What is the “official” conservative position on illegal immigration? Or “anchor babies”? Ukraine? China? ISIS? Who decides? George Will? Rush Limbaugh? Mark Levin? Is there ever consensus among conservatives, even about what it is that defines conservatism? I disagree with Levin on his push for an Article V convention, but not on constitutional grounds, but rather having to do with how best to skin a liberal cat, not split theological hairs.
Conservatism is both a philosophy of pursuing human rights and a practicum of protecting those rights. Therefore it also has to contain strategic and tactical elements, which involve less philosophy and more of just getting from here to there – sometimes in full dress battle gear. Politics.
My own view has always been to keep the enemies of liberty at arm’s length, never to share cocktails with them, or smile the liar’s mouth, and certainly never move into their neighborhoods, even if they do set the better table. Prominent conservatives who have avoided Washington simply because of the company they would have to keep include William F Buckley, Jr and Rush Limbaugh.
Still, some other conservatives have chosen to live close to the government flagpole, and even closer to its attendants. In doing so they may have so much invested in their own status in their neighborhood that they are unable to answer the questions I raised above, or speak objectively about the nature of conservatism, or for that matter, define what sort of changes of government are actually needed to meet the fundamental purposes of conservatism… if those changes might also “mess up” their cozy living arrangements in “the neighborhood.”
In layman’s terms, if they are part of the living tissue surrounding a cancerous tumor, perhaps they are not the best people to tell us how to surgically remove the cancer.
So, before considering Donald Trump and the damage he might bring to 1) the country, 2) conservatism and 3) those finer establishment neighborhoods inside the Beltway… first consider Ronald Reagan, who, if you think he did a bang-up job as a conservative president, according to some of conservatism’s finest theologians, think again.
The Washington Establishment, a little history
First, a little background, for there was always a Washington Establishment, even back to 1828. Only in those days, the District was a swamp, the city itself only a place of government, of no particular interest, at least until the big centennial doings in 1876, when tourists came. The government was largely controlled by the New York financial establishment, and the Boston and Virginia blue blood establishments, only from a safe distance. It was not a fit place to live year round, except for the few bureaucrats who grazed their goats on the Mall. But while a dismal swamp, the rest of America was an Olympic-sized swimming hole, hustling and bustling, taking almost no notice of Washington City, or its inhabitants, for the city meant nothing to the vigor and life that was America. If America had a classical period like republican Rome before Caesar, this was it, when the people were all-powerful and Washington just a swamp.
Most say the modern incarnation of the Washington Establishment was created in 1930, when the Green Book of Washington society was first published. It came at just the right time, too, for the Left, for it was built on the ashes of New York society’s sudden (but temporary) collapse after the Crash of ’29. The same for the blue bloods of Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, whose establishments also collapsed. Suddenly everyone looked to the only silver lining around, Washington, and not coincidentally, just as the Republican Party’s single stock issue had also crashed after a sixty year run. All that was left was for FDR and his New Deal to come marching into town. Enter a patrician with old money class and exit Wall Street gaucherie – for once Washington’s green stock rose it had no intention of ever letting go.
Although no one has ever seriously associated the terms “class” or “classy” with the Democrat Party since the Roosevelts left town, (save that brief false image of Camelot, or “Debauchelot” as someone called it) the Washington DC establishment took “class” as their own, virtually copyrighting it, issuing their own green cards to Republicans via the Green Book ever since. The Left has set Washington’s social and status table since 1933. In any given year, you will find more itinerant, landless nobility serving in the Embassy from Lower Slobbovia in the annual Green Book than Republicans. At no time could Donald Trump have bought his way into the Washington Green Book Society, even had he personally financed World War II. It would be 1953 before a Republican president ever came to DC… and he would be from Kansas. Yawn. And by the time the second Republican, Nixon, came to town, who they eventually dispatched, and in large part because of it, Washington had its own Olympic-sized pool, for Members Only, reducing the rest of America to a series of mud holes. And in the manner of San Francisco’s Nob Hill, built by millionaires (when that was a lot of money) for the pretty girls they found along the Barbary Coast, then turned them into founding mothers of San Francisco, from madams to mesdames, Washington society was built by reformed political whores, the awfulest congregation of self-righteousness seen to mankind, and, by my oath, still the ugliest congregation of white women I’ve ever seen in one location. When you see a Washington woman in her work clothes you don’t know whether to try and buy her a drink, or ask for a loan.
But with nailing Richard Nixon’s coffin shut in 1974, the modern Washington Establishment was cemented, for while New York and Hollywood recovered, all power passed through Washington, including social status. The Washington Establishment’s retinue of lackeys and hangers-on include the core of every national and international news organization, incestuous networks of consultants and lobbyists, a few with full membership privileges, others with day passes to the pool only, but still, pleasures just to die for if a cub reporter at Fox News, trying to make it in the big time.
You could be as rich as a lord, even richer, but you could never do lordly things – without first getting Washington’s imprimatur. Power really is greater than money, although, as I just said, in Washington, it isn’t sexier.
It was then, in 1974, the Washington Establishment felt it safe to admit conservatives to its midst.
George Will may not be the dean of conservative green card holders in Washington, but he’s close. But he owes his membership card to the Washington Post, by then the gate guardian of all national media, having brought down the Nixon administration in 1974. They handed George Will his green card that same year, then a 33-year old wunderkind and an editor with William Buckley’s National Review.
George Will is probably considered the senior partner of American conservatism with the passing of Bill Buckley in 2008. (FYI: Charles Krauthammer was still writing speeches for Fritz Mondale in the 1980 campaign, switching sides only in 1983… because he saw things in Ronald Reagan apparently George Will never did, or could.)
It’s fair today to ask just where George Will’s primary loyalty lies, Conservatism or WAPO? Only that question can only be asked out here in the mud holes, since poolside, in DC, he is their undisputed smart, urbane, sophisticated theologian of conservatism. And forever a junior member. Mudhole Americans have never really asked Will to confirm his allegiance to Conservatism, nor would he read their letters anyway, but WAPO has asked him, and as far as I know, he’s never let them down. He was against Reagan in ’76 and ’80, and was no fan of George W Bush. He’s done hit pieces on conservatives (for WAPO) as recently as the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2013, where he beat up Ken Cuccinelli, primarily for being a Christian, and about a subject that is much in the news today, Planned Parenthood. I think Will is capable of being more objective toward Planned Parenthood than he is toward Christianity and Christians any day, especially since one is Establishment Green Book-approved, and the others are not. Gov Terry McAuliffe, as corrupt a Clinton Democrat known to man, stands partially on George Will’s shoulders.
Which finally brings me to Ronald Reagan.
Reagan had a following around America’s mudholes the Green Book crowd of Washington despised, Republican and Democrat alike, including George Will. Reagan won a landslide in ’80 and built on that landslide in ’84, while probably barely winning a majority, if that, of the Establishment wing of his own party.
As the title suggests, did Ronald Reagan win that first landslide by his style… congenial, but firm, but always America first – or by his conservatism, which, George Will was quick to point out, was anything but textbook? I didn’t know enough to ask then, but which textbook? For eight years Reagan not only bypassed Congress, but the core of his own party, by appealing directly to the people, in order to get things done.. He did three non-conservative things 1) the first amnesty of illegals, 2) approved a tax hike based on a reneged cost-cutting promise by the Democrat Congress, i.e., snookered by Tip O’Neil, and3) took no executive action against the federal bureaucracy and all those new agencies Carter had brought on line. He later owned up to these errors.
Of course, you can see why no Establishment Republican wants to talk about Reagan’s style, his manner, his ebullient love of country, his visceral hatred for America’s sworn enemies and threats (in those days all foreign, at least to RR’s thinking) and his ability to reach inside the vast majority of Americans, a third of them even Democrats, and grab that despair and lift them up.
It would not be until after he entered the White House that he would be able to actually make good on those feel-good promises… but he did. And love him for it, the people did. He made Americans proud once again. And he did it by violating every Green Book rule of civility known to Ann Landers – by not just calling a spade a spade, but an “evil empire.”
No Establishment Republican wants to talk about Reagan’s style because they are afraid someone else will step out of the shadows and repeat it and invite all those disagreeable people back into the Green zone again, probably even shutting down the swimming pool.
When Ronald Reagan was elected in November 1980, I was 35 years old. When he left office in 1989, I was 44. A lot changed in those eight years. In a word, I matured. A lot. So I did not watch those eight years pass with the same set of eyes, not even for a few months, for I was constantly learning new things – a thing I find sadly lacking in today’s political culture especially, where everyone seems to know everything that can be known before they are 35… just like George Will, who, on that account, hasn’t aged a bit.
Today I have the benefit of hindsight, and the good luck of having not read too many opinion magazine on a regular basis, or watching too many national news shows. Fox News didn’t come online until Clinton’s second term… and has managed in 20 years to be invited to some Green Book events, so now I have turned them off and find I don’t miss them – except maybe those beautiful gams of Kimberley Guilfoyle, but hey, I’m 70. I’ve found that most of the more respected “theological” conservatives of the day didn’t have a clue about street-level conservatism, except for William Buckley, who always understood that the practical side of conservatism trumped intellectual conservatism… always has, always will. (Never forget his famous “first 100 names of the Boston Telephone Directory” comment. He was serious. I know, I asked.)
Buckley said Reagan was conservative and admired him for it, while George Will said Reagan didn’t quite measure up – apparently to his own scriptural understanding of conservatism. You have to appreciate how much I don’t like theologians trying to explain to me the idea of “a loving God” (which they can’t do, but can put you to sleep trying… while Billy Graham can) to understand how much that difference makes to me. I don’t like conservative pedantic “i” crossers and “t” dotters telling me how the guy who kicked the USSR’s ass wasn’t keeping up with his catechism… while sipping pina coladas out by a pool built with leftist tax dollars.
When Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981, there were two kinds of conservatism abroad in the land, country club, which was exclusivist by definition, and arms-open, suffer-the-children-to-come-unto-me conservatism, with which Reagan accomplished just that, bringing millions into the Republican fold, where they were welcome exactly for eight years, then quickly shown the (back) door.
Exclusivist Republicanism is a term everyone understands. But exclusivist conservatism is an oxymoron. The tent cannot be any bigger than when you open your arms and say “any who would be free, enter here.”
Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election on style, not his conservatism. He’s the only president in the world who ever brought Democrat voters over to his side without ever having to promise them anything – except regaining their self-respect. Jimmy Carter had demoralized the country, even nearly emasculating it. Carter was a Casper Milquetoast, embarrassing fat assistant hardware store managers pontificating in barber shops, while Reagan ran on the theme of making America great again.
In America, because of the nature of our existence, and our common heritage, there has always been a fine line between the intellectual protectors of our liberties and the mass of the Constitution’s beneficiaries, but men like Bill Buckley and the Founders could clearly walk that line while the modern incarnation of theological conservatives cannot, without holding their nose.
George Will, maybe Krauthammer, do not like it when politicians translate philosophy into the vernacular so that it can be understood by regular people. It’s a kind of profanity to their ears, a baloney sandwich for the soul. Already knowing this in 1787, this is why the Founders tried to put all power in the hands of the People, not because our discernment is better, but that ours is the only discernment that matters. A philosopher-king of George Will’s stripe, from the intellectual elite of society, is actually no better than a blue-blooded Hanoverian royal, because neither, it seems, could scare the Soviet Union away when the chips are down.
Sadly, this is a lesson we have to learn all over again.
In truth, the conservative Establishment in Washington fears a Cruz presidency more than they do a Trump, but both right now represent an invasion back into the Green Zone by the great unwashed, who this time may just stay until the end of their years.
Let’s all pray this is so.