The Hypocrisy of Principled Conservatism

I grew up conservative. As much as I later rejected the politics of my youth, I never really shared the cynicism of my leftist peers who read every Republican strategy and decision as a raw move to expand power and consolidate wealth. I was raised in a Reagan home and supported Jack Kemp in my first election as a voter. I eventually grew up, lived and traveled extensively in the developing world, joined an under-resourced profession, and questioned America’s two unassailable religions: Christianity and Capitalism. My politics changed.

But, up until a few years ago I truly didn’t stop believing that there was a core group of Republicans who, no matter how nefarious their politics felt to me, made decisions based on principle. They were naïve about neoliberal economics and insensitive about the exercise of American power abroad, but they weren’t phonies.

I was the one who was naïve. Count me among those who underestimated how much dissonance was possible when principled Republicanism faced the nation’s first black president, inevitable demographic change, the long-term destabilizing effects of a rushed and optional war in Iraq, the swapping of jobs for automation and lazy Silicon Valley solutions, and global economic structure that necessarily leaves the working class behind.

For a decade we have been governed by unprincipled but united Republicans and unprincipled, divided Democrats. Lacking all courage to take on economic challenges, the stage was set for the unquestioned scapegoating we are witnessing today. The White House, Congress, and Republican state legislatures walk all over the Constitution, scarily responsive to demagogues and masses who make our odds of harm from refugees (1 in 3.64 billion annually) or undocumented immigrants (1 in 10.9 billion annually) feel like wolves are lurking just outside our door. It’s disgusting.

For the life of me, I still can’t believe that no significant and well-funded organization, grassroots or otherwise and made up of “principled Conservatives,” has arisen to take on Trump since November. Prior to the election I could still assume that all the voters who expressed disagreement with Trump but who hated his opponent more would come out of the woodwork to fight him once Clinton was deposed. But the opposite has happened.

Perhaps this is what tribalism is all about. Perhaps you really can spend a season of discord figuring out who your new chief will be. Then, once he is selected, you simply take a knee and offer over your full loyalty.

Or perhaps you can become so Machiavellian with America’s 200-year experiment with democracy that you are willing to squeeze out small wins for your side temporarily no matter what happens to the Constitution or civic institutions in the process. The idea that some multitude of Republicans is sitting things out for a few years, just waiting to take on Trump later once his star fades, should disgust all of us. It is naive and dangerous. How much damage is done each day this man sits behind a desk once occupied by Ronald Reagan?

I continue to be amazed at how much conservatives want to talk about Clinton and Obama — two private citizens who hold no elective office — whenever these questions about Trump are raised. More than just a vile, vengeful, mean, and debasing man, Trump isn’t remotely conservative. What explains this ugly silence, right now in this moment, from those who once preached conservatism on principle?

The twitter feeds and articles from conservatives like Evan McMullin, Jenifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, Eliot Cohen, and David Brooks offer a hint of what is missing right now. These pundits don’t have enough time or space to list all the problems they have with Trump. They are unflinching. They are angry. But they are also marginal. A few prominent writers hardly constitute a moment, much less a movement to take on Trump.

They do nonetheless prove that tackling Trump from the principled Right is not particularly difficult. The foundation for this critique would appear to be readily available any conservative with even a modest amount of courage.

In the meantime, the children of Reagan won’t even discuss where they disagree with Trump. Many cannot or will not answer basic questions about their conservative beliefs in this moment. And that’s just goddamn tribalism.