The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

MBD’s Trump Problem, and Mine

Posted on | October 13, 2021 | No Comments

Michael Brendan Dougherty (left) with Tucker Carlson in 2019.

Let me start by saying that I like Michael Brendan Dougherty, and I’ve always liked him. He is a serious thinker and his paleoconservative leanings are so obvious that it’s a miracle he hasn’t already been purged from National Review, like John Derbyshire, Peter Brimelow, et al. His 2007 article “The Castaway,” about the late, great paleoconservative intellectual Sam Francis, stopped short of a full-on endorsement of Sam’s ideas, but you could see that Dougherty’s interest was tinged with a certain amount of admiration:

The question for Sam Francis was, How might a conservative elite rise up to challenge the managerial elite? Conservatives would have to attach themselves to a broad social base. In his 1982 essay, “Message from MARS: The Social Politics of the New Right,” Francis combined his Burnhamite analysis of elites with Donald Warren’s sociological work on “Middle American Radicals” or MARs.

Dougherty here locates the hard kernel of insight that made Sam nearly unique — a disciple of James Burnham, he saw politics not so much as a “war of ideas” (the Goldwater/Reagan analysis) but as a matter of class interests. How else to explain the phenomenon of rich liberals? They are members of a social class — the “managerial elite,” in Burnham’s phrase — and as a result are hostile to the interests of rival groups, whose resistance to elite governance takes the form of populism. The Republican Party has always attracted its vital support from small business owners, who exemplify in many ways both the “rugged individualism” of frontier America and also what Max Weber called “The Protestant Ethic.” Within their own communities, these people are treated with respect, but in the great centers of cultural and political power (D.C., New York, L.A., etc.), they are viewed with contempt — a lot of provincial bourgeois Babbitts, too unsophisticated to be taken seriously. This is the real conflict in American politics, a conflict deliberately obscured by the national media establishment which, of course, is affiliated with and does the bidding of the elite.

Having distilled in a single paragraph a thumbnail sketch of Sam’s ideas about “Middle American Radicals,” I won’t bother to explain or defend how, during the 1990s, his intellectual trajectory led to him being labeled a “white supremacist.” After the past five years, I think most conservatives have become so accustomed to this label that we shrug it off, but in the mid-1990s, such an accusation still had devastating power, which is how Sam became, as Dougherty calls him, “The Castaway.”

After having profiled Sam Francis in 2007, Dougherty revisited the theme after Trump’s shocking 2016 upset of Hillary Clinton, hailing Sam as the prophet of Trump’s populist war against “globalism.” Let me clue you in here: Whether or not Donald Trump ever heard of Sam Francis, I can guarantee you that Trump’s adviser Stephen Miller is familiar with Francis’s work, just as Miller is familiar with other notorious Thought Criminals, including Brimelow, Charles Murray, Steve Sailer and Jared Taylor. Given the crisis conditions of the conservative movement circa 2006-2015, any intelligent person (and Miller is frighteningly intelligent) would have been looking around for some inspiration outside the narrow limits of Conservatism, Inc. Everyone can now see, looking back, that the time for a populist uprising on the Right was long overdue, and Trump just happened to be the figure around whom this uprising rallied.

On Monday, Dougherty published a column criticizing Roger Kimball’s limited defense of the January 6 Capitol riot, and I suppose many of my friends will be angry at Dougherty for this. Be that as it may, here is the real core of Dougherty’s argument:

Nearly everything Kimball says about the ongoing resistance to Trump is true. It was meretricious, hysterical, and dangerous. Even before Trump won the election, I predicted the unprecedented subterfuge that would probably be aimed at him if he won the presidency. We saw the deep state as it really is: an ongoing class warfare against the democratic peoples and their representatives whose disruptions provide accountability. . . .
Some of us have spent the better part of the past two decades or longer arguing that conservatives should be more open to a populist and working-class core of voters, the losers of globalization. We have been arguing for putting “the forgotten man” at the heart of conservatism’s concerns. We’ve argued for reexamining the effect of our trade relationships on the American people themselves. We denounced the democracy project in the Middle East and Afghanistan as a waste of blood and treasure. We argued for getting control of our immigration system, and for immigration limits and moratoriums in order to make America cohere again. It was thankless work. And if we had known it was all to set the stage for opportunists and recent converts to make their riches and fly their freak flags, perhaps we wouldn’t have done it.

You can read the whole thing. I don’t know who else Dougherty means to include as “some of us,” nor does he specify the targets of his criticism of “opportunists and recent converts.” Because he is not stepping on my toes (I was smeared as a “white supremacist” before it was cool), I could have just ignored this as another circular firing squad exercise on the Right, but I thought I’d address the subject directly because it matters. 

The subject amounts to a simple question: “What’s wrong with Trump?”

Dougherty focuses on Trump’s apparent belief that all Vice President Mike Pence had to do was to reject the certified Electoral College votes of Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and — abracadabra! — Trump would stay in the White House. Of course, that’s not how it works, and even if you believe that the election was stolen (a belief shared by tens of millions of Americans), the problem was that, within the constitutional framework, there was no simple remedy.

This gets very close to being an answer to the question of what’s wrong with Trump: He doesn’t read books. He doesn’t read much of anything, really. He couldn’t even be bothered to read intelligence briefings as president, so that White House aides resorted to creating Powerpoint slideshows to try to at least get him to absorb the basic points. Trump seems to get his ideas about politics and policy from watching Fox News, which is why he was always tweeting out reactions to whatever it was they were talking about on Hannity or Fox and Friends.

Watching TV is no substitute for reading, because TV can never convey ideas faster than human speech (i.e., about 150 words per minute), whereas a collegiate-level reader can absorb the written word much faster. This blog post is about 1,600 words. It would take 10-12 minutes to read it aloud, but you’ll probably reach the end much quicker. Also, the written word has a permanence that the spoken word does not. To absorb complex ideas, and to commit them to memory, the written word is superior. So Trump’s habitual aversion to reading . . . Well, that’s a real problem, and one which explains a lot of his other problems.

All that said, democracy means that our leaders are chosen collectively, and the GOP primary voters in 2016 chose Trump. So those of us who did not want Hillary to become president had no other choice but to accept the circumstances thrust upon us, and make the best of them. I believe that none of Trump’s rivals for the 2016 GOP nomination could have beaten Hillary. I think Trump was uniquely able to attract support from voters who would not have voted for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, et al. And I think he threw the Democrats off their game. In my first American Spectator column about his campaign (“How Trump Has Changed the Game,” Sept. 14, 2015), I compared Trump to the great scrambling NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton:

Watching Republican establishment types trying to stop Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is like watching a highlight film of Fran Tarkenton’s NFL career. Tarkenton’s legendary ability as a scrambling quarterback was every football coach’s worst nightmare. Never mind what play Tarkenton called in the huddle, or what scheme the defense deployed against him. Once he started scrambling, the playbook ceased to matter. He’d run all over the backfield, eluding the defensive linemen who tried to tackle him, until he found a receiver open downfield. Tarkenton’s improvisational style was unique and unpredictable, and he led the Minnesota Vikings to three Super Bowls by defying the norms of what an NFL quarterback should be.
What Tarkenton did to NFL defenses, Donald Trump is doing to the Republican Party. The bombastic billionaire routinely says things that, for any other candidate, would be campaign-destroying gaffes. With his larger-than-life celebrity persona, however, Trump keeps winning. . . .

That was four months before National Review blazoned “Against Trump” on its cover and, having lashed themselves to the mast, they went down with the #NeverTrump ship. This was their choice, and not mine, and therefore I am not responsible for the consequences. It’s like the Capitol riot — nobody in the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers came to me and asked, “Hey, Stacy, do you think it’s a good idea to have a riot?” Certainly, I would have advised against it, but no one sought my advice. Similarly, nobody at National Review asked me if it was a good idea for them to declare war on the GOP primary voters who wanted Trump.

Wisdom is what we ought to gain from our mistakes, but you’re never going to become wise if you refuse to recognize your mistakes. It may be that both Trump and his #NeverTrump adversaries suffer equally from this problem. Unless and until National Review publishes a cover story with the headline, “We Blew It,” their credibility is damaged.

Let Michael Brendan Dougherty make of this what he will. I still like him, but wish he’d follow his populist inclinations far enough to get himself purged from National Review — a fine tradition to uphold!




 

Comments