The conservative intellectual Peter Wehner has an Op-Ed in Thursday’s New York Times called “Why I Will Never Vote for Trump.” Though Wehner’s thesis is in many ways a belaboring of the obvious, it’s worth reading, as much for its condensed summary of the obvious as for the obvious things it manages to omit. The omissions offer an interesting glimpse into the thought processes of the most morally decent thinkers on the political right. What the glimpse reveals, I think, is that even the most morally decent thinkers on the political right are too clueless and bereft of original ideas to cure what’s wrong with it.
Much of the piece consists of undeniably obvious criticisms of Trump, along with reasons why those criticisms entail that Republicans shouldn’t vote for him. I won’t belabor my agreements with Wehner. I’m just going to focus on what he gets wrong.
He starts by describing his impeccable Republican credentials, including stints in the Reagan and both Bush White Houses. Credentials secured, he tells us that he won’t vote for Trump, even if Trump becomes the Republican front runner. But he won’t vote for Hillary Clinton either, “because I consider her an ethical wreck.” As it happens, I have the same opinion of both Clintons. What I don’t understand is how Wehner manages to conclude that the Clintons are more of “an ethical wreck” than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush were. In other words, it’s apparently obvious to Wehner that Hillary Clinton’s standing by her man during the Lewinsky scandal or concealing her emails during the Obama presidency was more an “ethical wreck” than Ronald Reagan’s standing by Oliver North during the Iran-contra hearings, or George Bush’s launching a pointless and ruinous war in Iraq. I think most non-right-wing Americans would be inclined to say that these assumptions are almost self-evidently ridiculous, and raise more questions about conservative ethical standards than conservatives seem inclined to answer.
Having described his rejection of Trump and Clinton, Wehner finds himself in what he regards as a dilemma: if he can’t vote for either of the two front runners, and can’t find “a responsible third-party alternative,” he’ll have to sit out the election. It apparently hasn’t occurred to Wehner that one alternative is to go to the ballot box, vote for a “write in” candidate, and literally write out your dissatisfaction in the “write-in” slot. One brief and obvious way to do it would be to write “NOTA” for “None of the Above.” Very few people do that because very few people realize that it can be done. But if more people did it, NOTA might come to send a message to the Democratic and Republican party machines in this country: they have to do a better job of finding better candidates for elected office than they recently have. And if the wrong candidates always seem to be running, they have a responsibility to figure out why and come up with a remedy.
Of course, they’ll have no incentive to do any of that if we just keep voting for the worthless people they keep putting on the ballot, fortified by Wehner’s assumption that “[i]f those who don’t get their way pick up their marbles and go home, party politics doesn’t work.”* A better approach might be to grasp the obvious differences between voting and a game of marbles, and to acknowledge that Wehner’s marbles-based approach to politics provides a very good explanation for why party politics doesn’t work. Nothing in human life works very well if you resign yourself to the choices other people have dictated for you, and then regard yourself as duty-bound to give your moral imprimatur to whatever rubbish they’ve put on offer.
Wehner goes on to offer a laundry list of Trump’s sins. I don’t disagree with any item on the list, but one item is conspicuously absent, and one item is described in a rather peculiar way. The missing item is Trump’s most notorious moral faux pas, his resurrection and “exaggeration” (to put it mildly) of the 9/11 celebration rumors. Wehner doesn’t say a word about it, despite its having dominated news coverage for the better part of the month of December.
The oddly described item is Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering (or later, immigrating) to the United States, which Wehner describes, along with his other anti-immigrant proposals as a “nativistic pipe dreams and public relations stunts.” I don’t dispute the truth of that characterization; what I’d dispute is that the characterization gets at the real problem with Trump’s attitudes.
Imagine that a white nationalist political candidate said something like this:
I’m fed up with the power that Jews have in this country. The least we can do is stop any more from entering the country, and do our best, within the limits of the law, to keep them out of public office.
You might call that “a nativistic pipe dream and a public relations stunt,” but if that’s the best you could do, people might well be inclined to wonder whether you’d ever heard of a phenomenon called “anti-Semitism,” whether you thought it was morally wrong, and whether you thought a political candidate who indulged in it should be called out for it.
I think we’re entitled to ask versions of the same questions of American conservatives. I assume that many of the more militant of them have heard of the phenomenon known as “Islamophobia,” because so many of them spend so much time in denial that it exists or is even possible. But it’s an interesting question for the most decent conservatives, like Wehner, whether they believe that there is such a phenomenon, and whether they regard it as wrong.
I haven’t read a scientific study on right-wing attitudes toward race, but as an anecdotal matter, I would describe it by saying that American right-wingers wholeheartedly believe in only one form of racism, anti-Semitism, which they police with ferocious vigor, and often confabulate into existence where it doesn’t exist at all. They pay reluctant lip service to the existence of anti-black racism, a lip service that operates in the most egregious cases of racism (where denial would be absurd or itself an expression of racism) but also takes the form of vigorous efforts to downplay it or accuse others of exaggerating it. In other words, what they regard as assiduous adherence to principle in the case of anti-Semitism becomes “playing the race card” or “crying wolf” in the case of anti-black racism.
But Islamophobia is simply unreal to them. The front-line excuse for denying its existence is to insist that Muslims are not a race. That’s true, but neither are Jews or Coptic Christians, and no one has any trouble conceptualizing the possibility that Jews and Copts can be on the receiving end of racism by those who treat them as though they were racial groups, even if neither is one.
The second-line excuse is to point out that Muslims are a threat to our national security, and we can’t afford to coddle the sensitivities of people who constitute such a threat. There’s no question that some Muslims have threatened our national security, but so have some Jews and some Catholics. No Muslim American has done to the United States with the Rosenbergs or Jonathan Pollard did. No Islamic Society has done to America what the Catholic Church has done during and in the wake of the scandal over pedophile priests. And yet no responsible conservative would suggest that the examples of the Rosenbergs + Jonathan Pollard make anti-Semitism a non-issue in this country, or suggest that organizations like the ADL (et al) should calm down, pack it in, and close their doors. Nor would such a conservative suggest that the pedophile priest scandal should make it open season on Catholic priests or the Catholic Church. It will be quite a while before anyone (much less Michelle Malkin) writes some version of In Defense of Internment: The Case for Herding Catholic Priests, En Masse, into Detention Centers for the Confinement of Sexual Predators.**
You might have thought it a similar non-sequitur in our post-Korematsu age to assert, suggest, or insinuate that (Fort Hood + San Bernardino) proves that Islamophobia is a non-issue. But the non-sequitur in question is pretty common on the right, a fact you wouldn’t discern from Wehner’s essay. As far as Wehner is concerned, the problem with Trump is not that he’s the Muslim equivalent of an anti-Semite or the twenty-first century equivalent of Father Coughlin. The problem with him is that he’s an unsophisticated and unrealistic champion of a message that is to some unspecified degree true.
It may sound like nitpicking to fixate on mere differences of degree in the condemnations that have been offered of Trump, as though political criticism were a competition where the most outrage-laden critique is crowned the winner. But the fact remains that if you think Trump is a moral menace, and you find conservatives underplaying the nature of that moral menace, you’ll be apt to side with those who respond to Trump with the degree of outrage you think he deserves.
In other words, if you’re on the fence between the Republicans and the Democrats, and you think that racism is a real problem in American life–and think that the Democrats offer stronger criticisms of racism than the Republicans–you’ll side with the Democrats even if you think that the Democrats are sometimes a little too keen to play the race card (as I do), and even if you’re skeptical of the moral legitimacy of affirmative action (as I am). And “side with” means join the Democratic Party and vote Democratic. Neither party is perfect on race, but it’s probably safer to side with a party willing to grasp the reality of all forms of racism than to side with a party in denial about one of its most prominent forms. This is a lesson that has yet to penetrate the hearts and minds of the American right, and I’m skeptical it ever will.
Wehner ends with this claim:
Mr. Trump is precisely the kind of man our system of government was designed to avoid, the type of leader our founders feared — a demagogic figure who does not view himself as part of our constitutional system but rather as an alternative to it.
If “Trump is precisely the kind of man our system of government was designed to avoid,” how has he become the Republican front-runner for the American presidency? He hasn’t, after all, broken any laws, much less violated the Constitution. Despite his political inexperience, he’s simply played the American political game with greater facility than anyone else in the race. That may have been what “our system of government was designed to avoid,” but it’s precisely what our system of government currently facilitates, given the design flaws of the past and the predilections of the present (and everything in between).
That suggests in turn that the American political system is either fundamentally ill-designed, or fundamentally dysfunctional, or both. And that’s why there is such a thing as radical political theory, and why academic political theorists, whom conservatives glibly deride as being “out of touch with the real world” have always been uncomfortable with the complacent celebratory spirit at the center of so much conservative rhetoric.
Whether they can admit it or not, Donald Trump is the mirror of the American right. That’s why he’s been the Republican front runner for the last seven or eight months, and that’s why he threatens to become the Republican nominee for the presidency. Crying about his rise to prominence in an election year is practically the definition of a remedy that amounts to too little and too late. So, for that matter, is the anti-climactic announcement that one refuses to vote for the political monster one helped to create. After such ignorance, what forgiveness?
Postscript, January 28, 2016. I can’t blame the liberals for making hay of the Republicans’ panic over Trump: they richly deserve it. Here’s Salon, asking whether “the right’s empty suits can stop” Trump. Well, they haven’t so far. Here’s a nice skewering, also at Salon, of the vacuous David Brooks. But the best commentary–the most acute, consistent, and prescient–has in my view been Paul Krugman’s at The New York Times. Some of my favorites: “Doubling Down on W” (Dec. 28, 2015); “The Donald and the Decider” (Dec. 21); “Empowering the Ugliness” (Dec. 11); “The Farce Awakens” (Nov. 20); “Fearing Fear Itself” (Nov. 16); “The Crazies and the Con Man” (Oct. 12); “GOP Candidates and Obama’s Failure to Fail” (Aug. 10); “Fantasies and Fiction at GOP Debate” (Sept. 18); “A Heckuva Job” (Aug. 31); and (to stop for now) “From Trump on Down, the Republicans Can’t Be Serious” (Aug. 7). I could easily go on, into the summer of 2015, into the spring of 2015, back into 2014…
It took me awhile to warm up to Krugman, but to his credit, he’s told a single consistent, principled, fact-based story about the embarrassing demise of the Republican Party in recent years. It’s a story of the triumph of dogma over reality, of rhetoric over substance, and of bigotry over a concern for moral principle. It sounds simple because it is.
Compare that with the right-wing idea of a critique of Trump. Here’s Ross Douthat, who starts one of his latest columns with a candid admission of failure: “This is of course a pointless column.” It certainly is. He has no specifically ideological insight to offer, so he decides to offer nitty-gritty “practical” advice for defeating Trump. As he recognizes, the supposedly practical advice comes too late to be put into practice. As he fails to recognize, the supposedly practical advice wouldn’t have worked even if it had been enacted earlier–chiefly because no part of it comes as news, and no part of it worked when it came to light months ago. The advice is to forget about ideas, and dig up dirt on Trump. “You have to flip his brand.” It sounds so street smart. But what does it mean?
Supposedly it means: Tell the people that Trump inherited his money. But they already know that. Tell them about his failed companies. But they already know that. Tell them about the workers who suffered from his failed companies. They know that, too. Tell them that he used eminent domain to build his empire in Atlantic City. We’ve known that for years. My favorite: “persuade people that he’s a con artist, and they’re his marks.” Earth to Ross Douthat: where have you been for the last six months? If we can’t persuade people that he’s lying about the 9/11 celebrations, how do you think we’re going to persuade them about anything else?
The question to be asking here is why people have been so easily persuaded about Trump, and so fideistic in their commitment to him despite his conspicuous lack of credibility–not an easy question for the Party of Faith to address. You might have thought that Republicans might take advantage of the fact that Trump’s strongest supporters are “a certain kind of Democrat.” You’d think that until you realize that Trump’s strongest supporters are isomorphic with the so-called Reagan Democrats, and you can’t expect the Party of Reagan to repudiate the “legacy” of Ronald Reagan at this late date. Hell, even doctrinaire libertarians sing his praises (unsurprising, considering how many of them served in his administration). Meanwhile, the question remains.
*That’s also the answer to a ridiculous criticism of Wehner in the letters section of today’s Times:
Peter Wehner should be ashamed to promote the notion that citizens should sit out elections if neither candidate appeals to them. Surely he has a better understanding of each citizen’s obligations in a democracy. If we cannot vote for our ideal candidate, we must still choose the lesser of two evils, as it were, if we are repulsed by the personality of one and disagree with the policies of the other.
It is our democratic duty as Americans to wrestle with this dilemma and cast a vote, regardless of our emotions. Blood was shed to secure this solemn obligation.
No, it wasn’t. Blood was shed to secure the right to vote, not the duty to choose the lesser evil–or, put another way, to incentivize the imposition on us of a series of further evils.
**I’m the first to “concede” the fact that many liberals are as bigoted about Catholics as conservatives are about Muslims. But as far as my argument is concerned, that’s a neutral truth rather than a “concession,” and however you characterize it, it doesn’t help the conservative case with respect to Islamophobia.