On Thursday night, National Review launched a broadside on Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, urging voters to shun him, and the editors solicited editorials from 22 prominent conservative personalities doing the same. The editorials range from well-reasoned critiques to unhinged attacks, culminating in this final take from the editors: “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.” Sadly, these editorials are little more than a shout into the anti-Trump echo chamber rather than being a compelling argument to current Trump supporters that they should support someone else. All this does is allow members of a pundit class which too often criticizes rather than offer solutions (criticizing is far easier) to feel comfortable that at least they “warned the base” while staring aghast at the popular will of voters (at least according to current public polling).
For years, conservatives have rightly lambasted liberal media bias because straight news should be delivered without opinion and opinion pieces should be fair and rooted in reality (ie just because a piece is “opinion” does not make the use of misleading statistics to validate a point justified). However, we must apply the same scrutiny to biases we agree with as with bias we disagree with it. On this account, hypocrisy (on both sides) run rampant because it is easier to forgive the missteps of kindred souls. Sadly, personal dislike towards the subject can lower the quality of discourse, and on this count, it does feel like authors of this “National Review Symposium” are suffering a bit from Trump Derangement Syndrome, letting personal animus bleed into their writings, causing them to overstate their case and the danger Trump poses.
I am no Trump supporter and am extremely unlikely to vote for him in a primary (though at this stage, I would support him in a general election vs. Hillary Clinton), but I still feel like we should be fair to him. It is increasingly difficult to find such analysis; there is merely hate and love, few rational pieces. My main sticking point with Trump is his “Muslim ban,” which to me manages to be impractical, irrational, and immoral, but one can feel that way while agreeing with him that politicians are beholden to the donor class. changed his mind. Any voter is free to find these answers unsatisfactory and choose someone else; however, I question the sweeping argument that those “new” to conservatism are unfit to lead it. With the standard caveat that Trump is no Ronald Reagan, the fact is Reagan was an FDR-supporting, New Deal Democrat who left the party in 1962 and ran as a conservative for California Governor in 1966. Based on the arguments in the symposium, it seems the writers would have opposed Reagan in 1966, questioning his sincerity. In fact, I hope they would have; otherwise, they would be holding Trump to a different standard, which is unfair. As Reagan showed though, sometimes betting on a new face can work very well.
Voting for Trump is definitely a wager, given his flip-flops, but he is not alone on this account. Rubio and Cruz are first-term Senators (like Obama) with no major accomplishments in the Senate—voting for them is clearly a gamble. Jeb Bush hasn’t held office for a decade and is comically inept at making an argument. An effective user of the bully pulpit he would not be. Christie’s second term has left much to be desired. In my estimation, Kasich has the strongest record, though some will question his Medicaid expansion (full disclosure: I have donated to the Kasich campaign). Candidates are human beings; they will be flawed. Voters must decide what assets they seek and what flaws are acceptable. It is easy to oppose candidates by focusing on the flaws, which is what National Review did on Trump. Did the writers have the willingness to stand together and support someone else? Of course not. That’d be hard.
Much of the attack on Trump continues to center around his populism, which just boggles the mind. If a candidate isn’t focused on improving the lives of working people and middle class, why are they running? Rather than attack Trump personally, which will merely cause his supporters to tune out, we should embrace his populist focus but argue that different solutions will help Americans more. For instance, a bigger EITC and more progressive code would be a more effective tax plan than Trump’s. On this front, the symposium comes up woefully short. Trump plans are attacked but alternative are not offered. What’s the point of this? Even if Trump’s plans stink, what’s to say others have better plans? After all, Cruz’s European VAT plan is seemingly designed to hurt workers to the benefit of corporations and their owners (read: donors). All we hear from most candidates is a rehash of 1980 economic policy as though the problems have not changed since then. Trump is one of the few to be intellectually honest enough to suggest we try some different policies.
In particular, they signal out Trump’s trade rhetoric, and while not all of his China claims are backed by fact, toughness with China and the threat of some trade restrictions are not inherently anti-conservative. Chinese companies steal our intellectual property, often don’t pay what they owe American companies, get state sponsorship, and the government hacks into our companies to steal trade secrets. While we focus on the currency that is the least egregious thing China does. Should we ignore these actions, which have hurt American workers, in the name of free trade? That seems asinine. Ultimately, the President’s job is to better the country. Heck, even Reagan expanded farm subsidies for exports to the Soviet Union to help U.S. farmers. The rise of China has greatly lowered U.S. inflation, thereby increasing growth indirectly by boosting our purchasing power, but it has not driven much growth directly. Unless, the other country plays fair, free trade for the sake of it isn’t wise or good for the public. That does not mean a 45% tariff is the right policy response, just that mindlessly supporting free trade is neither conservative nor good policy.
Absolute rigidity is a sign of intellectual smallness not of adherence to principles. Opposing the bank bailouts of 2008 (which turned a profit, mind you) is not conservative; they saved this country from Depression. They are one of the few economic policies for which George Bush deserves praise. To criticize Trump for supporting them is laughable. Maybe letting the financial system implode is theoretically conservative, but how is ruining the lives of 100 million people the right thing to do? Again, it is easy to shout from the bleachers when you don’t have to solve the mess transpiring on the field.
Trump is the only leading candidate who consistently speaks to the needs of the middle and working class, demographics the GOP desperately needs to do better with, and there is a greater battle in conservativism here. While Trump is out of the orthodoxy on many issues, many “conservative” intellectuals and politicians have abandoned conservative’s populist roots over the past 15 years, focusing too much on top marginal tax rates, defending things like the carried interest loophole, and emphasizing the elimination of the estate tax. Fundamentally, conservatism is rooted in an optimism of the capacity of ordinary people, which is why we prefer to leave them with power rather than hoard the power among a band of so-called experts within government. In some circles, this optimism in the public has morphed into a simple disdain for government and emphasis on total adherence to principles.
There is a greater war within conservatism between the doctrinaire elites (think George Will) and the pragmatic populists (think Bill O’Reilly), and this National Review-Trump feud is just the latest battle. Trump is an imperfect vessel for his side but the sneering of NRO won’t sway anyone, just entrench both sides further. Being a doctrinaire is easy when on the sidelines critiquing those in the arena, but the fact remains that at the federal level, establishment conservatives and liberals have failed for 15 years to help the middle class. America does its best when pragmatic populists like Reagan lead it, and we should hope this side wins the war for conservatism.
At least Trump is emphasizing the needs of workers. That’s more than most candidates can say. Let’s embrace his focus, prove to those making under $50,000 that conservatives actually care about them (which we have failed to do), and offer different, compelling solutions. What the National Review did surely helped to stroke egos, but it didn’t boost the discourse. It’s high time we realize conservatism’s failures post-Reagan have created Trump. He’s a reminder we’ve lost our way. Directing our ire at him is a waste of time, direct it at the leaders (ie George W Bush), pundits (George Will), and rent-seeking donors whose intellectual rigidity and outdated policies have failed.
Median wages are lower than 15 years ago. Unlike Trump, that is actually something to be embarrassed about and have an emergency symposium on.
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