A conservative ‘cri de coeur’
— 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 email@example.com.