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.

Alabama senate votes to let church form its own police force

Briarwood Presbyterian, right as a symbol of state power accidentally blew into the shot

When we think about the separation of church and state, we tend to worry about government becoming more like church. But maybe the real danger lies in churches becoming more like governments—by getting a piece of the state’s monopoly on violence, for instance. Yesterday, the Alabama state senate approved a bill to let Briarwood Presbyterian Church assemble its own police force. Briarwood police would be sworn officers with the same authority to carry firearms, issue citations and place people under arrest as, for example, university police. The difference is that they would be employed by a church. That’s tricky, since as police they would become expressions of state power. I’m using “tricky” here to avoid repeating the exact words of the ACLU of Alabama, whose executive director described the plan as “plainly unconstitutional.”

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Daines ducks constituents, complains too few in DC drive pickup trucks

US Senator from Montana and convicted goblin Steve Daines

Steve Daines’s first six weeks as a senator have not been easy. He happened to be presiding over the confirmation hearings for Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month, when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell instructed him to gavel down Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). That got him on the news. Then he cast the deciding vote to confirm Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, despite calls to recuse himself after she gave $48,000 to his campaign. Last week, he came home.

He was supposed to address the state legislature last Tuesday, but a crowd of protestors that gathered at the capitol caused him to reschedule at the last minute. He spoke to the legislature Wednesday, after protestors had safely gone home. The very next day, he went on Twitter. “Montanans can do a better job than D.C. bureaucrats who’ve never driven a pick-up and have a hard time finding Montana on a map,” he wrote.

Root toot ‘merca truck, you guys. This kind of pandering was my least favorite thing growing up in Iowa, where the performance of hick-ness was integral to public life. But the politicians of Montana take it to new heights. The day after Daines complained that the failure of bureaucrats to drive trucks left them unable to operate the US federal government, he posted a video from Big Sandy, in which he claimed to be “getting all over Montana” to talk to his constituents.

The senator didn’t have to drive the back roads to find constituents; they had come to him 48 hours earlier, and he contorted his schedule to avoid speaking to them. Daines has never been a dynamic public speaker. Although he gets +1 to night vision and can be dangerous in groups, his main political advantage is that he is a party man. If you need someone to do what his superiors in the GOP say, Daines is your boy. It is therefore distasteful for him to pretend that he is some salt-of-the-earth type fed up with Washington, DC. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which we speculate on his truck-drivin’ bona fides and his life as a freshman in the senate dorms. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Ted Cruz in: The Endorsements

Ted Cruz

The reader is directed to this correction in the National Review:

An earlier post stated that Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign was set to unveil a series of endorsements from Cruz’s fellow senators. The report was erroneous. As of this writing, the campaign has no pending Senate endorsements to announce.

Ted Cruz’s alarm went off at 5am. He hit the snooze, rolled over, and spoke extemporaneously on the subject of religious liberty until the alarm went off again. Then he got out of bed. He took off his nighttime suit and skipped merrily to the shower. It was Endorsement Day.

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