#NeverTrump Files: Bret Stephens and the Underpants Gnomes

Today, the first in what is likely to be a series on the quixotic oddities of the #NeverTrump movement.

Ace at the Ace of Spades blog has an excellent (and appropriately acerbic) post on the distressing turn some prominent members of #NeverTrump have taken and their increasingly bizarre reasoning. On Tuesday the Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Page’s Bret Stephens assailed Sean Hannity (among others) and includes the following;

This is the reason I’ve consistently argued that the only hope for a conservative restoration is a blowout Hillary Clinton victory, held in check by a Republican majority in Congress. If Mr. Trump loses the election narrowly, the stab-in-the-back thesis will have a patina of credibility that he might have won had it not been for the opposition of people like me. But a McGovern-style defeat makes that argument impossible to sustain except among the most cretinous. We can count on Mr. Hannity for that.

So, let’s get this straight: the path to restoring ‘conservative’ principles lies first in… a crushing Democratic victory? One that leaves the White House (and thus certainly the Supreme Court) in the hands of progressive Democrats for four to eight more years (vastly longer for the Court)? So elegant a plan, yet also so familiar…

For those insufficiently well versed in South Park episodes (or internet memes) the ‘business plan’ of the Underpants gnomes (world domination through underoos monopoly!) which has become shorthand for any plan where the initial steps seem completely disconnected from the final goal. A shorthand Stephens is well familiar with. Unfortunately, familiarity with the concept does not seem to have aided Stephens, for he seems to embrace a plan that not only seems unlikely to succeed, but a scenario where the first step makes the final step all but impossible.

Stephens’ thoughts on the subject are a deep well to plumb, but let’s focus on just a few problems that stand between Steps 1 (Hillary in the White House) and 3 (Conservative Triumph).

One is immediately struck by how #NeverTrump is presented in two, mutually incompatible, forms. On the one hand it is a movement so small and so lacking in influence that their opposition cannot reasonably be blamed for a loss by Trump. On the other hand the NeverTrumpers seem to harbor no doubt that their influence and leadership is sufficiently potent that they will be able to seize hold of the levers of power in the GOP in a post Trump environment.

To be fair one may object to my characterization: perhaps it is not that the NeverTrumpers believe they have such power now, no no. Rather they imagine that, after their prophesied ruin of Trump, they will be hoisted on the shoulders of the GOP, a GOP repentant and chastened by shattering losses. In other words, they may be powerless now, but just you wait, when this worm turns they will be on top of the world!

Putting aside that little wrinkle, there is a vastly greater problem. Buried in the vituperation against Mr. Hannity is a small and very revealing remark, almost offhand, but which gives perfect voice to the insuperable problems in the 3-step #NeverTrump plan (emphasis mine);

Mr. Hannity’s other goal is to preserve the fiction—first cultivated by Ted Cruz and later adopted by the Trumpians—that a wan GOP “establishment” and its “Acela corridor” voters sat on their hands while Mr. Obama traduced the Constitution and sold us out to the enemy.

For a moment, let’s take Mr. Stephens at his word: he truly believes that a Hillary presidency is the key to a “conservative restoration”. If that’s the case, what exactly is the conservative movement that Stephens and his colleagues at the WSJ editorial page interested in restoring?

It’s not exactly ancient history when the WSJ had precious little regard for conservatives such as Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. In an article at Truth Revolt from December of last year, pithily titled The Wall Street Journal Hates Ted Cruz. Here’s Why., Aaron Bandler runs through the many, many objections the WSJ has raised to Senator Cruz’ attempts to enforce conservative principles;

Time and again, the Journal‘s editorial board attacks conservatives for trying to fight against the leftist agenda. When Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Ut.) attempted to defund Obamacare, the Journal accused them of simply wanting “fund-raising lists or getting face time on cable TV.” The Journal also came out against conservative efforts to defund the baby-dismembering Planned Parenthood and Obama’s illegal executive amnesty. What good are the Republicans if they can’t even fight against those two issues?

Also, Bret Stephens, who is on the Journal‘s editorial board, wrote a snarky column called “Let’s Elect Hillary Now” in which he accuses conservatives like Levin and radio host Laura Ingraham of having purity tests for Republican candidates that will guarantee a win for likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The column was light on substance, but heavy on elitism.

That same day Ben Shapiro dissected Stephens’ ‘Elect Hillary Now’ article in depth on Truth Revolt;

In fact, Stephens calls Cruz as unpalatable as Trump with this nasty slur:

Mr. Cruz is happy to be on any side of an issue so long as he can paint himself as a “real Republican”—the implicit goal here being the automatic excommunication of anyone who disagrees with him. Naturally, he’s rising.

What absolute, self-serving hogwash. Cruz has been incredibly consistent, far more so than Rubio. In fact, Cruz and Trump were both leaders on one of Stephens’ chief priorities, stopping the Iran deal that Stephens’ beloved GOP establishment allowed to breeze through Congress.

But that doesn’t matter. In order to demonstrate that they aren’t the whiny pick-up-the-political-football-and-go-home types, however, the GOP establishment must insist that Mitt Romney didn’t lose because they picked him – no, it was somehow the base’s fault. And it will be the base’s fault again if Cruz or Trump gets the nomination.

Shapiro remarks that Stephens “mocks”, “snarls” and insists “the only reason to disagree with him is a collective political death wish”. Ben Shapiro has been one of the most prominent (and during the Michelle Fields affair, most strident) public conservatives associated with #NeverTrump, yet there seems little room for either Ted Cruz or Mr. Shapiro in this new, ‘restored’ conservative movement Stephens imagines.

So, if Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Ben Shapiro et al are insufficiently representative of the ‘conservative’ movement the WSJ wishes to restore, what does actually inform the WSJ’s conceptualization of ‘conservatism’? Again, from Bandler’s article at Truth Revolt;

To really get an idea of the mindset of the Journal, one simply needs to look back to their editorial on July 3, 1984 called “In Praise of Huddled Masses” in which they called for open borders.

“If Washington still wants to ‘do something’ about immigration, we propose a five-word constitutional amendment: There shall be open borders,” the editorial read.

This stance by the WSJ editorial page has remained constant.

In his articles Mr. Stephens explicitly denies the very idea of an ‘Establishment’ GOP. He has openly denigrated conservatives in the mold of Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee.  Two years ago it was the libertarian conservative Senator Rand Paul that Stephens was denigrating. In that article Stephens seems to reserve his warmest regards for such conservative stalwarts as… Governors Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. Winners, respectively, of 0.92% and 0.18% of the GOP primary vote. They really are representing the 1% (well, 1.1%)!

Stephens inadvertently illustrates that whether Trump or Hillary occupies the Oval Office next year, the conservative movement and the GOP face dark times ahead. As Myron Magnate observes, the voters are angry, animated by “the sense that the U.S. government no longer belongs to the people and no longer represents them“, a sense that “reflects the real state of affairs”. By this December we will be well into the question of what the conservative movement actually is and what it seeks to conserve.

Unfortunately for us all, it seems there is no shortage of people that someone wants out of the movement. What remains to be seen is if anyone at all will be left.

Trump takes the GOP Back to School

It seems that the Donald Trump phenomenon is something that pundits and commentators can’t seem to stop talking about, but also something they can’t seem to actually understand. One particular remark on Special Report Online struck me: Dr. Charles Krauthammer wondered how it was that a man born in wealth and with a tremendous fortune, how can he connect with middle and lower economic class voters?

The problem, it seems to me, may be that Dr. Krauthammer is a great intellect (and avid fan of baseball), but it seems he doesn’t watch enough movies. Because, as Ace of Spades explains, politics has become a a movie, analyzed in terms of a heroes journey and the sensibilities of plot, pacing and motivation. But how does that help us figure out the Trump phenomenon?

There are a lot of theories among pundits: some think he panders, some thing he simply shoots from the hip, some point out his crudity, borderline vulgarity and so on. All of that has some merit, but none of them capture the whole picture: Donald Trump is Thornton Melon.

Back to School is a great comedy, and a big part of the success is the ensemble cast. That’s because, just like Donald Trump, Rodney Dangerfield’s Thornton Melon is a man we root for in part in spite of himself. The thing is that if take away the loathsome, hidebound, patrician economics professor, the cartoon jock villains and the unctuous dean, and we’re left with Melon… who’s kinda an insufferable schmuck.

Insufferable perhaps, but a snappy dresser.

At the risk of fantastically over-analyzing a light 80’s comedy, Thornton Melon would be nearly intolerable in real life: he is constantly breaking the rules and suffering no consequences because he throws large amounts of cash at problems, he’s unashamed about being crooked and simply bribing public servants, he’s a womanizer, a coward and, most significant to the plot, he’s a cheater.

In Back to School we don’t root for Melon because he’s a hero, we root for him because he’s not actively a villain. Once we realize that, and that Paxton Whitehead‘s acerbic and patronizing performance is as important to the movie as Dangerfield’s own,  we understand Trump and his role in this film.

Because if Trump is Melon, who has been cast in the role of the uptight, head-up-his-ass professors that everyone wants to see get their comeuppance?

Heirs to the legacy of Lincoln, or two putzes in need of a pie to the face?

Since putting in the Republican Congress Republican Voters have been subject to one episode after another of what Ace aptly terms failure theater. No principle seems too big to sacrifice on the alter of expediency, no favor to donors too imbecile to come through on. The Republican base is appalled and feels betrayed. They’ve delivered both houses of Congress to their party only to be told ‘oops, turns out nothing worthwhile can be done without the White House too‘. The Republican leadership is running a con job on its voters, and they have noticed.  In other words, the base has collectively decided that it’s time to do something futile and stupid.

Enter Trump, stage right.

America, Israel and Impossible Walls

So Donald Trump is promising to wall off the southern border. Whether you think this is a worthwhile endeavor or not depends on a great many things, but one strain of argument that has popped up is not so much that this is a bad idea, per se, but rather that it’s an idea beneath consideration, patently foolish and something no rational person would consider.

The response I have seen to this is very interesting and it often takes the form of “Israel has a border wall, why can’t the United States?”

What makes this question “Israel has X, why can’t we” so interesting is what it reveals, both about Israel and about the gulf between her and the other Western nations. It seems that Israel, alone among the Western nations, must engage in this kind of exercise in exclusion. Although England, at least, may soon be regretting the loss of their great moat against mainland Europe… The rest of Europe looks at such nationalism, such exclusion and shudders. Though, to be fair, European nations have more reason then most to rue forceful expressions of national pride.

This in turn fuels a feeling for some on the Right that Israel is the last truly Western nation, in the sense of being a nation that is distinctly modern and patriotic yet retaining its own cultural identity. In other words, that Israel is the last Western nation that is Western in the American sense. This would seem to be supported by the reviling of Israel in the most anti-American quarters of the Left, who despise Israel for precisely the characteristics that are admired by the right. The patriotism, seeing self-defense as a virtue and religiosity that the Right value are all characteristics far out of favor on the left.

Others will contend that a fence is useless, offering more picayune objections: citing tunnel infiltration and the abduction of Gilad Shalit. ‘Surely the wealthy Mexican cartels can surely replicate Hamas’ tunnel network?’, they declare. But this rebuttal would seem to miss the point; no one would seriously entertain the idea that condoms are useless because they have a (very small) failure rate. Yet to a certain kind of critic, the idea that the Israeli border walls are not 100% efficacious is the equivalent of them being useless.

In this way the Left is at least consistent: for years we were told that missile defense could never be practical. Which is true.. so long as you keep ratcheting up what constitutes “practical”. It’s also reminiscent of the attempt to ‘debunk the success’ of the Iron Dome system in the recent Gaza conflict.

This, I think, ties into the other reason the left find the question “Israel has a wall, why can’t we” so vexing: Israel has a wall because it retains a sense of self and a sense of sovereignty. European nations retain (with varying degree of success) distinct identities, but there is a terrible shame seen among the ‘elites’ in taking any pride in this. Israeli pride in Israeli identity is an uncomfortable reminder to many on the left, especially in Europe, of a time they want to forget.

There is also a rather amusing and circular argument and it goes like this;

“You can’t build a fence that won’t be scaled, or a wall that can’t be tunneled under.” Claims the opponent of a border barrier.

“Well,” goes the reply, “then we’ll put up X.” Where X is an ever increasing level of security, going from barbed wire topped fences to noveu-Berlin Wall affairs. As each new level is proposed, it is dismissed, until a point of security that everyone understands would be effective is proposed.

“Okay, may that would work,” admits the opponent, “but it would be sick. But I guess you want to see migrant children blown up by landmines/impaled on punji sticks/eaten by moat alligators?”

It’s a bit like the old example of a man that kills his parents then asks the court for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan. The opponents of a border wall insist that innocuous measures will be ineffective, and effective measures would be too terrible for civilized people to actually deploy… oh, and you’re a dope if you propose innocuous measures, and a bloodthirsty savage for proposing the measures opponents understand would work.

Catch-22: it’s a way of saying ‘yes’ to the question “does a sovereign nation have the right to refuse access to non-citizens?” while at the same time ruling out any way to restrict access.

It seems in the end what is really being discussed is: if a nation will not put its own citizens before non-citizens, if it will not show loyalty first to its citizens, what loyalty then does that nation deserve from its citizens?

In the contrast of Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, many Americans (especially on the right) see one leader that they feel, outside of any evaluation of competency, truly loves his country and is doing all he can for it. The other leader would be President Obama.