A con­ser­va­tive ‘cri de coeur’

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Gerson

— El­e­ments of the Amer­i­can right are seized with a fash­ion­able despair, em­ployed as a get-out-the-vote op­er­a­tion. “I think this will be the last elec­tion if I don’t win,” Don­ald Trump re­cently said. This is “our last shot” to save civ­i­liza­tion, claims Gary Bauer. At stake are “na­tional health and even sur­vival” ac­cord­ing to Publius De­cius Mus in an es­say ti­tled “The Flight 93 Elec­tion” that is mak­ing the rounds among con­ser­va­tives.

Sel­dom has a pseu­do­nym been more need­ful to pro­tect an au­thor’s rep­u­ta­tion. The es­say is a master class in over­writ­ing. “We are headed off a cliff” and fac­ing “a ti­dal wave of dys­func­tion” be­cause of “the tsunami of left­ism.” If cliches clinched ar­gu­ments, De­cius would be ir­refutable.

The ar­ti­cle, pub­lished in the Clare­mont Re­view of Books, is also a model of the an­tic­i­pa­tory ad hominem. Con­ser­va­tives who are even slightly less breath­less are be­ing paid off by the es­tab­lish­ment — es­sen­tially bribed to hope. They have “pe­cu­niary rea­sons,” and are wait­ing to cash “pay­checks” and ride “the fundrais­ing cir­cuit.” One gets the im­pres­sion of an au­thor re­cently de­nied a job at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute.

As a mat­ter of sub­stance, De­cius claims that Amer­ica now faces a bi­nary choice be­tween po­lit­i­cal re­ac­tion and na­tional sui­cide. A par­tial list of rea­sons “the repub­lic is dy­ing” in­cludes: il­le­git­i­macy, op­pres­sive gov­ern­ment, high taxes, crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture, de­clin­ing moral­ity, sti­fling po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, crum­bling fam­i­lies and failed schools that turn out “dis­rup­tive punks.” Con­ser­va­tives who call for civic re­newal and in­cre­men­tal pol­icy changes are blind to the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion (and are prob­a­bly lin­ing their pock­ets any­way). The na­tional chal­lenge has be­come so ur­gent, the stakes have risen so high, the is­sues are so fun­da­men­tal, so pro­found and def­i­ni­tional, that Amer­ica must turn to ... Don­ald Trump.

The ar­gu­ment is self-re­fut­ing. There is no ques­tion of ethics, po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy or the­ol­ogy to which Trump is the an­swer. It is sim­ply child­ish to trust this con­temptible par­ody of a fa­ther fig­ure.

This out­look in­volves what Yu­val Levin calls “a de­spair­ing con­tempt for our coun­try.” As a con­ser­va­tive, I am not one to deny the chal­lenges of mod­ern, lib­eral so­ci­eties — the fragility of fam­i­lies, the brit­tle­ness of in­sti­tu­tions, the eco­nomic strug­gles that re­sult from glob­al­iza­tion, the pul­ver­iza­tion of com­mu­nity in some sad and dan­ger­ous places. But I am a tra­di­tion­al­ist with a healthy re­spect for the achieve­ments of moder­nity, be­cause I can imag­ine my­self in the po­si­tion of a woman, a gay per­son or a minority 50 years ago. The lives of count­less mil­lions have been im­proved. For them, the nos­tal­gia of con­ser­va­tive white men is not a ral­ly­ing cry.

There is, as Adam Smith said, “a great deal of ruin in a na­tion.” But there is also a great deal to love in our own, if you choose to look for it. There is abuse, ad­dic­tion, aban­don­ment — and kind­ness, cour­tesy and com­pas­sion. There are lives taken by vi­o­lence and ap­a­thy — and saved by un­ex­pected grace. I fully ex­pect the next gen­er­a­tion to be a source of re­newal, be­cause I am con­fi­dent that cer­tain core ideals and in­sti­tu­tions best fit hu­man be­ings and al­low them to flour­ish. I believe that our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren will be brave, free and dar­ing in pur­suit of age­less ideals — and that teach­ing them to despair would be the true source of na­tional ruin.

I wish the cri­tique could end here. But when you shift through all the hy­per­bole and in­sults of “The Flight 93 Elec­tion,” you are left with a residue of prej­u­dice. The au­thor refers to “tribal, sub-Third-World foes” and “the cease­less im­por­ta­tion of Third World for­eign­ers with no tra­di­tion of, taste for, or ex­pe­ri­ence in lib­erty” who are mak­ing Amer­ica “less tra­di­tion­ally Amer­i­can with ev­ery cy­cle.” Im­mi­grants are typ­i­cally guilty of “rape, shoot­ing, bomb­ing or ma­chete at­tack.” Their im­por­ta­tion is the sign of “a coun­try, a peo­ple, a civ­i­liza­tion that wants to die.” Trump, in con­trast, would say, “I want my peo­ple to live.”

Just think on that. Who ex­actly is “my peo­ple”? How is the Amer­i­can “volk” de­fined? On sec­ond thought, let’s not try.

For a cer­tain kind of right-wing na­tion­al­ist, it al­ways comes down to this. “Our peo­ple” must be pre­served from in­va­sion, rape and ma­chete at­tacks by other peo­ple whose ar­rival would cause “a coun­try, a peo­ple, a civ­i­liza­tion” to die. Trump has achieved one good thing in our pol­i­tics. He has re­vealed mo­tives that used to be hid­den by “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness.” They were also hid­den by hu­man de­cency. In terms De­cius would un­der­stand: This is play­ing with fire!

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


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