An Open Letter to Powerful Men

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on January 25, 2016

An Open Letter to Powerful Men

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.

An Open Letter to Powerful Men
“It’s Time to Accelerate the ISIL Fight,” urges the headline of a Politico op-ed. The author, one Ash Carter, makes a strong case:

ISIL is a cancer that threatens to spread. And like all cancers, you can’t cure the disease just by cutting out the tumor. You have to eliminate it wherever it has spread, and stop it from coming back.

We just hope the message gets to somebody in a position of authority.

Firing Line
This column observed two days ago that conservative intellectuals dislike Donald Trump almost as much as liberal ones do. Here’s a story from today’s New York Times that proves the point:

Conservative intellectuals have become convinced that Mr. Trump, with his message of nationalist-infused populism, poses a dire threat to conservatism, and released a manifesto online Thursday night to try to stop him. . . .

Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review—embracing the role of his predecessor, William F. Buckley, who in the 1960s confronted [John] Birch Society members—reached out to conservative thinkers to lend their names to the manifesto against Mr. Trump. He drew on some of the country’s leading conservatives, including Erick Erickson, William Kristol and Yuval Levin, to write essays buttressing the argument that Mr. Trump had no commitment to restraining the role of government and possessed authoritarian impulses antithetical to conservative principles.

“Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot on behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as The Donald himself,” the magazine said in an editorial accompanying the manifesto, titled “Against Trump.”

The Times errs in calling it a “manifesto,” which implies an institution’s speaking with one voice. NR accurately calls it a symposium; it consists of 22 brief individual essays by conservatives, each detailing his own reasons for opposing Trump.

Back in August, when conservatives were starting to get nervous about Trump’s staying power in the polls, there was a lot of chatter to the effect that conservatives needed somehow to “excommunicate” Trump, the way Buckley is said to have done to Robert Welch, founder of the Birch Society, in 1962.

We wrote a column on the subject, titled “What Would WFB Do?” Among the writers we quoted was Peter Wehner, who in a post for Commentary urged “conservatives today” to “stand up to Trump and Trumpism,” then observed: “Fortunately there are conservative commentators who are doing just that, including . . .,” followed by a list of 20 commentators, plus unnamed additional Commentary contributors and Wall Street Journal editorialists.

Only three of the writers on Wehner’s list (which also included Lowry) participated in the NR symposium, so that if you merge the two lists and add the names Wehner left out, the total number is somewhere in the vicinity of 50—not a mass movement by any stretch, but a quite considerable portion of the conservative intelligentsia. And even the merged list would be far from comprehensive.

The NR symposiasts’ most predominant theme is that Trump is not a conservative: They say he has espoused many liberal views in the past, still adheres to some of them, and has moved right for opportunistic reasons. The other major complaints are that Trump lacks experience in politics and knowledge of policy, that he “presents himself as a Strong Man” (First Things editor R.R. Reno), and that he is vulgar (or “decadent,” as per Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention).

Curiously, nobody mentions what would be our greatest anxiety about a President Trump: that his judicial nominees might be unconservative. Maybe that’s because the same can be said of all recent Republican presidents: Eisenhower gave us Earl Warren and William Brennan; Nixon, Harry Blackmun; Ford, John Paul Stevens; Reagan, Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy; George H.W. Bush, David Souter. George W. Bush was forced to withdraw the nomination of Harriet Miers in the face of objections from the right, and some conservatives would include Chief Justice John Roberts on the list of disappointments.

This columnist shares many of the NR symposiasts’ misgivings about Trump. But we were skeptical back in August of the efficacy of intellectuals’ denunciations, and we are certainly no less so today. Besides, the market for anti-Trump jeremiads is glutted, and others (notably the Journal’s Bret Stephens and NR’s Kevin Williamson) have brought more passion and wit to the enterprise than even we could muster.

So instead our approach has been to try to appreciate the sources of Trump’s appeal. A few of the NR symposiasts make a nod in that direction, including Ben Domenech, publisher of the Federalist:

Conservatives have far more to learn from his campaign than many might like to admit. The Trump voter is moderate, disaffected, with patriotic instincts. He feels disconnected from the GOP and other broken public institutions, left behind by a national political elite that no longer believes he matters.

Trump’s current popularity reveals something good. President Obama’s core domestic-policy agenda was designed to pull working- and middle-class voters left. It assumed that once they received the government’s redistributive largesse, they would be invested in maintaining it — and maintaining the Left in power. Trump’s rise bespeaks the utter failure of this program for the American working class: They have seen the Left’s agenda up close and do not believe it is good enough to make a nation great.

R.R. Reno adds:

The Republican party has become home to a growing number of Americans who want to burn down our political and economic systems and hang our cultural elites. They’re tired of being policed by political correctness, often with the complicity of supposed conservatives. They don’t like Republican candidates who denounce them as “takers” with no future in the global economy. And they suspect, rightly, that the Chamber of Commerce will sell them down the river if it adds to the bottom line.

The characterization of Trump’s supporters as wanting “to burn down our political and economic systems” strikes us as overwrought, but the observation about political correctness is right on point.

In another August column we described an event at the Women’s National Republican Club where a plurality of audience members raised their hands for Trump when we asked who was their preferred candidate. When we asked why, one woman answered: “I support free speech.” She liked Trump because (our paraphrase) he speaks bluntly and abjures political correctness.

We found that a bit mystifying. Yes, Trump says things that are politically incorrect, but as the NR editorial observes, “the insults he hurls at anyone who crosses him also speak to a pettiness and lack of basic civility.” In recent months, we have come to think that the lack of “civility” is central to his appeal. As one reader put it in an October email: “He is using the distasteful Dem strategies to win. I find it refreshing only because he is beating the pols at their game and they are all afraid of him.”

Two examples last month helped us see the reader’s point. The first was Trump’s proposal for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration. In the NR symposium Michael Mukasey, the retired judge and former attorney general, makes a reasoned case that this is a bad idea. But the immediate response from politicians—including some of Trump’s Republican opponents—was neither reasoned nor civil. Jeb Bush called Trump “unhinged,” and John Kasich called the proposal “just more of the outrageous divisiveness that characterizes his every breath.”

The second example was Trump’s response to Hillary Clinton’s accusation of “sexism,” which was to bring up the Clintons’ history of abusing women—a subject that the mainstream media had long regarded as taboo. Breitbart’s John Nolte noted last week that Bush, Kasich and Chris Christie (and to a lesser extent Marco Rubio) were all, as Nolte put it, “unwilling to break from the DC Media’s phony Narrative that this is all a private matter between two people, and not about allegations of rape, groping, harassment, and campaigns of personal destruction.” Here’s the first quote:

“Focus on the present and the future,” Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said. “Doing what he did, was it appropriate? Heck no, it wasn’t. You know, of course it wasn’t. But that’s long gone. Bill Clinton’s not running for president. Hillary Clinton is.”

We mentioned this the other night in a conversation with a Jeb Bush supporter, who replied by citing—get ready for it—Bush’s “civility.”

One of the NR symposiasts, Michael Medved (who also made Wehner’s August list), offers this argument:

Worst of all, Trump’s brawling, blustery, mean-spirited public persona serves to associate conservatives with all the negative stereotypes that liberals have for decades attached to their opponents on the right. According to conventional caricature, conservatives are selfish, greedy, materialistic, bullying, misogynistic, angry, and intolerant. They are, we’re told, privileged and pampered elitists who revel in the advantages of inherited wealth while displaying only cruel contempt for the less fortunate and the less powerful. The Left tried to smear Ronald Reagan in such terms but failed miserably because he displayed none of the stereotypical traits. In contrast, Trump is the living, breathing, bellowing personification of all the nasty characteristics Democrats routinely ascribe to Republicans.

And then there’s the uncomfortable, unavoidable issue of racism. Even those who take Trump at his word—accepting his declaration that he qualifies as the least racist individual in the nation—can imagine the parade of negative ads the Democrats are already preparing for radio stations with mainly black audiences and for Spanish-language television.

This is a defensible bit of analysis, but it is also a defensive one. Its premise is that the left’s “negative stereotypes” of conservatives are at least partly true.

Anyway, is it possible to imagine the Democrats would not stage such a “parade of negative ads” against any Republican nominee? Prominent Clinton surrogate David Brock tells the Associated Press: “It seems black lives don’t matter much to Bernie Sanders.” Does Medved really think the Clinton campaign would treat Jeb Bush or John Kasich any more gently than it treats Bernie Sanders?

NR and its contributors make many good arguments against Trump. But in light of all this, they shouldn’t be surprised if many voters conclude that his belligerence and unapologetic attitude are good qualities, or at worst necessary evils.

As for what WFB would do, we concluded that August column by speculating that he would have invited Trump to be a guest on “Firing Line” and subjected him to combative questioning, as he did with George Wallace in 1968. “Firing Line” ended its run in 1999, but last night NR publisher Jack Fowler posted the following announcement on the magazine’s website:

National Review was asked by the RNC to partner in the GOP debates. We agreed. Our initial partner was NBC, with whom we were to help moderate the pre–Super Tuesday debate, originally to be held on February 26 in Houston, then suspended by the RNC in retribution over the antics of CNBC moderators in its now-infamous debate last month. A new main host was picked this week—CNN. National Review was to partner, along with Salem Radio and Telemundo, the debate rescheduled for February 25.

Tonight, a top official with the RNC called me to say that National Review was being disinvited. The reason: Our “Against Trump” editorial and symposium. We expected this was coming. Small price to pay for speaking the truth about The Donald.

We wonder if Buckley might have taken a different view of that trade-off.

For more “Best of the Web” click here and look for the “Best of the Web Today” link in the middle column below “Today’s Columnists.”