by Bruce Thornton
An intriguing change of heart after the Left's attempt to destroy Brett Kavanaugh.
For two years a group of Republican pundits and “wise men” have vehemently criticized Donald Trump. Their complaints range from Trump’s alleged insufficient fealty to Republican and conservative principles, to flaws of manners and decorum, and violations of “democratic norms.” As the president’s first term progressed, many critics continued to snipe at Trump’s tweets and braggadocio even when they grudgingly had to acknowledge his achievements. What started as reasonable criticism quickly turned into the neurosis of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Sober and judicious commentators turned into peevish cranks.
Now, however, we are seeing perhaps the beginning of a cure for TDS. The economic and foreign policy improvements, and particularly the success of putting a second originalist on the Supreme Court, have many NeverTrumpers walking back their scorched-earth criticism, at least for now. Maybe the Democrats’ violent, childish, and hypocritical rejection of all the “norms” of democracy and rights of the accused have been the shock-treatment needed to turn NeverTrumpers from fifth-columnists to partisans.
Can the NeverTrumpers be redeemed?
Last week reliable NeverTrumper Matthew Continetti, after cataloguing Trump’s successes, wrote, “Donald Trump is putting the finishing touches on one of the most remarkable weeks of his presidency. For Republicans, it doesn’t get much better than this.” Red State’s Eric Erickson, a self-proclaimed “original” NeverTrump conservative, now can vote for Trump in 2020, because “he is a safe harbor in a progressive storm that seeks to both destroy my values and upend our constitutional republic.” One can ask why it took so long to realize this truth, since that progressive “storm” has been brewing since 1968.
No NeverTrumper, however, has been as obsessive and morally preening as Bret Stephens, who left the respectable Wall Street Journal for the progressives’ Pravda, The New York Times. A few examples: After Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen pled guilty to several charges in August, Stephens tweeted, “The president is clearly guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. He should resign his office or be impeached and removed from office.” Given that impeachment starts in the Republican-controlled House, and tried in the Republican-controlled Senate, this wish full of begged questions served no useful purpose other than virtue-signaling, the NeverTrumpers’ consistent symptom of their disease.
Not that Stephens hasn’t given Trump his due on issues such as ditching the appeasing nuclear deal with Iran, or attacking a Syrian airfield with missiles. But for every acknowledgement of a president’s decision, there were rote condemnations of his style and manners, another tic of the NeverTrumpers. And the content of Stephens’ criticism usually comprises egregious question-begging epithets favored by the left. Before the 2016 election, for example, Stephens chastised the Republicans for ignoring “Mr. Trump’s unrelenting and apparently irrepressible bigotry, misogyny, bullying and conspiracy-mongering,” as long as Trump mouthed “pieties about appointing more Scalias to the court or cutting corporate tax rates.” In other words, Trump supporters will sell their conservative birthright for a mess of originalist and fiscal pottage.
In June of this year, in an interview with Hugh Hewitt about putting originalists on the Supreme Court, Stephens doubled-down on his rejection of Trump no matter his many conservative achievements. When asked by Hewitt, “So just to be clear, you would still not vote for Donald Trump knowing what we know?” Stephens answered, “Of course, not. I think he’s a terrible president who daily does damage to the fabric of American society.”
These examples show the fundamentally irrational flaws of the NeverTrump stance: style trumps substance, words trump deeds, feel-good clichés like “the fabric of American society” or “democratic norms” trump concrete actions that benefit the security and interests of the people the president serves.
Such phrases, moreover, ignore the fundamental structure of the Constitution. Except for times of war, the Constitution was not concerned with bipartisan unity or “reaching across the aisle” to solve problems––the credo of the centralized, concentrated power of the technocratic oligarchy––but with dividing and balancing and checking the ambitions of self-interested factions attempting to monopolize power. The Founders knew better than to expect a flawed human nature to consistently practice the decorous deliberations and high-flown rhetoric and manners that the NeverTrumpers extoll. Except for elites, the Founders understood that the riotous diversity of America’s regional cultures, folkways, and mores made such courtly politesse impossible.
Despite Stephens’ long history of Trump Derangement Syndrome, he recently published a column that repudiates his earlier criticism of Republicans for tolerating Trump in order to get an originalist on the Court. Now he expresses his “gratitude” for Trump’s presence in the White House during the Kavanaugh auto-da-fé, even though the president “mocked Christine Blasey Ford in his ugly and gratuitous way,” another good example of the old virtue-signaling tic. Pointing out the gaping holes in an accuser’s charges is fundamental, not “gratuitous.”
After that throat-clearing, Stephens seems finally to be aware that the “any means necessary” imperative of the left leaves no space for gentlemanly decorum.
I’m grateful because Trump has not backed down in the face of the slipperiness, hypocrisy and dangerous standard-setting deployed by opponents of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. I’m grateful because ferocious and even crass obstinacy has its uses in life, and never more so than in the face of sly moral bullying.
The big question, then, to ask all these apparently “woke” NeverTrumpers is, what took you so long? The behavior of the Democrats on display during the Kavanaugh hearing was new only in its intensity. Go back to the hearings on Robert Bork’s nomination, a root-and-branch offensive characterized by lies and grotesque rhetoric from Senator Ted Kennedy. His 1987 speech against Bork, at that time one of the country’s most esteemed jurists, is much more despicable and dishonest and serious than the tantrums of Cory Booker or the conspicuous rudeness of Kamala Harris:
Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.Moreover, this vile character assassination did not derail Kennedy’s career or lower his estimation in the eyes of the mainstream media, his party, or even some Republicans who put bipartisan comity and Senate cloakroom bonhomie ahead of truth and principle.
If the Bork nomination is not ample evidence of how low Democrats will go, they repeated this display of gutter politics with Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Court in 1991, when Anita Hill was produced at the last minute to accuse Thomas of sexual harassment. Only Thomas’s righteous anger, commanding dignity, and memorable phrase “high-tech lynching” saved his nomination.
With those two precedents, how is it that now the similarly contrived and equally vicious attack on Kavanaugh has finally opened the eyes of the NeverTrumpers to the perfidy and ideological fanaticism of the Democrat Party? Throw in the savage attacks on Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and even sometime-heart-throb John McCain. Add a media willing to libel Republicans on behalf of the DNC, and besmirch its own journalistic ethics for political gain. Why would NeverTrumpers now be shocked, shocked that Democrats play dirty?
Progressives are the people who preach “by any means necessary,” and better resemble Ted Kennedy’s lying catalogue of Bork’s alleged tyrannical intentions: censors of opposing points of view by enforcing politically correct taboos, purveyors of vicious libels and unconfirmed charges in the media, enablers of disruptive demonstrations and violent attack on conservative speakers and rallies, promoters of resegregation through illiberal identity politics, and practitioners of new types of bigotry like the one directed at “privileged white males,” whom one may now harass and slander and abuse with all the gusto and stupidity of a drunken Klan Klavern.
Long before Trump, the debasement of the Democrat Party had become obvious, and the two terms of Barack Obama made it crystal clear. It was embodied in the career and candidacy of Hillary Clinton, the epitome of the unholy alliance of rank careerism, socialist cronyism, and big-government tyranny. It was clear from her own words that Clinton would advance the process begun in the Sixties and culminating in Obama’s administrations. Illiberal technocracy, foreign policy retreat, globalist encroachment on national sovereignty, a more redistributionist and less productive economy, and the further erosion of the Constitution’s safeguards of political freedom and individual autonomy––all would strengthen and expand under Clinton. Those were the stakes in 2016.
Yet how many NeverTrumpers, including those now seemingly undergoing a conversion, joined the Democrats in trying to destroy Trump once he secured the nomination? Worse yet, how many publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton, preferring her crony statism to Trump’s promise of a “cowboy capitalism” freed from the dead hand of regulation? By what moral or rational calculus could Trump’s violations of some people’s notions of civility, decorum, “democratic norms,” or “acting presidential” outweighed the risks of a Clinton presidency? Are Trump supporters so out of line to think that the NeverTrump animus reflected the tastes and preferences of a bicoastal privileged elite that looked down on the cultures and mores of flyover states?
Even if the NeverTrumpers are sincere in their new-found appreciation for Trump’s willingness to fight fire with fire, they still owe those who knew the stakes of the election an explanation for how blind they were to the nature of the progressive ideology that logically led to the character assassination of Brett Kavanaugh and the defilement of the Senate’s duty to provide advice and consent.
But more important is what happens going forward. I’m not calling for self-censoring one’s criticism of the president. He should be held to account for his policies, particularly for his indifference to the growing hurricane of debt, deficit, and entitlement spending, and for his clinging to the Israeli-Arab “peace process” and “two states living side-by-side in peace” magical thinking. But sniffing at his brash style and crude straight-talk does nothing except encourage and legitimize those who correctly see Donald Trump as the greatest impediment to their transformation of America from a democratic Republic to a “democratic socialist” tyranny.
By their fruits ye shall know them, as the Bible says. NeverTrumpers will be redeemed by directing their energy toward protecting freedom rather than some class-bound code of manners.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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