Ted Cruz saw his wife and father publicly attacked and ridiculed by Donald Trump and his surrogates, and his own reputation and character smeared in the National Enquirer on Trump’s behalf, in the most repulsive case of “winning ugly” in the history of presidential politics. He watched the Tea Party constitutionalist movement he claimed to represent being thwarted and annihilated by Trump in close coordination with the GOP establishment, led by the slimiest operator in Washington, Mitch McConnell. And then, almost overnight, he turned around and threw not only his vote but his mind and every last scrap of his dignity at Trump’s feet, begging Trump’s millions of hateful idolaters to accept him into the fold at last and to forgive him for daring to oppose Trump in the presidential primaries, and effectively swearing to be Trump’s most consistent and unwavering sycophant and cheerleader forever.
Every half-honest observer — and even many die-hard Trump supporters, I am sure — knew what he was witnessing in Cruz’s transformation: a man so desperate for power that he would sell his wife, his family, his pride, and his principles to salvage his dream of being president of the United States someday in the future. A corrupt and fatally compromised man.
This realization left America’s surviving principled conservatives and constitutionalists, a dying band to be sure, with Mike Lee as perhaps their final hope of any kind of representative voice in the U.S. Senate. And on many issues, Lee has indeed continued to stand on principle — or rather to speak on principle, since as Cruz proved, the sound of character need not entail the real existence of the thing.
As recently as two weeks ago, for example, we had Lee speaking with integrity and straightforwardness about the insulting inadequacy of the Trump administration’s briefing on the military operation against Iran, and then co-sponsoring a bill to restrain Trump’s independent action in that arena.
But now, during the senate impeachment trial, we have Senator Lee declaring his intention to vote for Trump’s re-election, standing proudly and smilingly behind Trump at a national anti-abortion event, and invoking the standard Trump cult phrase “the deep state” in a video message to his Trump-friendly constituents in criticizing the Democrat’s impeachment case.
One of the great potential benefits of Trump’s ascendency — and yes, as a strong proponent of the importance of redeeming suffering, I do believe the Trump era may prove beneficial in the long run — is that it has exposed everyone to a degree that the more commonplace corrosives of American politics could never do. There is nowhere to hide, no comfortable “incremental progress” banner to lurk behind, in Trump’s America, for one with any pretenses of being a defender of individual liberty and the U.S. Constitution.
The sheer obviousness of Trump’s dearth of the most basic intelligence and curiosity — his near-illiteracy, his poor attention span, his lack of elementary school civics knowledge, his childish vocabulary and incoherent speech patterns, his stubborn refusal to learn — has exposed all those who have chosen to defend him as an ingenious strategist and negotiator as disingenuous and immature star-chasers.
His complete and frankly declared unawareness of political principles, or even of what the word “principles” might mean, exposes those who insist that he is the most conservative president since Reagan, or even (as they increasingly claim) ever, as living evidence of late modernity’s school-induced ignorance of history and political ideas, and its unwavering preference for low-brow “style” over learned substance.
His blatant deference to and admiration for the world’s most brutal and totalitarian-minded autocrats exposes those who claimed for years to be believers in liberty, but who now cry “Nobel Peace Prize” or defend Trump’s cowardice and pro-tyranny inclinations on the most amoral realpolitik grounds, as the perfectly-trained sheep and useful idiots of progressive authoritarianism.
Those — and I am thinking particularly of the “conservative media” in this case — who consistently and vehemently praise Trump’s actions and statements on a dozen fundamental issues, when these actions and statements fly in the face of every belief these people publicly espoused for years, expose themselves as never having been anything but cynical mercenaries, Tea Partiers for hire if you will, willing to “adjust” their souls to any position that will help them earn more money or a bigger audience this year.
So-called Christian conservatives, particularly evangelicals, who trumpet Trump as the next best thing (at least) to the Second Coming, and excuse all of his explicit immorality, mean-spirited crudeness, abrasive megalomania, and (to put it mildly) impiety as mere peccadilloes compared to his divine grace, expose themselves as the embodiment of petty self-interest and amoral calculation masquerading as an ethical position.
And what about the sitting Republican members of the United States Congress? We had the bulk of the so-called House Freedom Caucus, who promoted themselves as the last bastion of constitutional republicanism, adherents to the political ideals of James Madison and the economic theories of Frédéric Bastiat, resisting Trump’s pragmatism in the early days, and incurring his demeaning schoolyard spittle for their resistance to his trade policies, his healthcare proposals, his debt infatuation. Today, only one member of that group, Justin Amash, has anything negative to say about the Trump administration, ever — and that member has had to withdraw from both the Freedom Caucus and the Republican Party for the sin of having had the gall to continue believing today what he claimed to believe three years ago. The entire Freedom Caucus is now, as I have dubbed them, the “Freedom (from Liberty) Caucus.”
Recently, in a general expression of disgust with the impeachment process and in particular the GOP’s mindless unanimity in defense of an essentially indefensible man, Patterico specifically cited Ben Sasse and Mike Lee as two senators he has admired and supported, reading their books and appreciating their principled conservatism, but who have now, by joining the GOP’s chorus of “Give me Trump or give me death!” have left him disillusioned and outraged that even these two seemingly reasonable and worthy men — two men who have shown themselves willing and able to incur a good deal of wrath and ridicule for their political principles — should succumb to the tribal group-think mentality that dominates the Republican Party today.
Patterico’s lament was in the back of my mind a few days ago, when I wrote the following:
Expecting democratic leaders to be higher men, or at least better than you, and therefore worthy of representing you, will always end in crushing disappointment. A moment’s reflection on what these men had to do to gain and keep their positions of power…. Could you do such things to your soul? Why, then, would you expect any solidity of purpose or principle, any honesty or integrity, from someone who could do such things?
We are witnessing the reversal of America. From a nation founded on the premises that government cannot be trusted, that the people must remain forever armed and vigilant, and that all men are created equal, she has pivoted to the very opposite perspective: a nation of self-identified followers and “ordinary folk” desperate for protectors and idols and standard-bearers to arise from among the mysterious ranks of their betters — for a hero to “stand up for the little guy.” What little guy?
Mike Lee says a lot of good things. But he is also a man who ran for election, and intends to do so again. That means being liked and approved of by the majority of his constituents is a priority in his life and an essential condition of his personal future, as he perceives it. I still believe it is theoretically possible for a principled man to choose a life path in which mass approval is an inescapable priority and constant underlying concern without ultimately diminishing all his other priorities and concerns to subordinate status — as long as he is prepared to accept the likely necessity of having to choose a different life path if and when mass approval is not forthcoming. That is, a man could say, and really mean, “I stand for this; if you like this, then I hope you’ll vote for me, but if you don’t like this, then I will accept losing your support, and carry on with my principled life in some other way.”
Is Mike Lee the sort of man who could take that position? Could he accept defeat and give up the political career he has spent years forging for himself, if it should turn out that the voters he hoped to represent have decided to sell their minds to a cult of personality instead of voting for his good ideas? If standing with chanting morons and angry sheep at a Trump rally is the price of being allowed to stand on the floor of the United States Senate, is Lee prepared to make his honest case for the ideas he first ran on one more time, and to let the chips fall where they may? Is he willing to accept the hard road of walking away from his lifelong aspirations and finding another practical mission in life, if this should prove necessary for a man of constitutionalist principle in the current climate?
Or will he make excuses for compromising on principles? Will he determine, through a subtle process of rationalization — a sort of dance of the seven veils performed for himself — that his remaining in office is so vital, so necessary to the republic in the long run, than any pretzels he might have to twist himself into today, any amount of pride and moral rectitude he might have to swallow, are somehow worthwhile for the sake of the greater good? And if “the greater good” seems more and more to be conflated with the personal, pragmatic, career good of one Senator Mike Lee? Well, so be it. Trump too shall pass, he can tell himself.
And when the dust clears, and things become more reasonable again, he, Mike Lee, principled constitutionalist from Utah, will still be there, occupying a more senior position in the senate, and ready to lead America back to the path of righteousness or limited government — except that by then, he will have “learned some important lessons” about the value of “getting along,” “working with one’s colleagues,” and “meeting other people halfway,” in order to “get things done” in Washington. And somehow the debt won’t seem quite as big a problem as he used to think, economic liberty will have given way to “some targeted slackening of regulations,” big government entitlement programs will be essential American goods to be tweaked and restructured rather than defunded and dismantled, and voting for the “R” at all costs will have come to seem the only and necessary means of reversing the growth of…the Democrats.
A few weeks ago, a student with a propensity to ask complex philosophical questions the way you or I might ask, “Have you seen today’s weather forecast?” e-mailed me this one: “What is compromising? How do I know whether I compromise or not?”
The following, cosmetically modified, was my reply:
To compromise means to give up some of your position in order to get along with others, or to avoid some kind of stress or difficulty. This could be a good thing in many practical situations. For example, you only like Italian food, but I always prefer Korean. If I want to get along with you, I should be willing to say, “Okay, let’s go out for Italian food sometime,” because this will please you. Food preference is not a moral issue or a question of true and false, so there is no reason to be strict about my opinion, and risk losing your friendship over something so unimportant.
On the other hand, on basic moral issues or rational beliefs about important things – what we would call “matters of principle” – compromise is a weakness, because it means you don’t take these important things seriously enough. For example: Imagine you believe, “I am strongly against abortion because I think killing babies is immoral”; but then your best friend says, “I am pregnant but I don’t want a baby, so I think I must have an abortion.” In this situation, if you think, “I don’t want to harm our friendship, so I shouldn’t say anything against her decision,” then you are compromising a principle. You are basically saying, “I think abortion is murder, but I will not object to this particular murder, because I want to keep my friend.” In this sort of case, the compromise is irrational or immoral, because you are saying “What is true (or morally good) is not important enough to let it inconvenience me in my practical life.”
Whenever you are in a situation in which you have to choose between what you prefer and what you don’t like, ask yourself, “Am I giving up a more important thing for a less important thing? Or am I giving up a less important thing for a more important thing?” In my first example (restaurants), you would be giving up a less important thing (food preference) for a more important thing (friendship). In the second example, you would be giving up a more important thing (your moral belief that abortion is wrong) for a less important thing (avoiding a disagreement with your friend who wants to do something you believe is morally wrong). Furthermore — and this is significant — in the second example, in the name of supposedly avoiding harm to your friendship, you are actually, according to your own principles, causing harm to your friend, by quietly consenting to her doing something that you sincerely believe will corrupt her life in a serious way.
The first kind of compromise is normally acceptable and useful (and morally neutral), but the second kind of compromise is unacceptable and harmful, because in that sort of case, you are really compromising your soul (your beliefs and moral character).