Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Having suffered from Trump Derangement Syndrome for two years, those disaffected Republican NeverTrumpers have developed a verbal tic. Whatever the topic, they can’t resist taking a few shots at Trump that are usually irrelevant to whatever point they are making. They are seemingly unaware that in doing so they function as Fifth Columnists for the progressives, at the same time they repeatedly demonstrate the entitled arrogance of the entrenched elite that Trump successfully ran against, and that they continue to deny exists.
Here’s an example from NRO’s Jonah Goldberg in a column contrasting John McCain and Donald Trump. And not surprisingly, considering Goldberg’s persistent animus against Trump, the comparison is invidious. You know what’s coming when Goldberg gratuitously contrasts McCain’s captivity in Hanoi with Trump’s five draft deferments. Of course, a splendid service record and medals for bravery are admirable, but not necessarily guarantees of political wisdom. They are achievements deserving of honor, but they don’t exempt a mediocre politician from criticism. Goldberg’s contrast is merely a species of ad hominem attack.
Goldberg uses this fallacy as a lead-in to another simplistic contrast: between “the forces of democracy and the forces of nationalism,” a struggle the nationalists, as he defines them, are winning. Again, this is an either-or fallacy rooted in choosing one dimension of some nationalisms, such as Russia’s, and then proclaiming via another begged question that Donald Trump embodies it. Goldberg finishes with an even more egregious begged question: “Trump defines national interest in almost autocratic terms,” hinting at the preposterous smear that Trump is some sort of inchoate Adolph Hitler.
Goldberg knows better. He wrote Liberal Fascism, a book about the totalitarian and fascist roots of modern progressivism. He knows that fascism never got as close to the levers of American power as communism did during the Roosevelt administration, or obtained the still active influence of collectivism in the schools, universities, and popular culture. How else would socialism––communism lite––be so popular now? Where can we find anywhere in the U.S. openly fascist organizations, or candidates for public office, or a Republican faction all plumping for fascism the way Bernie Sanders and other mainstream Democrats today are championing socialism?
This claim of incipient “autocracy” is based on NeverTrumper’s dubious interpretations of Trump’s rhetoric, such as “Make America Great Again,” a slogan also used by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton without drawing dark comparisons to the short-lived isolationist movement before World War II. Worse, like the whole NeverTrump clan, Goldberg ignores what Trump has done while obsessing over his indecorous or “unpresidential” words. The charge that Trump is “forgiving or even admiring of foreign despotism” of course refers to the pearl-clutching over Trump’s occasional positive comments about Vladimir Putin, most recently in Helsinki. But what has Trump done that has materially benefitted Putin?
On the contrary, as this copious list of Trump’s achievements documents, Trump has been much tougher on Russia than were Obama and his “reset,” or George W. Bush and his “looking” Putin “in the eye” to “get a sense of his soul.” I don’t recall much Republican hysteria about Bush’s “admiring foreign despotism.” And when it came to benefitting Putin, it was Obama who courted him with sotto voce promises of “flexibility,” a vow he fulfilled by abandoning the planned anti-missile installations in Poland and Czechoslovakia.
And when Obama did “get tough” with Vlad, he issued childish empty warnings and threats like “cut it out” because “we can do stuff” to Russia in retaliation for its cyber meddling in our elections. But as we know, Obama haughtily dismissed Russian electoral meddling as hysteria, and discounted publicly taking Putin to task as “thump[ing] our chests about a bunch of stuff,” and then followed up by doing nothing about the evidence he had been given of Russia’s interference.
So when it comes to Putin, Trump’s talk is nice but his acts are tough, while Obama’s talk was tough but his acts nice. Yet Trump is the “admirer of despotism.”
As I wrote in July, NeverTrumpers didn’t spend a fraction of their rhetorical dudgeon on Obama’s appeasement as they have spent on Trump’s careless words. So it’s hard to take seriously Goldberg’s claim that McCain “loathed” Putin but Trump “gushes” over him. Take McCain’s response to Obama’s appeasing deeds: cancelling the anti-missile plans was “seriously misguided,” he said in flabby diplo-speak. Contrast that with McCain’s scorched-earth criticism of Trump’s words in Helsinki: “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate.” On the contrary, it’s very easy to calculate: based on Trump’s tough actions on Russia, the damage is nil.
The same NeverTrump tic is repeated in this contrast: “Their [McCain’s and Trump’s] personal differences are indeed profound, underlining the decline in ‘old-fashioned’ notions of duty, honor and character, and the new emphasis on personal celebrity and ‘winning’ on your own terms.” Seriously, who believes an “emphasis on personal celebrity and winning” are “new” in American politics?
Indeed, much of the dislike of McCain as a politician was the perception he created, and reveled in, of being a celebrated “maverick,” which many voters took to mean breaking with conservative principle to the delight of the same Democrats now gushing over the same McCain they savaged in the 2008 presidential election. Indeed, McCain’s stature was in direct proportion to his attacks on Trump––like, for example, McCain’s casting the deciding “no” vote in 2017 for the “skinny repeal” of the disastrous progressive Rube Goldberg machine that is Obamacare. To many people, that vote looked like a farewell finger in the eye of Donald Trump for slighting McCain.
So what kind of “character” did that display? Or where was the “honor” in banishing Sarah Palin, who energized McCain’s presidential campaign, from his funeral? And what conservative “duty” did McCain fulfill when he called Ted Cruz a “wacko-bird,” or said that Trump “fired up the crazies”? Or when he called a wheel-chair bound critic of McCain-Feingold “corrupt”?
Understand, I’m not complaining about such blunt rhetoric from either party, since it has been a staple of democracy since Aristophanes accused Athenian politicians of being homosexual prostitutes and venal traitors. What’s at issue is the attempt to marginalize Trump as a dangerous anomaly based mainly on his rhetoric of a sort that is hardly unique in American political history, at the same time his achievements so far, as Bobby Jindal recently catalogued, have expressed conservative principles in action.
Finally, Goldberg’s contrast between McCain’s “duty,” “honor,” and “character” with Trump’s “celebrity” and “winning” is weakened by Goldberg himself in a subsequent column: the “profound” differences between the two, he writes, “originate from an important similarity. I am honestly not sure what word best describes it: Vanity? Ego? Pride?” Speaking of McCain’s obsession with campaign finance reform, one that led him to co-sponsor the unconstitutional McCain-Feingold bill, Goldberg writes, “Finance reform was born of a certain kind of old-fashioned vanity that ranked personal honor higher than the mere facts or abstract principle.” Goldberg goes on to imply that McCain’s “heroic narrative” of himself as a “maverick” battling evildoers can compromise governing: “The problem is that not every public-policy issue fits neatly into a good-vs.-evil framework, and McCain sometimes allowed himself a definition of heroism that won praise from the crowd that always celebrates when a conservative confirms liberal prejudices.”
That’s a pretty good catalogue of why many conservatives who admired McCain’s courage and self-sacrifice as a POW were disappointed with his conduct as a Republican Senator.
And a presidential candidate. Goldberg doesn’t mention the prime example of McCain’s ego and vanity and concern for his reputation: his pusillanimous presidential campaign in which his fear of being seen as a low-brow “racist” made him go easy on Obama. McCain didn’t seem to understand that more important than the race commissars’ approval or his own high-minded self-image was the obligation to remind voters of Obama’s biographical lacunae and unsavory connections with extremists like Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. Such exposure needed to be continually put before the voters in order to uncover the reality behind Obama’s duplicitous “no red state, no blue state” rhetoric: his progressive aim to “fundamentally transform America.”
How does handing the presidency to the most progressive member of the Senate support Goldberg’s claim that McCain “subordinated himself to the needs of his country”? And what effects of Trump’s outlandish hyperbole and insult have been as dire for this country as Obama’s eight years of progressive misrule?
In the end, NeverTrumpers need to drop the reflexive ad hominem attacks and displays of wounded class pride evident at McCain’s funeral. They should argue how a President Hillary Clinton would have done better than Trump. Clinton is a corrupt careerist and manifest felon who would have continued Obama’s “fundamental transformation” of our country by further fattening the bloated progressive regime of redistribution, regulation, entitlements, identity politics pandering, encroachments into citizen and civil society autonomy, and subversion of the Constitution. And abroad she would have strengthened America’s subordination to the aims and values of Davos Man, that denizen and beneficiary of the “rules-based international order.” How possibly could Clinton have done better for America’s citizens at home, and America’s interests and security abroad?
Perhaps NeverTrump Republicans stick with peevish complaints about Trump’s style because they know that making a legitimate case for a President Hillary is as impossible as making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Absent that argument, the NeverTrumpers and their reflexive hatred of Trump appear to ordinary people as the bitter resentment of the Acela corridor elite who have come to believe that they–– and not the sovereign people in all their riotous diversity of manners, passions, and interests, and their stubborn preference for freedom and autonomy–– are entitled to run the show. Call it populism, nationalism, or whatever you want, but it’s still a force to reckon with rather than insult.