How the right lost its MIND, sold its SOUL— and em­braced DON­ALD TRUMP


THIS IS A PAINFUL STORY FOR ME TO write. For a quar­ter of a cen­tury, I was a ma­jor part of the con­ser­va­tive move­ment. But like many on the right, in the wake of Don­ald Trump’s vic­tory I had to ask some un­com­fort­able ques­tions. The 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign was a bru­tal, dis­il­lu­sion­ing slog, and there came a mo­ment when I re­al­ized that con­ser­va­tives had cre­ated an al­ter­nate re­al­ity bub­ble—one that I had helped shape.

Dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion, con­ser­va­tives turned on the prin­ci­ples that had once an­i­mated them. Some­how a move­ment based on real ideas—such as eco­nomic free­dom and lim­ited gov­ern­ment— had de­volved into a tribe that val­ued nei­ther prin­ci­ple nor truth; lu­mi­nar­ies such as Ed­mund Burke and William F. Buck­ley Jr. had been re­placed by me­dia clowns such as Ann Coul­ter and Milo Yiannopou­los. Icons such as Ron­ald Rea­gan—with his op­ti­mism and ge­nial­ity—had been sup­planted by the dark, er­ratic nar­cis­sism of Don­ald Trump. Grad­u­al­ism, ex­per­tise and pru­dence—the val­ues that once were taken for granted among con­ser­va­tives—were re­placed by polls and rat­ings spikes, as the right al­lowed lib­eral over­reach in the Obama era to blind them to the crack­pots and big­ots in their midst.

Some have ar­gued that the elec­tion was a bi­nary choice, that Hillary Clin­ton had to be de­feated by any means. I share many of their con­cerns about Clin­ton, but the price was ru­inous. The right’s elec­toral vic­tory has not wiped away its sins. It has mag­ni­fied them, and the prob­lems that were ex­posed dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign haven’t dis­ap­peared. Suc­cess does not nec­es­sar­ily im­ply virtue or san­ity. Kings can be both mad and bad, and the courtiers are usu­ally loath to point out the ob­vi­ous—just look at Caligula or Kim Jong Un.

To­day, with Trump in of­fice, the prob­lems of the right are the prob­lems of all Amer­i­cans. And the worst part of it is that we—con­ser­va­tives—did this to our­selves.

Don­ald Trump is the pres­i­dent we de­serve.

Off the Wall

THERE WAS A TIME when we de­served bet­ter. And had it too. On June 12, 1987, Pres­i­dent Rea­gan was in West Berlin to de­liver a pow­er­ful mes­sage to the evil em­pire, the USSR. His Soviet coun­ter­part, Mikhail Gor­bachev, had branded him­self as a be­nign peace­maker, and Rea­gan wanted him to prove it. More than two decades ear­lier, East Ger­man Com­mu­nists had erected the Berlin Wall to keep de­fec­tors from flee­ing the eastern part of the city, and the bar­rier re­mained, phys­i­cally and sym­bol­i­cally di­vid­ing the two sides. With two panes of bul­let­proof glass separat­ing him from a crowd of roughly 20,000, Rea­gan stood with East Berlin’s Bran­den­burg Gate be­hind him and ut­tered the words that have come to de­fine part of the great­ness of his pres­i­dency. “If you seek peace,” Rea­gan said, “come here, to this gate. Mr. Gor­bachev, tear down this wall.” Rea­gan’s words cham­pi­oned free­dom and unity, cap­i­tal­ism and strength. He saw Amer­ica as “a shin­ing city upon a hill,” as he put it in a later speech, an ebul­lient de­scrip­tion that cap­tured the source of his pop­u­lar­ity. And though he per­son­i­fied much of what con­ser­va­tives loved about Amer­ica—our pos­i­tiv­ity, grit and de­ter­mi­na­tion—rea­gan­ism was al­ways about the coun­try, not the man. He was our pres­i­dent, not our “dear leader.” Al­most three decades af­ter Rea­gan’s speech in Berlin, Trump de­liv­ered a very dif­fer­ent mes­sage in Man­hat­tan. On June 16, 2015, he made a dra­matic en­trance at Trump Tower, de­scend­ing into the lobby on an es­ca­la­tor to the sounds of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” And with the cam­eras rolling, the re­al­ity-tv star an­nounced he was run­ning for pres­i­dent. The coun­try was in real trou­ble, he said, in part, be­cause Mex­i­cans are sneak­ing across the bor­der. “They’re bring­ing drugs,” he snarled. “They’re bring­ing crime! They’re rapists!” There was only one


so­lu­tion, Trump ex­plained: “I will build a great, great wall on our south­ern bor­der. And I will have Mex­ico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

With anger and bravado, Trump had de­clared war against Rea­gan­ism (the Gip­per had been pro-im­mi­gra­tion too)—and some peo­ple loved the brash new can­di­date for it.

This shift took many by sur­prise. In the 1980s, af­ter Rea­gan be­came the face of the right, con­ser­va­tives seemed like a united, mono­lithic force (es­pe­cially to lib­er­als who never re­ally lis­tened to what we had to say). The truth is, we have long been a jum­ble—a con­tentious col­lec- tion of dis­parate, of­ten queru­lous fac­tions: lib­er­tar­i­ans, evan­gel­i­cals, tra­di­tion­al­ists, cham­ber of com­merce types. As far back as the 1950s, there have been deep fis­sures in the move­ment. We called our­selves con­ser­va­tive, but sup­ported the cre­ative de­struc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism; we cham­pi­oned lim­ited gov­ern­ment, but also tra­di­tional val­ues. We were the party of free­dom, but also na­tional se­cu­rity, law and or­der.

Over the past 50 years, con­ser­va­tive lead­ers had sought to knit to­gether those ide­o­log­i­cal strands. It hasn’t al­ways been easy. In the 1960s, Buck­ley, the con­ser­va­tive au­thor and founder of the Na­tional Re­view, went to war with both the far-right lib­er­tar­ian writer Ayn Rand and the ex­treme anti-com­mu­nist crack­pots at the John Birch So­ci­ety. Those di­vi­sions and oth­ers car­ried over into the Richard Nixon era in the 1970s. It wasn’t un­til the early 1980s that Rea­gan man­aged to con­trol th­ese con­tra­dic­tions with a com­bi­na­tion of charisma and com­pe­tent gov­er­nance.

Trump, how­ever, ex­ploited such di­vi­sions for his own gain. He tapped into some­thing dis­turb­ing that we had ig­nored and per­haps nur­tured—a shift from free­dom to au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, from Amer­i­can “ex­cep­tion­al­ism” to na­tivism and xeno­pho­bia. From his hard line on im­mi­gra­tion and re­but­tal of free trade to his strange fas­ci­na­tion with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, Trump rep­re­sented a dra­matic re­pu­di­a­tion of the val­ues that had once de­fined the move­ment. If Rea­gan were alive, he would hardly rec­og­nize his party—or the walls it had erected.

Birther of a Na­tion

IN BE­TWEEN REA­GAN and Trump, there were signs of deep dys­func­tion in the con­ser­va­tive ranks, mo­ments when the right seemed on the verge of los­ing it—from out­bursts of anti-semitism dur­ing Pat Buchanan’s un­likely surge in 1992 to Sarah Palin’s em­bar­rass­ing as­cen­dancy to the GOP ticket in 2008.

But the real turn­ing point came with the elec­tion of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party. While many of its dis­con­tents can be traced to the Bush years—medi­care Part D, changes to im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy and the big-bank bailouts—the Tea Party did not gain trac­tion un­til af­ter Obama’s vic­tory. The tim­ing fu­eled sus­pi­cion that the move­ment had more to do with the new pres­i­dent’s race—and party af­fil­i­a­tion—than his poli­cies, yet the early days of the Tea Party de­fied easy cat­e­go­riza­tion. De­spite the car­i­ca­tures and re­peated at­tempts by the left to por­tray them as dan­ger­ous or big­oted, Tea Party ral­lies were gen­er­ally or­derly events—and ex­traor­di­nar­ily di­verse. As the writer John Avlon put it in his book Wingnuts: Ex­trem­ism in the Age of Obama, at­ten­dees at a typ­i­cal rally in­cluded “lib­er­tar­i­ans, tra­di­tion­al­ists, free-mar­keters, middle-class tax pro­test­ers, the more-pa­tri­otic-than-thou crowd, con­ser­va­tive shock jocks, frat boys, suit-and-tie Buck­ley-ites and more than a cou­ple of req­ui­site res­i­dents of Crazy­town.”

The Tea Party soon be­came the face of the con­ser­va­tive move­ment, fir­ing up a base that had been de­feated and de­mor­al­ized. As Avlon noted, the move­ment marked an ag­gres­sive shift in tac­tics, as some con­ser­va­tives de­cided to “mimic the con­fronta­tional street the­ater of the far left they had spent decades de­spis­ing. Ci­vil­ity was the first cal­cu­lated ca­su­alty.” At ral­lies, signs com­par­ing Obama to Hitler be­gan pop­ping up (as they had on the left with Ge­orge W. Bush), while lit­er­a­ture ap­peared skew­er­ing “Obama’s Nazi

health plan.” Le­git­i­mate con­cerns over ra­tioning health care mor­phed into over­heated rhetoric about “death pan­els.” All of this was ac­cel­er­ated by the rise of a per­pet­ual out­rage ma­chine that in­cluded scam PACS and even the ven­er­a­ble Her­itage Foun­da­tion, push­ing the GOP into in­creas­ingly ex­treme and un­ten­able po­si­tions, which ul­ti­mately led to a fu­tile gov­ern­ment shut­down.

Few on the right pushed back against th­ese ex­cesses. “In this en­vi­ron­ment,” Avlon noted, “there are no en­e­mies on the right and no such thing as too ex­treme—the more out­ra­geous the state­ment, the more it will be ap­plauded.” Even af­ter Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Joe Wil­son was cen­sured for yelling “You lie!” at Obama dur­ing a speech on health care in 2009, many on the right hailed the South Carolina Repub­li­can as a hero.

In the lead-up to the 2012 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, this shift to­ward vul­gar­ity and blus­ter ac­cel­er­ated. But per­haps the defin­ing mo­ment oc­curred on March 23, 2011, when Trump made an ap­pear­ance on The View. Few at the time thought he had a real in­ter­est in—or shot at—the pres­i­dency. But polls in­di­cated he was pop­u­lar, and he was flirt­ing with the idea. Wear­ing his trade­mark dumpy blue suit and long red tie, the New York real es­tate mogul launched into what to­day feels like a typ­i­cal stump speech. “We’re not go­ing to be a great coun­try for long if we keep go­ing the way we’re go­ing right now,” he said. Trump was friendly and cor­dial, crack­ing jokes and hold­ing Whoopi Gold­berg’s hand. But when the con­ver­sa­tion turned to Obama, it grew heated. “Why doesn’t he show his birth cer­tifi­cate?” Trump whined. “If you’re go­ing to be the pres­i­dent of the United States…you have to be born in this coun­try.”

The birther ca­nard—that Obama was born in Kenya or some­where abroad—didn’t start with Trump. (And de­spite his false claims, it didn’t start with Hillary Clin­ton ei­ther.) But per­haps more than any other fig­ure, Trump pro­lif­er­ated birtherism, took the lie from the in­ter­net’s lu­natic fringes and brought it to the main­stream. Af­ter his ap­pear­ance on The View, he went fur­ther, im­ply­ing to con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tor Laura In­gra­ham that the pres­i­dent might se­cretly be a Mus­lim. Af­ter Obama pro­duced his birth cer­tifi­cate in April 2011, Trump briefly ac­knowl­edged his le­git­i­macy, then quickly seemed to re­cant, say­ing that “a lot of peo­ple do not think it was an au­then­tic cer­tifi­cate.” In do­ing so, he soaked up some much-de­sired pub­lic­ity, which ar­guably helped him launch his 2016 cam­paign.

Not ev­ery­one on the right bought into birtherism. Some, such as talk show host Michael Medved, slammed the con­spir­acy the­ory. “Birtherism,” he said, “makes us look weird. It makes us look crazy. It makes us look demented. It makes us look sick, trou­bled and not suit­able for civ­i­lized com­pany.” But many lead­ing Repub­li­cans ei­ther stayed silent or re­fused to de­nounce such an out­ra­geous lie. One rea­son for their re­luc­tance: A Pub­lic Pol­icy Poll in Fe­bru­ary 2011 found that birthers had be­come a ma­jor­ity among likely Repub­li­can pri­mary vot­ers—51 per­cent said they did not think Barack Obama was born in the United States. Birtherism was not a fringe idea in the GOP. The poll also sug­gested, as Steve Be­nen noted in Wash­ing­ton Monthly, that “can­di­dates hop­ing to run sane cam­paigns will be at a dis­ad­van­tage in the com­ing months.” Repub­li­can vot­ers who doubted Obama’s le­git­i­macy tended to grav­i­tate to can­di­dates like Palin, Newt Gin­grich and Mike Huck­abee (all of whom would play key roles in Trump’s 2016 cam­paign).

In pri­vate, con­ser­va­tives who knew bet­ter jus­ti­fied their re­turn to the dark fringes on the grounds that it fired up the base and an­tag­o­nized lib­er­als. Or as Palin put it so mem­o­rably in 2016, “It’s fun to see the splodey heads keep splod­ing.” The re­sult was a com­pul­sion to de­fend any­one at­tacked by the left, no mat­ter how reck­less, ex­treme or bizarre. If lib­er­als hated some­thing, the ar­gu­ment went, then it must be won­der­ful and wor­thy of ag­gres­sive de­fense. So con­ser­va­tives em­braced the likes of Chris­tine O’don­nell, a failed Se­nate can­di­date who ran a cu­ri­ous ad deny­ing ru­mors she was se­cretly a witch. They de­fended Todd Akin, a for­mer Mis­souri con­gress­man who said fe­male vic­tims of “le­git­i­mate rape” rarely get preg­nant. We treated th­ese ex­trem­ists and crack­pots like your ob­nox­ious un­cle at Thanks­giv­ing: We ig­nored them, feel­ing we could con­tain them or at least con­trol their lu­nacy.

We were naive. By fail­ing to push back against the racist birther-con­spir­acy the­ory—among other harm­ful ideas—con­ser­va­tives failed a moral and in­tel­lec­tual test with sig­nif­i­cant im­pli­ca­tions for the fu­ture. We failed it badly.

Safe Spa­ces and An­gry White Men

THERE IS, OF COURSE, another side to the story of how the right lost its mind. Decades of lib­eral con­tempt, in­clud­ing the al­most re­flex­ive dis­missal of con­ser­va­tives as ig­no­rant racists, had cre­ated deep an­tipa­thy on the right. And dur­ing the Obama years in par­tic­u­lar, many con­ser­va­tives felt at­tacked. First there was the mas­sive stim­u­lus pack­age, which threat­ened to bal­loon the na­tional debt. Then the Demo­cratic Congress rammed through Oba­macare with the barest of par­ti­san ma­jori­ties. Th­ese moves came at a time when con-


ser­va­tives felt their free speech and re­li­gious lib­erty were un­der as­sault, when the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice was tar­get­ing Tea Party groups, and on univer­sity cam­puses ac­tivists be­gan en­forc­ing their de­mands for ide­o­log­i­cal con­form­ity, com­plete with lists of mi­croag­gres­sions, trig­ger warn­ings and safe spa­ces. Later, Democrats be­gan dis­man­tling the fil­i­buster, while Obama, frus­trated by grid­lock in Congress, started is­su­ing a dizzy­ing ar­ray of ex­ec­u­tive or­ders on is­sues rang­ing from im­mi­gra­tion to clean power.

The right dis­torted and ex­ag­ger­ated all of th­ese is­sues. But Democrats seemed to act as if their suc­cess were pre­or­dained, not merely by his­tory but by de­mo­graph­ics, as­sur­ing them­selves that as Amer­ica be­came younger and more di­verse, it would de­liver one lib­eral win af­ter another. Not con­tent with win­ning his­toric vic­to­ries on gay mar­riage, some pro­gres­sives called their op­po­nents big­ots, de­rid­ing their re­li­gious faith as ha­tred and dis­crim­i­na­tion. The goal was not tol­er­ance but to drive out dis­sent. Or so it seemed to many con­ser­va­tives, es­pe­cially evan­gel­i­cals, who came to feel they were not sim­ply los­ing the cul­ture war; they were be­ing dis­missed by a coun­try they no longer rec­og­nized.

Dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign, for in­stance, com­men­ta­tors on the left ex­pressed le­git­i­mate con­cern that Trump was en­cour­ag­ing vi­o­lence at some of his ral­lies. At the same time, con­ser­va­tives were in­un­dated with sto­ries, links, and video clips of pro­test­ers chant­ing “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!” and “Pigs in a blan­ket, fry ’em like ba­con.” But on ca­ble tele­vi­sion, they watched their con­cerns de­nounced as racial “dog whis­tles.”

As the Democrats be­came a party dom­i­nated by a highly ed­u­cated, urban elite, its tra­di­tional blue-col­lar base felt in­creas­ingly dis­en­fran­chised. Many called them “an­gry white men” with­out re­ally ask­ing if they had le­git­i­mate rea­sons to be an­gry. The left, for in­stance, em­braced the no­tion of “white priv­i­lege,” even as white work­ing-class Amer­ica en­tered a pe­riod of acute de­cline, as blue-col­lar work­ers faced dev­as­tat­ing job losses and a mount­ing opi­oid cri­sis. The alien­ation of cen­ter-right vot­ers was es­pe­cially un­for­tu­nate be­cause the ex­cesses on the left pushed many small-gov­ern­ment con­ser­va­tives into an un­nat­u­ral al­liance with the au­thor­i­tar­ian and na­tion­al­is­tic right. Ce­ment­ing that al­liance: the newly em­bold­ened right-wing me­dia—a place where facts be­came mal­leable and loy­alty mat­tered far more than truth.

The Fake News Rev­o­lu­tion

SINCE THE 1950S, con­ser­va­tives have crit­i­cized the bias and dou­ble stan­dards of the main­stream me­dia. And much of the crit­i­cism has been de­served. Con­ser­va­tives may ex­ag­ger­ate me­dia bias, but they do not imag­ine it. The dou­ble stan­dards made for daily fod­der on my ra­dio show for the past 23 years.

Dur­ing much of that time, I was proud to be part of the con­ser­va­tive me­dia. I fre­quently shared the lat­est col­umn by Charles Krautham­mer or set up top­ics by read­ing a Wall Street Jour­nal editorial on the air. Other hosts pro­vided a broad fo­rum for con­ser­va­tives to share their views. Sure, we had our prob­lems, our ex­cesses—par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the Bill Clin­ton years. But I gen­uinely be­lieved we were help­ing peo­ple be­come savvier, more so­phis­ti­cated an­a­lysts of cur­rent af­fairs.

Dur­ing the Obama era, how­ever, we crossed a line. The right’s echo cham­ber didn’t just re­main silent about the crack­pots in our ranks; it em­braced them, ex­ploit­ing their in­san­ity for clicks and rat­ings. Take Matt Drudge. His site, the Drudge Re­port, con­sis­tently ranks as one of the top five me­dia pub­lish­ers in the coun­try, of­ten draw­ing more than a bil­lion page views a month. Me­dia critic John Ziegler de­scribes him as the tacit “as­sign­ment ed­i­tor” for con­ser­va­tive talk ra­dio, right-lean­ing web­sites and a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of Fox News.

But at some point in the past decade, Drudge be­gan link­ing to In­fowars, a web­site run by Alex Jones, a con­spir­acy the­o­rist ex­traor­di­naire. On his site, Jones has sug­gested that the U.S. gov­ern­ment was be­hind the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks, the Ok­la­homa City bomb­ing and the Bos­ton Marathon ex­plo­sions. He would be hi­lar­i­ous if peo­ple didn’t take him so se­ri­ously. And in link­ing to his sto­ries, Drudge broke down the wall separat­ing the full-blown cranks from the main­stream con­ser­va­tive me­dia, in­ject­ing a toxic world­view into the right’s blood­stream.

Ev­i­dence of that tox­i­c­ity came on the cam­paign trail on May 3, 2016. Months be­fore the GOP con­ven­tion, as Trump was com­pet­ing against Ted Cruz for his party’s nom­i­na­tion, the birther in chief used yet another con­spir­acy the­ory to his ad­van­tage. This one was about the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy and the bo­gus the­ory that Cruz’s fa­ther was in­volved in it. “His fa­ther was with Lee Har­vey Oswald prior to Oswald’s be­ing—you know, shot,” Trump said, cit­ing a story in the Na­tional En­quirer, a fake news tabloid owned by his ally David Pecker. “That was re­ported, and no­body talks about it.… It’s hor­ri­ble.”

Trump not only got away with this gam­bit; he dou­bled down, em­brac­ing


LOCO-MO­TION: With anger and bravado, Trump de­clared war against Rea­gan­ism dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign. And some peo­ple loved him for it.


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