What Trump Is Doing To The Conservative Character

Curious minds want to know: how would conservatives react if Donald Trump fired special prosecutor Robert Mueller? If he issued sweeping pardons of his family members and cronies, or even himself?

Would that cross a red line for movement that once claimed to care about the rule of law? Would there be a backlash among the folks who once insisted that character mattered and rushed to buy books like the Book of Virtues?

Or would they go along, once again shifting their standards to accommodate the need to defend Trumpism?

Obviously, this would be a defining moment. As David French wrote recently:

If he does any one of these things — much less several in combination — the GOP will have to decide, once and for all, if it is an American political party or a craven, fearful instrument of Donald Trump’s personal brand.

We may already know the answer. Trump, who remains unbowed and unchanged by the presidency, continues to transform the party that last year capitulated to him. Or more accurately, the conservative movement continues to transform itself into his image.

I’d written about this earlier this year:

[In] the right’s new media ecosystem, a willingness to accept and rationalize lies has now become a test of tribal loyalty.  Unfortunately, the effects run even deeper as Trump’s acolytes in politics and social media model their behavior on his, combining the worst traits of the school yard bully, the thin-skinned nastiness that mimics confidence; the strut and sneer that substitute for actual strength, vindictive smash mouth attacks have replaced civil engagement. …Think of it as trickle down boorishness

Now comes Ben Shapiro, with an insightful analysis of how conservatives have come to fully embrace Trump’s character and its most loathsome manifestations. A year ago, many conservatives rationalized their support for Trump because the “ends justified means — and that the end was the implementation of conservative policies.” And, indeed, there have been some significant wins, most notably the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and some of his environmental policies.

But, writes Shapiro, “now that Trump isn’t actually implementing conservative policies, the truth is coming out: For most conservatives, the ends don’t just justify the means, the means are the ends. All that matters is the punching, even if the punching is both counterproductive and immoral.” 

For many conservatives, Trump's character is no longer a glitch… it’s what they love. “Trump’s character is now a thoroughly accepted positive good,” writes Shapiro.

All of which suggests that Trump isn’t the engine, he’s the hood ornament for a certain movement that now feels liberated from traditional rules of decent behavior. Trump allows us to indulge our id and feel righteous while doing it. We grew up believing that decent behavior made you a decent person — but then we realized that breaking the rules not only makes victory easier, it’s more fun than having to struggle with the moral qualms of using moral means to achieve moral ends.

Shapiro describes the “backwards logic” that many on the Right now use “to absolve ourselves of moral responsibility.”

 The first premise: The other side, which wants bad things, cheats and lies and acts in egregious ways.

The second premise: It requires cheating to defeat them.

The third premise: If they are not defeated, the country will be destroyed.

 Conclusion: It is morally required to cheat and lie and act in egregious ways.

In other words, we have become precisely what he hated and claimed to stand against. Add in the ways the Right has succumbed to cult of personality politics and you have the toxic stew in which we now find ourselves marinating.

All of this is a logical extension of the binary politics that drove many conservatives to embrace Trump last year. In a piece I wrote for The New York Times earlier this year, I described it this way: 

In this binary tribal world, where everything is at stake, everything is in play, there is no room for quibbles about character, or truth, or principles. If everything — the Supreme Court, the fate of Western civilization, the survival of the planet — depends on tribal victory, then neither individuals nor ideas can be determinative.

So it is perhaps not surprising to see how many conservatives have been corrupted by the need to keep pace with the vertiginous reversals, rationalizations, outrages, and deceptions of Trumpism. Jonah Goldberg writes:

 Put on your hip boots and wade into the swampier recesses of Twitter, Facebook, online comment sections, or Sean Hannity’s oeuvre and you’ll see riots of rationalization. Trump’s lying is celebrated. His petty vindictiveness is redefined as leadership. Cheating is strength.

Trump will not, of course, always be with us. But he will leave a mark on the culture and character of conservativism for a very long time.

Memo to the Media: Get It Right

My latest, from the Nieman Reports:

Donald Trump and the GOP may lack a coherent governing agenda, but they have no doubt about their electoral strategy: Run against the media.

The campaign against the media is not simply a reflection of the president’s notoriously thin skin or a sideshow distraction; it is central to Team Trump’s political style and his agenda. Trump needs an enemy and in the absence of a polarizing figure like Hillary Clinton to run against, the “fake news” media will do just fine. Even though the national press corps won’t be on the ballot in 2018, the GOP will run against it as aggressively as it runs against the Democrats. This is, after all, how you motivate your base.

To see Trump-era politics simply as matter of dueling policies is to fundamentally misunderstand the current dynamic. Actual achievements are less important than striking the right pose and attacking the right enemies. The New York Times’s James Poniewozik explains that politics today “is attitudinal, not ideological. The reason to be for someone is who is against them. What matters more than policy is your side’s winning, and what matters more than your side’s winning is the other side’s losing.”

Indeed, as Republican health care reform efforts floundered, Washington Post reporter Robert Costa tweeted that most Republican elected officials were not fearful of a primary challenge if they opposed the repeal of Obamacare. “They see [the GOP] base,” Costa tweeted, “as grievance/fake news obsessed, not [Obamacare] obsessed.”

And for Trump, the media is the perfect foil. The president himself tweeted out a GIF depicting him body slamming a figure labelled “CNN,” after the cable network admitted it had published an erroneous story and fired three of their journalists. For Trump and his supporters, it was a triumphant moment, and a taste of what is surely to come, especially if Trump’s political position continues to deteriorate.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, notes, “It’s all they know. They aren’t prepared for anything else.” For Trump, running against the media also “makes good sense, what with the Republican base in a permanent state of rage at ‘cognitive elites,’” he notes. “It makes even better sense for a President with a base-only strategy.”

Not surprisingly, the campaign against the media has become the one consistent, permanent feature of this White House. Charlie Warzel and Adrian Carrasquillo of BuzzFeed observe: “Trump has been clear on one issue: the untrustworthy ‘fake news’ purveyors of the media. As he’s struggled to even put into motion the kind of sweeping legislation he promised on the campaign trail, Trump’s relentless focus on the media has been the only constant amid the disorganization. Six months in, it seems clear that Trump’s only real ideology—and the only true tenet of Trumpism—is to destroy what he believes is a deceitful mainstream media.”

Early signs suggest that the strategy is working, at least among Trump’s hard-core supporters. The relentless attacks, they write, have convinced much of Trump’s base “that the mainstream media is corrupt and reckless.” “Trust in the media has been steadily declining for years in public opinion polls,” they note, “but Trump weaponized it during his campaign and now uses the full influence of the White House to promote the anti-media agenda.”


Why the Case for Transparency Must Be Made Anew

Of course, not all of this is new. Years before Donald Trump derided the media as “fake news,” Vice President Spiro Agnew famously labelled journalists “nattering nabobs of negativism.” But that was a very different era and the media need to understand that the challenges they now face are broader, deeper, more complicated as they become central players in the election campaign rather than simply observers.

All of this increases the pressure for the media to get it right.

This has always been important, but now that errors are weaponized by partisans to discredit the “fake” media, the pressure to avoid self-inflicted wounds has intensified. Even routine mistakes are seized upon to discredit the entire enterprise of journalism. This is the harsh reality check: No matter how good American journalism is, much of the electorate has been conditioned to reject it as “fake.” The last campaign saw an explosion of hoaxes, fabrications that often seemed to overwhelm legitimate news on social media.

This ought to be have been the canary in the coal mine for conservatives, but in a stunning demonstration of the power and resiliency of our new post-factual political culture, Trump and his allies in the right media quickly absorbed, disarmed, and turned the term “fake news” against its critics, draining it of any meaning. Now any news deemed to be biased, annoying, or negative can be labelled “fake news.”

Trump and his supporters now routinely conflate journalistic errors or lapses with intentional distortions; and many voters seem willing to accept the president’s chronic falsehoods or are indifferent to the deceptions.

The result is a toxic and challenging environment for journalists. They can answer the challenge with reporting that is aggressive, accurate, thorough, and fair. The next few years will be a referendum on whether they succeed.

Kirkus Reviews: "How The Right Lost Its Mind"

From Kirkus Reviews: 

A “contrarian conservative” tries to come to grips with what his side of the political aisle has become, and he loathes much of what he sees.

Sykes (Fail U.: The False Promise of Higher Education, 2016, etc.) is a “Never Trump” conservative who has maintained that position after Trump’s presidential rise revealed many in that cohort to be opportunists. The author is an earnest conservative who is truly heartbroken and angry about how conservatism has degraded in recent years, and he lays out in clear and honest prose the many problems with a conservative movement that has been taken over by angry white nationalists. “Sometime in the last decade,” writes Sykes, “conservative commentator Matt Drudge began linking to a website run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. By doing so, he broke down the wall that separated the full-blown cranks from the mainstream conservative media, injecting a toxic worldview into the Right’s bloodstream. The conservative movement never recovered.” The author also asks whether or not he was partially responsible, through his conservative talk radio show, myriad media appearances, and prolific writings, for the current situation. Except perhaps on this last question of his own culpability and that of pundits like him, the author has written a largely convincing, compelling book. He tends to romanticize a golden age of conservatism, that of William Buckley and Ronald Reagan, both of whom on more than one occasion revealed elements of white nationalist thought. Buckley delivered plenty of screeds against the civil rights movement in his National Review, and Reagan, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had his fair share of racism-tinged gaffes, including his statements about “strapping young bucks” buying T-bone steaks and “Welfare Queens” as well as how “humiliating” the Voting Rights Act was to the South. Still, the author’s points about our current state are solid.

A courageous book destined to make Sykes a target among many of the worst elements that he eviscerates, which will, sadly, just confirm the strength of his thesis.

What Have They Got to Hide?

My latest piece from the Nieman Reports

The Trump administration’s penchant for secrecy is not a media issue; it is a democracy issue. And that makes it the weak spot in Trump’s otherwise successful jihad against American journalism.

Ponder this irony: A political movement driven by populist fervor is now aggressively shutting the public out of the business of government. The proclivity for concealment extends from White House briefings to federal agencies to Congress’s taste for hiding the legislative process from the prying eyes of taxpayers.

The Danger of Ignoring Alex Jones

Alex Jones, the conspiracy trafficker who runs the website Infowars, believes that Sept. 11 was an “inside job” and that the massacre of children at Sandy Hook was faked. These are cruel falsehoods that most people don’t want to confront on broadcast television. Megyn Kelly’s decision to interview him, for a show to air Sunday night,has been roundly criticized by people who suggest that we would be better off denying this fringe extremist exposure.

Indeed, when Mr. Jones was merely a marginal figure on the paranoid right, the case could plausibly be made that he was better left in obscurity. But now that, at least according to Mr. Jones, the president of the United States has praised him and thanked him for the role he played in his election victory, it’s too late to make that argument. We can’t keep ignoring the fringe. We have to expose it.

Everything That’s Happening That is Bad is About to Get Worse

This last year was just this really soul‑crushing, disillusioning slog for me, because I really did think I understood what the conservative movement was about. In Wisconsin, we had a very robust conservative movement, a lot of success, and I really thought that this was a movement based on concepts of freedom and individual liberty, small government, constitutionalism. When Trump came along, I kept expecting that the conservative movement would stand up and say, “This is exactly what we aren’t.”