THE GOLDBERG FILE, By Jonah Goldberg
Dear Reader (Including those of you in D.C. who may try to burn this “news” letter in a desperate attempt to stay alive during the snowstorm),
Well, here we go.
National Review’s “Against Trump” editorial and symposium came out last night, and the fecal matter hit the rotor blades.
That’s a bad turn of phrase since we’re neither sh** nor fan. We’re more like a lighthouse amidst the crap-storm, or, at least, we try to be.
This seems lost on a lot of people these days. I keep hearing from folks who seem to think that if Donald Trump is popular or the front-runner, then National Review — and yours truly — must bow to the popular will. Get with the program, they say. See the writing on the wall. Get out in front of this.
Instead, we went a different way, and the brickbats are flying in. We’ve disgraced ourselves, they insist. We’ve gone and read ourselves out of the conservative movement. Betrayed William F. Buckley.
And that’s the calm and reasonable stuff. If, say, you offered some of the tantrums I’ve received in person instead of via e-mail and Twitter, the only reasonable response would be to call for the orderlies and ask how you slipped out of your restraints.
So before we get into it, let me just say up front that rather than this being a low point or an epic fail or a betrayal, this is, in fact, one of National Review’s finest moments. If it costs us subscribers, or readers, or advertisers (all of which I doubt), so be it. What is it the Marines say? “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Well, such losses to National Review would be like dross being skimmed off freshly forged steel.
The Many Rooms in the Mansion of Wrong
I should be clear: I don’t think everyone who supports Donald Trump is dross. Some are even friends of mine. But I do think they, collectively, are wrong. But they are wrong for different reasons. Indeed, there’s a remarkable diversity of wrongness out there.
Some people believe there are no gradations of wrong; that wrong is an absolute state. Not so. There are whole hierarchies of wrong. If you think 2+2 is 5, you’re a little wrong. If you think 2+2 is a 100-foot lizard destroying downtown Tokyo, you’re very wrong.
Similarly, there are errors based on different kinds of thinking. Many of the people lambasting National Review are arguing ad populum. The people — here defined as a plurality of GOP poll respondents or talk-radio listeners — are for Trump, therefore, Trump is not only the right candidate, but he must be a conservative, too.
As I mentioned above, my favorite form of this fallacious argument is thatNational Review — or me personally — is required (required!) to support the GOP frontrunner. When Donald Trump signed that pledge to support the GOP nominee a few months ago, scads of people asked whether I would do likewise. Can they really not see the category error here? My job — our job — is to write and say the truth as I see it. That’s it. Of course, we can be wrong. It’s happened plenty of times. But to think we should be wrong on purpose is to confuse National Review for a press release or a bit of direct mail marketing.
But the real irony of this “support the front-runner” nonsense is that it runs completely counter to the usual gripe we get — that we’re too supportive of the GOP. Which is it? Are we “GOPe” hacks carrying water for the party? Or are we fools and traitors for not backing the party front-runner just because he’s the front-runner? Trump is a hero “because he fights.” We are knaves and traitors because we fight back.
I have another question: Now that the establishment is rallying to Trump, can I be anti-establishment again if I stay critical of Trump? That’d be nice.
The point here is that “anti-establishment” is not a synonym for “conservative,” as I wrote the other day in the Corner. One of the reasons I can’t stand the use and abuse of the term “establishment” is that it’s like a three-legged pack mule carrying the load for an entire wagon train of assumptions.
“Anti-establishment” is almost entirely devoid of any ideological content whatsoever. An ideological category that can include Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Occupy Wall Street, the tea parties, Ted Cruz, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, and Ben Carson is not a particularly meaningful one.
Some reply, oh no, it shows that the people are angry! I hear this all the time. And I agree. And I’m angry too. But you know what? Being angry is not a frick’n argument. I’m angry that Washington has drowned the country in debt. I’m angry that Obama has been a failure. I’m also angry that broccoli doesn’t taste like chicken and that Fox canceled Firefly. Being angry is probably a necessary condition for fixing a lot of problems, but it isn’t sufficient to the task. And it isn’t a particularly powerful defense of Donald Trump.
Establishmentarians to the Left of Me, Establishmentarians to the Right of Me
I listened to Chuck Todd and John Heileman on “Morning Joe” earlier. They were saying National Review damaged Ted Cruz with our “Against Trump” issue because it muddied Cruz’s argument that the establishment was rallying to Trump against Cruz. National Review undermined that argument, they explained. If that’s true, as a political matter, that’s a shame. As an intellectual matter, that’s bat-guano crazy.
There are, in fact, many establishments. One of them — the one Sarah Palin and many others claim is the most pernicious — is rallying to Donald Trump. The GOP-consultant and K-Street crowd is coming around to him, just like the crony-capitalist ethanol lobby in Iowa is coming around.
Robert Costa’s piece in the Washington Post is almost heartbreaking in this regard. Tim Pawlenty, for instance, has made peace with the wind blowing from Fifth Avenue. “The light bulb has gone on for a lot of people, and it wasn’t on a couple of months ago,” Pawlenty explained.
“Even though he’s a billionaire from New York, he sounds and looks like somebody you’d meet in the heartland who’s ticked off about the economy and government, and he projects the strength that he’d actually do something about it,” Pawlenty told the Post. “He doesn’t look and sound like all the other politicians who yap and yap and don’t get anything done.”
And here’s Alex Castellanos:
“With Trump, hey, it’s just a deal,” said Alex Castellanos, a longtime Republican strategist. “The primary’s one deal that’s done. If he were to be the nominee, the next deal’s a general [election]. You can see him saying, ‘We had to do what we had to do to win the primary, but now’s the general, and we’ve got to beat Hillary.’ You can see him pivot on a dime.
“But with Cruz, oof, you’re looking at a Republican Party that wouldn’t win the vote of a young person, a young woman or a minority for a generation,” Castellanos said.
And here’s this from Jonathan Martin’s New York Times article:
If Mr. Cruz were the party’s nominee, said Charles R. Black Jr., a lobbyist who has worked on numerous Republican presidential campaigns, “what would happen is a lot of the elected leaders and party elders would try to sit down and try to help Cruz run a better campaign, but he may not listen. Trump is another matter.”
“You can coach Donald,” Mr. Black said. “If he got nominated, he’d be scared to death. That’s the point he would call people in the party and say, ‘I just want to talk to you.’”
And finally, also from Martin’s piece:
“We can live with Trump,” said Richard F. Hohlt, a veteran lobbyist, reflecting his colleagues’ sentiment at a Republican National Committee meeting last week in Charleston, S.C. “Do they all love Trump? No. But there’s a feeling that he is not going to layer over the party or install his own person. Whereas Cruz will have his own people there.”
Now, I like some of these people. But if you take a step back and look, that there is some hardcore, balls-to-the-wall, unalloyed, 100 percent pure, go-with-the-flow, keep-your-options-open, establishment-weather-vane thinking. They’re like K-Street Neville Chamberlains standing in the door of the Prime Rib, proclaiming that Donald Trump is a man we can deal with. Or the City Watch in King’s Landing turning on Ned Stark.
What was it Thomas More said? “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . but to have your calls returned at the Department of Commerce?”
What National Review Is Not
The idea that National Review should be lumped in with that establishment is the kind of insight one can only discover after successfully inserting your entire cranium past your sphincter. The K-Street/consultant-class Republican establishment is conservative, but their conservatism is secondary to their need to make deals, maintain access and, to be fair, win elections.
That last bit is important. The Republican party is in the election-winning business first and foremost. And that’s largely as it should be. That’s partly why former National Review publisher, the late, great Bill Rusher always used to tell the new hires at NR to be on guard: “Politicians will always disappoint you.”
The reason politicians will disappoint principled conservatives — and, for that matter, principled liberals and libertarians — is that there is always an inherent tradeoff between the purity of principle and the necessities of electoral politics and the limitations of what can be done via government action. National Review has always recognized this tension, which is immortalized in the rule of thumb that we should support “the most conservative candidate electable.”
Every conservative is supposed to believe that incentives matter. The incentives for the K-street/consultant establishment is to keep their influence and their access. The incentives for the ink-and-pixel-stained wretches who run NR are different. I’m open to the complaint that our self-interest has driven us to become too invested in an ideology that too few voters subscribe to. But if that’s the case, the remedy isn’t to abandon all principle and just join the mob. I’d rather go down with my ship, thank you very much.
In the Matter of Cruz vs. Trump
The establishment even wheeled out poor Bob Dole like he was Deng Xiaoping pulled from obscurity in order to clarify doctrine for the beltway apparatchiks. “I question his allegiance to the party,” Dole said of Ted Cruz.
Where are the hidden cameras? We’re being punked, right?
Look, I like Bob Dole, too. He’s a great American, who served his country nobly and with great sacrifice.
And it’s not that I think Ted Cruz is particularly loyal to the Republican party. I mean nobody thinks that. His penchant for monkey-wrench-hurling and cable TV grandstanding makes him something like a right-wing Arlen Specter.
It should be said that Dole’s loyalty to the conservative movement always took a distant backseat to his loyalty to the GOP. This is the guy who told conservatives, “I’ll be anything you want me to be; I’ll be Ronald Reagan if that’s what you want.”
Regardless, in the binary context of Ted Cruz versus Donald Trump, Cruz is a veritable John C. Fremont. I know, I know, we’re not supposed to question Donald Trump’s ideological and partisan bona fides anymore. The fact that he gave so much money to Democrats — and said so many liberal things — stems from the fact that he was a businessman who had to work a corrupt system. We’re also, by the way, supposed to forgive the fact that he was part of that corrupt system, excelled in that corrupt system, and makes no apologies for being a product of that corrupt system. The argument often goes something like this:
Trump Booster: “He made his living saying whatever he had to say and paying whomever he had to pay in order to get what he wanted. That’s just good business!”
Me: “So why do you think that, at age 69, he’s completely changed his ways? Isn’t it more reasonable to assume he’s still saying whatever he has to say to get what he wants?”
Trump Booster: [Long pause] “Oh, so you want Jeb.”
Look, I’ve never liked the reckless and indiscriminate way Ted Cruz — and his boosters — talked about the “Washington cartel” and the establishment. But, again, let’s define our terms. If you define the establishment as congressional leadership — specifically Mitch McConnell — then Cruz is objectively an anti-establishment guy. He’s been peeing in Mitch McConnell’s cornflakes for four years. I have my disagreements with McConnell, but I think he often gets an unfair rap from his critics. But that’s not the point.
The congressional establishment, which is very close — but not the same as — the K-Street/consultant establishment prefers Trump because with Trump everything is negotiable (and because so many of them hate Ted Cruz personally). As Dole put it, Trump can “probably work with Congress, because he’s, you know, he’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.”
Maybe. But who, exactly, would he deal with? We know that when he wants to build a casino or plump up the guest list at his wedding, he has no problem “dealing” with Democrats. Working with Congress in this context taps into the assumption that getting bad things done is better than getting nothing done. It’s like those infuriating scorecards showing that Congress hasn’t been “productive” simply because it hasn’t passed scads of new laws and regulations. (David Boaz is great at dismantling this beltway canard.)
I’m not saying Congress doesn’t need to get things done. We have more problems in this country than Bill Clinton has penicillin prescriptions. But is there anything in Trump’s persona or record that suggests he would feel bound to work with conservatives in Congress — or with Congress at all — if he didn’t get his way? His whole schtick is he will do whatever it takes to get things done. The Constitution almost never enters the picture, and when it does, it’s always something tiny compared to Trump’s bigness.
I think irrational hostility to Ted Cruz is blinding people to all manner of things, but particularly how the system works. If Cruz were elected president, one thing we can be reasonably certain of is that he will want to be reelected. In order to be reelected, he will need to appear to have fulfilled at least some of his campaign promises. He will also need to be a better steward of constitutional norms than his predecessor, given that constitutionalism is his thing.
Those two facts alone pretty much guarantee he will have to work with Congress, and not just Congress, but Republicans in Congress. Why? Because presidents have to work with Congress if they want to get their agenda implemented. That was true of Obama in his first term. In his second term, Obama tried to go the other way and has had some (infuriating and unconstitutional) success. But that other way really isn’t an option for Cruz. It almost certainly is an option for Donald Trump.
Ted Cruz isn’t my first choice, mostly because I think he will have problems getting elected (though claims he’s unelectable go too far). I’d rather Rubio or Christie. In a two-man race of Cruz vs. Trump, however, it’s no contest. The whole point of trying to elect the most conservative candidate possible is premised on the idea that one is choosing among conservatives in the first place. Going by record and evidence, in that two-candidate sample, there’s only one conservative to pick.