Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Recently two events occurred that illustrate the Republican bad habit of ceding to progressives a whole set of questionable assumptions. Whether out of sincere but misguided belief or fear of political cost, this anxious and cringing validation of progressive ideas and the double-standards that follow empowers the Democrats and weakens the GOP.
The most egregious example was the speed at which many nominal conservatives chastised the Kentucky parochial school students who were attacked by an illiberal and racist outfit called the Black Hebrew Israelites, and by an American Indian “activist,” “tribal elder,” and “Vietnam vet” (the last a patent lie and a case of stolen valor). The anti-Trump media, as expected, without waiting for more information savaged the kids for embodying the worst traits of “white supremacism,” “toxic masculinity,” and “racial privilege.” One CNN Minister of Propaganda delighted in pointed out one kid’s “punchable face.” This was the same young man who stoically endured a deranged grown-up banging a drum in his face while the Black Hebrews rained down vile epithets on him.
The left’s reaction should surprise no one familiar with its disregard for fact and equal justice, and its penchant for bullying the weak. More disgusting were the equally precipitate and bullying comments from some on the right. The NeverTrumpers at National Review beclowned themselves with their usual moral preening and preemptive cringing. One editorial subaltern tweeted of the students, “they might as well have just spit on the cross and got it over with.” At least the putative conservatives had the decency to be embarrassed, apologizing and removing their tweets and articles.
Those gestures, however, don’t explain the initial impulse to attack, before all the facts were in, sixteen-year-old Catholic kids attending the March for Life rally against abortion, a cohort likely to become readers of National Review. Given that the bell of the attackers’ calumny cannot be unrung, it smacks of opportunism to apologize now, when the pundits never should have hastened to condemn the kids on such scant and subjective evidence in the first place.
The next incident is not quite as straightforward. Nine-term Iowa Representative Steve King was stripped of his committee assignments by the Republican leadership for wondering during a New York Times interview, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” In King’s defense, he claims that his point was to protest equating white supremacism and nationalism with Western civilization, as the left does frequently. And it is certainly plausible that the ethically challenged Times would stoop to such unethical journalism.
Whether King actually made the comment or the Times distorted his comment, associating the West with race-based nationalism and notions of racial superiority validates the identity politics lie that the West is an inherently oppressive and racist civilization. This staple of left-wing multiculturalism is a crude misunderstanding of history and human nature. For quite simply, the offenses of the West––slavery, sex inequality, violent invasion, occupation, and exploitation–– are the universal sins of a flawed mankind.
But the goods of the West––political freedom, human rights, free speech, self-criticism, equality, rule by law, science and technology––are the unique achievements of Western civilization that have benefited billions of people from every tribe and ethnicity. After all, it has been Westerners who have criticized their own civilization the most. Ever since the Greek orator Isocrates said “The name Greek denotes a way of thinking, not common blood,” the genius of the West has been expressed in a culture that speaks universally, not one that is limited to one particular suite of physical characteristics.
The issue here, then, is not that King didn’t deserve to be called out on his ignorant remarks, if indeed he actually said what the Times reported. It is the behavior of the House Republicans, who with their comments and actions rushed to validate the Democrats’ attacks on King, which were based not on principle, but on ideological and political tactical reasons: to confirm the smear that Donald Trump’s electoral success was based on “racially resentful whites” to whose “sentiments” Trump “appealed more openly . . . than any Republican had been willing to do for decades,” according to Vox; and to reinforce the characterization of conservative efforts to reform our immigration policies as expressions of racism, xenophobia, and exclusionary, blood-and-soil nationalism.
In other words, the Republicans’ response exemplified the Republican preemptive cringe: anticipating the criticisms of a political enemy by quickly reacting in terms that validate the enemy’s ideological assumptions. The progressive left has convinced the culture that the most heinous crime is their loaded definition of racism, which is manifest these days mostly in language or thoughts deemed “insensitive” to those who accept this distortion of actual racist acts. Rather than challenging this ideological weapon, Republicans validate it by eagerly attacking one of their own with furious virtue-signaling that separates themselves from the verbal malefactor.
The result is the egregious double standards Republicans repeatedly tolerate. We all know that more outrageous and despicable racialist comments are made all the time by Democrat Congressmen and activists. Consider the willingness of many black Representatives and other “leaders” to be associated with Louis Farrakhan, for decades a peddler of outrageous anti-Semitic and racist malarkey. Or the respectable position that race-baiter Al Sharpton––a notorious liar, anti-Semite, and instigator of violence with blood on his hands––enjoys among Democrats, who court him assiduously and, during Obama’s tenure, invited him to the White House
As Mark Steyn has wondered, when has the Black Congressional Caucus called Farrakhan or Sharpton out with the vehemence Republicans used against King? As Steyn points out, “Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam declare that the Jews are pushing defective marijuana on black men in order to turn them gay—which would appear to be a prima facie slur on at least four Democrat constituencies: blacks, gays, Jews and potheads.” But Democrats say nothing.
Nor have very many Republicans. When has the GOP initiated a formal censure of Congressmen associated with Farrakhan, with the unanimity that current House Democrats are showing in their attempt to censure King? Or when have Democrat Congressional leaders stripped a member of committee assignments? Or even criticized a member like Maxine Waters, who has encouraged harassment of and violence against Republicans?
For a group that constantly evokes their conservative “principles” and “standards” as the reason for attacking Trump, these Republicans seemingly don’t get that after so many decades of giving the leftist Dems a pass on their behavior, Republicans don’t have much credibility. The point about principles is that they have to be applied equally across the board, and that proportionality must determine the nature of a criticism based on principle.
The issue of proportionality is where the hysteria over “white nationalism” and “white supremacists” betrays the preemptive cringe. The numbers and political influence of self-proclaimed “white supremacists” are negligible. The Southern Poverty Law Center, an illiberal propaganda organization whose interests lie in fomenting the supremacist scare, estimates that there are maybe 6,500 members of the Ku Klux Klan. If a Klavern holds a public rally, protestors will outnumber Klansmen by triple digits, and police will be on hand to protect the Klan.
The so-called “alt-right,” a term that exists to smear conservatives as extremists, is no more influential even with the virtual public square and megaphone of the internet. As Joel Kotkin writes, “The far Right has no political leader of consequence, and its media presence is limited, to say the least. As the Los Angeles Times reported last year, the nine major alt-right sites received nearly 3 million visits and 839,000 unique visitors, compared with 236 million visits and 102 million unique visitors for the mainstream Left, and 264 million visits and 111 million unique visitors for the mainstream Right.” Their capacity for mischief is miniscule compared to the volume and hysteria of commentary about them.
Yet Republicans, as the Steve King episode shows, fall all over themselves validating the left’s elevation of a fringe into a fascist threat to democracy. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the decision to strip King of his committee assignments was about assuring the country about the Republican Party. “That is not the party of Lincoln,” he said of King’s comments. “It is definitely not American. All people are created equal in America, and we want to take a very strong stance about that.” Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said there is “no place in the Republican Party, the Congress or the country for an ideology of racial supremacy of any kind.” And of course, arch-cringer Mitt Romney said King should resign.
Behold the preemptive cringe. Why else would these anxious protestations of self-evident fact be issued if not for the fear of people believing that the Dems’ caricatures of the GOP are true? Do the Dems ever make such reassurances? Did they reassure America after the Kavanaugh hearings that they believed in the Constitutional principles undergirding the rights of the accused? How many reassure the country––as unanimously and loudly as Republicans are wont to do concerning their own–– about their commitment to racial equality and tolerance whenever black Congressmen and politicians are caught canoodling with Farrakhan, or hobnobbing with Sharpton, or excusing and enabling violent thugs like Black Lives Matter or Antifa? Where’s Mitt Romney demanding resignations of fellow members who legitimize such hate and ignorance?
Having ceded so much moral high ground, it’s no wonder the Republicans have so many defectors when it comes to passing any legislation other than cutting taxes. We never see such “mavericks” on the Dems’ side, apart from a few occasional exceptions like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. For all their hypocritical cant about “bipartisanship” and “reaching across the aisle,” the increasingly radical Democrats are ideological warriors who want to win. They get that our adversarial divided and balanced government demands the loyalty and unity that any war needs for victory.
And make no mistake: Democrats are at war with the current Republican government, half the American people, and the foundational principles and virtues of our political order and culture. That’s the main reason progressives hate Trump and the MAGA hat so much: he fights under their rules of engagement, not the lofty, abstract “principles” and “decorum” that NeverTrump Republicans cherish more than electing leaders who will institute policies that serve the American people’s interests and security. Those are the stakes in this political war, and that’s why the Dems fear Trump.
So, Republicans, stop with the preemptive cringe. Stop overreacting to stupid comments and validating the self-serving standards of the other side. If public scolding is necessary, always do so in the context of all violators of principle. Observe proportionality in your criticism and demand equal punishment for the same violations, instead of letting progressives play by a different set of rules. Maybe then more people will credit your good faith when you evoke your “principles.”