In his rebuttal of Emerald Robinson’s attack on President Trump’s conservative critics, Jonah Goldberg singled me out for opprobrium because I applauded her thesis on Twitter. I thank him for this attention. It forces me to pause and collect my thoughts.
I prefer not to defend Robinson’s every turn of phrase, but her main point is irrefutable: Trump’s conservative critics have lost touch with the electorate. Their careers may indeed be humming along, as Goldberg claims, but politically they have maneuvered themselves into an untenable position.
In a democratic culture, the pundit is not a philosopher. He exists to inform and guide like-minded voters, which is only possible if they trust him to be thinking along with them.
I know what it feels like to be out of touch with the electorate. In the last presidential election I worked on the campaign of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. After he conceded defeat, I joined the foreign policy team of Sen. Marco Rubio. About a week before Rubio bowed out of the race, Nate Silver, the election analyst, published an article analyzing the senator’s dilemma.
Rubio, Silver explained, was almost every Republican’s fallback candidate. He was the first choice of only one group: “cosmopolitan conservatives.” Silver’s label hit me with a jolt of self-recognition. I have degrees from Stanford and Princeton universities, spend many weeks of every year abroad, and live and work in uber-liberal Washington DC, which I love. I am a social conservative, and I identify wholeheartedly with Red America. Silver had me cold: I am a cosmopolitan conservative.
Anti-Trumpers’ High Public Profile Is Inflated
The intellectuals Robinson attacks are also members of my clan. We may not live, as she suggests, in mansions, but we do breathe a rarified air—and we are very small in number. If we were to hold a national conference, we might fill a large bistro on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Thanks, however, to the work we do in the policy world and media, we have a public profile out of proportion to our numbers.
Cosmopolitan conservatives have mistaken their outsized visibility in the media for indispensability to the conservative cause. The prevailing opinion among them during the election was not just that Trump was going to lose, but that he was going to deliver an historic defeat to the Republican Party.
In summer 2016, I became a traitor to my clan, breaking with this consensus and publicly supporting Trump. Some of my associates let me know they considered my move morally indefensible. It soon became obvious that they saw themselves as valiant knights manning the ramparts on the citadel of true conservatism, guarding the one true creed until Trump self-destructed.
After the debacle, the party would rebuild, and they would serve as the vanguard of renewal. They would be the ones to decide who would gain admission back into the citadel and who would wander forever in purgatory, repenting and pleading for readmission into the company of the good and responsible intellectual leaders of the conservative movement.
But Donald Trump won. Trump, it turned out, read the conservative electorate much more accurately than the finest minds in Republican punditry did. He identified immigration, drugs, unemployment, and, yes, religious liberty as key issues that the media, the Democrats, and, to a certain extent, the Republican Party establishment were ignoring or downplaying. He wove his blunt positions on these issues into an ideology of populist nationalism.
The conservative cosmopolitans refuse to credit this achievement. Instead, they recoil at Trump’s ideology and continue to serve as the self-appointed guardians of the conservative citadel.
Ronald Reagan, the Old Guard’s Idol
Goldberg’s new book, “Suicide of the West,” offers a valuable window into the worldview of the guardians on the ramparts. It champions “the Miracle,” Goldberg’s term for the prosperity and freedom that purportedly comes from a right-leaning version of classical liberalism.
This version looks suspiciously like the consensus among twenty-first-century cosmopolitan conservatives—my clan before I betrayed them. Goldberg’s idiosyncratic depiction of classical liberalism excludes all Democrats after Woodrow Wilson. They are “progressives,” thus anti-liberal.
Goldberg’s Miracle, in philosophical terms, combines Straussian natural rights theory with Milton Friedman’s free markets. It adds a dose of Alexis de Tocqueville on mediating institutions and civil society. For foreign policy, it calls for a muscular (yet idealistic!) approach. If this all sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. It’s Reaganism in a can.
By Goldberg’s way of thinking, Reaganism is the miraculous culmination of a long history of trial and error. It is not just the best way to organize society; it is the only way. There will never be a better one.
To borrow a phrase from Islam, Reagan is “the seal of the prophets” of classical liberalism. Therefore, Trump’s rejection of the cosmopolitan conservatism’s creed is not a legitimate disagreement about how to meet the challenges of the moment. It is an atavistic and “reactionary” attack on classical liberal “best practices” that all those generations of trial and error have so miraculously bequeathed to us. According to Goldberg’s philosophy, people like me are not wrong, we are reptile-brain ingrates.
American Populism Is Also an Old Idea With Merit
This idealized and ahistorical view of Ronald Reagan obscures what he shares with Trump. Reagan is a Republican establishment icon today, but in his own day he was an outsider. The populism that swept Trump into office did not begin in 2016. It dwells in American society—among both conservatives and liberals and among all races and ethnicities—and it has been there for a very long time.
Indeed, Reagan was the best representative of this populism in living memory. Call it Jacksonianism: the populist current in American politics that runs from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln, to Teddy Roosevelt, to Harry Truman, and down to Reagan.
This populism is preternaturally hostile to concentrations of unrepresentative, unelected, and unaccountable power. It abhors gigantism in government and in the private sector, directing particular ire at Wall Street and, of late, at Silicon Valley. It loves the flag, the working class, and holds those who defend the nation against its enemies in especially high regard.
Goldberg’s book fails to recognize this populism as a long, healthy, and deeply respectable American tradition. He depicts it instead as a diseased reaction to progressivism—reactionary and crypto-fascist. Those labels apply, by the way, not just to voters who opted for Trump, but also to progressives, those who voted for Clinton.
In short, pretty much all those who voted in the last election—the American people—are reptile-brain reactionaries. Conservative intellectual elites have been in the business of denouncing the American people before. Back then their leader was the misanthrope journalist H. L. Mencken.
At Odds With America, and At Odds With the Era
Consider the middle class business owner today in, say, central Pennsylvania. He is concerned about the influx of immigrants into his town, the disappearance of industrial jobs that traditionally supported the local economy, and the rising tide of drug addiction among the unemployed youth. In reaction to these developments, he turns away from Democrats, for whom he voted in recent elections, and supports Trump.
The message of the cosmopolitan conservative class to that businessman is harsh and seeks to impose ideological discipline: Embrace the timeless revelations that Reagan supposedly bestowed on mankind or wander the earth forever branded as an atavistic bigot.
The lack of historical awareness in this view is staggering. Trump’s Jacksonianism is not just the latest emanation of a long American tradition, it is our local version of a broad trend visible throughout the Western world. Brexit in Britain, the rise of rightwing populists such as Matteo Salvini in Italy and Viktor Orban in Hungary, opposition to Angela Merkel’s immigration policies in Germany—these developments and many more are all reactions to a decaying political consensus in the West.
Across Europe the center-left is collapsing. People are moving toward socialism on the Left and nationalism on the Right. This trend, which is now overwhelmingly obvious, places Goldberg and his fellow knights of conservatism at odds not just with the American people but also with the entire era in which we are living.
The Ally of My Enemy Is—What, Exactly?
Irony of ironies, the cosmopolitan conservatives turn out to be the very people they decry: reactionaries. We usually hurl the word “reactionary” as a crude slur, a synonym for “rightwing extremist.” But in the literal definition of the word, a reactionary seeks to “turn back the clock” and restore a bygone era, one so much better than the decadent and misguided present.
This meaning describes Goldberg and his clan to a “T.” Election after election in Europe and the United States tell us that the political truisms of the post-1989, end-of-history consensus have failed, but cosmopolitan conservatives simply refuse to grapple with this basic fact of civic life.
Their nostalgic longing for an idealized Reagan would be a mere personal tic were it not for their outsized visibility. They represent some of the finest talent among the conservative intelligentsia. They are capable and influential people, and our disoriented Republican political representatives need their guidance.
But they refuse to help shape the new Jacksonianism, let alone defend it against the attacks of its progressive enemies. By and large, the cosmopolitan conservatives have chosen to unleash unrelenting attacks on Trump, his supporters, and the meaning of his ascendancy. Those attacks run exactly parallel to the most pernicious lies of the Left regarding the Right, namely, that conservative voters—who represent half the electorate—are motivated by racism, bigotry, and tribal rage over a loss of white status.
To borrow a phrase from former Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan, the cosmopolitan conservatives, “wittingly or unwittingly,” have become tools of the Democratic Party. They provide a fig leaf for a Democratic-led campaign whose point, ultimately, is to impose a hyper-progressive political order on an atomized populace.
They claim to oppose this agenda, yet their energies these days seem far more focused on what they call “truth telling” regarding Trump than on the defeat of his leftwing foes. They would have us believe that by identifying Trump’s flaws they are saving democracy. They pose as agreeing with Democrats on only a limited set of meta-political issues such as “democratic norms” and “moral character”—the intellectual equivalent of striking a budget deal across the aisle.
In fact, they are doing something much more pernicious. Whether through pride, or anger, or vanity, or confusion, or misguided good intentions, they have become primary validators of the opposition’s main narrative. They are giving aid and comfort to those who depict the Republican president as a representative of pure evil in a Manichaean contest.
I predict that in the long run cosmopolitan conservatives will be honored by liberals for their services. Their denunciations of the reptilian intelligence and tribal motives of the ordinary people whose votes put conservatives into power will help the editors of The New York Times and Washington Post and the elite of Hollywood anathematize them culturally, just as Mencken did the liberal cause in his day a priceless favor of driving evangelical Christians out of the mainstream of public life.
Politics Cannot Demand Or Ensure Perfection
Politics is not a morality play. It is the art of the possible—and it is a team sport. King David sent Uriah the Hittite to die on the front lines of battle in order to steal his wife Bathsheba. His treachery reminds us that even the most revered and heroic figures in history turn out upon closer examination to have unsavory dimensions.
Trump’s sins are no bigger than those of most other presidents. The primary difference is that he wears his imperfections on his sleeve. By harping on these imperfections and magnifying them out of all proportion, the cosmopolitan conservatives are working to block the president’s broader agenda.
In his most recent book, Goldberg is admirably honest about this goal. He wants Trump to fail, because his agenda contravenes the Miracle, which is to say the Reaganism-in-a-can he and his clan favor.
The assistance cosmopolitan conservatives give Democrats does not stop with their criticism of the president and his voters. In their supposedly high-minded defense of principle, they have also given fuel to an aberrant conspiracy theory that is acting like a mental virus on the minds of Americans, especially liberals. However irrational Trump might seem—my sense is that he is crazy like a fox—and however much damage his tweets do to “civility,” the cosmopolitan conservatives risk shipwrecking our political compact by promoting fictions of Russiagate that are crazy in fact.
Telling fibs or whoppers or even off-color jokes has been the province of every American president since George Washington. Pronouncing a president you dislike to be an active tool of a foreign power conspiring to destroy America, someone who must be undermined by secret intelligence agencies and driven from office by prosecutors who work in star chamber proceedings, is the kind of politics our Constitution was explicitly designed to avoid. But it is the kind of politics many cosmopolitan conservatives practice now.
The Jonah Goldberg who in 2008 published “Liberal Fascism” would have recognized the FBI’s surveillance of Trump and the Robert Mueller probe for exactly what they are—outrageous abuses of power designed to smother the Jacksonian voice of the American people. The Jonah Goldberg of yesteryear wryly observed that if fascism ever came to America, it wouldn’t arrive dressed in brown shirts and jackboots. It would come instead wearing shirts emblazoned with big smiley faces. For some inexplicable reason the Jonah Goldberg of today fails to realize that those shirts would also say, “Impeach Trump!”