Friday, October 30, 2020


The New York Times has published a series of op-eds about the Trump years under the heading "What Have We Lost?" Bret Stephens is one of the contributors. He writes that what we've lost is "principled conservatism," and he pinpoints a moment when he believes it all went south for his side:
How did the conservative movement reach this pass? Hemingway’s great line about how one goes bankrupt — “gradually, then suddenly” — seems apt. But the tipping point arrived on a precise date: July 20, 2015. That was the day Rush Limbaugh came to Trump’s political rescue after the developer nearly self-immolated with his remark that John McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war, refusing early release at the price of gruesome torture, should not be considered a war hero.

“This is a great, great teachable moment here, this whole thing with Trump and McCain,” Limbaugh gushed. Americans, he said, “have not seen an embattled public figure stand up for himself, double down and tell everybody to go to hell.”

Here was a stunning moral inversion. Limbaugh turned public respect for McCain’s wartime record into an act of surrender to political correctness. And he treated Trump’s shamelessness as an expression of moral courage. It set the template for the campaign, and presidency, that followed.
So conservatism was doing just fine, but then two blowhards attacked John McCain, and all the noble yeoman farmers in America abandoned principled Burkean conservatism and became howling yobs? Is that what happened, according to Stephens?

I'd call that revisionist history, but Stephens doesn't appear to be rewriting the past -- he simply doesn't understand what happened, because he lives in a rarefied sphrere and has never had any idea what rank-and-file conservatives actually believe.

A large portion of the right never trusted McCain. He wasn't fully trusted even when he emerged from a fairly crowded field as the party's presidential nominee in 2008. Many on the right hated him for supporting immigration reform, and referred to him as "Juan McCain." He was regularly denounced by right-wing media heroes such as Michelle Malkin and Mark Levin.

If this was a watershed moment, it was because it was the moment when Republican voters said, This time we can actually vote for a candidate who talks the way our favorite stars talk on AM radio and Fox News! They'd been listening to these people for years. Their conservatism was Limbaugh/Levin/Malkin conservatism already. They just hadn't had a candidate who talked like that and could win.

Why call this the tipping point? A month earlier, in his speech announcing his candidacy, Trump had denounced Mexican immigrants to America as drug dealers and rapists -- and he shot up in the polls. If the McCain incident had never happened, Trump would still have been Trump. He still would have won. And he would have won because a majority of white male America already felt the way he did, or at least didn't find anything objectionable in his set of opinions or the way he expressed them. This is what conservatism had become well before that announcement. This is what talk radio and Fox had done to the American mind. It's what Fox had done to Trump's mind. It just took a while before it disturbed Bret Stephens's brunch.

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