The Right was always ripe for a tyrant
Over at NRO, writer Jay Nordlinger has a long post ruminating about the word “conservatism” and its meaning. He’s engaging in a long, storied tradition among intellectual conservatives gazing at their navels (I don’t say this to be mean; they admit it themselves), so a lot of this is not new: how can the same word “conservative” describe both, say, Joe McCarthy and Eisenhower? Reagan and Ron Paul? Or, for that matter, how can one word include both Donald Trump and NeverTrumpers like Nordlinger?
What I don’t think Nordlinger realizes is that he answered this dilemma himself at the very top of his essay.
He asked, “What kind of conservative are you? What is the basis of your conservatism?”… Finally, I said to him, “Look, Scott, I’m a simple fellow: I just hate the Reds. Hate, hate, hate the Reds.” … George F. Will says that the first thing a conservative is, is anti-Left.
Well, that’s the rub, isn’t it? Being conservative means, above all, being against everything liberals are for. Everything else can fall by the wayside if your political side defines itself not by what it’s for, but what — no, not what, but who — it is against. Nordlinger may dislike Trump all he wants, but as long as they are wedded by conservativism’s first principle — hating the dastardly libs — there is nothing he can do about the host of Celebrity Apprentice wholly dominating his side, as he will continue to do so even out of office.
Think of all the old Reagan rules that have now been discarded. Free markets and trade. Stout internationalism. Small government. Federalism and states’ rights. How is this possible?, NeverTrumpers like Nordlinger often wonder aloud. But they know exactly why. Being conservative only means being opposed to liberals — and everything else is negotiable. With that as your only rule, it is simplicity itself for a crude bully like Trump to come in and completely take over. To change not only the political party, but even intellectual conservatism itself, to the point where Nordlinger’s NRO, explicitly founded to oppose the populist John Birch Society, abruptly flipped to embrace populism because the Birchers won in 2016.
People often wonder if a liberal Trump could ever emerge. In my opinion: no. This is because liberals do not define themselves, first and foremost, in whom they oppose. They do not consider themselves as anti-conservative first, and then leave the rest TBD. Instead, they get wedded to their various camps based on which issues motivate them the most, leaving two main factions that can never completely roll over the other (center-lefties who embrace the word “liberal,” and far-lefties who are out-and-proud socialists). Yes, they mostly set aside their differences temporarily purely to defeat Trump; but the minute that was done, the old AOC vs. Pelosi feud flared up again like a bad case of gout.
This is all the more remarkable because their differences usually are merely differences of degree. Bernie and AOC may want Medicare for all, while establishment Dems like Pelosi may want an Obamacare 2.0 with a public option; yet both clearly want to head in the same direction. Similarly, a center-left pundit like Jonathan Chait or Matt Yglesias may be leery of a Green New Deal championed by a hard-left writer, yet both look like Greenpeace diehards next to your average Trumpist writer. And famously, Bernie’s and Hillary’s disagreement on the minimum wage consisted purely on the number it should be raised to.
None of their debates center on how much they should hate your average MAGA voter.
Sure, a Democratic politician with both Trump’s charm and dominant will-to-power could emerge — AOC herself comes to mind. But the problem is, not even she could completely take over her side the way Trump has, not even if she were president, because the center-left would jealously tear into her just as ferociously as the right. Chuck Schumer rebranding himself as a “socialist” just because of who the president is, is just as alien of a concept as Adam Gase rebranding himself as a competent NFL coach. The same applies to the left’s professional chatterers. The idea of The New Republic morphing into the Jacobin, or vice versa, merely because of who’s president is laughable on its face.
But because conservatism defines itself negatively, as Nordlinger touched on before promptly forgetting in his column, that is exactly what happened to them. Without positive first principles, the entire side bent like wet cardboard before the man who would be king, because he did deliver on making liberals angry. Politicians like Marco Rubio and righty media sites like Nordlinger’s NRO and the Federalist went from proud Reaganism at the beginning of 2016 to full-throated Bircherism in fewer than two years. It is why the MAGA base wants to literally throw out the election and install Trump as dictator-for-life. After all, if the only goal is owning the libs, why not?
The rest is negotiable.