Tuesday, August 18, 2020

A Biden Conservative

Bret Stephens, who fills the "establishment conservative" slot at the NY Times, muses on his electoral choices:

The other day I spotted a sticker that read, “Settle for Biden, 2020.” It spoke for me.

To be a Biden conservative is to feel about as much enthusiasm for the presumptive Democratic nominee as a Sanders socialist might, albeit from the opposite direction. Everyone is aware of the former vice president’s foibles. . . .

The most obvious recommendations for Joe Biden are a succession of “isn’ts.” He isn’t Donald Trump. He isn’t Bernie Sanders. He isn’t angry, bigoted, cruel, demagogic, erratic, frightening or gross. He isn’t going to drive Americans to distraction or the country into a ditch.

Does anyone seriously doubt that, on the day President Biden enters office, the country would revert to a more normal version of itself — more so, at any rate, than it has been in the Bizarro World of the Trump years? . . .

Beyond the state of the political parties is the state of the country. I came of age as a conservative when the great domestic issue of our time was the size and reach of the federal government. Under Trump, Republicans are hardly better than Democrats on that issue, and in many respects worse. Federal debt as a percentage of gross domestic product has never been higher since World War II. The gap between government spending and federal revenue has rarely been wider. “What, Me Worry?” says Alfred E. Trump.

But the domestic issue of our time is not the size of government. It’s the unity of the country. We are living through the most serious social unrest in 50 years. We have a president who sparks division by nature and stokes it by design.

Part of the country believes the government conspires against them. Another part believes history has conspired against them. The idea that these beliefs won’t get further radicalized in a second Trump administration is fantasy.

Whatever else he does, Biden won’t expend his political capital belittling, demeaning and humiliating other Americans. He won’t treat opponents as enemies, or subordinates as toadies, or take supporters for fools. . . .

I also came of age as a conservative when the great foreign policy issue of the time was the survival and unity of what used to be called “the free world.” That was a world that believed in more-open borders, more free trade, greater unity among the democratic powers, greater resolve against the totalitarian powers of the day.

Whether it’s in his love letters with Kim Jong-un, his scorn for NATO, his asperity toward Angela Merkel, his credulity with Vladimir Putin, his undermining of the alliance with South Korea or his fire and flattery with Beijing, Trump is wrecking the idea of a free world, and of the possibility of America’s leadership of it. Conservatives used to care about this. They still should.

When you divide the world in two, you necessarily put a disparate group of people in each half, and this is particularly true of "right" and "left." Trump has shaken up American politics because he produces a different divide than say Mitt Romney or George W. Bush. Trump has no appeal to people for whom conservatism means reverence for old things, or a love of order and decorum. He has no respect for intellectual or religious traditions, for care about spending money or the unintended consequences of appealing new laws. I think the only reason he was able to win at all was the intense partisanship of our time, which has millions of conservatives preferring any Republic to any Democrat.

Intellectually, Trump has been very clarifying for me. By contemplating his supporters I have come to understand that most American voters don't much care about the conservative, constitutionalist way of feeling and thinking that animates the George Wills of the world. What they connect with is what you might call high school football conservatism: reverence for toughness, sneering contempt for the weak, a willingness to inflict pain and humiliation to reach your goals – partly because to such people failure and pain are how you become stronger, and if you are nice to the other team out of pity or whatever they will never grow strong themselves. Life is a struggle in which you are either a winner or a loser, and which side you fall on depends on your own efforts, your own willingness to pick yourself up after each setback and forge on. Those who win deserve our respect. Loyalty to the team is paramount, which ultimately means a willingness to fight to the bitter end for your own side. 

Most American conservatives have accepted the end of laws that discriminated on the basis of race or sex, but they are dubious of contemporary civil rights movements. These all seem to argue for turning down the intensity of the competition, for giving people some sort of underground tunnel into the end zone without fighting their way down the field. Big institutions of any sort are suspect because they degrade or hide individual initiative and make ways to the top for those who couldn't compete on their own but get ahead by boot-licking or graft– by "corruption," the all-purpose word for whatever keeps the good, hard-working, knock-taking people from coming out on top. To these people life is tough but it is fair, in the sense that where you end up depends on what you do. When that doesn't happen, the problem must be corruption, must be that the playing field is somehow being tilted by sinister forces, either seen (immigrants, feminists, bureaucrats) or unseen (the UN, Davos, the Deep State).

Brett Stephens and George Will probably agree with some of what I just wrote; they love "free market competition" and education built around toughening people up for life in a tough world. What they cannot stand is the barbarity of it, the tawdry high-school taunting, the dismissal of any morality but that of winning, the constant stoking of anger against enemies real or imagined. Also the conspiracy theories, since they understand perfectly well that all the apparatus limiting competition and coddling the losers has been chosen by the voters; Medicaid may be a mistake, but there is no mystery about where it came from. What they fear is the erosion of the rules, written and unwritten, that they think have kept America stable for 150 years.

What remains to be seen is whether in America there can be an alliance of the sane people, the ones who understand cause and effect, who see the need to keep the country together, against the people fired up to smash the other team and drive for the end zone. To achieve that alliance, everyone will have to give up something; sane conservatives and sane liberals disagree on a lot. But what happens if everyone abandons the center in pursuit of victory for their own side, whatever that means, is a worrying question. Looking around the world you can see a dozen examples of people who have thrown away democracy rather than see the other side win, and there is no historical guarantee that the US won't one day go the same path.


David said...

I think your analysis of Trumpism and the contemporary Republican Party has much to recommmend it, and really, is fundamentally right. I would quibble with two points. One is that you describe "most American voters" as connecting with this kind of "high school football conservatism"; I'm not sure that a majority of voters actually feel this way. For example, part of the old Republican coalition were self-perceived genteel white suburbanites who support lower taxes and don't want "them" moving into their neighborhoods (especially if they can keep "them" out without having to talk about it). For them, high-school football may be fine for their young men, but it's vulgar as a way of life. Southern whites have been divided along these lines--genteel vs. brawler--since before the Civil War. Trump is losing these upper middle class suburban voters (the famed "suburban, college-educated women"), who were crucial to Republican victories from Reagan to Bush II. And there's much of the rest of America that doesn't share the football mentality either (including a significant portion of virtually every high school).

Second, I think you may be a little too charitable on the idea that these folks believe losing and learning from your loss is acceptable. Many probably do believe that, especially those who've lost once or twice themselves, but many others really just despise losers, period. Trump is unquestionably one of the latter. From his father, he learned that one must dominate everything and everyone around, or one is nothing.

Of course, there are contradictions here. Trump himself toadies to men whose ability to dominate he admires--Putin above all, of course. And there is the curious tendency of the same groups to whine about how they are oppressed by shadowy conspiracies, threatened by other races, put upon by intellectuals and bureaucrats, and so on, and overall to perceive themselves as victims. Trump does this as well.

Perhaps it's that I'm Jewish, but I see an obvious connection to historical attitudes toward Jews here. Trump and others of his ilk like Israelis because they are ruthless and tough (and, turning Jews into this type of person was always one of the dreams of Zionism). But they also clearly despise a liberal elite with all the qualities of the old pre-Zionist stereotype of the whimpy, unphysical, cosmopolitan, over-intellectual Jew.

David said...

Note, while I doubt "most" Americans connect to "high school football conservatism," I think the number is very large. Now that FDR-LBJ-era union voting is dead, they may be the largest single group of voters.