Debate, Politics, and NeverTrump

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 February 27, 2018|
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CPAC 2018 has come and gone, and with it, NeverTrump has met its Waterloo.

Whereas in 2017, there were still those willing to indulge the urge to keep a rhetorical distance from President Trump, or otherwise to downplay his significance to the resurgent Right in America, now almost nothing of the kind survives. Instead, the conference featured moments of nigh-explicit surrender by previously anti-Trump conservatives.

Ben Shapiro, for example, had to admit sheepishly that he didn’t see Trump’s commitment to conservative governance coming, and then had to launch into a detailed genealogy of how political correctness’ overreaches had spurred its own messy death, implicitly at Trump’s hands. Mark Levin, meanwhile, went from barking at Trump to “cut the crap” to sternly instructing the CPAC audience that it was “our obligation to defend [Trump] and defend this office.”

As it turned out, Shapiro and Levin’s prudence in beating a path to praising Trump would self-demonstrate before too long. For when one less astute, still sincere NeverTrumper—former Jack Kemp speechwriter Mona Charen—tried to spout feminist anti-Trump rhetoric (ironically, in response to a panel question on feminist hypocrisy!), the CPAC audience booed her into silence and Charen had to be escorted out by security. Charen, ever vigilant to defend herself against charges of closet liberalism, then ran to that unquestioned redoubt of right-wing thought known as the New York Times to express her displeasure. To give Charen her due, I’m sure the 93 percent of CPAC attendees who approved of the job President Trump is doing must have found that convincing.

I mention all of this not just because gloating is fun (though believe me, it is), but as prologue. NeverTrump seems to know they are beaten, and have retreated to (mostly) lamenting the death of all that is good and decent on the Right, rather than pretending that such supposedly good and decent qualities can be resurrected by the return of House Romney to the throne of Westeros…er, I mean the United States Senate. My friend, the always-entertaining anti-Trump writer Kevin Williamson, seems to have penned the ultimate encapsulation of NeverTrump’s dominant sentiment, writing “If conservative ideas cannot prevail in the marketplace of ideas without lies, they do not deserve to prevail at all.” Or at least, so says Jonah Goldberg, who writes of this sentence: “I love [it] so much, I want to take it home after the prom and get it pregnant.” Nor is this sentiment confined to National Review. Ben Shapiro himself said something similar in his CPAC 2018 address, imploring his audience not to lie, because that would make snowflakes look like the defenders of truth.

Now I’m certainly not a fan of deceit for its own sake: there is undoubtedly real danger to its application, even at the best of times. However, that being said, I suspect that most Trump people find the sentiment above incredibly naïve and dangerous. I certainly do. We should give up on defending right-leaning ideas if we need what Williamson and Goldberg, in their self-righteousness, label “deceit” to sell them? Really? What politician in history, if he has not lied himself, has not at least permitted lies or truth fudging in order to move public sentiment? What leader in history has not employed or permitted disinformation to demoralize or confuse his or her enemies, both foreign and domestic? Did not Plato talk about the idea of noble lies that enable a society to function despite their vulnerability to overly critical scrutiny? The Left lies about their policies all the time: surely, we can’t be expected to let their lies prevail, if the result of left-wing policies are as awful as we right-wingers consistently and correctly point out?

All these thoughts crossed my mind as I read the above pieces, along with a disturbing question: Does NeverTrump realize that they’re talking about politics?

And that’s when it hit me. They aren’t. Or at least, they don’t want to. The more I think about it, the more the entire difference between NeverTrump and my peers in the #MAGA movement seems to boil down to a very simple contrast: NeverTrump is doing debate. #MAGA is doing politics.

What do I mean? Well, ironically, I can illustrate it best with my own experience with two very different formats of high school and college debate.

In high school, I was a member of an organization known as the Junior State of America (JSA). The point of this program is to teach young people about the broad outlines of major issues facing America, as well as basic civics, such as the legislative process and systems like Robert’s Rules of Order. A typical JSA debate, at least when I was on the circuit, worked as follows: two speakers would be selected to give initial and closing arguments on some hot button resolution, such as Resolved: Require Parental Consent for Abortions. These students would have five minutes each at the start of the debate to present their arguments, and about three at the end.

Between their opening and closing statements, speakers would be selected from the audience to go up and speak for one side or the other, with each speaker getting three minutes to speak. When the debate was concluded, the audience would vote for which side they agreed with, and would also vote to recognize the person who they thought gave the single best speech of the debate, irrespective of side. JSA alumni include the likes of former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, former Attorney General Ed Meese, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), and even New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady.

In college, on the other hand, I joined an organization known as the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA)—a group of which, coincidentally, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is also an alumnus. In APDA, teams of two students would deliver speeches in succession on a topic chosen by the team designated the “government” team, with a single judge (or a small panel of 3-7 in qualifying rounds) deciding scores for individual speakers, and ultimately deciding the winning team, as well. APDA alumni include the aforementioned Senator Cruz, as well as Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), former Solicitor General Paul Clement, former Council of Economic Advisers member Austan Goolsbee, and even the inveterate NeverTrump columnist David Frum (another friend), not to mention a vast swathe of the legal profession. Two people I came to know while I was on the APDA circuit, in fact, ended up clerking for Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas.

The reader can probably see how stark is the difference between the two formats. The JSA format is fundamentally democratic: an audience of self-selected viewers picks the winning side of issues, and issues awards to speakers. The APDA format, meanwhile, is fundamentally technocratic: a pre-selected judge or group of judges acts as the arbiter of victory and rhetorical success. As you may expect given this, JSA debates are raucous rhetorical bloodsports, whereas APDA debates have a greater resemblance to arguments in a courtroom, or something you might see on think tank panels.

Moreover, speaking from experience, being good at JSA debates made one worse at APDA debates. Why? Because judges in APDA debates were highly sensitive to rhetorical excess, and would sometimes refuse to award victory to a team that had won a debate on the merits because they were too cruel in doing so. However, in JSA, audiences would shriek approval for speakers who not merely defeated their opponents logically, but humiliated them personally. This was clearly a result of the fact that in one case, those judging the debate saw themselves as unilateral guardians of norms of discourse who had to police the speakers, whereas in the other, they felt like voters being courted by a succession of their peers, and so placed a premium on identifying with speakers. In short, APDA was debate, and nothing but debate. JSA looked like debate, but was actually purely political speech.

Which brings me back to #NeverTrump and, in many ways, Trump himself. I’ll be blunt: Trump would be a disaster on the APDA circuit. He would most likely score near the bottom of the acceptable range for speakers, because he does not enunciate methodical and logical intellectual cases for his positions, and compensates for this with “truthful hyperbole” and insult comedy that would be deemed abusive, out of place, and unsportsmanlike. He would likely be banned from participating in APDA conferences after a very short time.

But in JSA? Trump would be a virtuoso. He would almost certainly win every debate he touched. He would stir audiences into a frenzy with his combination of memorable lines, forceful personality, and ability to improvise, not to mention his many other talents at persuasion, documented ably by Scott Adams.

And therein lies the problem: NeverTrump, particularly the species of NeverTrumper that idolizes former college debate star William F. Buckley, Jr., is treating the marketplace of ideas as if it’s some sort of highly regulated, centrally planned affair: as if the worth of ideas is decided by a technocratic, virtuous few, appointed to police not merely the worth of an idea, but the ethics of the rhetoric supporting it, and the truthfulness of its supporters. Of course, Buckley himself started his literary career by triggering his university in print, and perfected his distinctive facial expressions as debaters’ tricks to distract the audience, and so even here they militate against their own inspiration, but let that pass. Those of us in the #MAGA movement, on the other hand, understand that the marketplace of ideas is an unfettered market that relies on mass consumption by a large and willing audience: a wild Laissez Faire jungle, where a Darwinian approach to advertising, salesmanship, and the usage of all persuasive tools is necessary to survive.

Does this mean that there is no place for the pure debaters of the world? Of course not: Trump himself has hundreds of appellate court vacancies to fill, for one thing, and there will always be a need for such people in the rarefied realms of policymaking, law, and economics, where the high cognitive and knowledge-based barriers to entry prevent an unconstrained democratic approach like that found in JSA debates. Not all questions are resolved only by the person that can get an audience to cheer, clap, or blow air horns the loudest.

But almost all political questions are. Which is why NeverTrump’s adherence to the “debate club conservative” attitude will always doom their advocacy of their preferred policies and ideals to a secondary position within the art of politics. And it is why those of us inclined to throw in our lot with Trump have given them a leader who is willing to ruthlessly implement and advocate those policies in a way that the Mona Charens and Jonah Goldbergs of the world might not be able to stomach but is the only way the country will ever digest it.

About the Author:

Mytheos Holt
Mytheos Holt is a senior fellow at the Institute for Liberty. He has held positions at the R Street Institute, Mair Strategies, TheBlaze, and National Review. He also worked as a speechwriter for U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, and reviews video games at Gamesided. He hails originally from Big Sur, California, but currently lives in Arlington, Virginia. Yes, Mytheos is his real name.