to the camp of Christians who are grateful when Trump makes good decisions but also quite mindful that our political witness is inseparable from our Christian witness. Thus, we have no option but to condemn his worst impulses and work to counteract his toxic influence on our larger culture. While policy positions are important (though Trump’s real impact is often vastly overblown), a nation is ultimately shaped far more by its culture than its policies, and we can never forsake the greater power for the lesser win.
Zmirak: I think it trivializes every issue of justice and life that we both care about to call them public policy “wins.” These are the fates and freedoms of millions of people we’re talking about. Unborn children. Nuns who serve the dying poor. Christians endangered by the Islamic State.
Douthat: But John, do you think there’s anything dangerous in the close association between a Christian politics and a president who is so proudly un-Christian in word and often deed?
Zmirak: Trump’s personal behavior in the past is of no real concern to me — nor to most of the Christian voters I’m in touch with. The more we find out about the disgusting actions in office of not just Bill Clinton but also John F. Kennedy … it helps encourage an Augustinian shrug.
French: I find it curious when Christians declare that the personal conduct of a president is of no real concern — especially since that’s the exact opposite message that Christians have been preaching for a generation. During the latter part of the Bill Clinton presidency, the Southern Baptist Convention put out a powerful statement on the importance of virtuous conduct in leaders, regardless of the state of the economy or the quality of the policymaking. Part of the justification for that statement was the biblical truth that God has judged nations in part for their unrighteous rulers. In other words, Christians can’t and shouldn’t laser-focus on policy but always must be mindful of eternity. Do we believe the Bible? Or are we just another interest group that makes cold, purely political calculations?
.. Zmirak: We’re fallen creatures trying to render unto Caesar as well as unto God. The nexus between those two is how we as sovereign citizens direct our government to treat the vulnerable.
We supported Constantine, and Harry Truman, and many other imperfect men who were better than the alternatives.
I don’t even expect saintly behavior of popes, much less of presidents. If the circumstances in which God saw fit to place us make us choose between the “squeaky clean” persecutor of the unborn and the Little Sisters of the Poor, or between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the choice is obvious. If we pick the persecutor because he pleases us more aesthetically, better fits our internal self-image, then we will answer for that on the Day of Judgment.
.. Douthat: So when we see polls showing a wild swing between the 1990s and the present in the share of evangelicals who think character matters in a politician, John, you think evangelicals are actually coming around to a more sensible view than they held in the Clinton era?
Zmirak: Yes. Just as evangelicals are coming around to using Natural Law (philosophical) arguments — rather than biblical proof-texts for their political positions, I think they are moving closer to the skeptical prudence that always marked Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican political thinking. Read what the Family Research Council, or National Organization for Marriage, publish on social issues. They’re not thumping the Bible. They’re citing Cicero and Aristotle.
French: I’m sorry, but the transformation of the evangelical public from the American segment most willing to hold leaders to a high moral standard to the segment now least likely smacks of pure, primitive partisanship, not high theological principle. Evangelicals aren’t coming around to using Natural Law at all. It’s pure instrumentalism. They’ve made an alliance of convenience. They haven’t made some sort of thoughtful intellectual shift.
.. A person can simultaneously say that Trump has accomplished good things while also seeking to hold him to a proper standard of conduct. My great disappointment during this first year of the Trump presidency is not with evangelicals who have rightly lauded, say, the Neil Gorsuch appointment, but rather with Christians who’ve defended, rationalized and excused conduct they’d never, ever condone in a Democrat. There are not two standards of morality depending on judicial appointments or regulatory reform.
.. For groups outside the Republican coalition, especially — like millennials drifting from religion and the churchgoing African-Americans who just turned out in droves to defeat Roy Moore — isn’t there the potential for them to be scandalized by lock step religious conservative support for a presidency that most of America sees as failed from Year 1?
.. Zmirak: I think much of the drift is driven not by politics but by internal scandals, like the sex abuse crisis among Catholics, and financial scandals among evangelicals.
.. But to politics: Were Christians scandalized by the spectacle of George W. Bush leaving Iraqi Christians to face jihadi violence? They should have been. It was far worse than anything Trump has done. I must confess that I am deeply embittered by the callousness that George W. Bush displayed toward the lives and liberties of religious minorities in Iraq — when as U.S. commander in chief, he had essentially absolute power over that occupied country. Of about one million Christians, some 900,000 were ethnically cleansed, most of them while our troops still occupied the country. I can put up with Donald Trump’s old Howard Stern tapes all day long, compared with that.
.. I don’t think the savage hatred of Donald Trump is mostly driven by his genuine excesses. Trump is serving as a catalyst to expose just how unhinged, anti-Christian, anti-Western, and frankly anti-rational the dominant factions on the left have become.
.. to blame the plight of Middle East Christians on Bush is to magnify his influence far too much. They have faced worse in countries America didn’t invade.
.. The Democratic nomination of Hillary Clinton was far more important to Trump’s success than anything that George W. Bush did. Don’t forget, older Republicans (which is most Republicans) had been fighting Clinton for the better part of a quarter-century. The rallying cry of the G.O.P. wasn’t to turn the page on the Bush era but rather to defeat Hillary. As of today, Bush has a higher approval rating than Trump.
.. what would have to happen in the next few years to make you think that he’s right, and that the negative consequences of the Trumpist bargain will ultimately eclipse Neil Gorsuch’s influence on the legal and political order?
Zmirak: If Trump follows bad advice, and gets us mired in some foreign intervention where thousands of U.S. troops are bogged down in pursuit of ideological fantasies. Or if he betrays us on the courts. Or if he fails to get control of our borders. In other words, if he welches on any of the fundamental promises he made conservatives to gain our support, then I’ll feel cheated.
.. Douthat: But you really don’t worry at all about the possibility that 60 percent of the country will exit the Trump era convinced that conservative Christianity is just white identity politics?
Zmirak: No, I think that’s something that worries conservatives who mix in elite circles more than anyone else.
.. French: This is just false. I live in rural Tennessee, and the folks who go to my church don’t want conservative Christianity to be seen in this way. There’s nothing elitist about wanting the Christian church to be seen as a force for racial reconciliation. In fact, the most grass-roots churches in the U.S. — our Pentecostal churches — are often the most racially diverse. The white Christians I know are in fact scandalized at the idea that church identity is mixed with ethnic self-advocacy.
.. It seems to me that the example of Western Europe, where secularization is more advanced than here and Islamic radicalism a more systemic social problem, has played an underestimated role in shaping conservative Christian instincts in the Trump era. That the pro-Trump voices, like you, John, see him as a bulwark against the trends that have marginalized traditional Christianity in France or England or Germany, while Trump critics (like myself and perhaps you, David) fear that by leading American Christians into defeat and disrepute, he will hasten us down the road to European secularism. What do you both think of this frame?
.. French: There is no question that conservative Christians are very concerned about America’s secular drift, and they look to Europe’s thoroughly post-Christian culture with a degree of alarm, if not horror. This concern contributed to the “Flight 93 election” mind-set that cast the 2016 contest as the campaign that would decide our national fate. That election was the emergency that justified wholesale Christian shifts in political principle. Where Christians once demanded honesty, they rationalized lies. Where Christians once sought evidence of ideological consistency, they accepted incoherence.
.. Many of us, however, looked at these accommodations and asked a simple question. Where is your faith? Christians were acting as if not just the nation — but the church itself — was in peril based on the outcome of a single election. Yet is God not sovereign over all the nations, including our own? Doesn’t scripture repeatedly condemn the exact kinds of moral compromises that so many Christians made? Don’t we believe those scriptures?
.. There is nothing more dangerous to the church than a lack of faith. I don’t at all mind it when Christians cheer the good things that Donald Trump has done. I join them. I do mind when they rationalize and excuse bad acts out of a completely misguided and faithless sense of cultural and political necessity.