Bret Stephens is an editorial writer for the conservative Wall Street Journal. His rebuke to fellow Republicans is thoughtful and gutsy.
By BRET STEPHENS
Nov. 7, 2016 7:27 p.m. ET
Someday, maybe, when I’m old and a child asks me what I remember about the awful election of 2016, I’ll say: It was the Big Reveal.
Revealed: That the guiding spirit of the modern conservative movement is neither Burke nor Lincoln.
It’s Marx. “These are my principles,” Groucho once cracked, “and if you don’t like them, well, I have others.” Everything Republicans once claimed to advocate—entitlement reform, free trade, standing up to dictators, encouraging the march of freedom around the world—turns out to be negotiable and reversible, depending on Donald Trump’s whims and the furies of his base.
Revealed: That moral clarity and moral equivalence have become interchangeable concepts in today’s GOP. The same Republicans who pontificated throughout the 1990s about restoring honor and dignity to the Oval Office are now eager to rent that office to a man who boasts of his own sexual predations. Why? Because Bill Clinton already did it.
Revealed: That Mr. Trump’s unrelenting and apparently irrepressible bigotry, misogyny, bullying and conspiracy-mongering won’t keep Republican leaders from supporting him, provided he mouth pieties about appointing more Scalias to the court or cutting corporate tax rates.
“More common ground than disagreement,” was how House SpeakerPaul Ryan justified his June endorsement of the GOP nominee, right around the time he described Mr. Trump’s slander of “Mexican” judge Gonzalo Curiel as a “textbook definition of a racist comment.” A smarter response by the speaker might have been: “You lost me at hello.”
Also revealed: That conservatives who once took umbrage at being called racist or anti-Semitic are now happy to flirt with white nationalism. That a party of self-described strict constructionists sees nothing amiss in Mr. Trump’s call to rewrite the 14th Amendment.
That the ability of Mr. Trump and his supporters to hurl insults at their critics is only exceeded by their exquisite sensitivity when they are insulted back. That a reset with Russia is a fiasco when executed by Hillary Clinton but evidence of fresh foreign-policy thinking when proposed by Mr. Trump.
The bill of particulars could fill the rest of the column. It’s normal that elections make fierce partisans of many of us. It’s normal that Mr. Trump would attract the usual right-wing buffoons to his banners. Normal, also, is that many voters may not be troubled by Mr. Trump’s cruder statements when they hear him addressing their deepest economic and social anxieties.
What isn’t normal is the ease with which so many conservative leaders, political and intellectual, have prostrated themselves before Mr. Trump simply because he won. In July, Dan Senor, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012, tweeted that he had once commiserated with a Midwestern governor about how unacceptable Mr. Trump was as the GOP nominee. That governor? Mike Pence.
As for conservative thought leaders, the book that comes to mind is Julien Benda’s 1927 classic, La Trahison des clercs, “The Treason of the Intellectuals.”
Benda railed against a new class of European thinkers who specialized in “the intellectual organization of political hatreds,” the “desire to abase the values of knowledge before the values of action,” and above all “the cult of success,” based on “the teaching that says that when a will is successful that fact alone gives it a moral value, whereas the will which fails is for that reason alone deserving of contempt.”
Benda used to be a favorite among conservative thinkers who saw him as a prophetic voice against multiculturalism, postmodernism and other left-wing academic fads rooted in 19th century German Romanticism.
Where are those thinkers now that Mr. Trump is using his own fetish for action and cult of success to dismiss his political opponents as losers, lowlifes and criminals? Where are they now that Mr. Trump’s Breitbart minions are organizing political hatreds against “globalists” and other new enemies of the people?
They are busy devising ever-more elaborate excuses for the Republican nominee. A flawed messenger for a worthy message. An agent of mass disruption in an era of secular stagnation. A hollow man who may yet take our good advice and stumble his way to greatness. A jerk who nonetheless compares favorably to Mrs. Clinton.
What all this shows is that most conservative intellectuals have proved incapable of self-examination or even simple observation. Donald Trump is a demagogue. Period. The fervor of his crowds recalls Nasser’s Egypt. His convictions are illiberal.
His manners are disgusting. His temper is frightening. It ought to have been the job of thoughtful conservatives in this season to point this out, time and again. If they can’t do that, what good are they?
George Orwell said that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” The Big Reveal of 2016 is that most conservatives failed the Orwell test.