Being a conservative is difficult, as it should be. If there were a strong, universal disposition to value and perpetuate a constitutional republic, the exertions required to conserve it would not be necessary.
The Right’s burden, however, is lightened by the Left’s arrogance. Progressives’ responses to the 2016 election are indistinguishable from their reactions to the 2020 election, notwithstanding the detail that Donald Trump won last time and (apparently) lost this time. It seems that progressives have not only forgotten nothing and forgiven nothing but also learned nothing—exactly the way progress is not supposed to work.
Four years ago, the New Yorker’s David Remnick pronounced the election results “a sickening event” and a “crushing blow to the spirit.” For Slate’s L.V. Anderson, Trump’s victory demanded that white liberals discard any illusions about America’s fundamental decency and capacity for improvement—threads Barack Obama had woven into a garment of Hope and Change—in order to finally “see our unjust, racist, sexist country for what it is.”
Within the past 72 hours, the Nation’s Joan Walsh has informed us that America’s failure to repudiate Donald Trump in a landslide has left her “ashamed of our country,” one where “racists who prefer white supremacy to equality” are horrifically numerous and powerful. Since John F. Harris, Politico’s founding editor, regards Trump’s odiousness as self-evident, “there is no logical way to scorn Trump without being somewhat scornful of voters who cheered his ascent to power and were eager for him to keep it.” Indeed, Harris believes 2020 is worse than 2016, since no voter this time could have taken refuge in the possibility that presidential responsibilities would induce Trump to “embrace moderation and restraint.” For the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman, the “last four years were a test,” one that “America failed.” The failure occurred because seeing “a political leader who enacts their darkest impulses on a daily basis thrills and intoxicates” Trump’s voters.
The most important question in politics is Henny Youngman’s: compared to what? If progressives were given to rigorous self-examination, they might think hard about the possibility that Trump and Republicans in general surpass electoral expectations because the alternative to the GOP is . . . progressivism. Standing next to a twenty-first-century progressive turns out to be a good way for conservatives to get asked out onto the dance floor. Strange to relate, many voters do not respond gratefully to being execrated as bigots, fascists, and idiots.
Progressives’ aversion to introspection is especially advantageous to conservatives: people who lack the capacity to ponder their mistakes never get around to correcting them. Both the progressives’ diagnosis of what’s wrong with America and the regimen they prescribe to correct it have grown increasingly radical, a trend that predated the Trump presidency, intensified throughout it, and will likely continue after it’s over. Disregarding conflicting evidence and historians’ warnings, the New York Times and the Pulitzer Prize Board insisted that the introduction of chattel slavery was the event that defined America’s national character. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution that operationalized its precepts, and the Civil War that vindicated the Founding’s principles against the Founding’s compromises, were all, on this reading, mere epiphenomena, trivial or cynical sideshows.
To redeem and rescue this benighted country, the progressive Left believes, would require enacting policies bolder than any previously considered: defunding the police, reparations for slavery, de facto if not de jure open borders, the restoration of campus sexual-misconduct tribunals unfettered by due process. In turn, to protect such crucial policy innovations, Democrats made clear their intention to enact structural changes that would make the GOP a permanent, irrelevant opposition party: admitting Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. as new states that elect new Democratic senators; abolishing the Senate filibuster; building a path, preferably short, to citizenship (and votership) for millions of illegal immigrants; expanding the courts, including the Supreme Court, to “pack” them with judges nominated by a Democratic president and confirmed by a Democratic Senate; abolishing the Electoral College; and establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to ensure that those guilty of aiding and abetting Donald Trump get what’s coming to them.
But all these audacious changes were predicated on a Democratic landslide in 2020, which many pundits treated as a foregone conclusion. As it turned out, the voters had other ideas. They were not reassured, to take one instance, when the president of the Minneapolis city council dismissed a question about having no police department to call during a home break-in as a concern that “comes from a place of privilege.” Compared with Democrats’ confident expectations before Election Day, the result constituted a “shocking setback,” in the words of Michael Lind, one that has “brought progressives to the brink of catastrophe,” New York magazine’s Eric Levitz believes. The debacle is all the more shocking, Lind notes, considering that this year’s circumstances could hardly have been more favorable to Democrats’ fortunes. Democrats are unlikely to contest future elections amid a pandemic with a six-figure death toll and its attendant social and economic dislocations, let alone against a Republican president with a penchant for gratifying his base by antagonizing everyone outside it. If Democrats don’t secure the clear mandate in 2020 needed to enact a transformative progressive agenda, as it appears they will not, how much more promising do circumstances have to be if they are ever going to win such victories?
As partisans, conservatives can be grateful for adversaries who do so much damage to their own cause. As patriots, though, they must hope for a progressivism that finds its own path to patriotism, that honors rather than reviles America. Conservatives would lose more elections against such opponents—but the prospect of those defeats would be more challenging than terrifying.
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