21st-century conservatism is a critique, not an ideology

Kid Rock, Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent at the White House

When Kid Rock announced that he was running for US Senate in a tweet last week, I almost assumed he wouldn’t win. Then I remembered the last time I thought that. The Michigan rock-rapper has never held elected office or served in the military, has made numerous disparaging comments about women and homosexuals, and styles himself a working-class rebel even though he was born rich. He should probably run for president. Conservative provocateur Kurt Schlichter isn’t willing to go that far, but he wholeheartedly supports Citizen Rock’s senate run. Here he is in an editorial on Townhall.com headlined We Must Elect Senator Kid Rock:

The future Senator Rock deserves your eager support for two critical reasons: First, it will drive the liberals insane. Second, it will make George Will and the rest of Team Fredocon soil themselves…“Kid Rock? Oh, well I never!” You simpering sissies. I’ll take his nasty stringy mop and torn wife beater over your preferred weasels’ coiffed politician/newscaster hair and Gucci loafers…No, he didn’t go to some Ivy League snob factory and all he’s got to rely on are attitude, common sense, and a love of actual Americans (especially our troops).

This reads less like a parody of contemporary Republican politics. Kid Rock should be a senator because electing him would make liberals angry? He’s better than politicians and newscasters because he dresses like Guy Fieri? I guess I like that he has “attitude,” which is pretty rare since it went out of production in the late nineties. And he loves “actual Americans.”

When you say that, you’re mostly saying you don’t love various other Americans you do not regard as actual. Here lies the heart of 21st-century conservatism, palpitating. It is not a set of positive values. It is a critique, and an increasingly bitter one. The troops are innocent, but otherwise, the things Schlichter praises about K. Rock are all negations: not going to college, not wearing the clothes of the professional class, not being qualified for office and therefore angering people who think he should be. This was the appeal of President Trump, too. He may be a reckless liar who watches eight hours of TV every day, but he drives liberals insane!

Driving liberals insane has been the primary function of the Republican Party since 2009. That’s what allowed the entertainment wing to achieve dominance over the political wing. While actual Republican senators and congresspeople had an incentive to preserve some comity with their colleagues across the aisle, pundits and media personalities were free to define themselves by antagonism. This antagonism became the party’s sole principle. Who are the most significant figures the right has produced in the last ten years? Trump, Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan—maybe Bill O’Reilly. Most of them are entertainers. Ryan enjoys a reputation as a policy wonk, but he earned it by submitting austere budgets to a president who never threatened to pass them.

To some degree, conservatism has always been a critique. The welfare state; regulation of trusts, consumer goods and capital markets; consolidation of power at the federal level instead of the states—all of these are features of modernity. Conservatism has historically balanced this critique with support for institutions, but contemporary Republicans despise institutions most of all. You can see it Schlichter’s contempt for the Ivy League—a “snob factory”—and George Will, the very symbol of institutional conservatism. You can see it in his swipe at newscasters and in the rhetorical war President Trump has waged on the press. Again, they love the army, but what other established institution would the conservative-entertainment complex not gleefully tear down? Schlichter is endorsing Kid Goddamn Rock for senate, essentially for the lulz. At what point must you admit that you are simply a nihilist?

Nihilism is the wrong word, though, because the contemporary GOP is vehemently ideological. They believe fervently in supply-side economics, even though it has never worked. They reject scientific consensus on global warming and evolution, harnessing a belief that is stronger than facts. They seem obsessed with rooting out RINOs in their midst. Overall, today’s Republican Party seems to believe much harder than the Democrats. It’s just that their core belief is most things are bad. They’re like ISIS or the Amish: committed to a totalizing critique, not just of other ideologies but of the world.

Maybe that’s why they haven’t been able to get anything done now that they’re in power. Twenty-first century conservatism is a robust system for rejecting things, including the imagined cultures of America in general and Washington in particular. But it does not put forth an affirmative vision of the future. They want to repeal, figuratively speaking, but they cannot replace. Schlichter loves Kid Rock because he would freak out the liberals, but he does not say how that would help. His party has a powerful strategy to win the war. It has been a long time since it has thought about how it might win the peace.

Republicare dead in Senate; McConnell humiliated; Priebus returned to puzzle box

The Senate Republican Caucus

Good news for freelancers with trick shoulders: Senate Majority Leader Mitchell “Mitch” McConnell has declared that there will be no vote on the Senate bill to replace Obamacare. This turn of events is a blow to the Republican agenda and, frankly, satisfying comeuppance after listening to them rail againast the Affordable Care Act for the last seven years. It is easy to find fault. It is not so easy to find workable solutions, as McConnell discovered over the past few weeks. He lamented the phenomenon in this statement, which also proposes a terrifying idea:

“Make sure to emphasize that Obamacare is the real failure,” he told his staffers. Also note the appearance of the word “immediately” in the established phrase “repeal and replace,” like a guest star who comes on in the last episode of a long-running drama to take the fall. So we failed to replace Obamacare immediately. We’re still going to replace it. What do you say we just repeal it now and replace it later?

Fortunately, the New York Times reports that plan dead on arrival. The same Republican senators who did not want to take health insurance from millions and give them savings accounts also did not want to take health insurance from millions and give them a timeline. For now, at least, the effort to repeal Obamacare has failed decisively—even though Republicans control both houses of Congress and the executive branch when “Watters’ World” isn’t on.

What does it all mean? I don’t think we can call this a triumph of Democratic opposition. Various operatives, particularly Andy Slavitt, have kept up a steady drumbeat against the Republican plan, but it’s hard to argue they stopped it. McConnell scratched his vote because a handful of Republican senators wouldn’t go along. They were the usual moderate naysayers: Murkowski and Collins, plus Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia. Their persistent refusal could mean a few things:

  1. The GOP has drifted so far to the right on issues of social welfare as to lose the moderate members of its caucus.
  2. The bill under consideration was so particularly bad for women that these three women objected.
  3. Contemporary Republican politics is vigorous as a critique of liberalism but morbid as an approach to governance.

Guess which explanation I favor. The Republican lifestyle brand as we know it today was forged in opposition to Barack Obama. He was the smooth-talking biracial latte drinker atop the pyramid of liberal power, and they were the Real Americans who said no. Over the last nine years, the outlines of this coalition have become remarkably clear. You can guess whether someone votes Republican by their car, their facial hair, their music and TV habits, their religion—any number of cultural signifiers. This cultural coalition is the one that propelled Donald Trump to the White House, but it is not a coalition of political interests. Once you have to start making concrete policy choices, the Republican coalition falls apart.

How many interests do a West Virginia coal miner and a Chicagoland hedge fund manager have in common? What health care policy goals does Peter Thiel share with Ted Cruz’s dad? All four of these people are likely to agree on the issue of President Obama, but it’s harder to think of what else might bring them together. Right now, the GOP base consists of whites with high school diplomas, the investor/rentier class, evangelical Christians and libertarian idealists. A parliamentary system would put these demographics in at least three different parties. The contemporary Republican coalition has brought them all together, but it is not well suited to governance, because it is not an alignment of natural political interests.

It’s a great way to get a bunch of people all watching the same TV network or voting against the same lady. But it has yet to be fully tested as a machine for solving the country’s problems or even passing substantive legislation. After nine years of tenacious opposition, the need to cooperate may be what finally shakes the modern GOP apart.

Trumps explore limits of nepotism

The heir to generations of hard-won success and Donald Trump, Jr.

They’re a bunch of hardasses over at the New Yorker, where coverage of Donald Trump, Jr. renders the possessive of his name with a period-comma-apostrophe-s. For example: Donald Trump Jr.,’s Love for Russian Dirt. That’s some strict copy editing, right there. No one is eyeballing it at the New Yorker. Probably, the way they maintain such high standards is by hiring the old copy editor’s son. It just makes sense. Once a guy has spent his whole career editing copy, practicing at the highest level until he knows every page of the stylebook, the second-best copy editor in the world has got to be his kid. Being good at stuff is hereditary. That’s why the world is ruled by kings.

Anywhom, Donald Trump Jr.’s emails tested the limits of this principle when he released them on Twitter this morning. He seems to have published them in an attempt to scoop the New York Times, which reported today that Trump Jr. expressed interest in damaging information about Hillary Clinton that was explicitly provided by the Russian government. Here is an actual email exchange between “Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer” Natalia Veselnitskaya and Trump Jr. that I am not making up:

Veselnitskaya: This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.

Trump: If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.

Kids: When someone asks you if you want sensitive information from a foreign government to help your political campaign, you say, “Are you a cop?” They have to tell you if you ask. I don’t know how this exchange could be more explicit. If you were writing a comedy sketch where Donald Trump, Jr. gets caught in a DOJ sting, you could use this wording. Trump surrogates have argued that the meeting that came from these emails turned out to be about Russian adoption policies, and Veselnitskaya offered “very high level and sensitive information” as a false pretext. That would explain her wording. If you had such information, would you ever say so in an email? But Trump Jr. literally goes on record as loving this illegal plan, bringing to his role in his father’s presidential campaign less discretion than one brings to a weed deal on Facebook.

It’s almost as though he attained his position by favoritism. There’s something gross about the way President Trump gives important jobs to his children. It’s un-American. A founding principle of our government is that it will be run by people who have earned it, or at least won a popularity contest. Getting born into it was the old way, the collapsing system that took Europe down with it. Maybe I’m just mad because my dad isn’t president. But if Trump had hired an experienced campaign operative to do Donald Jr.’s job, I bet they wouldn’t have sent this email. They might still have colluded with Russia to influence the election, whatever that means. But they wouldn’t have embarrassed the whole country doing it.

Lawyers defending DNC argue impartiality was just a guideline

Former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (artist’s conception)

Did you guys know that someone filed a class-action suit against the Democratic National Committee on behalf of Bernie Sanders supporters? It’s like Twitter in lawsuit form. You may remember last summer, when leaked emails appeared to show pro-Clinton bias among high-ranking members of the DNC—including Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who resigned as a result. That’s about as contrite as the party was willing to get. When it comes to shelling out actual compensatory damages to Sanders donors—who, Miami law firm Beck & Lee argues, were defrauded by a national committee that gave them to believe the nominating process would be fair—the DNC draws a line. That line runs right through Article V, Section 4 of the DNC charter, which instructs the chair and staff to, as the Observer puts it, “ensure neutrality in the Democratic presidential primaries.” But that’s more of a guideline than a rule, DNC attorneys argued. The neutrality provision is “a discretionary rule that [the committee] didn’t need to adopt to begin with.”

What’s fun about this argument is that no one is contesting that the primaries were unfair. You’d think there might be some legal case to be made that, despite the emails, Wasserman Schultz and the rest of the committee acted impartially. But apparently they thought that wouldn’t work, and they’d have a better chance arguing that no one expected them to act according to the charter.

This is not the argument the committee has presented to Democratic primary voters. Wasserman Schultz did not send out an email suggesting that the party should agree ahead of time whether to follow the charter in the next election, to avoid this kind of misunderstanding. She resigned, because she and the committee appeared to have been unfair when everyone expected fairness. It’s weird that the money version of this argument takes issue with the expectation, when what went wrong was clearly the unfairness.

But that’s probably just a legal calculation. The weird expectations argument stood a better chance of working, and would therefore lead to a smaller settlement down the line. Still, this reads as an admission from the DNC that it’d be easier to argue no one expected the party to follow its charter than to say the nominating process was fair.

Who cares, right? Bernie is going to die peacefully in his sleep before the next election, and Hillary is going to rise up into the air on silvery wings she’ll use to decapitate the former President Trump as soon as he admits treason, resigns and becomes a private citizen. Or he’ll win again in 2020, because Biden croaked, Elizabeth Warren is Hillary without the banks, and Corey Booker is the banks. Trump will still be in office at age 77, likeRonald Reagan without a middle-class childhood to soften his dementia.

All this would have been okay if she had won. If the DNC had set up a coronation for Clinton while hapless sophomores wasted bong money on Sanders and then she kept Trump from becoming president, that would have been cool. But to hand-pick your candidate and lose! It contravenes our sole request of the modern political party. Cheat to our advantage. Cheat in a way that makes our lives better.

Laffer Curve returns to feast on brains of living

Something d-o-o economics

If you want your name to live forever in politics, come up with a reason why helping rich people is good for everybody. That’s what Arthur Laffer did in 1974, when he drew his famous curve on a napkin. The  Laffer Curve illustrates the theory that lowering tax rates can sometimes increase overall tax revenues by stimulating economic growth. This argument makes sense, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t tell us much. To many people, though, the Laffer Curve means that cutting taxes raises revenue. That’s the argument Treasury Secretary Paul Mnuchin made this week to justify President Trump’s plan to dramatically reduce corporate taxes. Won’t lowering taxes add to the deficit? Nah. “The tax plan will pay for itself with economic growth,” Mnuchin said. Well then. That sounds fortuitous.

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