Actions speak louder than words. That’s what we’ve all been taught by hard experience. So despite Paul Ryan’s tepid endorsement of Donald Trump his actions tell us where his heart is. Ryan and the rest of the GOP establishment have had absolutely nothing to say about the violence perpetrated against Trump supporters by Hillary Clinton’s backers on the streets of Albuquerque, Anaheim, San Jose, San Diego and elsewhere. This political violence targets Republican voters, but as far as Conservatism Inc. is concerned, mum’s the word. But they have had plenty of time to parse Donald Trump’s every word and Tweet for the slightest transgression of PC etiquette. Speak an uncomfortable truth and the pack starts to circle and howl. Quick, run for your safe space, Don has the mic.
Let’s remember that these are the same people who have never gone on offense against Obama and his big government agenda nor even mounted an effective defense. These are the people who have given us 8 straight years of enormous deficits, who sided with Obama and funded Obama’s open borders agenda against the will of voters, who funded Obamacare, and on and on. They give great rhetoric on the campaign trail where they sound like Adam Smith but they govern like Gerald Ford. And not even the real Gerald Ford, the Chevy Chase version known only for his spectacular pratfalls.
At home or on the campaign trail they tell voters everything they want to hear. Every speech, mailer (paid for with franking privileges, of course), and Tweet is chock full of high sounding language extolling the virtues of limited, Constitutional government, balanced budgets, and a strong military to protect the nation. But in Washington they’re part of the cartel. All of a sudden a “spending reduction” means a spending increase, but not quite as fast as last year. Limited government turns into “compassionate conservatism” which is just a euphemism for big government controlled by Republicans. And national defense becomes a series of unfinished foreign adventures.
Sure, when they know the rubes back home are watching, they’ll have a few show votes to make everybody feel good. They’ll vote to repeal Obamacare in the House but do nothing with it in the Senate just so they can run an ad that says they voted to repeal Obamacare. Yet when it’s budget time – when it really matters – they fully fund Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, the whole Obama agenda. It’s political theater and everyone knows it. The show votes aren’t supposed to accomplish anything other than giving members cover when have to go back home and hear from
those annoying plebes voters.
And conservative intellectuals are worse. They need their trigger warnings every bit as much as the most precious Oberlin undergraduate snowflake. As the priests of the bipartisan Washington cartel they defend the faith with the most zeal and least effect. Of course they do, their daily bread depends on it. So when Donald Trump suggests that the United States seek to maximize its own position in trade deals with other countries the priests squeal heresy. What would Hayek say? Or Friedman?
They think Schumpeter’s gales of creative destruction are without cost or at least without cost to them, shielded as they are by endowments and sinecures. At least until this year. The creative destruction they talk about so glibly has come to Conservatism Inc.™ unleashed by the most unlikely candidate. And they respond as people do when it’s their ox getting gored: Anger, bargaining, misrepresentations, distortions, and ad hominem attacks. When it’s low skill workers being displaced by off-the-books illegal immigrants then it’s the workers’ fault for their indolence and insensitivity to the dreams and aspirations of others. Noblesse oblige, the intelligentsia thinks. But it’s tough to affect an aspect of airy benevolence when you don’t have a job.
And when it’s the middle class being outsourced to India but first being forced to train their own replacements, then they just don’t get macroeconomics and free trade. Shame on them for wanting to keep their jobs – don’t they know there’s a bigger picture here? At least that’s what everyone in the Fox green room says. Of course, precious few of them have more than a passing understanding of economics and fewer yet have run businesses or engaged in international trade – or domestic trade for that matter if you don’t count ordering a latte at Starbucks.
Henry Kissinger famously remarked that faculty politics are so nasty because the stakes are so low. Republican politics are nastier this year because people who thought they were part of the permanent aristocracy are finally feeling the chill of the creative destruction they preach as a positive good for others. That’s not supposed to happen – they’re supposed to be above it, outside of it, and protected from consequences. Consequences are for people outside of the Beltway. For the inside the Beltway conservative intellectual establishment it’s supposed to be fantasy football for nerds: talk to your friends about what you would have done, could have done, should have done, but don’t actually accomplish anything.
A few things have become clear. Many conservative (I use the term loosely) intellectuals and pols prefer Clinton to Trump but are too cowardly to come out and say it. So they hide behind milquetoast endorsements that they immediately undercut with full-throated attacks. (I’m looking at you Paul Ryan and you too Mitch McConnell, but there are many others.) They’re content to be the minority party and let Clinton run the country, just like Obama has done, as long as they get to keep their privileged positions as token opposition. In other words, they’re happy being the Washington Generals to the Democrats Harlem Globetrotters – go out and lose every night, but at least you’re part of the show. And to quote their favorite candidate, what difference does it make? They’ve had the majority in Congress and done nothing except back Obama’s agenda after the required public hand-wringing. It will be easier to move into the minority – less responsibility, same limos.
The other thing that has become clear is that they are bigger fools than even their most strident critics thought. Much of Conservatism Inc.™ has swallowed the entire Marxist view of the world that animates the Left. They’re just less self-aware and slightly less strident about it. They believe only or mostly in economic man – shallow, venal, and uninspiring though he may be – not moral man. That’s why we are hectored with endless speeches about the theoretical economic efficiency of free trade pacts that don’t contain free trade, of open borders, and of supply side tax cuts. They’re all good in theory if you can achieve them, but they must be in the service of something higher and better. A bigger TV isn’t going to cut it.
Man is not primarily an economic creature, he is a moral one. Charts and statistics don’t motivate a nation the way that big moral ideas do. It’s why the Left is so much more energetic. Their ideas are predicated on a moral concept. The big ideas of the Right are too – limited government and the natural rights of man are moral ideas but we never hear about them. And we never hear about them because our political and intellectual leaders either don’t know them or don’t believe them. Sadly, it may be both.
They have a materialist view of the world. And it’s a dead end. At least the Left promises heaven on earth. They can’t deliver but it sounds better than one of Paul Ryan’s spreadsheets showing that this trade deal or that tax cut will lift GDP by 2 tenths of 1 percent. Again, economic growth can provide material goods, but to what end? That is the question that politics must answer. The Right has the answer – or at least had it. The goal of limited government, as the preamble to the Constitution puts it, is to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. Only limited government can do that because unlimited government crowds out the individual, the family, and the private associations like the Church in a way that is necessarily oppressive and often murderous. (See the EU for the former and Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, etc. for the latter.)
What is more, Conservatism Inc™. has accepted the Left’s obsessions with race and the grievance culture. Paul Ryan is fond of saying that “America is the only nation founded on an idea – not an identity.” But that is ahistorical pablum. Ryan is trying (and failing) to appeal to the Declaration of Independence, specifically to this oft-quoted passage, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That statement is true and right. But it’s not all the Declaration has to say.
If common sense and a basic knowledge of history isn’t enough, Ryan should take the time to read the opening lines of the Declaration and see that even Jefferson disagrees with his utopian fantasy. Jefferson understood that the new nation consisted of a certain people in a certain place with an established history and culture. He opened the Declaration with the following (emphasis added):
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Jefferson is talking about one people – the American people – and the political bands that bind them. In other words, Jefferson recognized the obvious: an indentifiable, American people existed that pre-dated the Declaration, that pre-dated the Constitution, and that were seeking a better and more just form of government. That people had a culture. They had a religion. They had a language, customs, and a ways of doing things. They already had an established common law and jurisprudence. And they were tied to a specific place. And it was those people who sought independence from Great Britain on the basis of certain self-evident truths that Jefferson named in the Declaration.
He recognized what modern conservatives do not or will not – that America is not an idea but a place and people that are, hopefully, devoted to certain ideas. But again, not the ideas of abstract philosophy but self-evident truths that everyone knows and can recognize and upon which a just form of government can be built to protect the natural rights of its citizens. This is where the utopians Left and Right get lost. Again. The Declaration was written in the name of the nascent American people and appealed to self-evident truths for the justice of their cause. The Constitution was informed by the principles of the Declaration as it created the institutions of government that would protect and promote the natural rights of man. Not for all men but for Americans specifically. All men possess those right by nature, but the American government exists to protect and promote them for Americans. The Founders had a decent and practical respect for the limitations of their power and responsibility. Note the Preamble to the Constitution:
“We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
The Constitution was being written by and for a particular people – the people of the United States in order to secure the blessing of liberty for themselves and their children. No abstractions. The American people understand this at a gut level. If only the country’s leaders, especially those who call themselves Republican and conservative, understood it too. If they don’t, their replacements will.