NeverTrump Standard-Bearer Goes Full Limbaugh
Let me state my conclusion bluntly, right up front, in order to reject one sickening effect of the Trump era immediately, namely the recasting of wormlike obfuscation as a courageous moral stand: Erick Erickson has decided that the principles which led him to coin the hashtag #NeverTrump no longer apply.
Erickson, the founder of RedState, with which he is no longer affiliated, and which has since gone full GOP bootlicker, was for years very successful as an establishment-oriented Republican commentator who nevertheless managed to position himself as a quasi-outsider, hence making him a perfect match for the so-called conservative “alternative” media, including as a regular analyst on Fox News. He was not really standing against the party, but merely trying to push it a little closer to a principled position on traditional conservative issues. (Needless to say, like all who try to influence the GOP in this direction, he failed miserably and utterly.) Hence he had the best of both worlds from a career point of view: respectability among both Washington insiders and grassroots constitutionalists.
All of that fell apart in 2016, as did all the other professional gamesmanship of the “conservative punditry.” The Trump juggernaut, fueled by a cult comprised of a substantial portion of the audience base for the conservative media online, on radio, and on Fox, made wholehearted, unequivocal support for all things Trump the minimum requirement for their continued patronage, and indeed the minimum condition for being spared a mass swarming of virtual violence and public vilification. Erickson, having opposed Trump on legitimate grounds — his cynical associations with the establishment, his stupidity, his moral turpitude, his incompetence, his vulgarity, his likely effects on political discourse and the hopes of constitutional conservatism for the foreseeable future — found himself in the awkward position of having to choose whether to simply sacrifice his honor for the smooth continuance of his professional influence, as almost every other prominent conservative media figure was doing at that time, or to dig in on his principled position and let the chips fall where they may. He chose the latter.
Of course, it is always easier to choose principle when one honestly believes the compromised alternative will be a short-lived phenomenon, or burn itself out. But when the unprincipled alternative turns out to have longevity, and hence the adverse effects of resisting it turn out to be permanent, the pressure on a professional commentator (i.e., analyst seeking financial reward for his insight) — even a relatively consistent one — to break ranks with his own soul may become overwhelming. Such is apparently the case with Erickson, who is now declaring that Trump the President has won his vote for 2020, in spite of his continued reservations about Trump the Man.
The crux of his case for caving — um, I mean developing — is this:
I still struggle on the character issue and I understand Christian friends who would rather sit it out than get involved. But I also recognize that we cannot have the Trump Administration policies without President Trump and there is much to like.
In other words, Trump has done some things that please Erickson — he notes deregulation, the Paris climate accord, tax reform, and (pathetically) “undermining Obamacare” as prime examples — and therefore he is prepared to overlook all the things that caused him to resist the GOP’s choice in 2016.
The weakness of this argument is that Erickson, like everyone else, knew perfectly well in 2016 that a Trump administration would do some things that a traditional Republican voter would like. That was inevitable, as Trump, having run as a Republican, would of course have to please his supporters, and furthermore his complete incompetence guaranteed that he would rely on establishment advisors and appointees to direct much of his policy. The concern of NeverTrumpers was never that Trump would simply “be a Democrat,” or do everything wrong. The real criticism was, in a nutshell, all the things Erickson now tries to downplay as mere minor “concerns” that remain.
In other words, he has in fact chosen at last to do what all the other mainstream pseudo-constitutionalists did two years earlier: judge which way the winds are blowing, career-wise, and pretend that Trump’s unworthiness for the office (to put it mildly) is somehow an insignificant factor compared to all those great partial actions he has sort of taken — the ones any Republican president would likely have taken.
A further argument he offers is that the Democrats have defined themselves so far to the radical left, and the media has defined itself so much as an anti-Trump faction, that supporting Trump has become imperative as a form of principled conservative resistance. This is questionable in the extreme, since the Democrats have been openly committed to the hard left for a generation, and the media has been famously pro-Democrat for much longer than that. In other words, there is nothing really new here; this part of Erickson’s argument is thus just another predictable iteration of the usual “binary choice” ploy the GOP establishment uses every election, and that Erickson correctly rejected in 2016.
In short, in 2016 Erickson chose to take a difficult and unpopular stand as a matter of principle. In 2019, he has decided to rescind that decision. Only he knows why. But please let’s divest ourselves of the fantasy that anything substantial has changed to alter his position. No, he has changed.
To be clear on this for the umpteenth time, I understand why many sincere and principled conservatives made the choice to vote for Trump, or “against Hillary” as they saw it, in 2016. But Erickson was not one of those people. He made the other reasonable choice in 2016. Now he is trying to squirm back into the Republican establishment fold, and perhaps to win back his contract with Fox News, but he is unwilling to say “I was wrong.” Instead, he is claiming that Trump has won him over by being better than expected. One long-term effect of the Trump presidency will be its lowering of all standards: of conservatism, of competence, of America’s significance, of moral rectitude, of liberty, of constitutional republicanism. Merely not being an overt Democrat is now, officially, enough to qualify one as a good president — good enough, at any rate, to endorse and support with one’s franchise.
The GOP establishment has played its game to perfection, and won. They played chicken with the voices and leaders of conservatism, betting that ambition and personal self-protection would take precedence in the end over the principles that seemed to be gaining steam on the fringes of the party. They calculated well. Constitutionalism, the Tea Party, principled conservative dissent, and a liberty-oriented minority faction of the commentariat — everything Mitch McConnell and Karl Rove hated and vowed to destroy — have been defeated. These things are no more.
A final point, and ultimately a more important one: I do not think Erick Erickson necessarily calculated his financial best interests in the most cynical way, as did Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and most of the rest of the popular conservative voices. Rather, I believe what we are seeing here is an object lesson in the danger of vested interests. Any intellectual position or perspective of inquiry is only as trustworthy and serious as the undistracted and unmitigated reasoning of the person who takes that position. A vested interest, however understandable and sensible it may be in its own right, is in practice a poison in one’s thought process, a seed of distortion which inclines one toward the inferences that would be most convenient for one to reach. Hence Erickson, whose career rise has in some ways been threatened by the divisive effects of the Trump era, has suddenly decided that the very same premises which led him to one conclusion two years ago now serve as evidence for the opposite conclusion today. (Glenn Beck and Ben Shapiro are two other popular professional conservatives who have undergone a similarly convenient “evolution” in their positions vis-à-vis Trump over the past couple of years.) One test of intellectual honesty — particularly honesty with oneself — is one’s willingness to divest oneself of those vested interests that are most likely to skew one’s reasoning, or at least to be assiduous in seeking them out and identifying them for what they are, so as to allow oneself to counterbalance them in one’s thought.
As a personal example, I was a very successful and popular writer for a very popular conservative website throughout the several years leading up to Trump’s presidential bid. At a certain point during the GOP primaries, my publisher made a conscious decision to stop “hearing both sides” on Trump, due to fear of losing many regular readers at the site, Trump fanatics who, like all cultists, would brook no open discussion or challenging questions. I realized at a certain point that to continue writing at that venue, even on topics seemingly unrelated to Trump, would require a continual process of self-editing with a view to not pressing any sensitive buttons with the Trump-love of both the site’s readers and its editors. At that point, I faced a choice: keep my readers at the expense of my free and honest reasoning, or sacrifice the large audience, perhaps forever, for the sake of a clean conscience and intellectual free-spiritedness. For me, the choice was easy, as I never sought financial gain through my political writing, and since, more broadly, my inner voice on such questions is the voice of Socrates, not Mephistopheles — i.e., the voice of eternal well-being, not temporal advantage. In short, I was, in my own small way, in the same position as Erickson, Beck, Shapiro, et al, but I never “found” cause to regret and reverse my original, unpopular decision. I never allowed vested interests to distort my political reasoning or my “professional” deliberative processes.
The Trump era has revealed a sea of vested interests, most of them quite pettily self-interested in nature, that have all but drowned legitimate conservative or constitutionalist thought in America, at least in the public square. In this sense, Trump’s effect is salubrious, as exposing shallow principles and faux “leaders” is always beneficial.
Truth, even ugly truth, is always better than comforting fantasy.