Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dennis Prager kicks up a dust storm on the Right - over Trump

Here is the piece that catalyzed the controversy. It's entitled "Why Conservatives Still Attack Trump."

I don't need to except from it directly, because the responses at National Review, where Pragers' piece appeared, such as Jonah Goldberg's response, do so in the service of counter-points he wants to make. For instance, Goldberg questions some particular wording upon which much of Prager's argument hinges:

[A] problematic turn of phrase can be found here:

I have come to believe that many conservatives possess what I once thought was a left-wing monopoly — a utopian streak. Trump is too far from their ideal leader to be able to support him.

Maybe this was just inadvertently poor word choice. If he’d written that Trump critics are making the perfect the enemy of the good or some such, he’d be on much firmer ground. But Dennis knows what utopianism is, and I cannot for the life of me understand why he thinks this is the right word here.

Another explanation for why some conservative critics refuse to report for duty is, according to Dennis, spite, pettiness, or self-interest. In short, he accuses the conservatives he says he admires of operating in bad faith. Indeed, one of their chief motives is — wait for it — the ability to attend elite dinner parties. C’mon. I thought we were done with this stale chestnut a long time ago. He also says that because our predictions were wrong, we’re too bitter to admit error and that we’re undermining Trump to save our reputations.

I’m not going to try to psychoanalyze Dennis’s motivations here. But I will say that this essay reads more like an effort to affirm what a talk-radio audience wants to hear than a good-faith effort to understand and persuade conservatives that he claims to admire. If Dennis is truly interested in persuading the very diverse group of conservative Trump critics on the right, my advice would be to call them on the phone and ask them why they — we — say what they say and do what they do. Insinuating that conservative thinkers and writers are vain elitists who are betraying their cause by not becoming spinners (never mind soldiers) is not, to my mind, the best way to persuade them — or me — of anything.
Dan McLaughlin, also at NRO, stresses the importance of examining the particulars so as to refrain from inaccurate generalizations:

in discussing current and former Republicans who went “Never Trump” in 2016, it’s critical to remember that we’re not talking about a monolithic group of people, so we should be unsurprised that – since the election – we have gone our separate ways. Some have broken for all purposes with the GOP, some have made their peace with Trump, and many of the rest of us fall somewhere in between. Using the three final challengers to Trump as a shorthand for the various factions, the Ted Cruz-type conservative purists (like Erick) have been the ones least willing to up and join any sort of Democrat-led resistance to Trump, but many have continued to pound him with criticism for being a bad and phony conservative and a man of low character. The Rubio faction has more or less broken in two parts. On the one hand, the “practical conservative” type policy wonks are still trying to work with the Paul Ryans of the party to salvage a good policy agenda from the shadow of Trump. By contrast, there are those who belonged to the Rubio faction mainly to further either a neoconservative foreign policy or a more inclusive Republican Party; both groups have mostly been even more embittered by Trump’s success. The foreign-policy-first people (like Bill Kristol, Max Boot, and Tom Nichols) have been among the most vocal conservative voices against Trump. (These folks are mainly making substantive criticisms of Trump’s handling of foreign policy). Then there’s the Kasich faction (the David Frums of the world), the people who already thought the Republicans needed a softer, more centrist makeover. Despite the election of a Republican president who has no real ideology, this group has tended to be the most horrified by Trump, and most likely to leave the party entirely following the election, especially at the rank-and-file level. Continuing to clump these various groups together for purposes of generalizing about their motives and their actions is unhelpful to the reader.

Second, far too often, columns like this one fail to be specific and avoid generalized ad hominems about our motives. Prager does too much of that here, but I will counter with an important point that he understands well enough to have articulated halfway through this column: “Every time we do good, we make a deposit into our moral bank account. And every time we do something bad, we make a withdrawal.” For those of us in the business of advocacy – writing and speaking to persuade people of the merits of conservative ideas – our first duty is to tell the truth to our readers. Not the whole truth, necessarily; nobody can always cover every angle of every story, and advocacy necessarily involves some choices about what to emphasize, which criticisms (or bad arguments in one’s favor) to ignore, and which to confront. But you only have so much credibility with your audience, and you expend that at your peril. Our moral bank account is not only with Trump supporters judging how well we stand with them, but also with the audience of voters at large (as well as with our own consciences).  As I always preach, you argue mainly for the benefit of the unconverted, and they are watching. Every time you have to defend a falsehood, excuse an error, or ignore a misdeed by Trump in order to promote The Greater Good, you are drawing down on that moral bank account with them. Conservatives who defended Nixon all the way – the liberal domestic policy, Harry Blackmun, Watergate – were running pretty empty by 1974.

Third, and maybe most importantly, Prager’s core argument is instrumental: Trump will get us what we want, so pick up a rifle and man a post. To begin with, I think he does a disservice by arguing that Trump’s conservative critics don’t share the view of Trump supporters that the nation faced very significant stakes in the 2016 election. I never liked the whole “this election is like Flight 93″ metaphor, since it assumes that we should adopt a strategy that ends with us all dead. 

He also goes through the list of what Prager deems excellent achievements so far in the Trump era, acknowledging that many of them are indeed worthy of applause, but that nearly all of them can be reversed if not backed up by codification from the legislative branch and, in the case of having an excellent UN ambassador in Nikki Haley, by having a foreign policy riddled with inconsistencies.

Jim Jamitis at Red State also has a significant contribution to make to the push-back to Prager.

I like the way he turns the whole notion of persuading a particular side to change its mind completely around:

Like many of the arguments from pro-Trump conservatives, it expresses an imperative that anti-Trump conservatives “fight” on Trump’s side while neglecting to say what “fighting” means.
When people you know well and admire, and who share your values, do something you strongly oppose, you have two options: (1) Cease admiring them or (2) try to understand them and change their minds.
Actually there are three options. The third is to try to understand them and be open to changing your own mind. anti-Trump conservatives have had people whom they admire, like Prager, do something they strongly oppose as well. We’re in the same boat in that respect.
And I appreciate his examination of Prager's use of  the term "general":

War means guns and bombs and people dying and killing on battlefields. Too many people are resorting to using this metaphor. At least I hope it is only a metaphor. It’s a disturbing trend because “war” can be used as justification for very bad moral compromises.
They can join the fight. They can accept an imperfect reality and acknowledge that we are in a civil war, and that Trump, with all his flaws, is our general. If this general is going to win, he needs the best fighters. But too many of them, some of the best minds of the conservative movement, are AWOL.
I would argue that they are the remnant of the conservative movement, refusing to abandon it for Trumpism.
I beg them: Please report for duty.
I wrote about  Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs using such martial language last week. Those who don’t love Trump are being called out for not fighting for Trump. What does that even look like? For what duty are we being asked to report? Seriously, someone answer that for me. What does that mean?

Clearly, Prager is not coming at this with quite the mindset of a Hannity or a Laura Ingraham or a Conrad Black. He's a far more thoughtful person than any of them. But he has clearly swallowed the binary-choice Kool-Aid and it's distorted his ability to see those of us who are staunch defenders of classic three-pillared conservatism and who still find Donald Trump as unlikeable and unfit as ever accurately.

1 comment:

  1. The point is simply, Trump's a (insert nice name for prick or asshole) and what he practices is what he gets back. See your Dale Carnegie. If I were Cruz I'd never even look at the man again.