What Is the State of Conservatism Today?

Matthew Sitman
Sam Adler-Bell

Know Your Enemy is a podcast about conservatism that takes analyzing its ideas and actions seriously. As we approach the end of Trump's presidential term, we talked to its hosts about the state of the Republican Party and the Right after nearly four years of President Trump.

Donald Trump at a rally in Prescott Valley, Arizona. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Luke Savage

As November’s election approaches, the conservatism of the Trump era appears to be in crisis. Between the administration’s disastrous response to COVID and Trump’s surreal handling of his own COVID diagnosis, the Republican campaign today has none of the novelty or heterodoxy of 2016. And yet, with the sudden death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, conservatives are closer than ever to realizing their dream of a right-wing supermajority on the United States Supreme Court.

Know Your Enemy, a podcast hosted by Dissent magazine, grapples with conservatism from the Left. Its hosts — Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell — joined Jacobin for a wide-ranging conversation on pandemic-era Republicanism, Amy Coney Barrett, and the state of the Trump project heading into next month’s election.


LS

Though it’s already fading into the rearview mirror, I think we’d be remiss not to discuss the bizarre spectacle that was last month’s debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden — especially as we’re about to endure another. There was a pretty vigorous meta-debate over whether what he did was effective, and there seems to be a consensus that, insofar as anyone “won” what was a total trainwreck of a debate, it was Biden.

So I’d like to first ask both of you for your general take on the debate and its outcome, but also if there’s anything you think can be discerned about the wider Republican strategy from Trump’s debate performance?

MS

I was someone who, in real time during the debate, resisted the emerging narrative that Trump was “dominating.” I think that’s totally wrong. As I put it on the bonus episode we recorded that night, I thought Trump only dominated the debate in the same way a child throwing a temper tantrum dominates a birthday party. The child melts down, is the center of attention, is disruptive. But no one likes it and everyone wants it to stop. That’s a better description of his behavior at the debate than domination.

I’m baffled by anyone who perceived Trump as a dominant, masculine figure. Trump was the opposite of virile and energetic: He was sweaty, his face was puffy, his makeup was caked on, he slouched at the podium. He came off as desperate and mostly blathered incoherently. I’m not Joe Biden’s biggest fan, but I thought he won the debate by default — and post-debate polling shows that I was right.

What we saw during the debate is that Trump does not expect to win in a fair vote. His behavior was not that of someone trying to win over voters or appeal to key constituencies in swing states. That’s why he told the Proud Boys to “stand by” and refused to condemn violent white supremacists. That’s why he encouraged poll “watching.” That’s why he specifically said that he was installing Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court to, as he put it, count the ballots — that’s not exactly how it works, but it’s entirely possible election-related litigation could end up before the Supreme Court.

Trump’s comments about mail-in ballots show that he’s trying to seed the ground to explain his loss or to prepare voters to believe that massive, widespread fraud occurred. It’s an excuse to possibly contest the election and try to cling to power that way, though I think whether or not that happens will depend on how close the vote is.

SAB

It’s interesting that, when we — heroically — recorded a bonus episode the night of the debate for our beloved Patreon listeners, it became clear that Matt and I had different reactions. My first instinct was to get caught up in the feeling that Trump was “dominating” the debate, and I saw Biden’s performance as a bit more confused and doddering.

My fear was that when very plugged-in liberals and Democrats watch Trump, to them, he is transparently despicable already. That’s not the case for a lot of people in this country. Obviously, there are people who specifically enjoy the aspects of Trump that liberals find despicable, but there’s also a lot of people who encounter Trump as he’s depicted on Fox News, or as he tries to portray himself. They aren’t pre-programmed to see a narcissistic, petulant bigot when they watch him speak.

So I was afraid that without already having come to the conclusion that he’s a transparently despicable man, maybe viewers would just see someone who is the president, has power, and seemed to continue to have power during the debate. I can see now that I was wrong in some ways — that actually Trump struck people as even more self-obsessed and self-pitying than he usually does, perhaps because of the sheer volume of bile he spewed during the debate. And that’s encouraging.

MS

I just want to point out that Trump is not that popular. There’s no reason to think that what he did during the debate would appeal to anything like a majority of the country. He lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes in 2016, his approval rating has been stuck in the low forties, and he’s never commanded majority approval for any significant length of time. How many people expect him to receive more votes than Biden?

During the debate, amid all the lies and obfuscation and interruptions, one of the only consistent messages he delivered was that the election was going to be fraudulent. He’s conceding, in a way, that he’s a minority president and the GOP is a minority party. It’s not the message of a candidate who thinks he’s going to win, in the conventional sense of the term.

SAB

There’s also the win-win aspect, for Trump, of indicating that the election might not be completely above board. There’s this internal Democratic polling showing that there’s a correlation between thinking that Trump will steal the election and not being enthusiastic about voting. So if Trump convinces people that he’s going to steal the election, it might, in certain circumstances and at the margins, depress the vote among people who Democrats really want to turn out.

Because of course a person who is inclined to think Trump would steal the election is somebody who probably doesn’t like Trump. So that’s a pretty dark aspect of this, too — that even if he doesn’t ultimately succeed in stealing the election, merely suggesting that he could do so might depress unmotivated voters who would otherwise vote for the Democrats.

I wrote a piece for Dissent recently about the conservative response to COVID in which, drawing on conversations Matt and I have had on the podcast, I wrote that for conservative politics, “incoherence is a feature not a bug.” I suspected Trump would display a certain degree of ideological incoherence during the debate, and he did.

Trump ripped Biden for his support of the 1994 crime bill, and bragged that he, Trump, was freeing people who’ve been in prison for too long because of Biden’s too-punitive legislative history. That is, by signing the First Step Act, Trump had rectified this great historic racial injustice perpetrated by Biden. But then, a few minutes later, Trump said that if the Democrats win, racial minorities are going to move into the suburbs and destroy your white middle class life, all while blathering on about “law and order.”

There’s just a complete and total incoherence between these two positions — Biden can’t simultaneously be too punitive and too lenient. But of course, there’s no apparatus in the Republican Party, as it exists, for punishing Trump for being incoherent. Unlike progressive liberalism, the ideology of conservatism does boil down in many circumstances to just the dominance of the existing order over threats to its power; responding to every political and ideological impasse in whatever is a convenient way from minute to minute in the same debate, even the same sentence, is fine. That’s how it works.

If Trump can win over certain African-American voters, on the margins, by touting his First Step Act and, at the same time, win white suburbanites with his law-and-order rhetoric, that’s fine, it doesn’t matter. I think that sometimes liberals imagine that hypocrisy is a problem for the Republican Party — that it will somehow come back to bite them — but it’s not and it won’t.

The View From the Bubble

LS

Matt, in your recent Commonweal essay on Amy Coney Barrett you talked about the parallel realities in American politics — the parallel dimension that exists in the conservative media ecosystem where Joe Biden is a secret socialist radical, etc.

This move is not new on the part of Republicans, who’ve been pretending that milquetoast liberal figures like Al Gore and John Kerry are on the radical left for as long as anyone can remember. What is going on when conservatives do this, and to what extent do they believe their own rhetoric?

MS

I began my article on Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination by saying that, like much that’s happened during the Trump presidency, it seems to be taking place in two worlds at once. There’s the right-wing alternative reality where Joe Biden is a raving socialist, our cities are burned over wastelands controlled by antifa, COVID-19 is nothing to be concerned about — and Barrett is facing waves of bigoted, anti-Catholic attacks.

Outside of the Fox News Cinematic Universe, however, Democrats are doing nothing but talk about what Barrett could mean for the ACA [Affordable Care Act]. You’re right, though, that this is a long-standing feature of right-wing politics. I’ve been reading Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland recently, and it’s a great reminder of how Ronald Reagan constantly was peddling bizarre lies — bogus stats or bits of fake history or wild claims he picked up from reading, say, Human Events.

Because many conservatives distrust mainstream sources of information, they often exist in that kind of epistemological cocoon — liberals can too, of course, as well as those of us on the left. But the right-wing disinformation ecosystem really provides an unparalleled buffer from reality.

But reality always, eventually, intrudes on ideological fantasies, and so all this has become more pronounced during Trump’s presidency. Part of the reason why is that when you decide to go in for Trump, you’re degrading yourself. It really compromises any sort of integrity or ethics a person might have — you end up defending the indefensible. Because cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, it becomes imperative to shape the rest of reality in light of that decision to support Trump rather than look at the man you’re supporting and actually grapple with what he says and does.

So, with the pandemic, you have to see that there are over 200,000 Americans dead, that there never was a real national plan, that your children’s schooling is being disrupted, in part, because of this man’s ignorance and incompetence, that your work life continues to be disrupted, in part, because this man simply does not know what he’s doing, and then find a way to justify your support for him. You either have to double down or admit that you’ve been wrong.

I think this is why you’ve seen commentators on the right saying things that are, even by the very low standards of right-wing punditry, increasingly absurd. You have to overcome the cognitive dissonance somehow. It’s really difficult to admit you’ve debased yourself — and far preferable to build a bizarro reality around your commitment to Trump. There are plenty of right-wing outlets to help with that.

Do they believe what they say? Some don’t, but others probably do. I suspect still others eventually come to believe their own propaganda — as [George] Orwell once wrote, the face grows to fit the mask. The fact that the conservative movement is, as much as anything else, a jobs program for mediocrities means it can be tough to distinguish principle from paycheck.

LS

After the Trump/Biden debate, the conservative commentator Saagar Enjeti said: “Trump was elected in 2016 despite being a widely disliked man. Millions overlooked their personal dislike for him in favor of a populist message on trade, mass immigration, political correctness, and corruption. His biggest problem is how much that message was missing last night.”

The three of us might differ somewhat on this interpretation of the 2016 election, but the observation still speaks to a real and notable difference between Trump’s message four years ago and the message he’s campaigning on today. The most obvious reason for that, of course, is that he’s now the sitting president rather than an insurgent outsider. But I’m wondering what you both make of the shift in Trump’s messaging beyond the reality that he’s now the incumbent?

MS

We did a bonus episode on the RNC [Republican National Convention] and emphasized that very point. It is striking that “populist” economics is missing from this campaign. It’s true that, in 2016, Trump activated certain voters with his racism, xenophobia, bigotry against Muslims, bigotry against Mexicans, running his mouth about “shithole” countries, all that.

That was certainly part of Trump’s appeal, though I think it perhaps mattered more for winning the Republican nomination than the general election. But he also was viewed, believe it or not, as one of the most moderate Republican candidates in modern US political history because of the sense people had that he didn’t fit into an ideological box.

Trump outperformed [Mitt] Romney with more independent, moderate, white voters who did not have especially hard-line views on immigration. That was one reason he won the Electoral College. So I think it actually matters a lot that Trump is no longer an “outsider” running against a “corrupt establishment,” of which Hillary Clinton was a plausible embodiment, in part on a message of economic populism. But his message now is: I created the greatest economy in the history of the world, then China attacked us with the Wuhan flu, and if you just trust me we’ll make the economy great again — plus the “law and order” nonsense that seems unrelated to what Biden is running on.

It’s worth noting here that Trump often speaks as if he’s not the president right now. I think that reflects, among other things, that he’s governed in a drastically different way on certain issues than his campaign rhetoric led voters to believe he would. And if you can’t defend how you’ve governed, why not pretend you’re not really governing at all?

The economic populism, along with slamming the Iraq War and saying (untrue) things such as being more pro-LGBTQ than Clinton, were what I think created a sense that Trump was hard to categorize ideologically. That meant some people were willing to take a risk on him. And what we’ve seen over the past four years is that he’s never built on the coalition he put together in 2016. He’s governed as the most conservative president since Ronald Reagan.

That hasn’t escaped the notice of voters. Especially with his failures during the pandemic, that means many of these so-called independent or moderate voters will not be willing to make that bet again. This is one reason, if not the only one, he’s in the shape he’s in right now.

SAB

It’s worth speculating a bit about why it is that Trump didn’t or wasn’t able to govern as the economic populist swamp-drainer that was important to his 2016 victory. The people associated with, say, the American Conservative, the people who are longtime proponents of renegotiating the fusionist compromise in the Republican Party, these folks are still convincing themselves that Trump is an imperfect, but indispensable, avatar for that agenda.

But there’s also a lot of disappointment that he hasn’t managed to actually reshape the party and push the economic stakeholders of the party toward that kind of pro-worker agenda. If we look at what Trump has done, with the possible exception of trade policy, he’s governed as an economic libertarian.

LS

His major legacy is passing a larcenous giveaway to the richest people in the country.

SAB

Exactly. And as we often do, when the pandemic struck and there was a new unemployment crisis and a lot of people were in real dire economic straits, both of us feared that maybe this would be the moment that Republicans would embrace some Bannonite herrenvolk social democracy. There was a political necessity to provide people what they need to survive the pandemic and the lockdown; a fear that at any moment the nascent populist impulse in the party and in Trump’s psyche might kick in. But it didn’t happen.

They did one round of stimulus and at the same time gave a pretty massive giveaway to corporations, which helped the stock market and didn’t help anybody else. As a wry Know Your Enemy listener once wrote to us, “Marxists have predicted eight of the last three instances of conservative politicians adopting Keynesian economic measures.” We’re always fearing it, because it seems like it would be a winning strategy, electorally, for today’s American right. But it doesn’t happen. Why is that? It’s an important question.

Realignment Postponed

LS

Let’s turn to the wider context for the election, which is the ongoing pandemic. As you said, there was a momentary fear on the left that conservatives would seize on the moment to embrace a bold, welfarist agenda — even, in our worst nightmares, staging a partial reinvention of the conservative project in America.

Obviously that hasn’t happened. There hasn’t been any real effort to embrace, for want of a better phrase, a communitarian agenda or to move at all in the direction of a so-called traditionalist social policy paired with some kind of economic populism or welfarism.

Ross Douthat recently said, in response to new numbers showing a big fall in disposable incomes for many Americans this summer: “The fact that Trump isn’t on Twitter and Fox and Friends every day pressuring Congressional Republicans to make a big-number deal with Democrats says a lot about why his brand of right-populism is likely headed to defeat rather than re-election.” With the caveat that we don’t actually know what the outcome of the election will be, Douthat is certainly correct in spirit, that Trump’s response to the pandemic has seriously imperiled his chances at reelection.

Why didn’t the momentarily feared conservative reinvention occur? Put a slightly different way: What is it about the machinery of the Republican Party and wider conservative movement right now that precluded it as a possibility? Especially since it’s something plenty of people within the conservative intelligentsia have spoken about favorably.

MS

I want to admit that, unless Trump changes course very soon (and he’s signaling he might), I was wrong about something. I thought that because, deep down, Trump doesn’t have any real convictions, there would be a moment when the pandemic would be bad enough and his reelection chances seemed imperiled enough that he would panic and turn on the spigot and say, “I’ll spend whatever it takes, I’ll sign whatever you put on my desk.”

SAB

The central bankers are literally begging him to turn on the spigot.

MS

Right! But the deeper issue, is that in the United States, the base of conservatism is the religious right and the “business community,” whether that means small businesses and entrepreneurs or larger corporations. They really are the engines of American conservatism, and neither of them really have much of an interest in a more economically populist conservatism. The religious right just wants to keep fighting the culture wars: they’re concerned with trans people in their bathrooms. The business community just wants to cut taxes and shred regulations.

So that’s what the Republican Party is, basically. When you look at what they do, it’s stoke the culture war, cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans, and give handouts to big business. Actually existing conservatism here does not have the right social base to produce the sort of Red Toryism that people like Ross Douthat want.

LS

Tucker Carlson is another person who’s been beating this drum, and I’ve heard him pretty confidently declare that there is in fact a majoritarian popular base for exactly this project. To what extent, if any, do you think that’s true?

MS

There is a majority that favors economic policies that you might consider more populist, that’s true. But I suspect that a significant portion of them would be, say, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren voters in the Democratic Party, along with some Republicans and some conservatives who are interested in these ideas. It would make sense, after all, for religious conservatives to say, “Capitalism has not been friendly to our concerns.”

The way we live and work in the United States today is not friendly to family formation, to raising any children at all — let alone large families. Our winner-take-all economy means that you leave your hometown to receive an education and then you move to a metropolitan area to get a job that will let you pay off your debt. That is disruptive to communities and towns. Your talent, your children leave and never come back.

One would think, then, that religious conservatives would be interested in economic populism — that they’d realize such policies would be conducive to sustaining the kinds of families and communities they idealize. They mostly aren’t, however, because they can’t stop luxuriating in their grievances, which they’re fed a steady stream of by right-wing media.

The political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call it “plutocratic populism” — Republicans serve the rich while stirring the masses with racial and cultural resentments. That two-step is modern conservatism, and thus the modern GOP. That’s not a false consciousness argument: both sides are getting their hearts’ desire.

SAB

The structure of the economic stakeholders of the Republican Party is a problem. Which is to say that though there is some ferment on the right to support a new economic nationalist policy, the sources of funding for these projects are still the same business interests that are mostly interested in deregulation and anti-union, anti-worker policies. So they have that problem, which is similar to one Democrats have, but more pronounced.

The other issue is race, obviously. The majoritarian coalition around economic populism in America is one that, compared to even other Western countries, includes a massive number of working-class nonwhite people. And those people, especially Africian Americans, have very wisely observed that the conservative movement is a racist movement, one which will always compromise their humanitarian needs to serve the interests of white power. I think that’s always going to be a problem for any kind of traditionalist conservative coalition that’s focused more on economic populism.

When we talked to Ross, his big thing was that conservatives will have to become less racist in order to build this coalition. I think he more or less said that: that there could be a realignment in this country, but it would have to be, for example, socially conservative black Christians and Catholic Latinos coming to see the Republican Party as a vehicle for achieving their more traditionalist ends as well as more economic redistribution.

Nonwhites would be an essential part of Ross’s imagined coalition, but the Republican Party has consistently and vociferously demonized racial others. That’s built into the DNA of American politics in a way that can’t be ignored. There’s obviously a materialist, more Marxist-aligned analysis of why maintaining a particular racial order serves business interests — segmenting the working class in such a way that to forestall revolutionary upheaval.

But even just looking at the facts on the ground, the Republican Party can’t achieve a majoritarian economic populist base because they would need to involve a whole bunch of people who have been consistently demonized by Republican politicians.

MS

Because Trump and the Republican Party have failed so spectacularly in their response to the pandemic, there’s something ironic about this moment we’re in, which is that it could have been a moment when so-called populist Republicans actually stepped up, actually backed up their populist posturing.

But they haven’t, and in the midst of so much suffering and uncertainty you see more people than ever asking questions like: Why should my health care be tied to my employment? The pandemic has exposed how deranged that is. When you have millions of people losing their jobs during a public-health crisis, that’s an object lesson in the perversity of not guaranteeing health care as a right.

We’re seeing that people seem to understand more and more with, say, the post office, that it is a public service and not a business expected to turn a profit, and that even if it loses money the mail should be delivered to every home in the United States, including those in small towns or remote rural areas.

We’re seeing people appreciate the benefits of direct cash transfers. So the ideological breakthrough from the pandemic, should one happen, very well could be to move opinion in a leftward direction. That will partly depend on whether progressives in the Democratic Party can push the party to seize this moment.

SAB

One thing I’ve also found interesting, paying close attention to the intellectual and journalistic organs of the populist right, is that when you listen to the American Conservative podcast for example, or the things people like Dan McCarthy — the Tory Anarchist on Twitter — will say, they describe the war that they are waging within the Republican Party in remarkably similar terms to the terms that left-wing electoralists describe the war they’re waging within the Democratic Party.

There’s a party apparatus that at this moment is controlled by people who continue to be enamored by a late twentieth century neoliberal ideology, and those people are preventing radical changes that would affect the sort of realignment that both the populist right and the populist left would like to see in American politics.

There’s a bit of a misapprehension on both sides. The right populists tend to believe that the Democratic Party is not at war with itself. That there actually is some coherent “coalition of the woke,” and that people from Bernie and [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] to Biden and Harris are basically on board with the current hegemonic focus of the Democratic Party. Which is wrong, right?

There is a war within the Democratic Party and we feel just as marginalized, but with a fighting chance of changing our party, as they do. And on the left, in a similar way, we imagine that the Republican Party must not be as rife — as is our side — with ideological divisions that prevent them from achieving their goals.

But there really is a parallel. Which is to say that there are wars within both parties between people attached to different kinds of neoliberal agendas and the irony is that we are both apprehending our enemy as more coherent and aligned in their ideology than they are.

MS

I wonder, with the pandemic, if actually that racial barrier may be starting to lower a bit, not just because many white people saw the footage of George Floyd being murdered and responded to the calls for racial justice and police accountability, but because white people who previously were more comfortable are experiencing a kind of precarity that they might never have experienced before.

Does that mean enough people are struggling badly enough that they’re willing to ally with African Americans or Hispanics in the Democratic Party because they just think, “I need health care, I need a job, I need some kind of help to get through this pandemic”? Maybe. The pandemic ran into the buzzsaw of four decades of neoliberal austerity, and in my more hopeful moments I think the former might end up helping people see the reality of the latter.

I also want to connect this to the question about why the much-ballyhooed populist realignment has not come about, at least in terms of the Republican Party becoming the vehicle for that realignment. A major obstacle to that happening is that these people have hitched their wagon to Trump — who might end up discrediting their project more than he heralded the future.

For example, this summer two prominent pro-Trump intellectuals, Dan McCarthy and Helen Andrews, went on the New York Times podcast, the Argument, to talk with Ross Douthat about the pandemic. But instead of talking about the kinds of policies you might expect a populist to support, all they did was rationalize what Trump has done — Trump has handled the pandemic extremely well, actually!

By making Trump an avatar of their so-called populist project, these people are on the hook for all his manifest failures. And that means their energy is not deployed toward promoting policies that would align with their supposed economic views — views that actually might be popular — but channeled into carrying water for Trump.

Trumpian Justice

LS

Let’s turn to the situation vis-à-vis the Supreme Court. Among various choices available to him, Trump opted to select Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Catholic jurist to replace the recently deceased Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What is there to say generally about Barrett’s background and why do you think she emerged as the favorite?

MS

Amy Coney Barrett is the darling of the Catholic legal movement. She was first in her class at Notre Dame Law School, she clerked for Antonin Scalia, and then she very quickly was hired back to teach at Notre Dame — it’s rare to be hired at the institution from which you get your advanced degree, at least outside the Ivy League.

That’s a marker, I think, of the extent to which they very specifically wanted to nurture her for precisely the position she’s now on the cusp of attaining. By “they” I mean the network of right-wing legal figures who have such influence in Republican politics. She’s been in “the pipeline,” as we call it on the podcast, for quite awhile and was mentioned as a possible nominee for the Supreme Court in 2018 when Trump ended up picking Brett Kavanaugh.

Barrett’s also, as you might have heard, a very conservative Catholic. Some of the controversies around her are about the People of Praise, an ecumenical, charismatic lay group. My argument is that it’s unfair to say you can’t ask any questions about how her faith relates to her jurisprudence. It’s very clear that her faith matters to her — she’s written about how, say, a Catholic judge might have to recuse herself from certain cases that involve implementing the death penalty.

It’s very clear that she is the favorite of the pro-life movement and religious conservatives. But there’s no need to act like being religious is some backward eccentricity, or to ask prurient questions about the People of Praise. Who cares? Her views are terrible whether based on reason or revelation. The effect is the same, and the effects are what should be the focus.

Why did Trump pick her? I think there are a few reasons. One is that, as I mentioned, she’s a favorite of the religious right and Trump views them as one of his most important constituencies — and they have definitely been steadfast in their support for him. So by nominating Barrett it was a safe choice for him in the sense that it will make a lot of the right people in his coalition happy.

It’s interesting that he didn’t pick, for example, Barbara Lagoa, who is from Florida. The storyline that emerged from that nomination might have been different: it would have been about a Latina woman from a swing state. But the choice of Barrett goes back to my argument that Trump does not expect to win the election, and that this was a choice meant to bolster his hardcore supporters.

Barrett is someone who worked for the Bush campaign during the Florida “recount” — she already has demonstrated a commitment to partisan intervention when an election is disputed. The fact that she accepted the nomination under these conditions is itself disqualifying in my view as well, especially since Trump has specifically said he expects the Supreme Court to be involved in the outcome of the election.

Barrett refuses to say she’ll recuse herself in that eventuality, and she won’t even say that presidents should commit to the peaceful transfer of power. It’s pathetic.

SAB

The other really important insight in Matt’s Commonweal piece about her nomination was that, yes, you could say that she’s a perfect choice for conservative Catholics and religious conservatives, and yet, if you look at her jurisprudence, she’s consistently ruled against the interests of working people. So she isn’t the choice of true adherents of Catholic social teaching.

She’s really a perfect exemplar of how Republicans have approached the fusionist compromise from its inception. Which is to cleave off the culture war from the social teachings of Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, which require people to care about the least well-off, the stranger, and those who need help. And so, economically, she’s a fine choice for the libertarian side of the Republican Party as well.

I think that Matt’s way of writing about her was spot on. The assumption that “of course this is the religious Christian choice” was ripe for the kind of intervention Matt made, which was to reply: “Is she really?” This woman does not seem to care about her obligations to the poor, which is supposed to be a theological obligation for her faith.

LS

By choosing Barrett, Trump opened up what seems to be yet another front in the culture war — with some conservative activists and commentators insisting opposition to her appointment is motivated by anti-Catholic bigotry.

Senator Josh Hawley, in fact, has even sent a letter to Chuck Schumer demanding he not permit any “anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, anti-faith vitriol” in the upcoming hearings. Why have sections of the Right who favor Barrett’s nomination opted for this particular response? Is there a strategic reason, an ideological reason, or both?

MS

It’s all they have. To defend Barrett on the merits would not be politically advantageous for Republicans — they have to avoid, at all costs, talking about what her judicial philosophy would mean for most Americans. So, as usual, what the Right does is try to take concrete issues of public policy, or, in this case, the effects of how she seems likely to rule, and reduce them to culture-war posturing.

Let’s be honest: “originalism” mostly dresses up reactionary views in high-minded language and historical pseudo-scholarship. Barrett’s version of it is worse than Scalia’s. So the strategy of the Republican Party is just to convince people that Democrats are out to get them, that Democrats are hostile to people of faith, that Democrats are the real bigots. And that’s their play, because they would much rather be talking about what Dianne Feinstein said in 2017 than what people whose lungs are scarred from COVID-19 will do if the Affordable Care Act is gutted.

Never Trump, Always Neoliberal

LS

Though it’s a bit disparate with the rest of our discussion, your recent discussion with historian Samuel Moyn raised some interesting questions about the state of the minoritarian rebellion against Trump that’s gotten so much media attention — particularly in liberal circles — these past few years. Gaming out some possible scenarios in the event of different election results seems a useful, if, admittedly, a highly speculative exercise. What happens to the Never Trump conservatives if they get their wish and Trump loses? And what happens to them and the influence they currently enjoy if Trump is reelected?

SAB

I basically agree with Moyn’s thesis about the Never Trump conservatives. Their agenda — contra populists in both parties  — is to realign the Democratic electorate around a centrist, neoliberal revanchism. They want to restore the policy consensus of the Clinton years. They’ve made what’s probably a good choice for their own careers and their ideology by aligning themselves with a Biden victory. They would enjoy very little if any influence in a second-term Trump administration. (They’re traitors to the God-King after all.)

The legitimate fear that I have is that by focusing some degree of their pro-Biden message on the idea of restoring the pre-Trump norms and the pre-Trump policy consensus, is that Biden, who has demonstrated throughout his career that he values “good faith, conciliatory compromise” in the legislature as a first principle, one that exceeds commitment to any ideological agenda — that Biden might be extremely receptive to the Never Trump conservatives.

And I think it’s an obligation of people on the left to look very closely at who among that cohort is gaining influence in the Biden campaign, in the Biden transition team. In the event of a Biden victory, most of the people on the left who are now working to make sure Trump loses, one of their first challenges will be making sure that Biden doesn’t empower people who basically want to return the politics of the White House to neoliberal stasis. And I think that is the explicit agenda of the Never Trump conservatives.

But that’s a different question from whether I think they should be given any plaudits for making the choice to go with Biden over Trump. There are two ways to understand their motivation: in terms of their career prospects, and in terms of the restoration of a pre-Trump and distinctly pre-Bernie policy consensus in DC.

MS

With regard to the Never Trumpers: I agree about their motivations and that most of them have yet to fully grapple with the ways they are deeply implicated in Trump’s rise. These are people who have stoked all of the worst impulses on the right for decades and then when it got out of control — or rather, out of their control — they didn’t like it. I further agree with Sam Moyn that the influence of the Never Trumpers was felt most strongly during the Democratic primaries when they were a key part of the mainstream media’s anti-Bernie faction. I mean, who better to tell Democrats who can beat Republicans than ex-Republicans?

And I think enough Democratic primary voters were the kinds of people who read the Washington Post (where Jennifer Rubin and Max Boot, for example, have columns), enough of them are the kinds of people who watch MSNBC (a network that constantly brings on these Never Trump Republicans), that the Never Trumpers did help push the climate of opinion in the primary in an anti-Bernie direction. They all much preferred a guy like Biden to Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. I’m not claiming they’re why Bernie lost, or that it’s all the media’s fault; the Bernie campaign made serious mistakes, too. I’m just saying I think it mattered.

Where I diverge somewhat from what Sam just said is that I doubt they’ll have much direct influence in a Biden administration. I mean, what would that even mean? It’s not like Biden needs Never Trumpers whispering in his ear to back bad crime bills, to support disastrous wars, or to reject Medicare for All. So I don’t think there will be Never Trumpers in a potential Biden administration.

I think the bigger concern is the establishment wing of the Democratic Party. The question is not whether Biden appoints a Never Trumper but whether he appoints a Larry Summers–style Treasury secretary. The question is not whether he appoints Bill Kristol but whether he appoints Democrats who are part of the same failed foreign-policy establishment as Bill Kristol.

I’m not concerned that these ex-Republicans will be in a Biden administration; I’m worried that Democrats who might as well be Republicans will be in a Biden administration — though I’d not be surprised if Biden put a Republican in his cabinet as a symbol of bipartisan comity. But that’s Biden being Biden, not the Lincoln Project doing ideological jujitsu.

I’d go further and say that, as the presidential campaign has unfolded, I’ve been struck by how little attention I’ve paid to the Never Trumpers. Of course, Extremely Online People watch their anti-Trump ads, and there’s definitely a part of the Democratic electorate who really loves those ads — they’re almost a form of fan service. I might even be so generous as to grant that these ads might also appeal to a narrow slice of swing voters, even if that remains to be seen. In terms of a Biden administration, though, all the problems that the Left should be concerned about are coming from within the Democratic Party.

SAB

The call is coming from inside the house! I basically agree. My concern is not that Bill Kristol will have direct influence over a Biden administration but that people like him will have influence over Biden’s cabinet picks. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable outcome. And it’s up to leftists to make a big stink when Biden tries to fill his administration with bankers, “humanitarian interventionists,” deficit hawks, and centrist means-testers.