I almost think that the phenomenon of the “sensible conservative” might be coming back: one whom liberals, social democrats, democratic socialists et. al. can rationally engage in debate and dialogue, and who occasions genuine and mutual respect. There have always been a few around – Andrew Sullivan comes to mind – but until the rocket-like rise of Donald Trump, they have either not been visible or hid their sensible natures under an opaque bushel for the sake of “the cause.” I say “almost” because American conservatism is, itself, in serious disarray, and conservatives who acknowledge that should, but probably won’t, come to wonder whether the problem is with American conservatism itself, its fundamental incoherence. (That liberalism in the USA is likewise in disarray is a serious matter, but not as serious, for since 1980 conservative ideology, including its seemingly milder neoliberal/DLC variant, has been hegemonic.) I wonder how many self-described conservatives will, upon reflection, stop self-describing that way…
Witness the likes of Robert Kagan, George F. Will, Ross Douthat, and David Brooks expressing, if belatedly, sincere outrage at the antics of Trump (although sometimes their critique vacillates between condemning him as being crypto-Liberal and being crypto-Fascist) and his supporters. They at last realize that Trump is less a populist than an authoritarian demagogue. Some of them even recognize that the demagoguery is less a rejection of the “Republican establishment” as its unanticipated creation. Frankenstein analogies abound in the blogosphere, and they are apt.
One such “sensible” conservative is former Reagan aide and historian Bruce Bartlett, who on MSNBC’s “The Last Word” admitted he cast his vote for Trump in the Virginia primary. But not for the reason one usually casts one’s vote. As Bartlett put it,
My goal is to try to destroy the Republican Party. I think only when it has reached rock bottom can responsible Republicans once again come back and make it a reasonable governing party.
Let that sink in for a second, would you? Bartlett goes on:
Right now, [the Republican Party is] just a coalition of cranks, and racists and bigots and religious kooks. [The Tea Party has] to be run out of the Party completely. And I think Trump is the vehicle that will allow that to happen. I think if he gets the nomination, and I hope he does, he will go down to a historic defeat. I think the Republican establishment will have no choice but to disown him. I think there will be a very substantial Republicans for Hillary effort and I think he will lose disastrously and hopefully bring down a lot of Republican senators and congressman with him.
Now I agree with Bartlett’s analysis of the Republican Party, and as a longtime Green and Independent (who registered Democratic to vote for Bernie Sanders this year), my impulse is to say “go for it!” But there is something disturbing about Bartlett’s vote for the man he hates in order to bring about the fall of the political organization he loves. He is voting not with his heart but with his middle finger. Which, understandable as it is, self-defeats one’s role as a citizen.
Lots of people on the Right – I do not call them all “conservatives” because they are not – are voting with their middle fingers these days. Trump supporters and Sanders supporters have one, and only one, thing in common: they are angry at party establishments and their corporate underwriters. They rightly see themselves as being “ripped off” by the high and mighty.
Here, the resemblance not only ends, but ends drastically. Sanders supporters, in the main, view this crisis as one of democracy, more precisely the corruption of the democratic process by money and corporate access, and the internal corruption of the DNC by “establishment” ties to these moneyed interests. The crisis is solved by reaffirming not only democratic ideals, but democratic means for pursuing those ideals. Trump supporters, on the contrary, see this as a crisis of authority to be solved by a home-grown Putin, Erdogan, or Orban. Martin Wolf, of the London Financial Times, eloquently dubbed Trump and his supporters “pluto-populists”, achieving an unlikely union between right-wing nationalism and plutocracy, as long as the plutocrats, like Trump, do well by “good people” and stick it to the “undeserving” and “takers” stuck on lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.
Sanders supporters are working for something positive: they are angry, they are persistent, but they realize that this will be the start of a long political slog that transcends Sanders himself and any one agent of the “political revolution” he is endorsing. Trump, and his supporters, are not into positive thinking. They are angry, Trump is the strong one who “tells it like it is”, he is the dealmaker who will set things right by sheer force, and that’s all one needs to know. As Alfred the butler said of The Joker, “Some people just want to watch the world burn…”
While I am tempted to say, of Bartlett’s Dada conservatism and his nihilistic vote for the Orange One, “Good! ‘Bout Time! And thank you for your support!” I remain disturbed. Voting with one’s middle finger against those who vote with their middle finger is still . . . well, you get the idea. There is something pushing against the idea of democratic citizenship at work here. The democratic citizen knows when to compromise and when to stand fast, will be civil and open-minded without mincing words, will recognize authority but not concede that no authority is indefeasible and limitless and unaccountable, bows to no one but respects all of the fellow citizens in the demos. Throughout, the citizen works for the Common Good. If you are voting with your middle finger – or rather, only with your middle finger, out of sense of anger or entitlement without a corresponding sense of justice and responsibility and answerability – do not be surprised if the results are a bit like Hobbes’s “State of Nature”, where life, even if no longer very short, remains nasty, poor, and, above all, brutish.