Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Reviling the Rabble: Bret Stephens Wants to Teach Jacksonian America a Lesson

By Michael Kaplan

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal has long been one of my favorite columnists. He talks more sense on foreign policy issues like the threat of radical Islam or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than a whole conga line of bloviating pundits. (See, for example, here, here, here, here, and here.) This has, to Stephens’s credit, earned him the overheated hatred of the Left. (See these examples from the left-wing anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss, here, here, here.)

So I was very disappointed when Stephens launched into a tirade against Jacksonian America on a May 29 Fareed Zakaria GPS panel. (GPS transcript here.)

Stephens, usually the conservative on a GPS panel, descends here into the same liberal internationalist contempt for the people of flyover country—reviling the rabbletypical of host Fareed Zakaria:
I most certainly will not vote for Donald Trump. I will vote for the least left-wing opponent to Donald Trump and I want to make a vote that makes sure he is the biggest loser in presidential history since, I don’t know, Alf Landon or going back further.
It’s important that Donald Trump and what he represents, this kind of ethnic quote “conservatism” or populism, be so decisively rebuked that the Republican Party and Republican voters will forever learn their lesson that they cannot nominate a man so manifestly unqualified to be president in any way, shape or form.
So they have to learn a lesson in the way perhaps Democrats learned a lesson from McGovern in ’72. George Will has said let’s have him lose in 50 states. Why not Guam, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia too.
This sounds too much like the smears against Jacksonians as stupid, ignorant, racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobes, xenophobes, and Islamophobes that’s the stock-in-trade of the Left. Just read any article in Salon, the Huffington Post, or watch any episode of Real Time with Bill Maher. In calling for Trump voters to be taught a lesson they will never forget, Bret Stephens displays an elite contempt for the intelligence and interests of much of the American public. Rush Limbaugh observes that Stephens, speaking for the elites and the establishment, is telling the base, “you people are gonna have to get your minds right. You’re gonna have to learn how big a bunch of screw-ups you are.” While Matthew Continetti notes that Republicans are unsure whether they should mock and insult Trump supporters or show them some respect. I should not have been surprised. Sadly bashing the base and reviling the rabble is now a tactic of the conservative Never Trump movement too.

Stephens’s tirade makes it clear that the tension between Jacksonians and movement conservatives in the Republican Party has morphed into a very public and hostile schism. As Walter Russell Mead put it“Jacksonian voters are less dogmatic and less conservative than some of their would-be political representatives care to acknowledge. Jacksonians like Social Security and Medicare much more than most Republican intellectuals, and they like immigration and free trade much less. The Never Trump movement is driven not just by personal hostility to Donald Trump but even more by a fear and loathing of Jacksonian America as fierce as any on the Left. And Jacksonian voters in this GOP primary season have said loud and clear that they don’t want intellectual conservatives like Bret Stephens, anymore than they want liberal progressive elites, telling them what to think, how to feel, and who to vote for.

Stephens is a charter member of the Never Trump movement. He fears that Trump is an unprincipled populist demagogue in the mold of Hugo Ch├ívez. In a recent article Stephens went so far as to proclaim Hillary Clinton the only hope left for the conservative movement. Conservatism can survive a Clinton presidency checked and balanced by a Republican Congress. “What isn’t survivable is a Republican president who is part Know Nothing, part Smoot-Hawley and part John Birch.” Stephens then goes into a rant against Trumpism, a menacing caricature of Jacksonianism:
But Trumpism isn’t just a triumph of marketing or the excrescence of a personality cult. It is a regression to the conservatism of blood and soil, of ethnic polarization and bullying nationalism. Modern conservatives sought to bury this rubbish with a politics that strikes a balance between respect for tradition and faith in the dynamic and culture-shifting possibilities of open markets. When that balance collapses—under a Republican president, no less—it may never again be restored, at least in our lifetimes.
Trump may be a “loudmouth vulgarian,” but Stephens’s real concern is the Jacksonian base of the GOP, the “quieter vulgarians” he appeals to. “The leader isn’t the problem. The people are. It takes the demos to make the demagogue.” Potty-mouthed liberal comic and hipster Bill Maher, who has crossed swords with Stephens on climate change, was now on the same side as his erstwhile ideological adversary. “I think the Frankenstein monster is the Trump voter more than Trump, Maher opined, denouncing the Jacksonian electorate as “dumb and tacky. Maher went on to compare Trump voters to Harambe the gorilla, whose tragic death made national headlines: “The electorate is like that gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo—and democracy is the toddler. We don’t know whether it’ll cradle it or f***ing kill it.” This attitude is anathema to political scientist and Trump supporter F.H. Buckley, who offers this response to liberal and conservative Never Trumpers:
Their smug self-satisfaction reaches odious heights when they lecture us on the rottenness of Trump supporters. . . . In the circumstances, the unwashed Trump supporter can be forgiven for thinking that the scribes and hypocrites have given up on him. And if Trump chooses to shock them, so much the better.
Even liberal academic Mark Bauerlein was taken aback by Stephens’s wholesale indictment of Trump’s Jacksonian supporters as stupid, self-destructive, fringe, celebrity-obsessed, tasteless, nativist, and ‘paranoid.’” However Gabriel Schoenfeld, a former adviser to Mitt Romney, agrees with Stephens, aghast that millions of Americans “have cast their votes for this creature from the cesspool.” OMG! Not only must Trump voters be taught a lesson, they must “be held to account for embracing a candidate whose character is so dubious and whose plans for the countryamong them singling out a religious group for a ban on an entry to the United States—amount to an assault on the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution.

An observation by blogger Ace of Spades is worth noting here: “The online conservative (?) commentariat is ghettoizing itself further and further from mainstream opinion, and convincing itself more and more as it self-selects down to tiny numbers that it is a Vital Remnant of Goodness and Good Sense in an increasingly ugly and stupid world.” Thus Bret Stephens’s compulsion to teach Jacksonian America a lesson. But perhaps Stephens and Gabriel Schoenfeld are the ones who need the lesson. Walter Russell Mead writes:
Trump appeals to all those who think that the American Establishment, the Great and the Good of both parties, has worked its way into a dead end of ideas that don’t work and values that can’t save us. He is the candidate of Control-Alt-Delete. His election would sweep away the smug generational certainties that Clinton embodies, the Boomer Progressive Synthesis that hasn’t solved the problems of the world or of the United States, but which nevertheless persists in regarding itself as the highest and only form of truth.
Reviling the rabble is the favorite sport of the Great and the Good of both parties. Perhaps high-minded conservative intellectuals, like high-minded liberal intellectuals, are just less able to deal with the messiness and unpredictability of life than the down-to-earth Jacksonian public, which has always had to cope with life on the edge and appreciates Trump’s tough, no nonsense view of the world. This includes placing the security of the American people ahead of the desire of Syrian refugeesmost of whom are no doubt just desperate people fleeing the collapse of Arab Muslim civilization, but some of whom could well be ISIS operatives, despite what Fareed Zakaria might sayto be allowed to settle in the Untied States. Coming to America is not a right, it’s a privilege. Migrants from the Middle East, Latin America, or anywhere else should be allowed onto our soil only if their presence will be to the benefit of the American people, to the benefit of you and me. Recent events in Europe, including the New Year’s Eve gang rape of young German women by Arab migrants in Cologne, suggest that large-scale Muslim immigration will bring the cultural attitudes and social dysfunctions of the Muslim world here as well. And that is not to the benefit of the American people.

(Update: Donald Trump made these same points about radical Islam and immigration in a June 13 speech in Manchester, New Hampshire, after a jihadist attack on an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Text. Video.)

I am not, nor have I ever been, a Never Trump person. I plan to vote for Trump in November. But I have questions about whether Trump has the temperament and character to be commander in chief. I also have those questions about Hillary Clinton. As David French, who will not be running for president, speaking for the Never Trumps writes: “Never before have both parties failed so spectacularly, producing two dishonest, deceitful candidates who should be disqualified from running for town council, much less leader of the free world.” I support Trumps unapologetic “America First Jacksonianism. I like his boisterous, in-your-face style. However, I like my Jacksonian nationalism to be grounded in constitutional conservatism. Thus Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were my original choices for president.

For me the question is The Donald’s narcissism: does he understand that being president is not about him? Its about the nation; about the liberty and well-being of the American people. Joel Kotkin fears that Trump will prove himself a false savior for Jacksonians. He will squander the opportunity to lead a grass-roots Jacksonian populist revolt against the political and economic elites to victory because of his own crassness and self-obsession. In the end Donald Trump won the Republican nomination by connecting with Jacksonian voters at a visceral level, speaking to their deepest concerns, arousing their enthusiasm, and rallying their support. Now he must show himself worthy of that support.

Bret Stephens would do well to follow the example of his fellow Never Trump conservatives Ben Domenech and Nicholas Gallagher, who do not revile the rabble. Domenech understands that neither conservatives nor Republicans can win an election without the enthusiastic support of the Jacksonian base. So he urges conservative intellectuals to reject Trump but embrace his Jacksonian supporters and show them the respect that Stephens wont. “Trump proves that these disaffected Americans can be won by those who respect the pro-American Jacksonian spine that runs through the electorate.” To this Gallagher adds:
While conservatives are more than within their rights to write off Trump, they would be neither wise nor justified to write off the Jacksonians. They may be disgusted with Trump’s antics, and they may find some Jacksonian positions inchoate, wrongheaded, or unfulfillable. But after the dust from this election settles, it will be urgently necessary to once again fuse patriotic, idealistic, and inclusive conservatism with Jacksonian nationalism.
Stephens, like many movement conservative intellectuals, is just not comfortable with a Jacksonian “blood and soil” nationalism driven more by folk sentiment and patriotic instinct than by ideas and ideology. Gallagher’s answer:
Ideals need gut instincts and folk tradition on their side in order to be efficacious. The Jacksonian sense of common American identity enables self-governance, charity, and neighborliness. . . . For now, Jacksonianism lies closer to conservatism than it does to the identity-politics Left, and one may reasonably hope for a “best of both” compromise between intellectual conservatism and Jacksonian impulses.
Bret Stephens, like Hillary Clinton, believes that Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president. More importantly, Stephens agrees with Clinton’s approach to foreign policy and America’s role in the world. In fact on many foreign policy issues Hillary Clinton, like Bret Stephens, is to the right of Donald Trump. Bret Stephens is a globalist, while Hillary Clinton is, to use Robert Merry’s words, “the personification of the globalist elite.” This puts them in opposition to Trump’s “America First” Jacksonian nationalism. Indeed Clinton’s recent foreign policy Trump-bashing speech was designed in part to appeal to globalist “neocons” like Stephens, Max Boot, Reuel Marc Gerecht, and Robert Kagan, who have all said they will support her over Trump. And Dov Zakheim writes that Clinton has now become “the darling of the neocons.

Robert Merry, writing in The National Interest, argues that the 2016 election has become a battle between globalists and nationalists. (The late political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote of this divide back in 2004.) Merry points to five interrelated issues on which globalists and nationalists divide: immigration; foreign policy; trade; political correctness; and cultural heritage. Donald Trump’s assertive Jacksonian nationalist stance on all of these issues, Merry concludes, led to his dominance of American politics this election season.

Here’s how strategic analyst Ian Bremmer sums up Trump’s Jacksonian approach to foreign policy:
He won’t be guided by ideology. He doesn’t appear to have one. He’s a gut-feel guy, a zero-sum strategist, and a bottom-line businessman. He won’t approach problems as if the world’s sole superpower can afford to be generous, to do more so that others can do less. He sees no special responsibility to be magnanimous, or even patient. Being No. 1 doesn’t mean playing the role of provider. Its about winning. It means being the toughest, smartest son of a bitch at the table. In short, Trump will probably try to remake U.S. foreign policy in his own (self-)image.
Bremmer, a globalist like Stephens, is not happy with the Trump message, but admits that it “resonates with millions of Americans.” Jacksonians believe that America must look first to her own interests. The sufferings of peoples around the globe, like the Syrian refugees, may be tragic, but they just don’t count for much in Jacksonian geopolitical considerations. Jacksonians are not willing to sacrifice American blood and treasure in any cause, however noble, that is not essential to America’s prosperity and survival. As Lt. Col. Ralph Peters wrote in 1993“If we want to avoid needless, thankless deaths among our own countrymen, we must try to learn to watch others die with equanimity.” Easier said than done. But if anyone can do it, Donald Trump can.

Looking at the schism between Jacksonians and movement conservatives, David French put his finger on the secret of Trump’s unforeseen political triumph:
The GOP underestimated Trump in part because it overestimated the conservatism of its own southern, rural northern, and Midwestern base. It underestimated the extent to which many of its voters hadn’t so much embraced the corporate conservatism of the Chamber of Commerce or the constitutional conservatism of the Tea Party as much as they had rejected the extremism of the increasingly shrill and politically correct Left. And, yes, the size of this population calls into question the very process of building a national Republican electoral majority, but it also threatens Democrats who seem intent on drumming every blue-collar white male straight out of the party.
For eight years Barack Obama and his administration have tried to purge Jacksonian nationalism from American life and politics. Jacksonians, with their traditional American values and unabashed patriotism, represent everything this president despises about America. Liberal progressive elites in Hollywood and academia want to redefine expressions of Jacksonian nationalism as hate crimes. And as Bret Stephens and the Never Trumpers show, the Great and the Good of both parties are united in their contempt for the Jacksonian public. Well Jacksonian America has had enough. Donald Trump may or may not be temperamentally suited to be president; the same was said of Andrew Jackson. And his positions on immigration, trade, and foreign policy reflect both the strengths and the weaknesses of Jacksonian nationalism. But Donald Trump is the chosen instrument for Jacksonian America’s pushback against the assault by the Great and the Good on all that it holds dear.

In his victory speech after the final primaries on June 7, Donald Trump told his supporters, “I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle and I will never, ever let you down.” Trump also pledged that “I’m going to be America’s champion.” This is what Jacksonian America has been longing to hear. If Trump can keep his narcissism in check and focus on the issues important to his Jacksonian supporters who have placed so much faith in him, he just might win this election. For if Donald Trump is to enter the White House on January 20, 2017, it will be a passionate and energized Jacksonian America, the rabble reviled by Bret Stephens, determined to make America great again, that brings him there.

(Update: Stephens expanded on his views in a June 17 radio interview with Hugh Hewitt.)

© 2016 Michael Kaplan