What’s the Point of Conservative Commentary?
A few weeks ago, I was perusing my Twitter timeline when I came across a tweet that gave me some pause and a nugget to chew on. It was posted by a gentleman some of you may be familiar with: Terry Schappert. Terry is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces veteran who appears on Fox News from time to time. He also hosts a very entertaining show on the Outdoor Channel called Hollywood Weapons. I'm a longtime fan of Terry. I enjoy his insight and good-natured wit, and I very much appreciate his many years of honorable service to our nation. I also consider him a friend, though we’ve never met in person. We know some of the same people, share similar critical views of liberalism, and at some point we became acquainted on social media. He was also kind enough to provide me with a blurb for one of my novels, which I was very thankful and honored to receive. So when Terry weighs in with a serious point on an issue, I tend to give it some thought. And last month, he tossed this one out:
I respect and appreciate the work of many conservative writers and pundits, and if your goal was to make money and write for other conservatives, you succeeded. If your goal was to stem the tide of encroaching leftism in America, you failed miserably. Now what?
— terry schappert (@terryschappert) March 15, 2019
As a conservative writer myself (though for me it's not so much a profession as it is an interest), the statement certainly caught my attention. And I assume, based on some occasional back-and-forths the two of us have had on Twitter, that the tweet was at least in part directed at me. The main point of contention is that Terry has a far more favorable view of President Trump and his reliable defenders than I do. As you may have guessed, I don't agree with Terry's tweet, nor do I really even agree with the premise. And I say this fully cognizant that the man I'm calling "wrong" could likely kill me 37 different ways with a stick of chewing gum. *gulp* But while I disagree with Terry's assessment, I do understand where he's coming from (and why many others assuredly agree with him). So, I figured I'd go ahead and address his points in a column — one that ended up being far longer than I had planned it to be (sorry, folks). Conservative writers and pundits were some of Donald Trump’s sharpest critics during his 2016 presidential campaign. They fought him tooth and nail during the election on everything from his temperament, to his lack of knowledge and experience, to his big-government ideas, to his reckless and conspiratorial rhetoric, to his chronic dishonesty, to his utter lack of personal decency. But in the end, their vocal opposition wasn’t enough to stop Trump electorally. He went on to win the Republican primary, and then the presidency. And since then, he has maintained a very impressive approval rating among his party (not so much the country) while continuing to take slings and arrows from conservative skeptics and critics on television, radio, and the Internet. Of course, these people's numbers aren't nearly what they used to be. A lot of longtime media-conservatives have done an about-face on Trump — many of them because they recognized the very real career risks of approaching this presidency from any angle other than fawning adulation — even when Trump and his agenda stand in direct violation of the principles they spent years and even decades defending. Still, most of those who remain skeptical and critical continue to hold (and voice) the same views on policies, ideology, and standards of conduct that they did prior to the election. And they have remained a source of frustration for the Trump faithful, even as folks like Mr. Schappert deem them largely irrelevant to both the conversation and the advancement of conservatism in this country. Again, I understand that perspective. But let me attempt to redefine the argument a bit, while addressing why I think the premise is flawed. In regard to the tweet, let's knock out the easiest part first. Pretty much no one gets into writing conservative commentary for the money. If someone genuinely believes in and understands the societal advantages of conservative principle and practices (to the point that they’re engaged enough to actually write about it), they’re certainly smart enough to also realize that there’s not a lot of money in it. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule — primarily in the realms of television and radio where conservative sensibilities often take a backseat to partisan commiseration and fearmongering. But that’s a topic for another column. Secondly, I don’t believe that the typical conservative writer is under the illusion that he or she is going to produce such a phenomenally well-received and influential body of work that it will deal a death blow to the persistent allure of liberalism and liberal sensibilities in this country. No one can do that, including President Trump. In fact, one can make the argument that Trump significantly added to that allure on the political right by running on a populist, big-government platform that often paralleled that of his socialist counterpart in the Democratic party, Bernie Sanders. The fact that Trump is blowing through taxpayer money and racking up national debt even faster than Obama suggests the same. But let's get back to conservative writing. Most of us get into this field or activity because we’re passionate about the issues and the nation, and because we believe we have something of value that we can offer to the conversation. That’s certainly what drew me in. My first national political piece from back in 2011 can still be found on this very website. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but it tells the story of a closet conservative who felt ostracized in the left-lurching era of Obama, and decided he could no longer remain silent about it. Even Charles Krauthammer, whom many (including myself) consider one of the greatest conservative writers of all time, didn’t start down this path believing he would change the national landscape. “When I went into journalism,” Krauthammer told an interviewer back in 2005, “I decided this is what I wanted to do. The point of it was to say what I believed, and I didn’t really care one way or another how people would react.” Krauthammer was never of the impression that he could somehow impose his views on others, nor was that his goal. He believed that putting forth honest, well researched and constructed arguments was a noble undertaking and a service to his fellow man. If those arguments were strong enough, perhaps they would indeed lead to change. At very least, they would enable receptive minds with valuable insight and a path forward, and infiltrate resistant minds with some compelling points to consider. Yes, contrary to popular belief, some liberals do actually read and listen to conservative commentators to get a broader picture of the issues and arguments (not just trash them on social media). Even I (a relatively small name in this genre) have a bit of a liberal following that is drawn to my work and challenged by my reasoning:
I follow, and like @JohnDalyBooks. He's on the other side of the political fence. But that's why I like him. His mere presence challenges me to look beyond my own beliefs, to see and appreciate the other side of this country. Give this a read. It's insightful. https://t.co/YPEw8W0WYX
— Alice Radley (@StJohnSterling) April 11, 2019
I read your articles. I disagree w/ you on some pts, but I think you also made valid pts that I didn't think a/b at the time..
— Lisa Wetzelberger (@LisaWetzelberge) October 19, 2017
Sure, my readership — like every other conservative writer's — is made up mostly of fellow righties. People of similar mind tend to gravitate toward each other, and be more receptive to each other's views. Does that mean folks like me are just blowing in the wind, preaching to the choir, and not offering anything else of use? It can certainly feel that way at times, but I've seen my arguments shared online and repeated enough times on competing television networks (sometimes verbatim and sometimes even credited) to know they're being considered by a larger, more diverse audience than the keys on my laptop. I've also heard from enough strangers (of different political leanings) over the years, asking my take on various topics, to recognize that I'm not simply an entertainer. I also don't believe that the legacy and influence of someone like a Charles Krauthammer can be written off as pointless because he supported the failed candidacies of John McCain and Mitt Romney, but opposed the successful candidacy of Donald Trump (and remained quite critical of him after the election). Yes, Trump won. And yes, he has ushered in some conservative political victories. That's a good thing. By all means, let's give him some credit and add a slap on the back for good measure. But the nature of those victories also illustrates my point. They came not through advocacy or public persuasion on Trump's part, but rather from many years of blood, sweat, and tears from the conservative movement that forced his political hand. Jonah Goldberg touched on this just the other day:
"The best things Donald Trump has done, from a conservative perspective at least, stem from catering to the demands of the GOP or the conservative movement. He appointed judges from the Federalist Society’s list because he had to (before this was made clear to him, he was still talking about putting his sister on the court). His positions on guns, taxes, health care, defense spending, abortion, etc. are products of his transactional relationship with the institutions of the GOP establishment and the conservative coalition. The best proof of this is that he used to be pro-choice, anti-gun, pro–socialized medicine, etc."
And if you believe that the hallmarks of modern conservatism that Trump adopted in these cases simply fell out of the sky one day, and that they weren’t pursued, carried, advanced, and heavily influenced over a number of years by conservative thinkers through writing, speeches, and other forms of media, you might as well be saying that the history of the GOP didn’t begin until 2016. Sadly, a lot of the Trump crowd seems to believe precisely that, cavalierly casting aside the pre-Trump GOP and the conservative movement as having achieved essentially nothing. Reality, however, tells a very different story. David French wrote a great piece about this last month that highlights significant post-Reagan conservative victories for the pro-life movement, gun rights, education, individual liberty, and foreign policy. They are not to be ignored, and they all took place back when Donald Trump was a Democrat and Democratic donor who funded liberal candidates actively opposing such efforts. “But what about the Obama era, when Republicans let the president and his progressive base get everything they wanted?” I’ve heard that assertion more than a few times, and it just doesn’t hold up. As Charles Cooke described in a piece back in 2016, DC Republicans, despite their limited numbers (and the insistence otherwise of certain conservative talk-radio stars), actually managed to shut down quite a bit of the Obama and Democratic agenda:
“Without the GOP manning the barricades, Obamacare could well have been single payer, and, at the very least, the law would have included a ‘public option.’ Without the GOP manning the barricades, we’d have seen a carbon tax or cap-and-trade — or both. Without the GOP manning the barricades, we’d have got union card check, and possibly an amendment to Taft-Hartley that removed from the states their power to pass ‘right to work’ exemptions. Without the GOP standing in the way, we’d now have an ‘assault weapons’ ban, magazine limits, background checks on all private sales, and a de facto national gun registry. And without the GOP standing in the way in the House, we’d have got the very amnesty that the Trump people so fear.”
Cooke also pointed to several state-level achievements, and I would add that the budget sequestration of 2013 kept an extra trillion from being added to our national debt. None of this is to say that there weren't plenty of legitimate reasons to be frustrated with the GOP back then. But in a system such as ours, in which power in government is divided, and the number of political seats a party holds matters, it's good to take a step back and consider a little context. And in the broad scheme of things, the conservative movement has indeed paid big dividends since Reagan. But it’s not just Republican leaders and lawmakers (who were sent to Washington on conservative platforms) who've been directly influenced by conservative commentary. More importantly, it’s where millions of Republican grassroots activists and volunteers, who've put in countless hours to advance conservative causes and elect conservative leaders, have taken much of their direction over the years. I know this firsthand. During Obama’s first term, I decided it was time to get more involved in the conservative movement and more deeply support the GOP's opposition against the president's abysmal leftist policies. I volunteered for conservative candidates — working in call-banks, knocking on doors, and even helping to organize a campaign fundraiser. I hosted a precinct at the Republican caucuses in 2012, and was twice elected to serve as a delegate at the Colorado GOP State Assembly & Convention so I could help shape the Republican platform and voter representation. Over those years, I met and had conversations with a lot of other volunteers and activists. I got to know many of these folks, as well as who and what motivated them to spend so much of their time working on the advancement of conservatism. I can assure you that it wasn’t Donald Trump’s tweets, or Obama’s birth certificate, or hatred for John McCain. I can assure you that the books they carried under their arms weren’t written by Tony Schwartz. No, their influences were prominent (and even not so prominent) opinion-makers within the conservative movement. Theirs were the books they toted. Theirs were the voices and arguments they endorsed and echoed. Even Trump himself appeared to recognize this once upon a time:
.@NRO Really important to save National Review from going out of business. We need a true conservative voice!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 25, 2015
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2013
I should note that many of the Republican grassroots foot-soldiers that I became acquainted with have since thrown in the towel — not on conservatism but on the GOP. They'd busted their asses for years to stem the tide of encroaching leftism here in Colorado, managing in 2014 (against the odds and all predictions) to unseat a Democratic U.S. senator in a state that had elected Barack Obama twice. Two years later, these same people were mercilessly vilified and declared categorically corrupt by then candidate Donald Trump (and his media enablers like the Drudge Report) for having the gall to resoundingly support Ted Cruz — Trump's last viable primary opponent who, unlike Trump, had been running on a conservative, small-government platform. The debacle devastated the state GOP, alienating a lot of the party's heavy-lifters, while moderates — turned off by Trump for the same reasons as most of the country — have likewise abandoned ship. Trump is so unpopular here that even strong, effective leaders like Mike Coffman, who voiced his discontent with Trump numerous times, was booted for being too closely aligned with the president. The Democrats swept this state last year, including the election of a far-left governor, and it doesn't look like the political tides will be changing anytime soon. But back to the topic of conservative commentary... It goes without saying that well-worded conservative theses will never command endless hours of national news coverage the way the outlandish presidential candidacy of a television-celebrity billionaire untethered from facts and decorum can. As we saw, a spectacle of that magnitude can draw support from roughly a third of a political party’s primary voters, and if the general-election opposition is horrific enough, it can also propel one all the way to the White House. But we also have to acknowledge that at some point, Donald Trump will no longer be president. And when that day comes, we’ll thank him for the select conservative gains that were achieved under his watch. The very next day, a lot of clean-up work will have to begin. We’ll miraculously remember that the national debt is a catastrophic problem of epic proportions, and we’ll wonder how in the heck it managed to leap by several trillion while we were busy getting worked up over NFL players kneeling and yelling "fake news" at every story we didn't like. We’ll sober back up to the dire state of our social safety-net programs, and recognize that something needs to be done — and done very quickly — to prevent them from leading to an economic upheaval. We’ll wonder why in the heck we ever started these ridiculous trade wars that we're bailing out with billions of taxpayer dollars as they drive up prices on American consumers and manufacturers. We'll wonder why we chose to needlessly alienate foreign allies while lending legitimacy, prestige, and the public deference of American intelligence conclusions to hostile leaders like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. We'll find ourselves struggling with how to achieve a rhetorical and unifying high-ground on just about any issue that requires public support, while looking at the sinking ship that is Republican voter affiliation (and wondering how — or if — the holes can be plugged). Once Trump has cashed in his chips and left the building, and the personality cult disintegrates to the ground like an unlucky Avenger at the hands of Thanos, a number of things that we had forgotten about will have to be brought back into focus. Too many challenges that existed prior to Trump’s tenure will still be here and in far worse shape, and they'll need addressing. There will be serious new challenges to contend with as well. It’s worth remembering that while the rampant tribalism we see today is indicative of human nature, and demagoguery and executive actions can be effective in the short term, they can’t solve the problems in this country that conservatism (in its various forms) can. Conservatism, in a number of ways, is just as inorganic and fragile as capitalism. Conservative tenets often aren't inherently gravitated toward, but nonetheless, they're crucially important and incredibly effective within societies. They must continually be promoted on their merits, whether it's to the receptive, the skeptical, or the non-ideological (like the man who currently sits in the Oval Office). And without thought leaders around to take up and advance the cause, can we really expect the tides of liberalism to ever recede? ---