Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Lincoln Lincoln I've Been Thinkin


Southern Punch 1863, via Sher Watts Spooner/Daily Kos, 2016.

Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, asks ("The Revolt of the Republican Strategists") a kind of interesting question about the Lincoln Project Republicans, former party functionaries who have abandoned the GOP over Trump, and the new book from another one, Romney strategist Stuart Stevens, It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, who takes it full Driftglass, as you might say, acknowledging Trump as symptom, not cause, of the terrible thing that has happened to the GOP, and that it started happening quite a while back. In the first place, whether the movement wants to move into the Democrats or remain Republican—what does it have in mind? And then why, if the Republicans are so depraved, were they ever Republicans anyhow? What was the Republican thing that held them, until Trump wrecked it, or wrecked their perception that it had ever existed?

But Stevens is so determined to emphasize his party’s total depravity that his only answer to the hard question of why Republicans swung from Romney’s technocratic decency to Trump’s know-nothing flamboyance is that Trumpism was the beating heart of conservatism all along....

There is another way of reading this history, though, that’s suggested by a passage where Stevens is emphasizing the fundamental emptiness of G.O.P. rhetoric on deficits and taxes. “But still the Republican Party continues to push tax cuts the same way the Roman Catholic Church uses incense for High Mass,” he writes, “as a comforting symbolism for believers that reminds them of their identity.” And then, pushing the analogy further: “Being against ‘out-of-control federal spending,’ a phrase I must have used in a hundred ads, is a catechism of the Republican faith. But no one really believes in it any more than communicants believe they are actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ.”

Except that in point of fact, many communicants at a Catholic Mass do believe that they are actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ. And this is particularly true among the conservative Catholics whose votes were essential to the Republican politicians Stuart Stevens tried to get elected president.

I guess Stevens just doesn't understand that conservative conservatives, as opposed to this cynical breed of party operatives, truly believe in the sacramental character of tax cuts and the Real Presence of out-of-control spending. These hypocritical strategists mistake the depth of faith in the party faithful and suppose that just because massive federal tax cuts and control over federal spending sound as if they contradict each other only the foolish would demand them both, simultaneously. The sacrosanct certainty of our fathers from Reagan through Bush to Trump that cutting taxes will reduce the federal deficit is why we're all worshiping together, isn't it?

Because what Ross is getting at here is something I've often thought of, the possibility that the conservative leadership doesn't really care about certain principles but rather uses them to further its own ends—to recruit the voters it needs to attain a majority and carry out its plans, whatever those may be. And he's not really thinking about tax cuts and deficits either, but the "social" or "moral" issues faced by our simple yeoman population: the endless and possibly futile struggle against abortion, same-sex love, transgenderism, gun control, and racial equality.

It suggests, instead, that at some level Stevens and his fellow Republican strategists regarded their own voters in exactly the way certain populist conservatives always claimed the Republican establishment regarded its supporters — as useful foot soldiers, provincials to be mobilized with culture-war appeals, religious weirdos who required certain rhetorical nods so that the grown-ups could get on with the more important work of governing.

In which case the original sin of the strategist class wasn’t moral compromise or racial blindness but simple condescension: a belief that they didn’t need to take their own constituents seriously, that they could campaign on social issues and protecting the homeland and govern on foreign wars and Social Security reform and that it would all hang together.

And what the cynical operatives really wanted, the "important work of governing", as opposed to the freaks and fancies of the footsoldiers, was foreign wars and Social Security reform? Ross was at Harvard when the Iraq War was gearing up, and he may really not understand that Bannonite isolationism goes back to the 1920s as an elite Republican conviction even older than the battle against the New Deal jewel of Social Security, and our moral yeomen have always loved a rousing "neoconservative" war, from Vietnam through Iraq, and hated the hippies who opposed it, until the moment they belatedly realized it was a failure (when they naturally hated the hippies even more).

“What does a center-right party in America stand for?” Stevens asks, in the closest thing to an ideological statement his book contains. “Once this was easy to answer: fiscal sanity, free trade, being strong on Russia, personal responsibility, the Constitution.”

In fact, this list neither distills the issues that conservative voters cared most about before 2016 nor accurately describes the major challenges facing the United States when Stevens was trying to get Mitt Romney elected president. All it distills is a cloistered center-right elite consensus, hawkish and globalist and fatally naïve, whose failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and China and domestic political economy mattered at least as much to the rise of Trump as the crankish or bigoted aspects of conservatism that Stevens spends his book decrying.

When Stevens was trying to get Mitt Romney elected in 2012, Douthat thought the major challenge facing the US was declining fertility rates, along with "our unsustainable deficits and our fraying social fabric, our decadent culture and our uncompetitive economy", which sounds a lot to me like it might include the conservative slogans of "fiscal sanity" and "personal responsibility". "Being strong on Russia" (Romney's beef with Obama) doesn't really equal "hawkish", though I suppose "free trade" might equal "globalist"—but that equation owes a lot to Ross's discovery that he opposed free trade (sometime between 2008, when he was decrying Romney's call for a kind of "industrial policy" as "liberal fascism," and 2009, when he was associated with Reihan Salam in calling for one himself, or rather "not to craft a soup-to-nuts industrial policy. Rather, reform conservatives recognize that in the age of de-verticalization, we need policies that make front-line workers more productive and competitive and that don't just enrich managers and shareholders"). 

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that the flowers in the garden of "issues" that have made up the Republican intra-party debate are pretty fungible, for all the talk about defining the "real" conservatism, and deployed in the quest for a majority to support their minority plutocratic faction, support in particular from that "white working class" that made up Nixon's "silent majority" and Atwater's "Reagan Democrats" which has moved in Douthat's own approach from the sex terror of his early career to the globalism terror he's more focused on now.

Which is to say once again that all they really want is, as members of a ruling class, to be protected but not bound by the law, and for those other people to be bound but not protected, but they need votes from those other people, and the debate is, and probably has always been over what kind of bribe will be the most effective.

Drawing by Anne Villeneuve from Dear Donald Trump (2018), via Philip Nel.

Also when Stuart Stevens was trying to get Mitt Romney elected, as it happens, he produced the famous ad (h/t Ellis Weiner for spreading this to where I heard about it) showing Barack Obama saying, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose," decontextualized so you couldn't tell it was video from 2008 of Obama quoting John McCain:

"... my opponent's campaign announced earlier this month that they want to ‘turn the page’ on the discussion about our economy so they can spend the final weeks of this election attacking me instead," Obama said in the speech. "Sen. McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.’"

Asked by NPR's Fresh Air in a book promo interview to comment on that, Stevens said,

You know, when you look at that ad - and I haven't looked at it in a while, you know, it's not - ads are - they're art, you know? I mean, it's like looking at, like, "Nude Descending A Staircase" and saying, where's the nude? You're putting together impressions here. And it's not a documentary. It's an ad. And, look; in that campaign - and I'm not bitter about this at all. They attacked Mitt Romney and basically accused him of murdering people because of, like, something that happened at a company.

So I'm not going to be reading his book in any event, because the the author of It Was All a Lie seems to have remained as dishonest as his old boss, now the senator from Utah, a liar so profuse and proficient that nothing like it had ever been seen in American politics.

Quite simply, the United States has never been witness to a presidential candidate, in modern American history, who lies as frequently, as flagrantly and as brazenly as Mitt Romney....

President Obama never went around the world and apologized for America – and yet, even after multiple news organizations have pointed out this is a "pants on fire" lie, Romney keeps making it....

According to Romney, "that stimulus didn't put more private-sector people to work." While one can quibble over whether the stimulus went far enough, the idea that it didn't create private-sector jobs has no relationship to reality...

Romney has accused Obama of raising taxes – in reality, they've gone down under his presidency, and largely because of that stimulus bill that Romney loves to criticize. He's accused the president of doubling the deficit. In fact, it's actually gone down...

Then, there is the recent Romney nugget that the Obama administration passed Obamacare with the full knowledge that it "would slow down the economic recovery in this country" and that the White House "knew that before they passed it"....

Also of Obamacare, Romney has said that it will lead to the government taking over 50% of the economy (not true) ....

When a reporter challenged his oft-stated assertion that President Obama had made the economy worse (factually, not correct), he denied ever saying it in the first place. It's a lie on top of a lie....

Trump's made everybody forget about that, because his own lying takes it to a whole new level, previously unimaginable, but it's true. These people are not allies any more than Monsignor Douthat is. Romney's vote to convict Trump for abuse of power is welcome, but keep in mind that he didn't vote to convict on the obstruction of Congress charge, the one that involved dishonesty.

What they hate about Trump is the way he lets down the side, with his bad manners, his low passions, his utter lack of upper-class self-control; the way he can't stop himself from letting out all their secrets, of self-interest, contempt for democracy and rule of law, indifference to suffering. They like a man like Romney who stands up straight and lies like a statesman.

And they're right, in a way—Trump brings our country into a kind of disgrace that's hard to bear, and ordinary conservatives don't, or didn't use to. But they can't be trusted. Enjoy their ads, by all means, and email them to your friends, but don't put any faith in them and don't admit them to the counsels.

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