These are unusual political times but especially bizarre is the treatment of Donald Trump in many of today’s “conservative” magazines. I have not read them all, but of the three I do follow—The National Review, The Weekly Standard and Commentary, the treatment of The Donald can only be described as totally one-sided, sky-is-falling hysterical. Not the slightest semblance of balance, not even a tiny “horrible but the best we can do.” Everything is just pure, unadulterated vitriol.
Hating Trump per se is not the issue here (disclosure: I support Trump); the point is the ubiquity of the two-minute hate, and if each of these countless rants were an autonomous event, the odds of this uniformity occurring naturally must exceed a billion to one. Clearly, more is involved than just unmitigated aversion.
My understanding of this remarkable consistency is that the majority of today’s conservative pundits, whether pontificating for magazines, syndicated columns or conducting think tank research, are the modern equivalents of 18th century intellectuals whose livelihood depended on aristocratic patronage. These were the folk invited for after-dinner coffee to spice up conversations or whose witty gossipy chit-chat amused rich ladies at elegant salons. And, of the utmost importance, like their earlier clever and erudite predecessors, today’s intellectual entertainers know their place. To be a little cruel, they are “the help.”
What drives this arrangement is the power of a relatively handful of generous donors whose kindness permits Conservative Inc. to survive. Yes, Conservative Inc. does charge subscription fees, garners tax-deductable contributions from black tie dinners and even over-charges for meals-with-the-pundits Alaskan cruises but those informed of such matters tell me that behind every Right Wing enterprise stand a tiny handful of wealthy patrons (just observe the skimpy advertising in all conservative magazines to see the role of subsidies). And given that such donors are intensely courted elsewhere, keeping them happy is always the first order of business. This means never, never doing anything that would make them ashamed of their generosity. Imagine the reaction of a wealthy benefactor who encountered the Reverend Al Sharpton and a dozen raucous foul-mouthed middle-school students shouting “No Justice, No Peace” outside the Harvard Club to protest a conference he had sponsored? A few more of such discomforting incidents might mean taking his largess elsewhere.
The enforcement of ideological “no-go” zones in Conservative Inc. is generally well-hidden. The parallel are the “invisible fences” that keep Fido from running off—the cable is buried but the tip-off is a tiny devise attached to his collar and seeing Fido occasionally screech to a halt for no apparent reason. A man associated with a prominent conservative think tank once told me that a certain staff member in his shop was known as “the enforcer” for keeping fellow writers on the straight and narrow.
A particularly devious strategy to escape taboos is energetic dullness. Here discussions and publications are free of anything that might be “controversial” and thus serve as a guaranteed cure for insomnia. The Darwinian parallel is a fish that tastes so disgusting that all potential predators avoid it. So, rather than a conservative organization considering, say, the link between unchecked immigration and the growing US underclass, the topic will instead be the riveting, “Thomas Aquinas and the Medieval Concept of Moral Authority.” Hard to imagine the Southern Anti-Poverty Law Center getting upset let alone inserting a spy to “out” conference attendees. (One tip-off to the dullness strategy is the ratio of the half comatose state of those at conference panels versus noisy conference attendees at the hotel bar.)
More common, however, is sanitizing everything so as not to receive unwanted attention or, horror of horrors, cause a public embarrassment for major donors. Recall the old joke about how nudists dance—very carefully. I recall one event that focused on the travails of contemporary Detroit and how to fix the mess. Everybody in the room—maybe 200 or so—surely knew that Detroit was largely populated with lower class blacks prone to crime, violence, a reluctance to pay taxes and otherwise not behave in ways permitting Detroit to return to its pre-1960s glory days when the city was 90% white. Nevertheless, every attendee also sensed the invisible fence and thus politely ignored the source of Detroit’s problem—its residents. This delicate charade concluded when the speakers announced that Detroit could be resurrected by investing in infrastructure and importing foreign-born entrepreneurs. Tellingly, even in the Q and A, the race issue escaped notice.
I follow education policy and in the dozens of conservative conferences on this subject I have attended it is obvious that participants know the invisible fence boundaries. Want to help struggling kids in ghetto schools? I guarantee that the proffered suggestions will include vouchers and charter schools, de-certifying unions, holding school administrators accountable, cash bonuses for high-performing teachers, eliminating progressive pedagogy, restoring local control and for those inclined toward social engineering, “fixing” the supposedly dysfunctional black family. That none of these alluring interventions work as advertised is irrelevant—it’s totally cost-free to ignoring decades of contradictory research provided the “solution” is inoffensive. Absolutely unspeakable is the pointlessness of it all: that these kids and their parents don’t want a decent education, lack the necessary personal self-control and are incapable of learning much beyond the basics due to their low IQ’s.
In effect, much of the Right offers in the war of ideas is threadbare stuff. If I had a nickel for every time I heard lunchtime speaker at some fancy venue insist that the solution to African poverty was vigorous free-market competition, I would have at least $5.00.
I first became aware of this please-the-donor enterprise when I noticed the paucity of academics like myself at conservative sponsored events. I finally figured it out—professors are not big donors (most probably give nothing) and thus “have nothing to say.” Worse, we are inclined to pick apart high-sounding but weak arguments, not exactly a welcome activity when somebody is paying thousands for a fine chicken lunch at the elegant University Club. This is a literal marketplace of idea—those who can pay get to choose the ideas and better not annoy those who pick up the tab.
This is not to condemn as wrong what is produced by those dependent on donor generosity (disclaimer: I eat the chicken but don’t drink the Kool Aid). Rather, the rules of engagement make it difficult to defeat the Left. The parallel might be Galileo trying to satisfy Pope Paul V. What, for example, is a “domesticated” conservative to say when his university-based enemy insists that welcoming millions of Middle East Arabs and refugees from sub-Sahara Africa poses no problem since all can be integrated into a modern economy thanks to free community colleges? How does one respond to the oft-make claim that affirmative action has intellectually strengthened American higher education? It’s no wonder that the Left goes from victory to victory while the Right seems paralyzed.
Sadly, those conservatives who speak honestly about contemporary issues are few in numbers and spread thin. Despite flourishing on the Internet they are marginal to the public debate. Maybe we should return to the earlier era when the public debate included wealthy folk, “a gentleman from the country” as they were often called, who didn’t have to sing for their supper. It is no accident that Donald Trump buys his own Big Mac’s and fries.