Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
The Weekly Standard was once dubbed, the “neo-conservative bible”. If it was ever the bible of neo-conservatives, it’s now the Koran of the anti-war radical left. Its new incarnation The Bulwark, is a project of Defending Democracy Together which is funded by Pierre Omidyar, the French-Iranian Silicon Valley billionaire behind The Intercept, and also providing funding to The Nation and Mother Jones.
It’s hard to imagine two sets of worldviews further apart than those which once separated the two movements. The ability of the godfather of the anti-war left to essentially take over a faction that stood for everything he opposed has much to say about the state of conservatism and the principles debate.
President Trump agilely co-opted the popular part of Republican national defense politics, defeating enemies and killing terrorists, supporting Israel and opposing Iran, while discarding the unpopular parts, nation-building and democracy promotion. Some Republican opponents of Trump made it very clear that they valued the unpopular parts more than the popular ones, and may have even viewed the popular parts as a way to sneak in the unpopular parts through the policy back door.
The Washington Post’s Never Trumper caucus, Jennifer Rubin and Max Boot, ceded the Iran Deal and Israel to Trump, reversing old positions and disposing of old allies, while hysterically attacking Trump as a man of bad character. “Trump’s character fall short,” Rubin recently wrote in another of her columns. Max Boot claims that conservatism means a “respect for character”. But the very people who can’t stop lecturing us about character and principles have proven that they have neither character nor principles.
What character do these characters have?
Never Trumpers invoked their principles to oppose Trump. But their principles have led to them taking cash from a serial funder of assaults on national security in the name of defending national security. The “bible of neo-conservatism” now shares a funding source with a platform for Edward Snowden, not to mention every possible defense of Islamic terrorism, the Iran Deal and assorted bursts of anti-Semitism.
Having realized that they have no principles, Never Trumpers spend less time speaking of principles and more about character. Having ceded their principles, they’ll be damned if they cede character.
But what does character without principles even mean? How can you have character when you don’t really believe in anything except Trump’s poor character? Believing in Trump’s poor character, contrary to the attitude of Omidyar and Bezos’ new office boys, isn’t a substitute for having character.
Establishment Never Trumpers have discarded so many principles that they no longer have any further common ground with conservatives except in the most general abstract sense. That is why they must constantly fall back on generalities like character. But it doesn’t take character to attack character.
Character attacks are just personal attacks. A constant tirade of them serves the traditional purpose of personal attacks in distracting from serious issues. A movement that accused Trump of unseriousness and personal attacks now has little to offer except a steady diet of unserious personal attacks at him.
And what does that say about the character of a movement that is defined by personal attacks?
What is it that unites The Weekly Standard with The Intercept, The Nation and Mother Jones? It isn’t principles. It isn’t even character. The defining common ground here is Trump. Hatred of Trump has become its own movement with opposition to him as its primary principle and its corrupt character.
But it’s unfair to imply that Omidyar’s usual pet causes, The Intercept, The Nation and Mother Jones, have abandoned their love for Islamic terrorists, Iran, Qatar, Hamas and even Russia. It’s the Weekly Standard’s dog dinner and the Washington Post’s tokens who have abandoned all their principles except hating Trump as Never Trump’s name has become a self-fulfilling prophecy and a deeper identity.
The Bulwark, for example, revolves entirely around Trump. In this, it echoes the mainstream media. But where the media attacks Trump because of its ideology, The Bulwark’s ideology is a mirror image of Trump. Whatever he’s for, right now border security, it’s absolutely against. For a site that claims to be conserving conservatism, it no longer seems to be able to identify what it’s conserving except its rage.
Hating Trump is no longer a consequence of principles. It is the tribal principle. There is no higher principle and no issue that supersedes it for the fanatics, who will sell out the ideas that they once claimed to believe in and the issues that they once fought for when they interfere with hating Trump.
The further the No Trumps Allowed movement retreats from specific ideas and issues, the more it has to take refuge in virtuous generalities that hardly anyone is opposed to. It is for character. Is anyone against? It believes in free speech, free markets, the principle of having principles (just not having specific ones tethered to serious commitments), national security, and supporting our allies.
It also strongly believes that other people who aren’t it should show be expected to show some character.
But drill down to specifics that an intelligent person could actually agree or disagree with and you end up with little in the way of substance. And even less that a Democrat might take issue with. The Weekly Standard used to care about a whole range of things. Its authors had passionate ideas about issues. But The Bulwark is what Never Trumpism looks like. It has no ideas and only cares about what Trump does.
Its politics are also mostly indistinguishable from its Democrat funders.
As Gwendolen farcically observes in The Importance of Being Earnest, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” Our domestic and international policies are matters of grave importance which our political establishment has made a matter of insincere style.
Sincerity and style are at the heart of this political debate. Trump is in the White House because voters believed in his sincerity more than in the styles of his opponents. Sincerity is a crucial question of character. Never Trumpers lionize serial campaign trail liars as heroes as long as they sincerely lie to the voters about the issues that Never Tumpers believe voter are misguided about.
They fail to grasp why sincerity and crudeness might be a more appealing combination to voters than the stylistic refinement and insincerity so valued in the rarefied spheres of politics. When voters chose to be crudely told the truth, instead of being lied to in soaring phrases, they showed better character than many of the mandarins insufferably lecturing them on the noble character of establishment liars.
Character in politics, first and foremost, means keeping your promises. It’s not the only aspect of character that matter, but without it, none of the others ever end up amounting to anything.
The Republican elected officials who oppose Trump made most of the same promises that he did. They promised border security, victory against terrorists, economic prosperity and all the rest. It’s not the promises that they’re opposed to on principle, the principle that they are opposed to is keeping them.
Our principled opposition consists of unprincipled liars who insisted that they believed in too many principles to support Trump. Now, they’ve run out of principles, except the sovereign principle that such an unprincipled man cannot be allowed to run the country and keep his promises and theirs as well.