Matt Walsh tweeted his delight at a feverish chain of twenty-two essays denouncing Donald Trump in National Review. Coming only a few days after Sarah Palin’s less than stellar speech announcing her support for Trump’s candidacy, the Dump-on-Trump-a-thon bordered on hysteria.
Organized alphabetically by the last names of the essayists, beginning with Glenn Beck, the prose feels somewhat like a roller coaster. The authors include many people I know personally and admire. There are lots of money quotes like “He’s effectively vowing to be an American Mussolini” (Boaz), “We can talk about whether he’s a boor … a creep … or a louse” (Charen), and “forget the hair like tinsel on discarded Christmas trees” (Helprin). Ouch!
The tightly knit Brahmin caste feels the need to intervene. They must rush in and correct the thought processes of the conservative masses, because they see many things in the pro-Trump movement that discomfort them. Yet the elite brain trust of conservatives, with their editorial positions and contributor contracts at FOX News, are doubling down too late on a platform whose time came and went. The deeper issue isn’t Donald Trump at all; it’s the Brahmins and their increasing tendency to misread what’s going on in the lives of their readers.
Trump is far from an ideal man to be the president. I get it. But why do so many people prefer him to two dozen alternatives, including my fave, Cruz? It’s not simple insanity, bigotry, or dumb people taking over the GOP. On the contrary, all the NRO writers seem to acknowledge a few truths about the hordes of people across America whom they’ve classified, correctly or incorrectly, as the “conservative base.” The authors acknowledge that these constituencies are angry, feel let down, view recent years as times of betrayal, aren’t all that impressed by dogma right now, and are now open to someone – specifically Trump, though it might have been anyone who came along with new media savvy – who doesn’t even agree with their ideology at all but who represents a cathartic rebellion against the experts who’ve continually misled them.
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Just before the 2012 primary season, there were two groundswell movements: the lefty Occupy movement and the rightist Tea Party. Back then, the lefties were screaming a lot but didn’t have specifics, while the Tea Party came fully armed with statistics and wonky minutiae. This primary season is a different game. Now the Sandersites speak in percentages and name the banks and super-PACs they plan to dismantle, while the Trumpers won’t give specifics because they don’t want specifics; they want, like the Occupy movement of 2011, a whole new order. Both parties have seen the rise of grassroots movements rejecting the common language of Washington wonkery. So maybe this is a sign: everyone wants the wonks out.
Yes, you – Mr. Editor of This, Mr. Contributor to That, Mr. President of Think-Tank X or Institute Y. When Trump scoffs at “politically correct” people, he means you! He probably means me, too; though I am a small player, I should accept some blame.
The putsch against the commentators is shocking because for a long time, this seemed unthinkable. The conservative literati have dominated Facebook walls and Twitter feeds, chattered in the background for hours each day on talk radio, and plastered their mugs all over cable TV as talking, talking, talking heads. For a long time, readers trusted them because they trusted each other (and quoted each other), so it all looked very respectable. Pundits assumed that the followers’ trust and patronage would last indefinitely.
The years went by: the Clinton impeachment, hanging chads, 9-11, Iraq, Katrina, the Pelosi apocalypse, Obama, the stimulus, Obamacare, Benghazi, etc., etc. The mandarin talking heads were a stable fixture – perhaps too stable, like a lamp drilled into the floor of a house that was taken apart and reconstructed several times. Notwithstanding some lip service to religion and social values, they had two things to say, and they said them over and over again: free markets and Constitution.
Sometime circa 2005, I was listening to one of the usual suspects trading inside jokes with Sean Hannity. Something dawned on me, which I have kept secret until now: yes, I am conservative, but I don’t actually think free markets or the Constitution matters to most conservatives, because most people live in gritty reality rather than abstractions. Most conservatives have a general sense that individuals should be decent, self-reliant, and God-fearing, traits intrinsic to America’s earliest roots. But they don’t own businesses. They want a functioning government that helps people who need help. They decide tough issues based on right and wrong, not on clauses in the nation’s founding document. And they don’t want to live in a world where everything is for sale to the highest bidder. Trump might not be the best purveyor of these principles, but he’s the common man’s weapon against the thought leaders who’ve been betraying the principles for over twenty years. And payback is a you-know-what.
The conservative world has a relationship between opinion-makers and readership that’s the converse of the liberal world. Because the vast majority of “intellectuals” are left of center, there are many liberal writers fighting over a small number of liberal readers.
Conservatives live in the opposite situation: there are very few right-wing writers and enormous numbers of conservative readers. Such conservative readers tend to be busy people who spend their days working, raising a family, etc. They catch up on the news when they can, usually with writers whose names they recognize. They have long gravitated to old, reliable voices like Bill O’Reilly, David Horowitz, and Rush Limbaugh, because they like to build a trusting relationship with their sources of commentary, even if they don’t actually meet them.
If you are one of the lucky cons with a megaphone, it’s easy to overestimate the loyalty of your massive following. This conservative punditocracy abused its followers for many years. At some point, large swaths of their audience were tuning in largely because they had so few conservative choices, not because they viewed public intellectuals as sages.
The first flaw of the intelligentsia, and perhaps its most fatal, was the tendency to become a closed discussion club. Two movements – the free-speech and traditional-marriage movements – gave me glimpses into the internal problems of the echo chamber.
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.