Jeff Flake doesn’t like the God-King, and the Wall Street Journal doesn’t care about climate change. (More)
“At a certain point, it might be time to build an ark”
Who could blame the people who felt abandoned and ignored by the major parties for reaching in despair for a candidate who offered oversimplified answers to infinitely complex questions and managed to entertain them in the process? With hindsight, it is clear that we all but ensured the rise of Donald Trump.
I’ve been sympathetic to this impulse to denial, as one doesn’t ever want to believe that the government of the United States has been made dysfunctional at the highest levels, especially by the actions of one’s own party. Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist and former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote, four months into the new presidency, “The conservative mind, in some very visible cases, has become diseased,” and conservative institutions “with the blessings of a president … have abandoned the normal constraints of reason and compassion.”
For a conservative, that’s an awfully bitter pill to swallow. So as I layered in my defense mechanisms, I even found myself saying things like, “If I took the time to respond to every presidential tweet, there would be little time for anything else.” Given the volume and velocity of tweets from both the Trump campaign and then the White House, this was certainly true. But it was also a monumental dodge. It would be like Noah saying, “If I spent all my time obsessing about the coming flood, there would be little time for anything else.” At a certain point, if one is being honest, the flood becomes the thing that is most worthy of attention. At a certain point, it might be time to build an ark.
He excoriates his Republican colleagues for devoting eight years to obstructing President Obama instead of trying to advance conservative policies:
It was we conservatives who, upon Obama’s election, stated that our No. 1 priority was not advancing a conservative policy agenda but making Obama a one-term president – the corollary to this binary thinking being that his failure would be our success and the fortunes of the citizenry would presumably be sorted out in the meantime. It was we conservatives who were largely silent when the most egregious and sustained attacks on Obama’s legitimacy were leveled by marginal figures who would later be embraced and legitimized by far too many of us.
And he admits that Republicans made a deal with the devil:
But then the period of collapse and dysfunction set in, amplified by the internet and our growing sense of alienation from each other, and we lost our way and began to rationalize away our principles in the process. But where does such capitulation take us? If by 2017 the conservative bargain was to go along for the very bumpy ride because with congressional hegemony and the White House we had the numbers to achieve some long-held policy goals – even as we put at risk our institutions and our values – then it was a very real question whether any such policy victories wouldn’t be Pyrrhic ones. If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it. If ultimately our principles were so malleable as to no longer be principles, then what was the point of political victories in the first place?
And then he offers his prescription:
So, where should Republicans go from here? First, we shouldn’t hesitate to speak out if the president “plays to the base” in ways that damage the Republican Party’s ability to grow and speak to a larger audience. Second, Republicans need to take the long view when it comes to issues like free trade: Populist and protectionist policies might play well in the short term, but they handicap the country in the long term. Third, Republicans need to stand up for institutions and prerogatives, like the Senate filibuster, that have served us well for more than two centuries.
So … stop saying the quiet part loud, take care of big business, and oh-dear-me keep the filibuster.
“Things that we wouldn’t have done otherwise if we would have been arguing about true principles of limited government or spending”
[Trump was] a long time in coming. I got here in Washington in 2001. … And we got [President George W. Bush’s education overhaul law] No Child Left Behind, which was, I thought, big federal overreach into local education policy. And then we got the prescription drug benefit, which added about $7 trillion in unfunded liabilities. I didn’t think that was a very conservative thing to do.
When we couldn’t argue that we were the party of limited government anymore, then that forced us into issues like flag burning or trying to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case, things that we wouldn’t have done otherwise if we would have been arguing about true principles of limited government or spending.
I do think that we made the ground fertile for somebody like President Trump to come along, and I think that now we’ve abandoned many of our principles – like free trade and American leadership around the world – but also we’ve become a coarser party. Being a conservative isn’t just adopting conservative policies. I think it matters in terms of demeanor and comportment.
I certainly recognize the frustrations that people have. I feel and hear it every day. … People are concerned about their jobs, their economic future. They wonder if their kids will have the same economic opportunities that they’ve had, and I think Donald Trump kind of spoke to that.
But I think as conservatives, our first obligation is to be honest with people and telling factory workers for example – it’s always easier for a politician to point to a shuttered factory and say “That’s because of free trade. That’s because Mexico took those jobs, or China did.” But what is not recognized is that it’s largely been productivity gains and automation. We manufacture twice as much as we did in the 1980s with one-third fewer workers and those productivity gains will continue. Globalization has happened and the question is: Do we harness it for our benefit or are we left behind by it?
Of course he’s flacking for his new book … and perhaps positioning himself for a White House run in 2020 or 2024.
“Wedded to a politics of grievance and resentment”
He’s also spinning a fairy tale. It’s possible that Flake is deeply committed to the abstract idea of limited government, without any personal bent toward white male supremacy. But that abstract idea has never held much political sway, as Rick Perlstein documented in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus:
Still, the tragedy of Barry Goldwater is also, in a sense, the tragedy of American conservatism, even in its moments of triumph. Goldwater’s mistake was to believe that he could run for President on a program of political abstractions. People don’t vote for abstractions. They vote their hopes and their fears, and they tend to see those in concrete terms. Twentieth-century American conservatism of the kind that Goldwater represented is the view that individuals, businesses, and local communities should have more control over their own destinies, and should not be subject to the bureaucratic dictates of a central government. As a proposition in political philosophy, there is no doubt much to be said for this view. Its appeal as a piece of campaign rhetoric obviously has everything to do with which bureaucratic dictates voters think you are talking about. What Goldwater discovered was that, in 1964, the philosophical language of conservatism was read by many voters as code for resistance to forced integration, and in the end he could not disentangle himself from an alliance that he had not desired. Many conservatives have found themselves in the same box. A political philosophy is not going to get very far without voters. As Goldwater observed, in politics you have to hunt where the ducks are. Most ducks are not interested in philosophy.
Goldwater opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act for philosophical reasons, Perlstein insists, not mere racism. Never mind that he ended up voting with racists, and his campaign drew racists into the GOP. Again, maybe Goldwater truly was deeply committed to his philosophy, without any personal bent toward white male supremacy. Maybe.
What I’d say to Sen. Flake is that it’s true that Trump is an abomination but the solution to Trump is not going to be found by tinkering with the dials so that there is less boorishness and anti-intellectualism and more attacks on the federal bureaucracy. Trump is extreme and in many ways unrepresentative of the conservatism that has come down to us from Goldwater, but the sin of modern conservatism was there from its inception. It was there with Goldwater’s biggest backer, William F. Buckley, making excuses from Jim Crow based on white supremacy in the pages of the National Review. It was there when Robert Bork and William Rehnquist convinced Goldwater that he had to oppose the Civil Rights Act on constitutional grounds despite his instinctual distaste for racial politics.
Sen. Flake wants to know how things got so bad for the Republican Party, but they’ve been bad. At the root of this is the problem Goldwater faced at the outset, which is that his limited government ideology had limited appeal as a bloodless political philosophy and could only gain power by being wedded to a politics of grievance and resentment.
The basic problem, for Sen. Flake and other “limited government” Republicans, is that theirs is a Rich People’s Movement and there simply aren’t enough rich people to win elections. To sell it as a mass movement, they emphasize a subset of “limited government” agenda such as “school choice” (starving public schools to fund for-profit and/or religious schools) or “religious freedom” (letting businesses discriminate). And if confronted with the plainly-discriminatory consequences of those “limited government” policies – including declarations of discriminatory intent from many who back those policies – they dial up the denial: “Those ‘fringe’ elements may want discrimination, but we just want limited government!”
And of course, never admit that “limited government” includes leaving the poor, sick, and elderly to fend for themselves, gutting worker protection and anti-pollution laws, starving public libraries, public hospitals, public parks, public transportation … indeed anything “public” … all so rich people can get richer.
Turns out most Americans won’t vote for that. So “limited government” relies on appeals to white male supremacy, and why should that surprise anyone? A truly “limited” government that merely enforced and protected property rights would, inevitably, be one that enforced and protected the property-owning status quo … and who owns the overwhelming majority of U.S. property and takes home most of U.S. wages? White males.
“It surely requires more than stern words”
Given the gravity of the problem Flake outlines, his specific recommendations – that Republicans condemn Trump’s most bigoted rhetoric, speak out for free trade, and protect the filibuster – seem a bit small.
There is much Flake and his colleagues could do to ensure the truth of the Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election is discovered, to strengthen American institutions, and to show that Trump’s efforts to protect himself and his allies from scrutiny will not be tolerated.
Congressional Republicans could, for instance, remove the threat of Trump axing his attorney general in order to impede Bob Mueller’s investigation by making clear that any such firing would be met with overwhelming reprisals, up to and including impeachment proceedings. They could punish Trump for firing then-FBI Director James Comey in order to squelch the Russia investigation by refusing to confirm Christopher Wray, Trump’s handpicked choice for Comey’s successor, and instead insisting on a candidate the Senate has chosen. They could pass a law forcing Trump to turn over his tax returns so the public could be certain there aren’t problematic financial ties between Trump and Russia. They could implement the recommendations Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, made to strengthen the ethics laws around Trump. But Flake doesn’t propose, or even mention, any of these ideas.
I don’t dismiss the courage it took Flake to write this. Only 17 percent of Arizona Republicans disapprove of Trump’s performance as president. And statements like this one, even if they’re not immediately backed by concrete action, are valuable – they embolden other Republicans, send important signals to the rest of the political system, and create a standard by which Flake’s future behavior can be judged.
But if Trump’s presidency is the Great Flood of American politics, it surely requires more than stern words. Flake, to his credit, is no longer denying there’s a problem. But he’s a long way from embracing the hard, controversial policies and votes that might serve as an ark.
But ark-building is hard. An ark needs to be … well … watertight, for starters. Unlike, say, the ridiculous GOP health care bills that Sen. Flake supported with vote after vote. It’s so much easier to write a jeremiad on the need for an ark….
“Economics is the central question”
And speaking of floods, the Wall Street Journal’s David Henderson and John Cochrane are done pretending that climate change isn’t happening, and done pretending it’s not manmade. They’ve moved on to pretending it won’t be a big problem:
Migration is costly. But much of the world’s population moved from farms to cities in the 20th century. Allowing people to move to better climates in the 21st will be equally possible. Such investments in climate adaptation are small compared with the investments we will regularly make in houses, businesses, infrastructure and education.
And economics is the central question – unlike with other environmental problems such as chemical pollution. Carbon dioxide hurts nobody’s health. It’s good for plants. Climate change need not endanger anyone. If it did – and you do hear such claims – then living in hot Arizona rather than cool Maine, or living with Louisiana’s frequent floods, would be considered a health catastrophe today.
Yes, really. You see, people live in hot climates and cold climates, so whether the earth gets hotter or colder won’t matter. They’ll just move.
Small wonder that Henderson and Cochrane insist that “economics is the central question.” They’re both economists. Indeed they’re both libertarian economists, so they think the Free Market Fairy will sort it all out.
Sure, they say, current forecasts say climate change could cut global GDP by as much as 10%. But that’s less than the damage from World War II and that didn’t end civilization or progress, so what’s the big deal?
Never mind that World War II killed at least 3% of the world’s human population. If climate change were “only” that bad, it would kill over 200 million people. Indeed the World Health Organization estimates that climate change will kill 250,000 people per year by 2030. Just not many white people:
Children – in particular, children living in poor countries – are among the most vulnerable to the resulting health risks and will be exposed longer to the health consequences. The health effects are also expected to be more severe for elderly people and people with infirmities or pre-existing medical conditions.
Areas with weak health infrastructure – mostly in developing countries – will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond.
So yeah, a quarter-million people dead per year, adding up to hundreds of millions of deaths … but “economics is the central question.”
For white, male, libertarian economists.
Photo Credit: Ralph Freso (Getty Images)
Good day and good nuts