Is it possible to be more politically irrelevant than #NeverTrump conservatives? From the moment that Donald Trump began his presidential campaign, the conservative establishment has been in a perpetual state of horrified gobsmackery. But that hasn’t stopped the Trumpist base from taking over the Republican Party.
And so it was that on Saturday the starboard-leaning pundit Mona Charen was booed at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) for the apostasy of suggesting that, no, it’s not OK for conservatives to make excuses for the sexual predator in the White House. And no, it’s not OK for CPAC to invite a member of the neo-fascist, Holocaust-denying Le Pen family to address the gathering.
Nor was Charen merely booed. She actually had to be escorted out of the building by security guards lest some overly enthusiastic #MAGA types decided to place themselves between her and the door.
“I spoke to a hostile audience for the sake of every person who has watched this spectacle of mendacity in disbelief and misery for the past two years,” Charen wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times. “Just hearing the words you know are true can serve as ballast, steadying your mind when so much seems unreal.”
Charen was followed by her fellow anti-Trumper Max Boot, who recently joined The Washington Post’s opinion section — and who, on Sunday, went so far as to say that he could no longer call himself a conservative. “I prefer to think of myself as a classical liberal,” Boot wrote, “because ‘conservative’ has become practically synonymous with ‘Trump lackey.’”
Charen, Boot, and other anti-Trump conservatives find themselves in an unusual position. On the one hand, they get plenty of attention, especially on the editorial pages of the Times and the Post, where they provide satisfying entertainment for the papers’ mostly liberal readers. On the other hand, they have been virtually cast out of the Republican Party, which these days is in thrall to the racism, nationalism, and demagoguery that have been the hallmarks of the Trump era. At least Democrats can look forward to the next election.
The marginalization of traditional conservatives has been a long time coming. Back in January 2016, National Review — founded by William F. Buckley Jr. — published a special issue titled “Against Trump.” The list of conservative pundits who oppose Trump is impressive, and includes former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum (whose year-old Atlantic piece on how Trump could build an autocracy remains must reading), Weekly Standard founding editor Bill Kristol, Commentary’s John Podhoretz, the Post’s Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, and George Will, and the Times’ David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Bret Stephens. Even farther-right pundits who share some sympathies with Trump’s positions, like Rod Dreher of The American Conservative and Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire, always are careful to make it clear that they do not support the president himself.
In many ways, members of the non-Trumpist right have no one but themselves to blame. This moment did not come out of nowhere. Richard Nixon had his “Silent Majority.” Ronald Reagan exploited racial tensions and helped create the notion of the undeserving poor. Indeed, those members of the white working class who voted for Trump are direct descendants of the so-called Reagan Democrats. The conservative intelligentsia was only too happy to exploit these voters over issues of race, guns, and abortion so that they could pursue their real agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy, free trade, and endless war.
For traditional conservatism to be relevant again, it must first move beyond its current media platforms of liberal op-ed pages and tiny magazines. The Trumpists have their own media in the form of Fox News, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, and out-and-out conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones — and they reach tens of millions of people who believe their propaganda and falsehoods.
Still, nothing is forever. Although it is impossible to imagine the sequence of events that would result in the conservative establishment’s gaining ascendance over Trumpism, it was just as impossible several years ago to imagine that Trump would take over the Republican Party — and, of course, be elected president. If conservatives are going to make a comeback, though, they need to address their own rot from within.
In an essential Post article on the marginalized conservative press, National Review editor Rich Lowry sounded like he gets it. “One of the giant ironies of this whole phenomenon for us is that Trump represents a cartoonish, often exaggerated, version of the direction we wanted to see the party go in,” he was quoted as saying. “Trump was in a very different place on regulation and trade, but we had been widening the lens of mainstream conservatism and arguing that the party needed to be more populist.”
In other words, something like Trumpism — only without Trump, racism, or xenophobia. It would be a start.
Last week I wrote about my frustrations with Twitter after I locked myself out through a series of mishaps and couldn’t get back in. Thanks to some human intervention, I’m back. But Twitter and other internet services need to do a much better job of helping customers who lack the connections to get beyond automated customer service.