Sanctimony as a Conservative Principle

Reposted with permission from the Claremont Review of Books.

Michael Gerson

I admit to a bit of disappointment at the reaction to my two prior articles. I went into the agora with the hope of getting flayed by good arguments. Instead I got ankle-bitten on Twitter. What is it with conservatives and Twitter anyway? The enstupification of the movement long predates that platform, but it hasn’t helped. Conservatives who lament declining intellectual standards and lack of seriousness can’t peel themselves away from their iPhones to write anything longer than 140 characters. Even people who run their own magazines or write for prestige platforms just couldn’t be bothered.

Some might be tempted to rejoin that the silence of a wise man is evidence of his disapproval or judgment of the subject’s irrelevance. Except the heavy hitters of the movement were not silent. They just didn’t have anything to say.

Ross Douthat—who knows how to make a serious argument when he wants to—Tweeted that I am calling for tyranny. One suspects that he felt he had to say something, because silence might be interpreted as weakness (or worse, acceptance), and of course that something had to be negative, and this was the best he could do on the fly.

Here is his actual attempt to summarize my argument: “The republic died with Woodrow Wilson, so now we need a tyrant to refound it.” It is wrong in every respect, but cleverly wrong, in a way calculated to mislead and slander while broadcasting Douthat’s moral superiority. Not only is he against tyranny, he is courageous enough to call out those who are!

Now, I did not mention Wilson even once. However, as Douthat apparently knows (from a summer fellowship?), Wilson and the Progressives began the process of building the administrative state, which I did discuss at length. Note: “began.” Because I also did not say that the republic died with Wilson or even that it is dead now. I did say that I expect it to die if Hillary is elected in 2016.

My argument was simple. Every year the electorate becomes more Democratic, both in absolute numbers and in the Electoral College math. The Democrats understand this and their immigration policy is designed to accelerate the trend. The chance of defeating an incumbent Democrat in 2020 will be significantly smaller than that of winning in 2016, hence the Republicans’ next opportunity will be 2024—after eight more years of unfavorable (to them) demographic change, fueled by amnesty, no border enforcement, and refugee inflows stoked by deliberate Democratic and administrative state action (and inaction). The idea that an antediluvian conservative like Ted Cruz can win with that transformed electorate is preposterous. The only “Republican” who might have a shot would be one virtually indistinguishable from a Democrat. I forgot who said it (and Google failed me), but it’s indisputable that “Republicans need to change their position on immigration or change their positions on everything else.”

The deeper danger is that one-party rule will spell the final triumph of the administrative state—“final,” that is, for as long as that system could last. While it does last, there will still be elections, but they will determine only which Democrat or (every 24-36 years perhaps) RINO gets which office and rides in which limo. The fundamental direction and behavior of the government will not change. Except to become larger, bossier, more intrusive, expensive, and expansive, and less competent. Neither Douthat nor anyone else even attempted to refute this argument. Maybe they just lacked the space?

I would not call the above scenario “republicanism.” Perhaps Douthat would. But in my view, if it comes to pass, then yes, the republic will have died. It is my hope that this does not happen. For that, Douthat calls me an advocate for tyranny.

The identification of “tyrant” with “founder” originates with Machiavelli. It’s an intriguing argument with great explanatory power over much of history. But not the current circumstance. The question on the table today is not founding or re-founding. It is whether, through the supremely republican act of voting, we can reassert some semblance of control over our government and make it serve the interests of the whole people rather than the administrative state, the transnational managerial class, and foreigners. To assert that I have in any way called for tyranny is so off-the-charts wrong that one must call it dishonest.

Michael Gerson, by contrast, roused himself to write a whole column. Perhaps conservative thymos is not completely dead after all. The column is useful as a crystalized example of a certain strain of “conservatism,” which we might call “compassionate” or “bleeding heart” or “Kempist.” This strain remains important and influential, not merely in the person of the Speaker of the House, but also among the alumni of the last Republican administration—which it dominated—who hope to regain office someday, and among those think-tankers and columnists whom the mainstream media and the left hold out as “good” or “acceptable” conservatives, in contrast to the rest of us trogs. Gerson, with the authority that comes from experience as a high-level White House aide and a column of ten-year’s standing in the Washington Post, may well be this strain’s most important spokesman. It is tempting to call Gerson’s brain ground zero for “conservative” sanctimony, except that there’s nothing whatever conservative about any of his positions or arguments, and from what I can tell, there never has been. For Gerson, moral posturing trumps (heh) political philosophy every time. To the extent that he has the latter, it is distinguishable from managerial liberalism only by the layer of ostentatious pseudo-Christianity that he trowels on to show that all his sneers, smears, and straw-mannings arise from the purest motives.

It takes Gerson four paragraphs to arrive at any substance and his objection amounts to: things are not that bad, and even if they were, Trump cannot fix any of them. Gerson gives an accurate list of the ills that I laid out without making any attempt to affirm or deny whether he thinks things are as bad as I implied they are. I say “implied” here in order to be precise, which Gerson is not. The argument that Gerson cites was phrased as a conditional: if the things conservatives claim to believe are true, then mustn’t they admit not only that things are bad but also that they and their project have failed?

For the record, I actually do think things are pretty bad—outside of the tonier parts of the blue cities and suburbs. A 40 percent illegitimacy rate—which conservatives have been telling me to worry about for at least 20 years (National Review has called it “a disaster”)—seems very bad to me. Declining employment and spiking opium addiction in the heartland also seem worrisome. As do decades of wage stagnation. And so on.

Is Gerson worried about any of this? He doesn’t say either way, but we can assume he is because he offers a cure, something one typically doesn’t do for a body one does not consider sick. What’s his cure? Why, “civic renewal”—which Gerson falsely claims I reject—and “incremental policy changes.” To repeat for the record: to the extent that “civic renewal” is more than a slogan, I’m all for it. Let’s do it! But how? What I said—which Gerson ignores—is that conservatives have no credible plan for achieving civic renewal and, besides, have been in charge of selling and implementing their non-credible plan for a generation to little effect. The “civic” has not only not been “renewed” under conservative leadership; it has deteriorated. Conservatism has failed at the task it set for itself.

As for “incremental policy changes,” one must wonder if Gerson means that seriously. Conservatives haven’t been able to enact any of their incremental policy changes in years, certainly won’t be able to in a second Clinton Administration, and—if the scenario I laid out above comes to pass—never will again. But Gerson is nonetheless vehemently anti-Trump. On some subconscious level, does he believe that “incremental policy changes” just aren’t going to cut it? Is he thinking: what difference, at this point, does it make?

I guess I am just more optimistic than Gerson. Let me try to cheer him up. I actually see value in many of the “incremental policy changes” he and his friends in the so-called “reformicon” movement have cooked up. I’d like to see them implemented and believe they could help. But for that to happen, first we’ve got to do two things: elect Trump and enact the big, non-incremental policy changes—build that wall!—that are much more urgently needed than the incremental ones. Ironically, then, a bright future for the reformicon agenda requires the total rejection of reformicon political advice.

Gerson resorts to the rather lazy and commonplace strawman that I see Trump as a “savior.” No. What I said is that Trump offers us the opportunity to save ourselves. We the People still have to do the real work.

Gerson further accuses me of “a despairing contempt for our country.” As noted, I am worried, but the worry arises from love, not contempt. I don’t want to see the country die—or be “fundamentally transformed” any more than it already has. Gerson apparently has no problem with the latter, which is why he is not worried about the former. He declares himself “a traditionalist with a healthy respect for the achievements of modernity.” He defines modernity not in the philosophic-historical sense of a movement to reground political legitimacy in “the laws of nature of and of nature’s God” but in the liberalizing impulses of the recent past. The only praise Gerson can muster for the actual America is his horror at imagining himself “in the position of a woman, a gay person or a minority 50 years ago” and his thankfulness for how far we have progressed beyond that dark age. Leaving aside any possible tension between Gerson’s alleged Christianity and his announced affinity for the gay-left agenda, this is almost the textbook definition of modern liberalism. America was bad until 1964, when it began to redeem itself, not by ending injustice and securing natural rights equally, but by launching the ever-accelerating process of redefining justice in terms of how well it delivers preferential treatment for the favored and exacts retribution on their past oppressors. Gerson—like so many of his contemporary “conservative” brethren—accepts this interpretation wholesale and tries to appropriate it as a “conservative” achievement. But the liberals aren’t buying and never have, while the genuine conservatives—those few who can still think—are understandably skeptical.

I am reminded of an exchange between the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan and David Dinkins. When the former gave his famous “defining deviancy down” speech, the mayor was in the audience and became irate. Crime may have been lower in the past, Dinkins pouted, but life for blacks was still worse because they had to sit at the back of the bus. Of course, no New Yorker of any color ever had to sit at the back of any bus—unless all the seats up front were taken. But the larger point is: what is the necessary connection between the two? Couldn’t we have had freedom of seating without higher crime? I pose a similar question to Gerson, whose logic is the same. Couldn’t we have corrected the genuine injustices in place before the annus mirabilis 1964 without the crime wave, orgy, intellectual rot, governmental overreach, and societal decay that followed? Or is Gerson saying that would have been impossible and the only moral choice was to accept the bad with the good? Personally, I think we could have done better at implementing the good while preventing the bad but, as noted, I am more optimistic than he is.

On most things. Gerson can be touchingly Pollyanna-ish when he really puts his mind to it. Case in point:

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.

Aren’t those the lyrics to a Whitney Houston song? I know writing a column is a grind, but come on. Anyway, if we unpack those words a little, we see Gerson again acknowledging that things are not quite hunky dory. Why else would “renewal” be necessary? He does not say why he expects this renewal. He just does. Like all the conservative Hegelians, he implicitly accepts rational historicism: history has a direction, which is “forward.” The future will be better than the past and truly tragic outcomes are all behind us. All the #NeverTrump “conservatives” who denounced Francis Fukuyama back in 1990 and continued to use him as a punching bag for years after owe him an apology.

As for my alleged counsel of despair, I said precisely the opposite. I offered an exhortation to do something: vote for a man who promises to protect the interests of the lower, working and middle classes, and reassert control over our government so that republicanism may live.

Note also the reference to “ageless ideals”—something I also favor, if they are the right ideals properly interpreted—but no reference at all to the particular circumstances in which those ideals can flourish. Here, again, is “conservative” idealism in all its rootless abstraction. Trump and his voters have risen to defend the actual, physical America and its actual, physical people. This is anathema to the managerial class for which Gerson is a spokesman.

Hence his next move is to play the race card, the ground for which he prepares via his denunciation of “the nostalgia of conservative white men.” From his photo, Gerson looks like a white man and he calls himself a “conservative” (though I wouldn’t). He must then exempt himself from this charge by not being “nostalgic.” I admit to being a little nostalgic. My defense is that I prefer the good to the bad and America is in many respects worse today than it was in the past. It also appears to be in decline. I would like to see that reversed, and I believe it is possible to do so, by making the right political decisions through proper Constitutional means.

Gerson “wish[es] the critique could end here,” to intimate that the really scurrilous charges which follow are said more in sorrow than in anger. I don’t want to call Decius a racist, but he forced me to! The rest of that paragraph consists of quotes without context, explanation or attempts at refutation. Except one, which is not a quote at all. Gerson nonetheless puts the German word “volk”—which I did not use—in quotes to make the subtle point that my arguments are indistinguishable from Hitler’s. Christian charity in action.

Gerson points and sputters at my objection to foolish immigration policies that undercut wages, undermine cohesion, and spread violence. I would call it ironic that I wrote this response on a day during which there occurred three separate terror attacks, in three separate states. Except that in the annus horribilis 2016 such attacks are all too frequent. They don’t seem to bother Gerson much. If they do, he must think they are a necessary price we must pay for endlessly more “diversity.” He doesn’t say why all this diversity is good or why the inevitable downside is necessary. Apparently he considers those points self-evident. If you are a moral person like him, you don’t need to have them explained to you, and if you don’t understand or—worse!—reject them, you are ipso facto bad.

If this is “conservative” then it should be well beyond obvious that conservatism is dead. Not dead in the epistemological sense. Truth is true. Conservatism’s genuine insights will live on, no matter what shallow, false ideology appropriates its name. You can call gravity a force of repulsion rather than attraction, but naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret. But it’s dead as a currently constituted intellectual and political force—for certain. That Gerson claims to speak in conservatism’s name is proof enough. His whole oeuvre is nothing but Davoisie managerial liberalism: open borders, free trade, lift foreigners out of poverty (whatever happens to Americans is acceptable collateral damage) and democratize the world by force.

Conservatism as we have known it is over. The battle for its future has begun. I relish the coming debate. I hope to learn something. I expect to have my errors corrected, or at least be given things to think hard about, and to be dragged a little bit in the other side’s direction. This debate will not be free of acrimony (though I’ll do my best to be as polite as possible). Feelings are going to get hurt and passions will occasionally run high. For myself, I’ll try to be magnanimous in victory and honest in defeat.

Personally, to the extent that errant current-cons move in my direction, I’m eager to rejoin forces. But in the final analysis, there is going to be a line. Some will be on one side, some on the other. If we must use today’s terminology because tomorrow’s has not yet been invented, then people like Gerson are going to be on the “liberal” side—which, let’s face it, he already is. There can be no accommodation with him and his like. As fellow citizens, yes, but as political or intellectual compatriots, no.

For everyone else, it will be time to join the side you’re on.

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About Publius Decius Mus

Publius Decius Mus, or “Decius,” is the pen name of Michael Anton. He was a senior contributing editor of American Greatness from July 2016 until January 2017. He currently serves as deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications on the National Security Council.