Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Received wisdom is what “everybody knows” is true without anyone having to think about it. Received wisdom has a lot of defense mechanisms: for example, trading in unexamined assumptions, avoiding contrary evidence, dismissing the need of evidence at all, or demonizing those who question it. Question-begging slogans are another. Mantras like “nothing to do with Islam” or “war on women” substitute for evidence and analysis. Another is “you can’t say that,” used to dismiss or marginalize comments or proposed policies by assuming disastrous consequences, or implying that saying such things is morally repugnant and, to quote Obama’s favorite obfuscation, “doesn’t represent who we are as a country.” In fact, “you can’t say that” is usually an ideological weapon, or an excuse for inaction.
Various “establishments” left or right are founded on received wisdom. They are the original “box” we’re all advised to “think outside” of. The Republican “establishment,” for example, purveys an electoral narrative that says Republicans can’t win nationally unless they “reach out” to women, minorities, and immigrants, and so must avoid alienating these potential Republicans.
We saw the effects of this narrative in 2008, when John McCain gave Barack Obama a pass on his relationship with race-baiter Jeremiah Wright, terrorist Bill Ayers, crook Tony Reszko, and apologist for Palestinian Arab terror Rashid Khalidi. McCain also passed over Obama’s refusal to release his complete medical records and college transcripts. All so McCain wouldn’t appear “racist” and alienate all those fence-sitting black voters who might vote Republican. Mitt Romney was just as timid in 2012. His worst “preemptive cringe” came in the foreign policy debate, when “moderator” Candy Crowley shamefully––and incorrectly––corrected Romney about Obama’s characterization of the Benghazi attacks. Instead of scolding Crowley (can’t bully a woman!) and Obama (can’t appear racist!), Romney just stood there with a deer-in-the-headlights look while Obama smirked.
Similarly, received wisdom holds that if Hillary is the candidate, her Republican opponent must be careful not to appear to be bullying her and thus confirming the “war on women” narrative. Don’t want to lose all those female millenials who might vote Republican. And be careful with Bill Clinton. He has a 60% approval rating, and people look back on his two terms with fondness. Bringing up his history of serial sexual harassment and assault will just anger voters, and make Hillary into a sympathetic victim.
Then Donald Trump comes along and brings up the whole sordid history to punish Hillary’s hypocrisy in saying Trump has a “penchant for sexism.” This was just the latest example of Trump’s willingness to ignore received wisdom and say all those things “you can’t say.” And Trump’s instincts were correct. These days “snowflake” college co-eds claim an awkward pass is “sexual assault”; women on colleges like the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia are fabricating gang rapes eagerly reported by the media; and Hillary Clinton tweets, “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported”––the opposite of the brutal tack she took with Bill’s victims. In this world of Puritanism on steroids that that progressives created, Hillary is unlikely to get much sympathy as a “victim,” and Bill’s behavior to get the pass he got in the 90s. Watch Bill’s first appearance after Trump’s broadside. A befuddled Clinton, one of the slickest and savviest politicians in recent history, had no answer to a question about his sexual history and its implications for Hillary’s candidacy.
And the consequences of Trump’s saying all those things you “can’t” say or do? Trump continues to lead the primary pack, and is virtually even with Hillary in national polls. As for his malign effects on the Party, Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, no fan of Trump, tells us:
There’s simply no evidence the Trumpian interlude has hurt the GOP. The Republican party’s overall favorable rating hasn’t changed in these last six months. The percentage of Americans identifying as Republicans hasn’t declined. Obama’s approval rating hasn’t gone up. The Pew Research Center regularly asks which party would do a better job on the economy. In July, Democrats held a three-point edge; in December, Pew found Republicans leading by five. In the same Pew polls, Republicans improved from -2 to +2 on handling immigration and from +12 to +14 on handling terrorism.
Of course, in a general election, the received wisdom might turn out to be true, even though it was wrong in 2008 and 2012. On the other hand, given Hillary’s high poll numbers on her untrustworthiness and unlikability, hammering her long history of lying, lawbreaking, cronyism, and money-grubbing could be effective, and even a demagogue like Trump could beat her. All those silent Americans sick of the PC tyranny, progressive hypocrisy, and Obama’s massive failures at home and abroad may turn out and offset those snowflakes disturbed by Trump’s penchant for speaking plainly and ignoring the received wisdom of the political class.
This brings us to the most interesting dimension of the “you can’t say that” received wisdom––its distrust of average voters. They are not capable of following an argument, or evaluating evidence, or acting on principle. You see this in the thinly veiled contempt of many Republicans for those supporting Trump. As the Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn commented recently, Trump’s Republican critics, when they “respond by tut-tutting about how distasteful they find him—instead of showing why his argument is full of holes—they too come across as condescending, implicitly sharing the president’s belief that the knuckle-dragging American public just can’t handle the truth.”
Take, for example, the rote condemnations of “shutting down the government” as political suicide for Republicans. Received-wisdom Republicans scold the voters clamoring for fiscal self-control that the Republicans will be blamed for the following disasters, even as the president’s veto of a spending bill he doesn’t like will get a pass. No matter that many voters know the Constitution gave the House of Representatives the power to fund the government so that the people had, as James Madison said in Federalist 58, “the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”
But because of adherence to the received wisdom––one fabricated by progressives and their media minions–– the House went along with the 2011 Budget Control Act, which reduced spending by making the military budget take half the reductions, while the real drivers of deficits and debt, the “big three” entitlements––Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, which take 60% of federal spending––were left untouched. So now the world is collapsing into chaos, while our military is underfunded and shrinking.
The received wisdom may be right about the average voter lack of judgment and understanding. Nearly half are in the bag for the Democrats, and a majority of the “people” did twice elect Barack Obama, a malicious narcissist. But maybe just once we should put this assumption about the people to the test. Maybe there are Republican voters, Reagan Democrats, and “Security Moms” (Romney took 56% of white women and 53% of married women in 2012) finally fed up with both political establishments. Maybe they would respond to a candidate who ignores the received wisdom of “you can’t say that” and follows the advice of French Revolutionary Georges Danton––“Boldness, more boldness, always boldness!” Trump’s success so far suggests there may well be a silent, seething mass of voter disgust and discontent ready to erupt in the voting booth.