Wednesday, October 19, 2016



In the latest Commentary podcast, John Podhoretz singles me out a bit, starting around the 50 minute mark:  I had it transcribed for Transom purposes (stripping out some comments from Noah Rothman and Abe Greenwald to focus on John’s point): “There is this line that Ben Domenech of The Federalist said last week: "Trump will lose and then nothing will change. Things need to change but nothing will change." Well what exactly is it that's supposed to change? Again, we don't know what the margin is. But if he's at 40% and Hillary's at 51% or he's at 39% and Hillary's at 52% or something like that, let's just say. What part of his agenda wasn't rejected by the overwhelming majority of the American people?

“That's what happens. That is wilderness for a generation. Now it doesn't mean that the Republican Party won't do down this path. McGovern lost by almost 24 points in 1972 and the Party effectively became a McGovernite Party for almost 20 years afterwards, even though he had lost... The public made it clear, they didn't like how he talked about foreign policy, they didn't like how he talked about crime, they didn't like how he talked about taxes, they didn't like his embrace of the new left, and they didn't like the basic anti-Americanism of the approach…

“More important in all of this is this notion that populists who are nonetheless disgusted by Trump, they want to embrace the populism of Trump without Trump, like Ben Domenech and others, will not tell you what part of the Trump agenda it is that they think we need to hold on to. Let them say. I would like to know. Is a Muslim ban something that they like? I mean fine, so maybe the Republican Party will be talking about a wall for the next 50 years, whatever. Do they want trade wars? It's like, "Yes, well you know we haven't really looked at this, if in fact yes American makes ..." Do we want a trade war with China or not? …

“We're having a definitional problem here, because Republican Reformers ordinarily refers to people like Paul Ryan and stuff like that. Who it is the argument of this group of non-Trump but not anti-anti-Trump, anti-anti-anti-anti-Trump people, like Ben Domenech ... They're not really the Reform Republicans as the term ...

“The Reform Republicans are first the people who very honestly and with good hearts beginning in 2006 said look, there's a whole bunch of people who are being left behind in our economy. We need to structure ways to speak to them. That was Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam's book, "Sam's Club Republicans", which emerged from an article in the Weekly Standard. We've published Yuval Levin on the mobility crisis and Paul Ryan's budgets and now his Better Way agenda. These are all efforts. These are all very conscious, very meaningful efforts to attempt to cope with the fact that there are people who have been left behind and that policies can be used to structure to help them…

“They didn't work. But it didn't work. It's been 10 years and it didn't work. I wish it worked. Look, I believe in that. I believe in many of the agenda items that are part – it didn't work as an electoral selling agenda. Effectively both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio ran as these Reform Republicans…

“That's the nonsense, because if you were to say ‘well we need Trumpism without Trump,’ meaning figure out some way to speak to and reintegrate the white working class into the fabric of the United States as it appears to be disweaving itself from it, the only agenda that exists is the reform agenda. And that's Paul Ryan and ‘He's bad and he's just going to be a blank check for Hillary Clinton.’ …

“Anyway, the whole point here is that it's not true. Trump is not their tribune. It would not work to the tribune of the white working class to inaugurate a trade war with China, which would end up raising prices at every store in America by 25% which is something that's really helpful to people who are living, if they're even living paycheck to paycheck. It is not helpful, none of this is helpful.

“Trump is about something else. It is a cultural message about feeling left behind, about rage, and about an honest feeling that the culture is galloping in a direction in which the country is being reshaped without input from a lot of the self-governed Americans.”

So let’s circle back to the key portion of this: “More important in all of this is this notion that populists who are nonetheless disgusted by Trump, they want to embrace the populism of Trump without Trump, like Ben Domenech and others, will not tell you what part of the Trump agenda it is that they think we need to hold on to. Let them say. I would like to know.”

Now, I’ll grant you this cycle has been very busy, but in my memory I don’t recall being asked this question by JPod or anyone else. Because if he asked, I'd certainly have answered it!

First, I’ll admit I don’t understand the overall point about reform. JPod talks about an attempt to reform tied to Paul Ryan and beginning in 2006 (aside: I don’t imagine most would consider Ryan as the leader of the reformists, but no matter). JPod says the only viable reform path is this one, but then he says that after ten years of trying this message has failed, that it failed with Bush and Rubio this time around.

The idea here that Ryan’s approach, the Better Way approach, represents the only viable avenue of reform – “the only agenda that exists is the reform agenda” – seems odd. Is Theresa May's mic not working? Of course there can’t be Trumpism without Trump. But this doesn't mean there can't be populism without Trump. Every other western democracy seems to be trying to meet that market demand. Why can't we do it here? There's no way to incorporate the popular (or even good?) ideas and approach of Trump but not do it with a heathen buffoon with the tastes of Caligula?

For the past couple of months on our radio show I’ve been saying that I think the essential element conservatives ought to retain from Trump is actually not a matter of agenda, but of tone and attitude: the adoption of a default posture of rejection of elite/media assumptions, which some call political incorrectness and others call “telling it like it is”. Trump’s supporters aren’t going to be won over by any twists of a knob in an improved technocratic agenda. Policy details are less important than that essential attitude which reads as belligerent toughness toward our national elite. When people say Trump “tells it like it is”, they don't mean he is actually being honest and telling the truth. They mean he is someone who doesn't appear to couch every word so as to minimize too-easily-taken offense in our wussified culture. They mean he is not afraid of offending.

As for the agenda, I'd start with the premise that somewhat popular minority views can be massaged into something that can fly with a majority. I think history proves this is possible. But when you do that, it shouldn't require that someone be a domestic liberal/international erratic like Trump. Ideally it's an agenda you could run on if you're a Tom Cotton type, too, and I expect potential candidates next cycle to try.

Why can't a Republican Senate candidate in Virginia next year run on an agenda that includes: Building the wall, making our NATO allies pay their fair share, banning Syrian refugees, tracking and enforcing VISA overstays, higher penalties for shooting cops, a 5 year lobbying ban on everybody, cutting the payroll tax for everyone, downplaying entitlement reform, saying marijuana is a state by state issue, and backing term limits - all populist things most of which Trump has supported and none of which are far out of the bounds of conservative orthodoxy?

A more populist agenda would be helpful to winning over Trump supporters, but it is less important than the attitude. The point I keep hammering away on in "MEETINGS ABOUT THE FUTURE" and the like is that the number one aspect of Donald Trump conservatives should retain is an inherent inclination against accepting elite premises about what is acceptable. Thus, something like his call for the Syrian refugee ban – denounced as vile and inhuman by our media and political elites, who know no one who disagrees with them on it – turns out to be popular with an actual majority of Americans! Why? Not just because for many Americans it's just common sense (“how can the government which can’t run a VA, launch a website, or keep track of a terrorist’s wife tell good refugees from bad?”) but also because it's offensive to everyone sitting around the table on TV. We should recognize that the only entity less popular than Congress is the media and treat them as such.


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