If you weren’t aware, Mitt Romney gave a speech this morning attacking Trump’s candidacy. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Mitt Romney, and I have been since his unsuccessful primary run in 2008. So I was looking forward to this speech enough that I queued it up on my iPhone and played it through my car speakers live as I drove. It was a great speech, in my mind, but you can see for yourself:
The New York Times also has a full transcript.
Obviously Trump fans don’t like it, but lots of Republicans and conservative are also criticizing the speech for two things: first, being pointless and second, giving ammunition to the left. So here are some thoughts.
I agree: this speech didn’t persuade a single Trump supporter. That’s not the point. Think about Trump supporters for a moment. Is there a speech that could have had an impact on that audience? No, there is not. Trump has basically two kinds of supporters at this point. There are those who take his provocative, bigoted statements at face value and approve of them. There is no decent or reasonable way to appeal to these people, because they are supporting Trump explicitly because of his lack of decency and his lack of reasonability. The Republican Party neither needs nor wants this dead weight. Then there are those who are so cynical and jaded that the content of Trump’s statements–and the content of the attacks on him–are irrelevant. These people hear political debates the same way that Charlie Brown listens to his teacher.
These folks, I believe, do not share the extreme and noxious views that have become the hallmark of Trump’s campaign. But they are still completely and totally beyond rational appeal because all they care about is who is talking not what is being said. If you come from “the establishment,” then whatever you say is a lie, no matter what you say. The point is: nobody in Trump’s corner would have listened to anything that Romney had to say, no matter what it was.
Give the man some credit. That wasn’t his goal. It’s clear from the speech that none of it was addressing Trump supporters. What was his goal, then? Who was he addressing?
If the other candidates can find some common ground, I believe we can nominate a person who can win the general election and who will represent the values and policies of conservatism. Given the current delegate selection process, that means that I’d vote for Marco Rubio in Florida and for John Kasich in Ohio and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state. [emphasis added]
Romney is addressing Republicans and conservatives who are already leery of Trump’s campaign, and his goal is to encourage these people to get out and vote (part one) and to do so strategically (part two). We can’t know just yet what effect this appeal will have, but it is certainly more tactically aware than a tone-deaf appeal to an audience defined by having their fingers jammed into their ears.
So let’s talk about this idea that Romney is giving ammunition to the left. That he represents “the establishment.” That he’s a RINO. This is the response of, for example, Rush Limbaugh and his audience, although I’ve also seen more reasonable and sophisticated Republicans (who don’t like Trump) make a similar claim.
First, I don’t think these people paid very much attention to Mitt Romney’s words. Romney was not attacking the right from the center. His attacks related primarily to the realism of Trump’s proposals and, even more so, went to Trump’s character and temperament. These are apolitical attacks. Secondly, Romney included an extended take-down of Clinton:
Now, Mr. Trump relishes any poll that reflects what he thinks of himself. But polls are also saying that he will lose to Hillary Clinton. Think about that. On Hillary Clinton’s watch, the State Department, when she was guiding it and part of the Obama administration, that State Department watched as America’s interests were diminished at every corner of the world.
She compromised our national secrets. She dissembled to the families of the slain. And she jettisoned her most profound beliefs to gain presidential power. For the last three decades, the Clintons have lived at the intersection of money and politics, trading their political influence to enrich their personal finances.
They embody the term, “crony capitalism.” It disgusts the American people and causes them to lose faith in our political process. A person so untrustworthy and dishonest as Hillary Clinton must not become president.
Of course, a Trump nomination enables her victory.
There is precious little evidence in Mitt Romney’s speech of the alleged base / establishment divide. And that’s something that we really need to emphasize with great force here: Trump does not speak for, represent, or enjoy the support of the GOP base in some kind of glorious crusade to purge the GOP of ideological heretics. Exhibit A in this case is Glenn Beck, who refers to Trump as “a pathological narcissistic sociopath,” Beck is far from the GOP establishment: he’s a social values populist who supports Cruz over Rubio, and who has little love for Romney. Or consider Matt Walsh, another representative of the social values populism that truly reflects the GOP base, and who has been attacking Trump and Trump supporters for months. He wrote articles in July 2015, Aug 2015, January 2016, and yet again last month.
Trump’s rise is not a reflection of some kind of broad-based populist revolt by ideological pure conservatives against an elite cadre of moderate establishmentarians. If that were the case, Trump would be pulling in more than a paltry one third of Republican primary voters. If that were the case, Trump would have strong, consistent, clearly articulated positions on the key conservative issues: abortion, the second amendment, limited government, and religious liberty. Instead, Trump’s positions on all of these issues are farcically out of touch with the base of the conservative movement. He keeps defending Planned Parenthood, has no credible history on gun rights, consistently threatens to abuse executive power if he gets it, and is laughably ignorant of even basic religious cultural touchstones.
As The Atlantic covered, there is a “clear ‘soft spot’ in Trump’s [evangelical] support: weekly church attendance.” In other words, the evangelicals who actually go to church, don’t trust Trump. That’s the template for every issue down the line. Politically informed conservatives who are pro-life, or pro-second amendment, or are for limited government are all skeptical of Trump because they have the depth of knowledge (on their respective issues) to spot a liar and a phony. Jonah Goldberg, writing for the National Review, has come to the same conclusion:
Until Trump descended his golden escalator, the “conservative base” generally referred to committed pro-lifers and other social conservatives. The term also suggested people who were for very limited government, strict adherence to the Constitution, etc. Most of all, it described people who called themselves “very conservative.”
While it’s absolutely true that Trump draws support from people who fit such descriptions, it’s far from the entirety of Trump’s following. According to polls, Trump draws heavily from more secular Republicans who are more likely to describe themselves as “liberal” or “moderate” than “conservative” or “very conservative.” Ted Cruz draws more exclusively from the traditional base.
One thing should be crystal clear: the Trump phenomenon is not a conservative revolt against the establishment or anything else because it’s emphatically not conservative.
So where does it come from? What’s fueling Trump’s rise? This is an important question, because it will get back to Romney’s motivation for his speech.
I believe the story goes like this:
Since the 1970s, journalists have increasingly shifted towards the left. This led to slight but universal anti-conservative bias. It was subtle because standards of professionalism kept it from getting too extreme, but it was also pervasive. Rush Limbaugh was the reaction to that. He was conservatives saying, “Fine, if our views aren’t going to get a fair hearing in your media, we will make our own.”
Unfortunately, Limbaugh is an unprincipled, egotistical, self-aggrandizing rabble rouser. He responded to a grievance that was genuine, but the solution he proffered made things worse. This isn’t accidental, Limbaugh—as an avatar of retribution—tied his fortunes to the continuation and exacerbation of the media-bias.
An outlet like the National Review tries to provide some balance to the left-leaning conversation, but it does so while buying into the fundamental premise that the Fourth Estate is a noble calling with an accompanying sense of duty, and of pride, and of responsibility. Limbaugh could care less about any of that. From his perspective, the more outrageous he is the better, because that provokes the mainstream media into attacking him, and those attacks are the red meat he feeds his audience.
This kicked off a feedback loop of mutual polarization. Mainstream media in the 1990s was significantly more anti-conservative than in the 1980s in no small part because they were reacting to Limbaugh. This in turn fed the conservative response, leading to Fox News. This was basically just Rush Limbaugh on an industrial scale. All the commercial polish of a cable news network was used to funnel paranoia and tribalism and sophistry from the AM radios onto HD TVs.
And then the left upped the ante once more. Two examples: Although MSNBC had been founded in 1996, the shift to becoming the Fox news of the left started around 2000, and Real Time with Bill Maher launched on HBO in 2003. By this time, the mainstream media was already overwhelmingly left-leaning, and President Obama’s 2008 campaign showcased the extent to which the media had all but completely abandoned the ideals of objectivity, responsibility, and criticism that had once differentiated them from firebrands like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.
This represents just one aspect of the overall trend. Polarization has also continued apace in both academia and in social networking, with titans like Twitter engaging in “shadowbanning” of conservatives and other politically-slanted tactics. Together, this means that the public sphere in the United States today is incredibly hostile towards conservatives, as Business Insider reported.1
It is pretty common to use allegations of media bias to excuse conservatives or advocate for their perspective, but that’s not where I’m going today. Instead, I want to consider how the asymmetry of this conflict effects how it is prosecuted by both sides. It is an immutable law of human conflict that asymmetric conflicts are among the nastiest and most vicious. The side with less conventional power is not constrained by conventional norms of conduct (because they have less to lose) and is more willing to adopt proscribed tactics (because they can be rationalized by appeal to underdog status and also because there are fewer options to “approved” methods of fighting.) The side with greater conventional power is initially constrained in its response but–over time–begins to use the bad conduct of the insurgent force to excuse violations of their self-imposed constraints.
Case in point: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel acts with relative restraint because it has a lot to lose: a fairly prosperous, stable economy and government, Palestinian terrorist organization are classical insurgents, however, with nothing to lose they are willing to engage in reprehensible, violent tactics such as suicide bombings and indiscriminate targeting of civilians.
The same thing has unfolded in the American political arena (albeit largely without literal violence thus far). The American left, despite being outnumbered (according to most polls) occupies the position of strength: professional journalists, tenured professors, and (at least on social issues), Silicon Valley billionaires. As a result, they have often prosecuted their war with relative restraint. Bias was omnipresent, but often extremely subtle, for example, and news outlets continued to–in word and to some extent in fact–pursue fairness and objectivity. The American right, despite broad public support, has subsisted at the margins of the public sphere and they have adopted proscribed tactics accordingly. The rhetoric is nastier and more provocative, and there is often not the slightest pretext to objectivity or, in some cases, even basic civility. At a very abstract level, the strategic logic that differentiates the tactics of Hamas and the IDF also differentiates the tactics of NPR and Rush Limbaugh.
What we have been witnessing, at least since the 1980s, is an escalating cycle of mutually-reinforcing rhetorical violence. I do not want to trivialize the horror of actual warfare, but the strategic analogy is sound. This a tribal blood feud, and such a feud will continue to spiral out of control–threatening the fabric of our entire society–unless and until the belligerents can begin to exercise self-control. One side can never browbeat, humiliate, or intimidate the other side into submission. Nobody ever wins a fight of this nature but, if we are to preserve our civil society, someone has to lead their own sides back from the brink. That–even more than the immediate tactical implications–is what Mitt Romney’s speech was truly about.
There is one last thing that we need to keep in mind. As much as folks are (understandably) transfixed by the juggernaut of awful that is the Trump movement, the man himself is irrelevant. Trump is not a demon, a genius, or an angel.2 He had to be rich enough, famous enough, and outrageous enough to fulfill a certain role but he’s essentially just a guy who happens to fit a costume that was already laying around, waiting for someone to put it on. Or, to use another metaphor, he’s just a guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time to hitch a ride on a particularly vicious political current. And it’s the current that’s carrying Trump along—not the man hitching a ride on it—that merits our long-term attention. Because, no matter what happens with Trump in 2016, the political forces that have brought us to this point are unlikely to dissipate any time soon. My sobering word of caution is this: as bad as you think Trump is, there is room for things to get much, much worse if the underlying political dynamics don’t change.
A two-front war is every general’s nightmare, but that’s what we have. As a committed conservative, I have two goals in mind. The first is to advocate for policies that I believe will make our country–and the world–better. I believe that all human beings deserve first and foremost the fundamental right to life, and so I am pro-life. I believe that free markets empower our economy at home and lead to poverty-eradicating growth world-wide, and so I am a capitalist. I believe that power tends to corrupt, and that corruption leads to misery and injustice, and so I support limited government. For these, and other reasons, I am a conservative. But I also believe that it is possible for decent, reasonable people to differ with me on these issues and/or to have their own legitimate agenda with their own competing priorities. And I believe that resolving the conflict should happen in a social and political atmosphere of tolerance, respect, and peace.
I am not naive enough to believe that political conflict will ever be swept away by mutual respect and admiration, and that Democrats and Republicans will all roast smores together and hold hands and sing songs while finding painless compromises to solve all our problems. But that doesn’t mean that I have to just accept an unlimited amount of vitriol, tribalism, and intolerance as the cost of doing politics. It is not only possible to fight over the direction which the good ship United States should sail without threatening to sink her, it is necessary. That, more than anything else, is what I drew from Mitt Romney’s speech, and it is why I am such a fan.