Trump ben­e­fits from Lim­baugh’s bless­ing

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— If Don­ald Trump be­comes the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee, one of the main rea­sons will be that many in the con­ser­va­tive move­ment found him ac­cept­able. And one of the main rea­sons that many con­ser­va­tives are find­ing Trump ac­cept­able is that the most in­flu­en­tial po­lit­i­cal talk ra­dio host in his­tory, Rush Lim­baugh, has pro­vided his bless­ing.

Not his en­dorse­ment. Lim­baugh takes pains to pre­serve neu­tral­ity be­tween Trump and Ted Cruz, whom he de­scribes as the ob­vi­ous choice “if con­ser­vatism is the dom­i­nat­ing fac­tor in how you vote.”

But Lim­baugh has also con­sis­tently de­fended Trump as a le­git­i­mate choice for those whose dom­i­nat­ing fac­tor is the hu­mil­i­a­tion of “the es­tab­lish­ment.” Early in the cam­paign, when Trump at­tacked Sen. John McCain’s sta­tus as a war hero, Lim­baugh re­sponded by prais­ing Trump’s courage, de­fend­ing him as “an em­bat­tled pub­lic fig­ure” will­ing to “stand up for him­self, dou­ble down and tell ev­ery­body to go to hell.” Through a long se­ries of con­tro­ver­sies, Lim­baugh has ex­cused Trump’s nar­cis­sism and blus­ter as an en­dear­ing “schtick.” Trump’s de­vi­a­tions from con­ser­va­tive or­tho­doxy are noted but con­sid­ered sec­ondary. “I think with the case of Trump,” ar­gues Lim­baugh, “there’s a much big­ger up­side than down­side.”

The up­side, in this view, is not just tak­ing the po­lit­i­cal fight to lib­er­al­ism; it is over­turn­ing a failed and cor­rupt Repub­li­can po­lit­i­cal or­der. Lim­baugh dis­misses de­fend­ers of this or­der as fun­da­men­tally self-in­ter­ested. “[Trump] has put to­gether a coali­tion that’s ex­actly what the Repub­li­can Party says that it needs to win, and yet, look what they’re do­ing. They’re try­ing to get Trump out of the race, be­cause they’re not in charge of it.” Op­pos­ing Trump is the work of a “cliquish, elit­ist club,” pre­serv­ing its in­flu­ence and em­ploy­ment prospects. This crit­i­cism is some­times ex­panded to in­clude the con­ser­va­tive in­tel­li­gentsia. “I’m talk­ing about the es­tab­lish­ment,” says Lim­baugh, “con­ser­va­tive me­dia, the braini­acs, the think tanks, the pro­fes­sors.”

For decades, Lim­baugh set the tone of pop­u­lar con­ser­vatism by ar­gu­ing for ide­o­log­i­cal pu­rity. Now, the great cham­pion of con­ser­vatism has en­abled the rise of the “least con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial as­pi­rant in liv­ing mem­ory” (in the words of Yuval Levin, edi­tor of Na­tional Af­fairs). Trump is a can­di­date who talks more of per­sonal rule than lim­ited gov­ern­ment. A can­di­date who praises a sin­gle- payer health sys­tem, pro­poses higher taxes on the wealthy, op­poses en­ti­tle­ment re­form and ad­vo­cates the sys­tem­atic de­struc­tion of Ron­ald Rea­gan’s for­eign pol­icy. This is the politi­cian Lim­baugh has given the ide­o­log­i­cal hall pass of a life­time.

Why might this con­cern your av­er­age con­ser­va­tive brainiac? First it is nec­es­sary to dis­miss Lim­baugh’s con­sis­tent ques­tion­ing of mo­tives. Many men and women I know who work on Capi­tol Hill, in con­ser­va­tive me­dia or in think tanks are hardly in it for the money or job se­cu­rity. Crit­i­ciz­ing their ve­nal­ity from 30,000 feet in his Gulfstream jet rings par­tic­u­larly hol­low.

Most in this Repub­li­can “es­tab­lish­ment” be­lieve they are serv­ing a set of ideals, which in­cludes mar­ket eco­nom­ics and lim­ited gov­ern­ment. There is no longer a Nel­son Rock­e­feller wing of the GOP that is at­tempt­ing to block the rise of the con­ser­va­tive move­ment. Lead­ers such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell are con­ser­va­tive by any se­ri­ous mea­sure. But they are forced to live within the con­straints of our con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem. They don’t have the op­tion of in­hab­it­ing a fan­tasy world where en­ti­tle­ments such as Oba­macare can be un­done by the leg­is­la­ture alone. Such utopi­anism is fun­da­men­tally at odds with con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism.

And many Repub­li­cans, in Wash­ing­ton and else­where, do not view ci­vil­ity, in­clu­sion and tol­er­ance as forms of weak­ness or com­pro­mise. In fact, they view ca­sual misog­yny, racial stereo­typ­ing and re­li­gious big­otry as moral fail­ings, in their chil­dren and in their lead­ers. And they op­pose — as a mat­ter of faith or phi­los­o­phy — any form of pop­ulism that has ex­clu­sion, cru­elty or de­hu­man­iza­tion at its core.

In read­ing Trump’s re­cent in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Post ed­i­to­rial board, what is strik­ing is not only his shal­low­ness (though his pol­icy depth must be mea­sured in mi­crons). It is his ut­ter root­less­ness. None of his ideas or pro­pos­als is placed in the con­text of ideals or ide­ol­ogy, Repub­li­can or oth­er­wise. Trump pos­sesses im­pulses and in­stincts. He does not rea­son from first prin­ci­ples. What­ever the ap­peal of his au­thor­i­tar­ian pop­ulism, it does not re­motely re­sem­ble con­ser­vatism (see Rus­sell Kirk’s 10 prin­ci­ples, which in­cludes be­lief in an en­dur­ing moral or­der, po­lit­i­cal pru­dence, and re­straints on power and hu­man pas­sion).

Pop­ulist anti-in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism, on the rise at least since Sarah Palin, has cul­mi­nated in Trump. It is the pass­ing of con­ser­vatism, even if Lim­baugh bap­tizes the dead.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­post. com.


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