Starting at the Conservative Gutter

By Bret Stephens

Wall Street Journal

February 29, 2016


In the late 1950s, Bill Buckley decreed that nobody whose name appeared on the masthead of the American Mercury magazine would be published in the pages of National Review. The once-illustrious Mercury of H.L. Mencken had become a gutter of far-right anti-Semites. Buckley would not allow his magazine to be tainted by them.

The word for Buckley’s act is “lustration,” and for two generations it upheld the honor of the mainstream conservative movement. Liberals may have been fond of claiming that Republicans were all closet bigots and that tax cuts were a form of racial prejudice, but the accusation rang hollow because the evidence for it was so tendentious. Not anymore. The candidacy of Donald Trump is the open sewer of American conservatism. This Super Tuesday, polls show a plurality of GOP voters intend to dive right into it, like the boy in the “Slumdog Millionaire” toilet scene. And they’re not even holding their noses.

In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has endorsed the Code Pink view of the Iraq War (Bush lied; people died). He has cited and embraced an aphorism of Benito Mussolini. (“It’s a very good quote,” Mr. Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd.) He has refused to release his “very beautiful” tax returns. And he has taken his time disavowing the endorsement of onetime Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke—offering, by way of a transparently dishonest excuse, that “I know nothing about David Duke.” Mr. Trump left the Reform Party in 2000 after Mr. Duke joined it.

None of this seems to have made the slightest dent in Mr. Trump’s popularity. If anything it has enhanced it. In the species of political pornography in which Mr. Trump trafficks, the naughtier the better. The more respectable opinion is scandalized by whatever pops out of the Donald’s mouth, the more his supporters cheer him for sticking it to the snobs and the scolds. The more Mr. Trump traduces the old established lines of decency, the more he affirms his supporters’ most shameless ideological instincts.

Those instincts have moved beyond the usual fare of a wall with Mexico, a trade war with China, Mr. Trump’s proposed Muslim Exclusion Act, or his scurrilous insinuations about the constitutionality of Ted Cruz’s or Marco Rubio’s presidential bids.

What too many of Mr. Trump’s supporters want is an American strongman, a president who will make the proverbial trains run on time. This is a refrain I hear over and over again from Trump supporters, who want to bring a businessman’s efficiency to the federal government. If that means breaking with a few democratic niceties, so be it.

Mr. Trump is happy to indulge the taste. “I hear the Rickets [sic] family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $’s against me,” Mr. Trump tweeted Feb. 22 about the Ricketts family of T.D. Ameritrade fame. “They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!” What happens when Mr. Trump starts sending similar tweets as president? The question isn’t an idle one, since the candidate has also promised to “open up the libel laws” as president so he can more easily sue hostile journalists. Is trashing the First Amendment another plank in making America great again?

No wonder Mr. Trump earns such lavish praise not only from Mr. Duke or Vladimir Putin, but also from French ur-fascist Jean Marie Le Pen, who once described Nazi Germany’s gas chambers as “a detail of history” and now says that if he were American he’d vote for Mr. Trump, “may God protect him.” With the instinct of house flies, they recognize the familiar smell, and they want more of it.

Mr. Trump exemplifies a new political wave sweeping the globe—leaders coming to power through democratic means while avowing illiberal ends. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is another case in point, as is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A Trump presidency—neutral between dictatorships and democracies, opposed to free trade, skeptical of traditional U.S. defense alliances, hostile to immigration—would mark the collapse of the entire architecture of the U.S.-led post-World War II global order. We’d be back to the 1930s, this time with an America Firster firmly in charge.

That’s the future Mr. Trump offers whether his supporters realize it or not. Bill Buckley and the other great shapers of modern conservatism—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, Robert Bartley and Irving Kristol—articulated a conservatism that married economic dynamism to a prudent respect for tradition, patriotism and openness to the wider world. Trumpism is the opposite of this creed: moral gauchery plus economic nationalism plus Know Nothingism. It is the return of the American Mercury, minus for now (but only for now) the all-but inevitable anti-Semitism.

It would be terrible to think that the left was right about the right all these years. Nativist bigotries must not be allowed to become the animating spirit of the Republican Party. If Donald Trump becomes the candidate, he will not win the presidency, but he will help vindicate the left’s ugly indictment. It will be left to decent conservatives to pick up the pieces—and what’s left of the party.