Let me present to you one of the most intellectually radical political essays I've read in a long time.
Penned by the pseudonymous author Publius Decius Mus for the staunchly conservative Claremont Review of Books, it's titled "The Flight 93 Election." America is the plane; Trump and his supporters are Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers who stormed the cockpit in a last-ditch (and ultimately doomed) effort to forestall catastrophe; and Hillary Clinton and her progressive allies in the political and media establishment are the hijackers.
As I said: radical.
From the standpoint of reasonableness and a sense of moral and political proportion, the essay is really quite mad. As in: insane. After introducing the Flight 93 metaphor in the essay's opening paragraph, the author immediately adds a new and equally outrageous analogy: "A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances." But sometimes an extreme argument can be marvelously clarifying — and this one certainly is.
The Republican Party is in the midst of an ideological civil war. Donald Trump won a plurality of votes in the GOP primaries despite breaking sharply from party and conservative movement orthodoxy on immigration, trade, and foreign policy. Most elected Republicans and party operatives have gone along with Trump's nomination, at least in public, not because they agree with him on these issues but because they realize that the party's largest faction of voters enthusiastically supports him. They feel they have no choice. The party's unelected elites, meanwhile — the pundits, magazine editors, think tank staffers, foundation officers, lobbyists, donors — have either come out against Trump in the name of the old pieties or kept quiet in the hope that after he's defeated things will revert to normal.
This isn't to say that no one in the pundit class has risen to Trump's defense. Ann Coulter and Mickey Kaus have come out strong for Trump. The editors of First Things magazine and the Claremont Review have expressed ambivalent, conflicted support. And then there are the talk radio rabblerousers, many of whom began as skeptics but most of whom have now come around to the Trump camp (with Mark Levin jumping on board just this week).
Publius Decius Mus is different. He acknowledges many of Trump's defects. Yet he insists in the strongest possible terms that all genuine, committed conservatives should fulsomely support the Manhattan mogul in his campaign to defeat Hillary Clinton. The result is the most powerful (and chilling) case for Trump that you're likely to read — which is undoubtedly why Rush Limbaugh devoted a good part of his radio show on Wednesday to reading, commenting on, and endorsing almost the entirety of the 4,300-word essay live on the air.
To those outside the conservative movement, the case will sound more than a little deranged. But many within the movement will undoubtedly find it compelling — while for many other conservatives it just might force a long-overdue reckoning with the character of the ideology they've been defending for much of the past two decades.
The key to the essay is the author's decision to treat the most extreme conservative rhetoric about the detrimental consequences of progressive ideology (from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama) with utmost seriousness. Unlike most Republican politicians and conservative intellectuals, who make a habit of denouncing a range of political, moral, and cultural trends while doing little to reverse them, Decius Mus is itching to take action — and he thinks these politicians and writers would be, too, if they followed through on their own arguments.
On the one hand, conservatives routinely present a litany of ills plaguing the body politic. Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don't know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can't (or won't) discipline disruptive punks, and at the higher levels saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege. And so on and drearily on….
Conservatives spend at least several hundred million dollars a year on think-tanks, magazines, conferences, fellowships, and such, complaining about this, that, the other, and everything. And yet these same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo. Oh, sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted — tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems? [Claremont Review of Books]
The answer, Decius Mus believes, is an obvious No. And that's what sets up a sledgehammer of a single-sentence paragraph:
If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character, and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed "family values"; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere — if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe — mustn't they? — that we are headed off a cliff. [Claremont Review of Books]
Decius Mus suggests that conservatives either "don't really believe" their own rhetoric, or they simply feel they have too much to lose in overturning the established order of things.
How have the last two decades worked out for you, personally? If you're a member or fellow-traveler of the Davos class, chances are: pretty well. If you're among the subspecies conservative intellectual or politician, you've accepted — perhaps not consciously, but unmistakably — your status on the roster of the Washington Generals of American politics. Your job is to show up and lose, but you are a necessary part of the show and you do get paid. To the extent that you are ever on the winning side of anything, it's as sophists who help the Davoisie oligarchy rationalize open borders, lower wages, outsourcing, de-industrialization, trade giveaways, and endless, pointless, winless war. [Claremont Review of Books]
The progressives are the problem, but the conservative movement is no solution.
But why Trump? Won't he — with his manifest corruption, ignorance of policy intricacies, myriad character defects, and temperamental instability — just make the problem worse? While conceding that "only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump arise," Decius Mus nonetheless argues that Trump's manifold faults have thus far proven to be one of his greatest virtues as a presidential candidate. Only someone this brash, this obnoxious, and this fearless in his disrespect for corrupt establishment institutions could break through and threaten a system that has managed to co-opt nearly everyone in both parties.
Threaten it in the name of what? Nothing less than saving the republic itself from destruction. "Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity."
Decius Mus remains skeptical about whether Trump can actually make much of a positive difference. But he insists that genuinely committed conservatives have little choice but to place the last tattered remnants of their hopes in his campaign. It's "worth trying," he claims. And if you don't agree? Well, then "you are either part of the junta, a fool, or a conservative intellectual."
For all the talk of conservatism in the essay, there is really nothing significantly conservative about it. Oh sure, it lists a series of positions that are typically embraced by conservative writers. But when it comes to the crucial question of judgment, prudence, practical wisdom — of how one who affirms these conservative views should act in present political circumstances — it is a shockingly radical document.
Or rather, it's a reactionary one — not in the watery sense that it opposes what progressives lazily presume to be the inevitable drift of history. It's reactionary in the precise sense delineated in Mark Lilla's just-published book The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. Like all reactionary thinkers, Decius Mus identifies a past golden age (America before progressivism) and a historical fissure after which steep and perhaps irreversible decline set in (the establishment of the administrative state) — and also like other reactionaries, he has come to believe that only a new historical rupture, a sundering of the status quo, has any hope of altering the apocalyptic course of history.
After Trump, the deluge.
All of this would merely be one anonymous man's personal revenge fantasy were it not for one singularly important point: Decius Mus is indisputably correct that the rhetoric devised and deployed by the conservative movement and Republican Party in recent years points in precisely this direction. Reactionary attacks on the status quo have encouraged reactionary judgments, provoked reactionary pessimism, and raised reactionary expectations — and the 2016 campaign is the stage on which the reactionary drama is now playing out, with Donald Trump in the starring role.
Once the election is behind us, conservatives and Republicans who peddled this political poison for years and then came to recognize too late the dangers posed by a potential Trump presidency will face a choice. Will they at long last rein in their rhetoric? Or will they keep at it, and risk a threat to the republic even greater than Donald Trump?