The Conservative Movement: What Happened?

The “Milo Yiannapolous disinvited from CPAC” story may be dead, But Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman and the Daily Beast’s Mark K. Lewis got good columns out of it by using the incident as a signpost on the road to decline the conservative movement seems to have traveled over the years.

It is in part a tale recalling Eric Hoffer’s observation: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

This is the part of the tale they tell.  Rothman blames the state of the movement on “[t]he right’s entertainment class,”  while Lewis argues that “Yiannopoulos’s invitation was, perhaps, the logical denouement for a cause that prioritizes provocateurs over polemicists and entertainment over substance.”

This is all true as far as it goes.  It is certainly true of CPAC.  But it is not the whole story and misses important pieces that will be necessary to any sort of conservative regrouping.

One of the main things Rothman gets right is that for many who consider themselves conservative, “their introduction to conservatism came not from reading the philosophy of John Locke and Edmund Burke but from a casual exposure to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.”  But the primary problem with this is not necessarily that the latter have been provocateurs (Limbaugh’s peak audience and influence occurred while he was at his least provocative).

Rather, the issue is that the understanding people get of conservatism from talk radio (or cable news as talk radio with pictures) is and almost inherently will be shallow.  There is an old adage (of uncertain origin) that “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; [and] small minds discuss people.”  Programming aimed at entertaining a mass audience will tend to reflect this dynamic, regardless of how provocative it is or how valid any particular provocation may be.

A conservative movement that is broad but shallow will be more likely to claim it embraces constitutional conservatism but ignore constitutional and prudential political constraints when they become frustrated, for example, that a GOP Congress seemed so ineffective in advancing a conservative agenda.  This is part of the reason many conservatives wrongly discount some of the achievements of the GOP to which Rothman correctly refers.

Conversely, however, the shallowness of many ostensible conservatives also partially explains why the GOP could be as politically successful as it is today.  The ascension of Pres. Trump is, if nothing else, a wake-up call to how little influence the conservative movement has had within the GOP, contra Rothman’s claim that the current “Congress is also one of the most conservative in the country’s history.”

This is a claim which is, imho, deeply ahistorical.  The postwar period has been one where the overarching trend has been to cultural and political progressivism.  What seems like stolid conservatism these days mostly represents fairly modest attempts to regain ground lost over the course of decades of cultural and political losses.

Moreover, conservatives across the spectrum disagree over what to make of this central dynamic.  Peggy Noonan, not exactly a fire-breather, was nonetheless able to recognize the frustration conservatives have over the fact that the GOP, even when controlling the government as they did for six years under George W. Bush, still seemed to negotiate and grow the government as if they were the minority party.  David Brooks looked at the same frustrated conservatives as engaged in identity politics.

Perhaps both Noonan and Brooks had a point, and the inability of the GOP establishment to successfully manage True Conservatives (both actual conservatives and shallower people who imagine themselves to be) and more intelligently address their concerns eventually boiled over into frustrated people comparing the 2016 election to Flight 93.

The other problem with a conservative movement that can be both shallow and aggressive is alluded to, but not fully explored, by Lewis.

As Lewis notes, “[t]rue conservatism has been replaced by a fetish for fighting political correctness.”  It is perhaps a coincidence that Limbaugh went national at approximately the same time that Jesse Jackson was leading college kids in chants of, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ. has got to go,” but maybe it wasn’t a total coincidence.

The confluence here is remarkable.  Political correctness is in large part about making America’s intellectual discourse more shallow and less conservative.  The revolt against political correctness — at least the mass (dare I say populist) revolt against it — often has the same characteristics.

The demands of mass media that inexorably drive the discussion more to people and events than ideas will also tend to shape the debate into one about who people are against, rather than the underlying ideological conflict.  This is particularly true of conservatism, which is a default for people seeking to protect what’s good about the status quo; the focus moves toward the attackers and the attack, not on the advancement of the virtues of what we seek to conserve.

Lastly, Rothman and Lewis largely avoid addressing that the most recent iteration of this battle is marked by an even more totalitarian Left than the spasm that played out in the late 80s and early 90s.  The New New Left, in an almost Newtonian fashion, will push more people into the camp that opposes the politicization of all aspects of American life.

What it does not ensure is that the marginal increases in the opposition to totalitarianism will be conservative, or even much care about conservatism on any philosophical questions.  Rather, they are the “Not Left,” people simply looking for a champion to repel the barbarians at the gates.  And when the GOP establishment fails at constructively addressing deep or shallow conservatives, it should be no surprise that some — certainly the latter –will look to the provocateurs raising the banner highest against the immediate threat.

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Further Down Mike Flynn’s Rabbit Hole

Believe me, I do not intend to get in the habit of writing on a Friday night for a Saturday posting.  However, given the traffic and feedback I got about “Another Flynn Conspiracy Theory,” it’s worth going a bit further down this rabbit hole in a timely manner.

As the kids say on Twitter: Are you ready for some game theory?

Yesterday’s posting was a piece of media criticism examining the evidence — or lack thereof — in a story asserting that fmr national security adviser Mike Flynn was ousted as the result of a campaign waged by fmr Obama adviser Ben Rhodes and a small task force of Obama alumni for the purpose of stopping Flynn from revealing secret aspects of Obama’s Iran deal.

That story is generally lacking in evidence and when acting as a media critic, I judge what’s on the page or screen.  And when commenting on the general reaction to the piece on the right, my general presumption is that readers also should judge what’s on the page or screen.

Nevertheless, I repeatedly stressed that Adam Kredo is a thorough reporter and that if he could have produced more evidence to support this conspiracy theory, he would have done so.  I also refused to dismiss the possibility that the attacks on Flynn were more organized than the groupthink of progressives inside and outside the bureaucracy attacking a weak link in the Trump administration.

The reason I did both things is because — when not wearing a media critic hat — I considered the possibility that Kredo knows or has reason to believe more than what he wrote in his story.

I have no evidence to support that speculation.  Zero, zip, nil, nada.  I have never had any kind of contact with Kredo.  I have had no contact with anyone at the Washington Free Beacon about this story.  That’s why my speculation wasn’t in yesterday’s posting.

But I did have that thought, which influenced the writing.

I had the same sort of speculation after reading Friday’s piece by Mark Hemingway at The Weekly Standard.  I have had contact with Hemingway, though I don’t know whether he knows this.  But I have had no contact with him or anyone affiliated with him about the story.

Hemingway writes that “in recent days there have been rumblings that Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor and architect of the infamous Iran Deal echo chamber; Obama National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor; and other Obama foreign policy officials have been active organizing and leaking against Trump.”  Hemingway links Kredo’s story, but notes its anonymous sourcing and Rhodes calling the theory bizarre.

Nevertheless, Hemingway argues that the consistent appearance of the silly suggestion that Flynn may have violated the Logan Act as a “tell” that there was some sort of campaign being waged against Flynn.  He concludes that “it’s worth trying to get a handle on how active and organized the Obama opposition to Trump is,” a sentiment with which I entirely agree.

I am not quite as sold on the idea that the Logan Act nonsense is a “tell.”  It could be.  OTOH, Dems accused then-candidate Trump of violating the Logan Act for suggesting that Russia should find the 30,000 emails deleted from the private server Hillary Clinton used to mishandle classified information.

The Left also accused Sen. Tom Cotton and 46 other Senate Republicans of violating the Logan Act for publishing a letter to Iran’s leaders that undercut Pres. Obama’s efforts to negotiate the Iran deal (at least this example relates to the Iran deal).  Before that, MoveOn had a petition drive suggesting then-Speaker of the House John Boehner violated the Logan Act by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress.

Plus, I’m old enough to remember when it was GOPers and conservatives who tended to bring up the Logan Act.  In 2007, Republicans claimed then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi violated the Logan Act (even if it shouldn’t have been prosecuted) by meeting with Syrian Pres. Assad.  Fmr. Pres. Jimmy Carter has been accused of violating the Logan Act over the years for his meddling in foreign policy well after his presidency ended.

In 1984, Newt Gingrich accused ten House Democrats, including then-Majority Leader Jim Wright, of violating the Logan Act for offering political advice to Daniel Ortega, leader of the Communist junta that ruled Nicaragua.  James Kirchick brought up the Logan Act not only with respect to Carter, but also regarding Sen. Ted Kennedy’s attempt to get the Soviets to meddle in the 1983 election.

Pres. Ronald Reagan suggested then-Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson had violated the Act during a mission to Cuba (while saying he would not seek a prosecution).

I guess what I’m suggesting is that the Logan Act is just one of those political talking points that people will invoke, given enough aggravation.  So maybe it’s not a “tell” in this case.  But maybe it is.

In either event, Hemingway’s mention of “rumblings” will ring true to anyone who has worked in DC or knows those who have.  Leaking and gossiping are fairly rampant in the Beltway.

And Hemingway mentions Vietor, who is not featured in Kredo’s story, which suggests those rumblings are not just the product of Kredo’s story.  Again, it’s not evidence.  But I’m not doing evidence right now.

People reading Hemingway might speculate that the rumblings extend beyond the Friends of Flynn that Kredo quoted.  Or that Hemingway knows — or has reason to believe he knows — more than he feels comfortable reporting.

But that leaves us with the question Hemingway raises, i.e., how do people get a handle on whether the Flynn/Rhodes/Iran theory is true?

I have a suggestion that will almost certainly be rejected.  If the theory is that Obama alumni orchestrated press leaks against Mike Flynn (or is campaigning against anyone else in the Trump admin), don’t ask anonymous Trump allies.  Instead, ask journalists.

Granted, most of the leak recipients are probably progressives who aren’t going to say a thing.  But the premise of the speculation that writers like Kredo and Hemingway know more than they can report is that anti-Flynn pitches were made to them or others like them.

Of course, it’s further possible that conservative journalists wouldn’t want to burn their lefty sources for both ethical and practical reasons, even by anonymously ratting out those sources to a fellow conservative journalist.  But keep in mind that those who would squeal loudest about this tactic are people who have no problem at all with government officials illegally leaking classified information for political gain.

If these politically-motivated leaks are the threat to the Republic many — including many conservative writers — seem to believe they are, people may want to wrestle with the ethical questions as I do.  The wrestling should not stop there either.

After all, once you take seriously the possibility that conservative journalists know (or have good reason to believe they know) more than they are reporting, you cannot dismiss the possibility that the Big Media journalists and the sources feeding them anti-Flynn material know (or have good reason to believe they know) more than they are reporting.

This leads us back to the unresolved questions surrounding Flynn’s firing.  Given the general tough-on-Iran line up of the Trump administration, are we willing to believe that Obama alumni went after Flynn on this big a scale out of pure personal pique?  If Pres. Trump dismisses the anti-Flynn leak stories as “fake news,” then why did he ask for Flynn to resign?  Why was Flynn cashiered for misleading VP Mike Pence if the FBI concluded Flynn was truthful in claiming it was unintentional?  And so on.

This is the problem: When you start going down a rabbit hole, you generally don’t know how deep it will go.

Update: If you’re into speculation about this topic, per my warning about what the Deep State or Big Media might know that we don’t, read HotAir’s Allahpundit on FBI Director Comey’s long and mysterious meeting with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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