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
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.