Recently I’ve been haunted by the memory of Russell Kirk. October 19 is the centenary of the author of The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (1953). No doubt Kirk, who died in 1994, would appreciate the spectral metaphor: He was as celebrated for his Gothic horror fiction as for his dozens of books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of columns on philosophy, history, academe, politics, and what he liked to call “humane letters.” He made some money from his ghost stories, too, which helped Kirk and his wife Annette raise four daughters and host countless guests, students, and refugees at their home in rural Mecosta, Michigan. This almost-forgotten father of American conservatism gave the movement a name and an intellectual ancestry. How would he respond to the world of 2018?
Earlier this month, Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. No one has heard from him since.
Here was a legal resident of the United States (he also lived in London and Istanbul), whose main English outlet was the Washington Post, vanishing suddenly after rebuking the domestic and foreign policies of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. What happened?
Trump has achieved all of these gains, in such disparate areas of policy, through totally unorthodox means. He brags, he intimidates, he pouts, he jokes, he insults, he is purposefully ambiguous, and he leaves no criticism unanswered. He is unlike any postwar American president, though he shares some qualities with LBJ and Reagan. He is frenetic and polarizing, a showboat and a salesman. His methods are over-the-top, combative, and divisive. In place of the politics of consensus he adopts the politics of confrontation. Where others mindlessly repeat politically correct clichés, Trump unequivocally challenges them. He has ushered in a new era of American politics by dissolving the varnish that obscured fundamental cultural divisions between and within the parties for so long. He is president of a country that is wilder, zanier, and more unpredictable than before. It is also stronger.
When President George W. Bush nominated John Roberts for the Supreme Court in 2005, the judge was confirmed by a vote of 78-22. Half of the Democrats voted with all of the Republicans in a display of bipartisan advice and consent. It was a touching moment of comity and civility—the sort of thing lauded in the abstract by Washington elites at the recent funeral of John McCain. It didn’t last six months.
The Democratic strategy toward Judge Brett Kavanaugh has been apparent since September 4. Within minutes of Chuck Grassley calling the Judiciary Committee to order, Democrats began to interrupt him. They wanted to delay the hearing until their demands for documents had been met. They managed to prolong the hearing for about an hour. Then they retreated.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when a recent discussion on the future of conservatism turned into an argument over Donald Trump, his presidency, and the midterm election. The renaissance in conservative thought that began with the publication of the Road to Serfdom in 1944, and culminated in the founding of National Review in 1955 and the Sharon Statement of Young Americans for Freedom in 1960, gave way to conservative politics long ago. Since 1964, it has been difficult if not impossible to disentangle conservatism’s fate from the Republican Party’s. And for the last three years Trump has dominated that party and the movement associated with it. Neither Republicans nor conservatives ought to kid themselves. There is no escaping Trump.
International business consultant Wendy Sherman was the chief American negotiator of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal agreed to by President Obama in 2015 and abrogated by President Trump earlier this year. She has a new book out, Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence, and in the space of 14 Tweets promoting it the other day she managed to combine basically everything I dislike about Washington.
The litany has been repeated so often that it’s easy to recite: the walls are closing in on Donald Trump, person x or y or z is going to bring him down, it’s only a matter of time before he is caught or exposed or loses his base of support and driven from public life. The phrases sound out from our cable channels. We see them in newspaper headlines and in our Twitter timelines. This time Trump has gone too far. The end is near. Take that, Drumpf!
What is forgotten is that the president has operated in this atmosphere of emergency and crisis and imminent doom since he announced his campaign. No matter how dire the outcry, he moves on.
Between June 16, 2015, and July 25, 2018, Donald Trump flummoxed his opponents. He flouted the conventions of American politics, violating the norms that have long governed the behavior of both candidates and presidents. Telegenic, volatile, and dramatic, given to accusations, insults, nicknames, and conspiracy theories, and capable of outrageous and sometimes mystifying behavior, Trump presented a challenge to his rivals: How to respond?
The Democrats have decided that agendas are overrated. Back in May, the party unveiled its “Better Deal” program, calling for expanded broadband access, an increase in the minimum wage, and paid family and sick leave. Voters didn’t bite. So last month the Democrats came up with “For the People,” which simplifies the platform to infrastructure spending, lowering health care costs, and draining the swamp. Again, crickets.