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How the Center Lost Its Mind
Center-right Trump skeptics have been duped into supporting a center-left narrative, seriously damaging any hope there was for a principled renewal of the conservative movement in the near future.
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It All Started With Principles
When I began writing my first blog, Never Tyranny, I was motivated to speak out on behalf of my principles and values in the midst of an election when neither major political party had put forward someone I could support. Regardless of who eventually won that election, my efforts were geared towards ensuring conservatism and the principles of the founding vision didn’t get swallowed up in the dysfunction of an absurd election.
Part of my stance was staking out opposition to the marginal drift of both major political parties and poking holes in the various arguments used to justify blind partisanship. In no uncertain terms, I opposed the Flight 93 Election arguments, the lesser-of-two-evils stances, and histrionics over existential threats posed by one candidate or the other.
I was not alone in my struggle, and I found an audience for my viewpoints. Variously called Trump skeptics, Never Trump, disaffected Republicans, or, as I preferred, principled conservatives, we took a stand for principles and refused to allow the electoral realities of 2016 force us to lay them down.
This gave me hope. I felt that no matter what happened after that point, there at least existed a remnant of principled conservatives who were unsullied from electoral compromises and who could constitute a vanguard for principled renewal in the future.
Trump Corrupts Everything, Especially His Opponents
But despite my hope for the remnant of principled conservatives, I began seeing things here and there that concerned me as many of them began reacting to Donald Trump in the White House. The calls to take principled stands began to transform from standing athwart the partisan bickering and became more about simply opposing Donald Trump.
Slowly but surely, I began watching my fellow “principled conservatives” become more and more invested in the resistance narrative. There began to be less and less concern for the Leftist agenda as Trump became the sole focal point of political activity.
Opposition to Trump morphed into general opposition to the Republican Party as it became more and more dominated by Trumpists. The clarion call became one that declared the Republican Party must be burned to the ground before anything could be built in its place.
As Donald Trump’s first term began to draw to a close and the 2020 election began in earnest, the motivations and goals of “principled conservatives” had changed dramatically.
While Trump supporters’ lesser-of-two-evils stance was deemed unprincipled in 2016, many disaffected Republicans began adopting this stance as the principled one in 2020. While Trump supporters’ view of Hillary Clinton as an existential threat was deemed histrionic in 2016, many disaffected Republicans began adopting this view of Donald Trump in 2020.
Finally, this center-right cadre of disaffected Republicans and “principled conservatives” was led to become so agitated by their anxieties of Trump that they’ve come to ignore the realities of a progressive Democratic agenda that’s ultimately just as antithetical to their professed values as Trump’s GOP is, if not more.
I can reach no other conclusion but that, in response to the Right losing its mind in 2016, what remains of the purportedly principled Center has similarly lost its mind in 2020.
You’ve Reached Your Final Unprincipled Destination
Consider the realities of the situation we find ourselves in.
Trump-skeptic conservatives were encouraged by their leaders to abandon traditionally conservative institutions, such as the Republican Party, out of a “principled stand,” allowing these institutions to be further swallowed up by nationalists.
In response to the marginal drift of these traditionally conservative institutions, a drift aided by the abandonment of principled conservatives, those institutions were deemed too fallen to save.
But, little to no attempt was made to build new institutions based on conservative values that would champion principles and offer better alternatives to budding socialism in one party and budding nationalism in the other. Instead of staking out a position opposed to the marginal drift of both parties, political activity became solely focused on resistance to Trump and the Republican Party.
Now, today, there is no platform to effectively champion a position that’s against both parties and their prevailing doctrines, nor are there any principled alternatives on the ballot to two leaders of two parties whose vision and agenda are opposed to traditionally conservative values.
Whereas the principled stand in 2016 was rejecting the binary choice between nationalism and progressivism, the principled stand in 2020 is somehow fully embracing the binary choice...and in favor of the progressives.
In short, disaffected Republicans took a purportedly principled stand and abandoned traditionally conservative institutions, surrendering what platforms existed to champion conservative values and get principled conservatives on the ballot. Simultaneously they failed to build new institutions and platforms that could do so. Now, this has led them to set aside their principles and support progressive institutions whose express agenda is counter to conservative values and principles, all in the name of opposing the institutions that have become radicalized partly because they abandoned them.
I stand in horror as I realize there is currently no party, no platform, and very few remaining institutions where conservative principles can be effectively championed. As I often said in 2016, if the only options before us are democratic socialism or populist nationalism, then something has gone very wrong. And, if the few conservatives who rejected that false dichotomy four years ago now embrace it, and in favor of democratic socialism, whatever we’ve been doing over that period of time has made things much, much worse.
What the Hell Happened?
I won’t attempt to offer a full analysis of what led the purportedly principled center-right to adopt a course toward outcomes hostile to their principles. But I am approaching several conclusions about aspects of what brought things to where they are today.
Firstly, I can only conclude that certain segments and figures of the “Never Trump” movement were not calling for principled stands in a good faith desire to actually champion conservative values. I can’t help but wonder what segment of this Never Trump movement had getting Democrats elected as the goal from the very beginning.
Secondly, surrendering the institutions and platforms from which conservative values could be championed, and parting ways with our fellow conservatives was a colossal mistake.
We effectively surrendered our place at the table on the Right (and the Left will never give us a place at their’s). How is an act principled if it damages both the short-term and long-term ability to have our principles reflected in culture, the media, and the government?
The Democrats have only tip-toed away from the socialist edge, and we’ve been unable to find a constituency for viable institutions or a new political party. Clearly, our efforts would have been better placed fighting for the institutions where our principles originally belonged.
Finally, I must conclude that even conservatives who stood athwart the wave of Trumpism in the GOP were not immune to our society’s political dysfunction. For however much they hated the cult of personality that had arisen on the Right, they failed to keep themselves from becoming encapsulated into the Left's cult of anti-personality. There’s ultimately no difference between setting aside principles to support a man and setting aside principles to oppose a man.
So, what is the principled way forward? I’m not entirely certain that there remains such a path, at least not in the realm of electoral politics.
There is no doubt that Donald Trump fails to embody conservative values and that, under his leadership, the Republican Party and conservative movement have deviated from the founding vision and have begun to embrace aspects of nationalism and ethnocentrism.
While I consider declarations that Trump is an existential threat to our republic's continued existence greatly exaggerated, I am deeply concerned with the future of conservatism and the viability of conservative institutions should Trump be elected to a second term.
However, a principled perspective is not driven by anxieties that overwhelm the senses. No number of nasty tweets, unscrupulous behavior, or even overtly nationalist sentiment erases how equally opposed the progressive movement is to conservative principles and founding American attitudes.
Abortion, gun rights, localism, federalism, judicial originalism, the separation of powers, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, traditional stances on family and culture, financially responsible government, state sovereignty, the free market...the list of things we claim to value as conservatives that will come under assault from even a moderately progressive-controlled government goes on and on.
If Democrats take the White House and the Senate, their agenda will both discredit non-Trump conservatives who put them in power and further stoke the anxieties of the conservatives who are under Trump’s sway. Nationalism will become more entrenched on the Right, and possibly even more than it would should Trump win a second term.
Whatever window of opportunity there was for a principled renewal is almost completely gone, and I see few, if any, scenarios that wouldn’t simply perpetuate the cycle of dysfunction.
Removing Trump while maintaining a divided government may still be a plausible outcome that could provide a moratorium on political anxiety and an opening for clear-minded discussion of principles and values. But this is increasingly becoming unlikely.
Trump may yet survive this election cycle as he shores up his base and independents remain dubious of a Democratic Party insufficiently distanced from ultra-progressive firebrands and increased violence and unrest in the streets.
The Republican Party has thoroughly saddled itself to the President, and he’s historically damaged them down-ballot. It’s growing more and more unlikely they’ll maintain a majority in the Senate. They’ll probably fail to do so even if Trump wins.
My guess is, either Donald Trump gets re-elected, or Democrats sweep the whole thing. In either circumstance, things are likely to get far worse before they get better.
But such circumstances are beyond my control. I can only control my words and my deeds, and I will not let fear animate them. I place my hope in the truths I espouse, and I trust to the strength of my principles and my values.
It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, it may not be while I yet draw breath, but if what I hold to be true is indeed true, then no power under the sun can bury it forever, not so long as my words and deeds stand as an uncompromising testament to what I hold to be true.
I discussed Law Enforcement’s Kent State Moment at the NOQ Report.
I’m back on Medium, with an article about ideas and their consequences.
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Stay Free My Friends,