Upon reading responses from Jonah Goldberg and Rob Tracinski to my last article, I can only echo the great Ron Burgundy: “Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.” That Goldberg would come out, rhetorical guns blazing, at an article he deemed “fairly absurd and embarrassing” was surprising.
I can’t improve on Ben Domenech’s case for the necessity of anonymity in these times, but it’s instructive that several individuals who focused negatively on this point make their living through public expression of their ideas. Working in the public square exposes them to slings and arrows, but also affords the protection that comes from doing something that’s within your job description. If you don’t pay your bills through columns, white papers, and TV appearances, an employer may be none too happy with what you say out loud, and how it could affect your ability to deliver for them.
In any case, I didn’t intend to criticize Goldberg or other conservative intellectuals for timidity. If it came across that way, my sincere apologies. Being regularly subjected to personal attacks—as many of them are—isn’t something to which many aspire, and I admire their resilience. But their vocation does give them the freedom to suggest what ought to be (and would that it were so!). For those whose experience in politics comes through campaigns or legislative work, success often requires balancing ideals against hard reality.
Today’s reality is a Trump administration. Many center-right pragmatists are of a similar mind to Trump’s conservative critics (I voted for Republicans other than Mr. Trump twice in 2016). While the self-labeled remnant challenges conservatives to live up to a higher standard, others counter that we should leverage unified Republican government to secure policy wins. This doesn’t mean pragmatists endorse all of the president’s behavior before or during his presidency, as many of us certainly do not.
But President Trump has assembled a fairly conservative administration that is enabling the Right to secure real victories. We shouldn’t be so quick to cast stones at conservatives, like Paul Ryan, who chose to grit their teeth and make the best of things. Nor should pro-Trump or Trump-pragmatist factions fire at #NeverTrump friends for whom the president’s behavior is disqualifying. We, myself included, should try to better understand the perspective of those with whom we share common ground, but differ over tactics. We are in this together.
That brings me back to what I tried to say in my last article: that the stakes in the culture war are far more important than fraternal differences over Trump. Highlighting the scene from “The Untouchables” was by no means a call to violence. Remember that Elliot Ness responded to Malone’s question by saying he was willing to do “Everything within the law.” My intent was to draw a parallel to a high-stakes situation that required absolute resolve and deploying all the tools at your disposal to prevail. (And yes, I know it’s a movie.)
Protecting our liberal order will require supplementing op-eds and podcasts, which were insufficient to deny Trump the Republican nomination, with additional steps. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, commenting on a book examining how Peter Thiel brought down Gawker through litigation, said it well.
The best take-away from @RyanHoliday's book: you will go nowhere signing a petition or writing Op-Eds.
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb (@nntaleb) May 1, 2018
Persuasion and ideas are essential tools for engaging our fellow citizens. But they won’t be effective if our institutions continue to produce citizens who aren’t open to being persuaded. Changing the current trajectory also requires lawsuits, government action, harnessing pop culture to reach a mass audience, and building (or rehabilitating) institutions.
Why can’t conservative philanthropists fund a college, or networks of K-12 schools, along the lines of what Josiah Bunting has proposed? Why can’t we bring Charles Murray’s Madison Fund to life? Why doesn’t someone seize the market opportunity to produce high-quality entertainment for Americans who want an alternative to the prevailing messages in pop culture?
Our best thinkers should suggest steps that Americans of more modest means can take. Let me offer an example: If you’re worried about America losing its sense of community, organize a neighborhood cookout and get to know your neighbors as people, not just by their bumper sticker.
If the hollowing out of religion concerns you, invite a friend to your place of worship. The conservative response to illiberalism can’t just be through the written or spoken word. It should be through how we live our lives. If we believe in the value of the ideals that motivate us, we should show others the benefit that comes through living them in practice.
Our ultimate fight is not within the ranks of the center-right. It is with an increasingly hegemonic Left that seeks to roll back liberalism on multiple fronts. Sparring helps to sharpen our arguments—until it draws blood. Whether you are a persuader or a doer, save your strength for the fight that really matters: the culture war. Maintain hope, and know the country has endured worse.