When Conservatives Take the Low Road, We All Lose

Photo Courtesy of the Public Domain

When conservatives take the low road, we all lose, and Donald Trump loves it. His shallow, poorly informed vision of conservatism has gutted the conversation, leading away from productive, if heated, disagreements over how this country should move forward, and leaving hollow, reactionary shells of dialog in their place, all to his benefit.

The border wall and his stance on immigration is a frequently cited example of his inconsistent attachment to conservatism. On the one hand, he talks about slashing the size of the federal budget, even going as far as to propose cutting $148 million, or .003% of spending, from the National Endowment from the Arts in the name of fiscal conservatism. On the other, he wants to embark on a border wall, which would be the largest public works project since the US Highway System, claiming the jobs created by the project — by federal investment — would be a boon to the economy — a liberal proposition if ever there was one.

It’s true that modern conservatives have not shied away from spending when it comes to national defense, but even Trump’s justifications for defending against immigrants are steeped in, if not wholly anti-conservative viewpoints, certainly sophomoric hot-takes that fail to hold up.

As the heavily right-leaning, free-market based Cato Institute has pointed out, the financial burdens associated with illegal immigrants are frequently inflated, especially by the oft-cited Heritage Foundation report on the topic . The Cato Institute’s own report from 2012 points out studies which conclude:

“Comprehensive immigration reform that legalizes currently unauthorized immigrants and creates flexible legal limits on future immigration in the context of full labor rights would help American workers and the U.S. economy.”

The same report’s dynamic projections estimate that this type of reform could increase GDP by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, while mass deportations of unauthorized immigrants would decrease GDP by $2.6 Trillion over the same period. This practical, research-based approach to immigration reform is tremendously popular among Americans, with 59% of Americans believing illegal immigrants should be able to stay in the US with a path to citizenship. Where’s Trump’s reverence for the “silent majority” on this issue?

But why, as a liberal, would I point to a Cato Institute study? Am I backing everything this libertarian think-tank pushes forward? Am I just cherry-picking which instances we should listen to them, while ignoring everything else? The Cato Institute’s points of view are based on data, research, and consistency with a certain style of conservatism. They don’t embody the entirety of conservative thought, but they also don’t perform mental gymnastics to fit facts with worldviews. Even though I don’t usually agree with those worldviews, I can respect their convictions and their methodologies.

Conflating those well-studied, if unpalatable, conservative initiatives with Trump’s shallow, inconsistent views, is killing our ability to have a rational discussion. Maybe that’s why conservative hero Thomas Sowell described Trump as a dangerous candidate who inspires disgust. In essence, it’s not Conservatism that many liberals find so repulsive, it’s Trump’s poorly researched and poorly articulated brand of conservatism.

This is why when conservatives point to videos of Bill Clinton encouraging tougher immigration laws, they’re missing the point. First off, I know very few liberals who don’t acknowledge that Bill Clinton was further right on a wide range of issues than the platform would be comfortable with today. But beyond that, his argument was consistent with established conservative principles on how to handle immigration reform. It may not be how contemporary liberals would like to see immigration reform handled, but it’s an intellectually founded policy worthy of debate. It wasn’t an appeal to base emotions. It wasn’t a doomsday vision like, “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.”

There are equally sophomoric hot-takes being spewed from the left as well. The existence of one does not justify the existence of the other. In fact, the exact opposite is true — the presence of reductionist viewpoints coming from opposing sides compounds the damage they inflict on the conversation.

This is the ultimate tragedy of Trump, and it’s not an accident. He has latched onto many of the most controversial, most unpalatable, most difficult to defend aspects of conservatism, and hijacked the dialogue to frame it as though he’s representative of that broad philosophy. He didn’t just choose a conservative as Attorney General — he chose one with well-documented baggage centered around accusations of racism. You can argue all you want over the validity of those accusations — but he has set a tone that there was no conservative option who did not come with that baggage.

This is in the context that he has consistently maneuvered towards controversy — reducing conservatism to something that is more anti liberal than it is pro anything, more concerned with pushing buttons than pushing an agenda. His hasty immigration ban is another example where he took conservative talking points and flattened them into a difficult-to-defend policy that had both sides questioning the value. He has adopted a trolliness that has taken over the right — a method of argument personified not by established conservative thinkers with a history of policy study and reform proposals, but by digital personalities with a history of harassment campaigns and incendiary statements steeped in the shallowest of identity politics.

To say his immigration policies or his cabinet appointments, or any of his controversial decisions or statements serve as a distraction is to minimize the impacts of those decisions. It is also dismissive of those who agree with the decisions. What is fair to say is that there are legitimate overarching concerns that Trump’s administration will continue the same push towards a weaker constitution that all administrations since at least Reagan have pursued, and that the degradation of legitimate dialogue will facilitate that push.

The Atlantic published a piece a few weeks ago titled “Obama Leaves the Constitution Weaker than He Found It” and the author, Garrett Epps, makes a compelling argument to that point. The fact that liberals were not more critical of their dear leader during his time in office is now moot. The question is, in 4 years, or 8 years, or 8 months, when Trump leaves office, will we be saying the same thing about him?

I think we can reasonably say that the president, any president, will not fix every aspect of the economy, will not bring world peace, will not end poverty. But will we be able to say that our constitution is stronger than it was before? History indicates that this will not be the case, as power does not willingly cede power. So will conservatives, who openly admit that power has been ceded to the executive branch, join the fight to reclaim it? Will democrats join in the introspection to admit their hero set a number of dangerous precedents? Or will we all continue to shadowbox straw men built from the worst of our opposition?

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