Standing Athwart History Again

William F. Buckley once said that a conservative is “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” That was the core idea of the mission statement in the first issue of the National Review – the seminal conservative magazine he founded back in 1955. He meant those words to be heroic and defiant, but history being what it is, this notion seems rather silly. Things change. This was like Peter Pan screaming that he wouldn’t grow up, he just wouldn’t. This was petulance, but since Buckley led such a fascinating life and was so preposterously well-educated and absurdly cosmopolitan, people cut him some slack. Back in the day many of us watched his show Firing Line just to improve our vocabularies. Buckley may have spouted nonsense, but it sounded impressive and you could use those new and quite odd erudite terms to end any argument. No one would understand what you just said, and they’d feel shame that they didn’t, and they’d just shut up.

That was cool, but then Buckley appeared in a series of televised debates with Gore Vidal during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where Vidal ended up calling Buckley a crypto-Nazi, which actually seemed quite appropriate at the time, so one must be careful. You might run into someone equally preposterously well-educated, and then you’re in trouble.

The real problem, however, was history, which won’t stop. In 1954, Buckley wrote a book with Brent Bozell defending Senator Joseph McCarthy as a patriotic crusader against communism. McCarthyism was “a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks” – but Joe McCarthy turned out to be a drunken thug who got most everything wrong and ruined many good lives. Oops. Then, in the August 24, 1957, issue of the National Review, there was Buckley’s editorial “Why the South Must Prevail” – explicitly arguing the case for white supremacy, at least in the South. He argued that “the central question that emerges is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically.”

The answer was yes – “The White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.” That’s just the way it is – so stop this civil rights nonsense – but he later changed his mind and said it was a mistake for his National Review to have opposed all that civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. It seems he had been on the wrong side of history – so then started yelling Stop at other folks. He pretty much tossed the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement – they weren’t serious people – and he dismissed Ayn Rand as a shallow fool – and then he faded away. He was no longer standing athwart history yelling anything at all. He left that to a new generation. The National Review would live on. He didn’t. He died in 2008, the year America elected Barack Obama. History hadn’t stopped after all.

The National Review, however, is still yelling Stop. Matthew Yglesias just picked up a copy:

Conservative intellectuals remain unimpressed with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign notwithstanding his continued dominance of the polls. And tonight, the longtime flagship magazine of conservative thought, National Review, is planting its flag firmly against the GOP frontrunner.

“Against Trump” are the two big words on the cover, and that’s what every item inside is about:

The main editorial opens with the line “Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.”

The overall package features a very broad spectrum of conservative writers ranging from old Reagan-era warhorses like Ed Meese and Thomas Sowell to relative new kids on the block like Ben Domenech and Erick Erickson. This group is also a good representation of the range of conservative ideology. You’ve got libertarian David Boaz, neoconservative Bill Kristol, social conservative Brent Bozell, reformer Yuval Levin, and whatever it is that Glenn Beck is.

Yglesias is not impressed:

Thus far, the 2016 campaign has offered zero evidence that either Trump or his supporters among the GOP rank and file care even slightly about the content of conservative ideological theory as opposed to the general sentiments of nationalism, white ethnocentricity, and disdain for America’s current political leaders. But who knows, maybe this will be the magazine cover package that finally does Trump in.

Yglesias is being sarcastic, but Jeff Black at Bloomberg Business reports on the Trump Fear at Davos:

The prospect of Trump in the White House is ratcheting up anxiety among the 2,500 business and political leaders gathered at the Swiss ski resort for the annual World Economic Forum. With less than two weeks before voting in primaries gets under way and Trump in the Republican Party lead, those who fear a rise in protectionism and economic mismanagement are speaking out against the billionaire property developer.

“Unfortunately I do think that if there were to be a Trump administration the casualty would likely be trade,” said Eric Cantor, a former Republican House Majority Leader and now vice chairman of Moelis & Company. “That’s a very serious prospect for the world.”

The Tea Party ended his political career, so this might be sour grapes, but the worry is pervasive over there:

Cantor said he doesn’t think Trump will make it through the primaries, a common theme among Davos attendees who nevertheless are still talking about him. Trump’s positions – like a “temporary” ban on Muslims entering the country and the building of a wall on the Mexican border – are earning him opprobrium in the mountain resort.

He has also railed at the loss of U.S. jobs to overseas competitors, and on Tuesday he said that as president he would “get Apple to start building their damn computers and things” in the U.S., instead of China. A Trump administration would be a “disaster,” according to Beth Brooke-Marciniak, global vice chair of public policy at Ernst & Young LLP and a former adviser to the U.S. Treasury in the Clinton administration.

You don’t shut down international trade and distributed manufacturing, unless you want to shut down the world’s economy. What is this guy thinking? He must be stopped.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog is reminded of last year at Davos:

Remember when rich people suddenly started telling us that they feared they’d be the targets of angry radical mobs if nothing was done about economic inequality?

There was the billionaire Jeff Greene:

“This is my fear, and it’s a real, legitimate fear,” Greene says, revving up the engine. “You have this huge, huge class of people who are impoverished. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we will build a class of poor people that will take over this country, and the country will not look like what it does today. It will be a different economy, rights, all that stuff will be different.”…

“There are all these people in this country who are just not participating in the American Dream at all,” he says. This makes him uncomfortable, not least because they might try to take a piece of his. “Right now, for some bizarre reason, a lot of these people are supporting Republicans who want to cut taxes on the wealthy,” he says. “At some point, if we keep doing this, their numbers are going to keep swelling, and it won’t be an Obama or a Romney…”

And there was this:

The billionaire hedge funder Paul Tudor Jones is scared. “My friend Ken Langone, a founder of the Home Depot, is scared. So are many other chief executives. Not of Al Qaeda, or the vicious Islamic State or some other evolving radical group from the Middle East, Africa or Asia. We are afraid where income inequality will lead.”

“If inequality is not addressed, the income gap will most likely be resolved in one of two ways: by major social unrest or through oppressive taxes, such as the 80 percent tax rate on income over $500,000 suggested by Thomas Piketty, the French economist and author of the best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”

“We are creating a caste system from which it’s almost impossible to escape…”

Steve M:

I’m sure you guys thought the mobs were coming from the direction of Zuccotti Park and headed straight for you with murder in their eyes. But the energy of that movement has dissipated, or been channeled into the Bernie Sanders campaign, where its most violent manifestation is condescending tweets aimed at Hillary supporters.

The real mob you guys feared – the real mass movement – is the Trump campaign. Trump fans are angry. Their anger is, as you predicted, class-based. But guess what? They’re not coming to burn your Hamptons mansion to the ground. Their leader is a fellow billionaire. And if they start killing people, the victims will probably be carrying Qur’ans, or maybe Spanish-English dictionaries that got damaged in a middle-of-the-night border crossing.

Yes, revolt is brewing. But you guys – as usual – are going to be just fine.

They don’t feel that way, and over here, the alternative to Trump doesn’t seem so hot either. At CNN, Manu Raju reports on that:

Republican Party leaders and prominent senators are sharpening their knives against Ted Cruz, expressing growing alarm over his candidacy as he continues to mount a serious threat in Iowa.

In interviews with CNN, a growing number of Republicans are beginning to echo remarks made by the likes of former Sen. Bob Dole and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, warning that the party would suffer deep losses down the ticket and risk electing a Democratic president if the Texas senator wins the nomination.

“I think we’ll lose if he’s our nominee,” said Orrin Hatch, the most senior Republican in the Senate.

“There are a lot of people who don’t feel he can appeal to people across the board,” Hatch said. “For us to win, we have to appeal to the moderates and independents. We can’t just act like that only one point of view is the only way to go. That’s where Ted is going to have some trouble.”

No one is happy:

It’s not just Jeb Bush supporters like Hatch who are speaking out more aggressively. A large number of GOP senators say Cruz’s divisive tactics, which have included describing his colleagues as part of a corrupt “Washington cartel,” will make it hard – if not impossible – to get behind him if he’s the nominee.

“It would be a major challenge because of the wounds that are deep,” said Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, who is neutral in the race so far.

Ah, but then Ted Cruz twisted the knife:

Cruz’s campaign is pushing back against the growing criticism from the party leaders, saying it’s a concerted effort to back Trump.

“Of course D.C. establishment politicians are abandoning Marco Rubio and running to Trump, because they want a candidate who will cut deals to keep them in power,” said Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier.

“And that’s perfectly fine, because Americans aren’t looking for a dealmaker who will compromise; they are looking for a leader who will break up the Washington cartel and restore our nation’s safety and prosperity,” Frazier added.

In short, if they think Donald Trump is a dangerous buffoon, they don’t know danger standing right in front of them – that would be Ted Cruz. He’ll destroy them.

They finally got the message:

Indeed, some in the party establishment do believe that Trump would have cross-over appeal, despite his incendiary comments.

“I’ve come around a little bit on Trump,” Hatch said Thursday. “I’m not so sure we’d lose if he’s our nominee because he’s appealing to people who a lot of the Republican candidates have not appealed to in the past.”

And as for Cruz:

“His ability to grow the vote of the Republican Party is almost zero,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who dropped out of the presidential race and is now backing Bush, said of Cruz. “He’ll easily be portrayed as ideological to a fault.”

Asked if he’d prefer Trump over Cruz, Graham said: “It’s a lot like being shot or poisoned: I think you get the same result.”

This is no choice at all:

Graham, for instance, said that Trump was “crazy” with an “insane” foreign policy and Cruz was a “rigid ideologue,” both of which would be problematic against Hillary Clinton, even if voters view her as a “dishonest” candidate, he said.

“Dishonest beats crazy,” said Graham, who dropped his bid for the GOP nomination last month. “Dishonest loses to normal. Just pick somebody normal. Pick somebody out of the phone book and we win.”

They’ll have to pick somebody out of the phone book. They’re out of normal people. The base of the party doesn’t like normal people anyway, and Heather Parton adds this:

Hatch has a point though. Trump is appealing to some new potential voters out there. Stormfront Nazis weren’t all that keen on Romney and McCain but they’re doing robocalls for Trump.

Pick your poison. Trump is now campaigning with reliably incoherent Sarah Palin. Ted Cruz is now campaigning with the master of eccentric conspiracies, Glenn Beck. And the New York Times’ resident intellectual conservative, Ross Douthat, offers an odd column about how he once loved Sarah Palin because he believed she represented something new, but could pull off what the party really needed:

As a political journalist, you never forget the first time you stop just covering a politician and start identifying with her. The first time you wed your high-minded vision of what politics should be to a real candidate’s perishable breath.

My first time arrived in 2008. It lasted only a short while. Her name was Sarah Palin.

No, really:

That spring, in between the Republican primary and the fall campaign, my friend Reihan Salam and I had published a book called “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.”

As the title suggests, we were calling for the GOP to change, but not to moderate in the way that a lot of centrist pundits favored, returning to a Rockefeller-Republican model of fiscally prudent social liberalism. Rather, we thought the party’s opportunity (and the country’s) lay in a kind of socially conservative populism, which would link the family-values language of the religious right to an economic agenda more favorable to the working class than what the Republicans usually had offered.

That was a pipe dream:

Trump and Palin together on a stage is the closest American politics has come to offering the populist grand new party that Salam and I called for two presidential campaigns ago. Except that it isn’t what we called for, because we wanted a populism with substance – one that actually offered policy solutions to stagnant wages and rising health care costs, one that could help Republicans reach out to upwardly mobile blacks and Hispanics as well as whites, and so on down an optimistic wish list.

Whereas Trump-era populism, while it plays very effectively on economic anxiety, mostly offers braggadocio rather than solutions, and white identity politics rather than any kind of one-nation conservatism.

I would like to tell you that this is all the fault of the Republican leadership – that had they been more receptive to populist ideas in 2008 or 2012, they wouldn’t be facing a Trumpian revolt today.

That’s roughly the argument that David Frum makes in this month’s Atlantic, in a sweeping essay on the roots of Trumpism. And he makes a strong case.

But he’s wrong:

A critique that stops with GOP elites might let the voting public off the hook, because it’s also possible that Trumpism, in all its boastful, lord-of-misrule meretriciousness, is what many struggling Americans actually want.

That is, at a certain point, disillusionment with the system becomes so strong that no wonkish policy proposal is likely to resonate anymore. So you can talk all you want (as Marco Rubio’s water-treading campaign has tried to do) about improving vocational education or increasing the child-tax credit, and people will tune you out: They want someone who will arm-wrestle the Chinese, make Mexico pay for the wall, smite our enemies and generally stand in solidarity with their resentments, regardless of the policy results.

Since this is a recipe for American-style Putinism, it’s not exactly a good sign for the republic that it seems to be resonating. But those of us who want a better, saner and more decent populism than what Donald Trump is selling need to reckon with the implications of his indubitable appeal.

Heather Parton then adds this:

No kidding. But it’s still missing the point. Trumpism is right wing populism. Nativism, racism and resentment are baked in the cake for a certain kind of person and the only way to make it work is to roll with it. And as Douthat points out, mix in a little nationalist fervor and where that leads is authoritarianism.

Maybe somebody will be able to figure out a way to thread this needle differently but I’m going to guess that this might be beyond the scope of today’s Republican Party. They can’t even handle the Tea Party.

Both Douthat and the National Review want to yell STOP to nativism and racism and resentment, but it’s too late for that now. Ask Peter Beinart about that:

In endorsing Donald Trump, Sarah Palin faced a challenge. How does a woman who has built her brand on hating cultural elites endorse a billionaire, Manhattan TV star? Her answer: by turning Trump into a victim.

Yes, that is exactly what she did:

She began by reasserting her own victimhood. When considering endorsing Trump, Palin said she was “told left and right, ‘you are going to get so clobbered in the press. You are just going to get beat up, and chewed up, and spit out.'” But she wasn’t fazed because the media has been trying to do “that every day since that night in ’08, when I was on stage nominated for VP.” Then she connected her own victimhood to the crowd’s, declaring that, nonetheless, “like you all, I’m still standing.” And she linked both back to Trump: “So those of us who’ve kind of gone through the wringer as Mr. Trump has, makes me respect you even more.”

This was a perfect circle, and then she widened it:

After that, Palin expanded the circle of victimhood to include American sailors who were made to “suffer and be humiliated” by Iran, forced to “kowtow” and “apologize” and “bend over and say, ‘Thank you, enemy.'” And she added workers who suffer so the “campaign donor class” can have “cheap labor” by ensuring that “the borders are kept open” and who lose their jobs when those rich donors endorse “lousy trade deals that gut our industry.”

What ties these people to Trump? They’re victims of a bipartisan system designed to screw them. And whom do the people running that bipartisan system fear most? Who is “really ticking people off”? Donald Trump. “He’s been able to tear the veil off this idea of the system,” and as a result, “Our own GOP machine, the establishment… they’re attacking their own frontrunner.” The same people who screwed Palin, and who screw American troops and workers, the people who “stomp our neck and tell us to chill,” are now savaging Donald Trump as well.

But he alone, perhaps because he is a billionaire and from their elite world, may be able to stand up to them and strike a blow on behalf of the little people.

That does make an odd sort of sense, if you’re a fan of circular logic, but Beinart goes further:

Listening to Palin’s tribute to Trump reminded me of Toni Morrison’s famous 1998 essay in The New Yorker, in which she argued that impeachment had made Bill Clinton black. Yes, he had championed the death penalty. Yes, he had signed welfare reform. But when African Americans saw him “metaphorically seized and body-searched,” turned into an “always and already guilty ‘perp'” by the Republicans and Kenneth Starr, black America adopted him. He became a fellow victim.

This is the same sort of thing:

White, straight, conservative Christians, who consider themselves the last group in America that can be victimized with impunity, have now embraced Trump for the same reason. If the same purveyors of political correctness who call them bigots call him one, then he must be doing something right.

In Clinton’s impeachment, African Americans saw their own suffering. In Trump’s campaign, Palin and company see their supposed suffering too. The difference is that Trump’s supporters remember a day, before “political correctness,” when they were on top. And so they see Trump as more than just the manifestation of their victimhood. They seem him as the instrument of their revenge.

The next day Palin went on to say that her son’s problems with domestic violence were the result of PTSD and were therefore caused by President Obama – that pissed off almost every veteran in America but Donald Trump had no problem at all with it – and Nancy LeTourneau adds this:

In Palin’s world view, both she and anyone she finds common cause with are the victims. We’re seeing that a lot these days as the whole populist movement is fueled by those who are “aggrieved.” The role of the oppressor is primarily played by President Obama. But in other formulations it becomes the “liberal elite” or even (to borrow Ted Cruz’ language), the Republican cartel. For Palin, all of this was a set-up to define Donald Trump as the rescuer who could “make America great again.”

The reason this kind of formulation is so dangerous in politics is that it not only fuels the fear-mongering of the oppressor that we’ve seen so much of from Republicans lately, it sets the stage for the authoritarianism (or even fascism) of the rescuer… a world view is set up to absolve everyone of any personal responsibility.

What could be more seductive than that? Palin offers absolution. Trump offers absolution. Cruz offers absolution. And each will be an instrument of revenge. You’ll love it.

Maybe this sort of thing cannot be stopped. Standing athwart history and yelling STOP never does work.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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