And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot
To mark the full-fraught man and best endued
With some suspicion. I will weep for thee,
For this revolt of thine methinks is like
Another fall of man.
Henry V, Act 2, Scene 2
Someone once observed that character is who you are when no one is looking. He might’ve added it’s also who you are when you are under pressure. Anyone who doubts this should consider human behavior after a power outage that lasts more than a couple of days, or during a bad traffic jam, or in an airport after flights are cancelled, or in any interaction with any federal agency anywhere.
In many ways the rise of Donald Trump is another such “gotcha” moment in which the character, and maybe just the common human weakness, of many nominal conservatives has been exposed. However this finally shakes out — whether Trump finally succumbs to the 27,431 sage prognostications of his collapse or becomes, as is clearly his wish, the new Holy Roman Emperor of the Greater Americas — there has been a kind of death of innocence among conservatives that will not be fully recovered from for a very long time, if in fact it’s ever recovered from at all.
To be clear, I’m not referring to the near reptilian GOP establishment whose cooperation with, and token resistance to, the Obama administration has only been matched by the ferocity with which they have cudgeled tea partiers and other constitutionalists in their ranks. There was no innocence to lose there; we’ve had their number for a good long time. Nor am I really referring to Trump himself, who has remained, his protestations notwithstanding, fundamentally unchanged since he erupted into popular culture much like a lanced boil in the mid 80s. He was then and is now a narcissist, a bully, and a thug with unquestionable talents for self-promotion and media manipulation. Anyone for whom any of this is a recent revelation should never play poker.
No, the true “get the hell out of my garden and take that slattern and with you” objects of disillusionment are those nominal conservatives who, to paraphrase Alexandra Petri, traded their inheritance for no pottage at all. To the extent that history will survive this, generations will look back on pundits like Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Mike Gallagher, Hugh Hewitt and Sean Hannity (and this list is by no means exhaustive) and marvel that their descent into apologetic dementia could have been accomplished so quickly and with so little apparent concern for the principles they had been tub thumping for decades. It will be asked if they were simply lying about the importance of constitutional principles before or just got tired of fighting for them after eight years of Obama and decided a strongman who made intermittent (and largely incoherent) conservative-sounding pronouncements was the answer in the twilight of the Republic.
Less surprising are most in the pack (and I use that term advisedly) of nominally conservative politicians who have deserted the sinking ships of their own failed campaigns or have otherwise decided it’s better to rule in hell than be unemployed in heaven. Chris Christie, by virtue of his blatant venality and sheer girth, tops this list, but again the only thing surprising here is the impressive number of times he has been able to sell his soul to different buyers. Apart from an attempt to recapture public attention by doing an impression of Tina Fey doing an impression of her, it is difficult to imagine what was on Sarah Palin‘s alleged mind. Jeff Sessions, who has traded extensively on a reputation as bedrock constitutionalist and martyr for unpopular positions, appears to have made some calculation that the plague of Trump is better than the cholera of Hillary, with martyrdom to be resumed after the general. Like many of his ilk, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that he is playing checkers and Trump is playing Monopoly. For all intents and purposes there will be no “after”.
Finally, there are the rank-and-file conservatives who I thought I understood, who I shared bonhomie with in countless marches and protests in Washington DC, who liked and shared my posts on Facebook, and whose posts I liked and shared, who now accuse me of being a “progressive libtard” (and oh so much worse) because I won’t get behind Trump. To anyone who thought conservatism was more than just being pissed off at the other side, or pissed off at your own leadership, or … just pissed off, this is deeply disturbing. Ditto, hearing people I previously thought to be reasonably intelligent and discerning repeating Trump talking points with all of thoughtfulness of a Chatty Cathy doll.
It is sobering to realize that the left has no monopoly on angry, ugly-minded and profoundly gullible people who will sell their freedom to a strongman in a heartbeat. But I shoulda known, and shame on me for thinking that just because somebody has the Gadsden flag on his cover photo and a requisitely angry post about Obama’s latest overreach that he is the faintest clue about, or commitment to, the principles that make any of that important.
If there is an upside to all of this it has, to paraphrase Jack Reacher, shown us who’s who. Should Trump prevail all the usual suspects who gave him support and cover will profit from it, for a time, ultimately and inevitably discovering that 99% agreement with the great leader simply isn’t enough and finding themselves exiled to some (hopefully) virtual Siberia. Should Trump not prevail the same people will count on the short-term memory deficits of most Americans and morph back into “constitutional conservatives” with speed and alacrity.
Those of us who suffer with neither ADD nor moral confusion may forgive, but we will not forget.