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A Trip Down Memory Lane
National Review "Against Trump," you say?
You no doubt already have the broad outlines of this, but I want to get into a little detail:
In 2015, when Trump began his first presidential campaign, the big names in conservatism were mostly against him. But they had a hard time articulating why.
After all, from his 2011 CPAC appearance to his golden escalator stunt in 2015, Trump sounded like a typical old-fashioned gutter wingnut — aggressive with enemies both foreign (“We have to watch China and we have to watch OPEC...”) and domestic (e.g. the black people he claimed did all the murdering). He was a little unorthodox on foreign policy, but then so was Ron Paul.
I like to think mainstream conservatives disliked him because he showed them what they really were, but maybe I overthink it — maybe it was just because he didn’t show them the proper respect. In fact, he went out of his way to make fun of Charles Krauthammer and Jonah Goldberg (“a guy who can’t buy pants”), as if he knew that the conservatives who even knew who those guys were didn’t respect them, either.
Trump’s stock kept climbing. Conservatives tried comparing him to people they and (they presumed) their readers didn’t like, such as Jon Stewart, Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, and (I swear) Gore Vidal. Astonishingly this did nothing to turn things around.
By January 2016 Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, flagship publication of the American Right, knew what had to be done: He produced a special “Against Trump” issue full of guest editorials from throughout the world of polite conservatism. It got a lot of press, including from me:
There was National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, who said Trump’s solution for everything “pretty much amounts to: ‘great management,’” ill-befitting the party of George W. Bush. There was Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Thomas Sowell, who compared Trump’s populism with “Juan Perón in Argentina, Obama in America, or Hitler in Germany”…
There was Commentary editor John Podhoretz, who called Trump the “apotheosis of a tendency that began to manifest itself in American culture in the 1980s, most notably in the persons of the comic Andrew Dice Clay and the shock jock Howard Stern” and said his election would be “the worst thing to happen to the American common culture in my lifetime”…
You get the idea: They wanted a Republican candidate with good taste — someone like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz: someone with a power base in a big red state who could act statesmanlike sometimes because, after all, conservatism was about ideas, not crude appeals to racial prejudice, class envy, and anti-intellectualism. (Not that they didn’t appeal to racial prejudice, class envy, and anti-intellectualism, too, but they weren’t about them.)
Still, Trump was what they got. And the moment he became inevitable, they began to melt, as I also noticed:
“Sometimes worthy causes have unworthy champions,” said William Voegeli at National Review, comparing Trump to Joseph McCarthy, who maaayybe went a little far, but at least he was fighting Commies, just like Trump was going maaayybe a little far fighting Muslims but not really. “Trump’s voters believe that he, like them, is unequivocally committed to thwarting jihadism,” concluded Voegeli. “About his political opponents, they feel they know no such thing.”
“Yes, Donald Trump is a flawed messenger for the case against Hillary Clinton,” agreed Voegeli’s colleague Jim Geraghty, “but that doesn’t make the message any less true or compelling.” The message, in this case, was that “some illegal immigrants are violent criminals,” Geraghty said, and when they do crimes they’re “briefly detained by police authorities and then released, or even worse, effectively protected by ‘sanctuary cities’”…
Even the dudgeony John Podhoretz came around. In May 2016 he wrote “Rat Pack vs. the hippie: Trump and Clinton are from opposite ends of same decade.” And you know Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter didn’t raise no hippie-lover! “[Trump] may be vulgar, but it’s a formal kind of vulgarity,” Podhoretz wrote. “…From the day he graduated from college in 1968 and went to work for his father at the old man’s anti-flashy real-estate offices in the hardscrabble Brooklyn neighborhood of Gravesend, he was never seen without a suit and tie.”
Anyway, nearly all of them jumped in for the big win — including, as I outlined in a post-election column, people who’d been in National Review’s “Against Trump” issue denouncing him. Take Old Ham-Face himself, Erick Erickson…
…the former CNN pundit who for months denounced Trump in nearly apocalyptic terms — e.g. “With the rise of an authoritarian menace to our republic, it is important to go on record now, while he can be stopped, that we will play no part in his rise.”
After the election, Erickson was conciliatory — not toward voters who had tried to stop Trump, but toward Trump himself. “Perhaps,” he mooned, “as only Nixon could go to China, maybe only Trump can reunite the country.”
And not only him:
…Commentary editor [William Kristol] said [in January], “Isn’t Trumpism a two-bit Caesarism of a kind that American conservatives have always disdained? Isn’t the task of conservatives today to stand athwart Trumpism, yelling Stop?”
Where stands Kristol now? In a series of tweets the weekend after the election, Kristol sighed, “Best and most hopeful case for Trump: His presidency will be like that of the president closest to him in the alphabet — Truman.… When Truman became president, was widely considered unprepared. Was blunt, coarse, profane, thin-skinned, not formally well-educated.” Also, like Trump, he was a failed haberdasher!
You should go read that column. It’s pretty funny in retrospect.
I have tons of clips, but the short version is, during the Trump era nearly all the watchdogs of conservatism, not excepting the National Review writers who had stood athwart Trump yelling “Against!,” became either total Trump loyalists or what I came to call “JustTheTip Trumpers” — that is, people who supported the Boss in all things but were compelled to “stick in some grumbles about Trump’s ‘childish Twitter antics,’ but it’s completely pro forma, like Christmas fruitcake or point-after-touchdown conversions — something no one really cares about but which everyone feels they ought to have.”
And they stayed in place even as it all went to shit in 2020 like the last half-hour of Downfall. Rich Lowry — the brains behind the “Against Trump” issue — cried to readers that a Trump vote was “The Only Middle Finger Available/If Trump wins, it will be as a gigantic rude gesture to the cultural Left.”
And now we have Tubby launching another run, and the good taste conservatives including the folks at National Review are rushing to distance themselves. At this point I don’t think they expect to fool anyone. In a way, the most powerful tribute they can pay to the Trump legacy is imitate him in exactly this way — bullshitting their followers, confident that enough of them will go along with the gag to keep the lights on for another month.
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