Did I Join a Movement That Naturally Attracts Extremists and Kooks?
When I rooted for Reagan in the 1980s, it was a movement with intellectual heft. Back then, I thought that was the new conservative normal. But what if it was an aberration?
This week’s news about Omarosa secretly taping chief of staff John Kelly and President Donald Trump is yet another reminder of something about Trumpworld: Politics has always attracted eccentric opportunists, but people in this administration are especially weird.
In the case of Omarosa Manigault Newman, we are talking about a melodramatic reality star who lies constantly and brought a recording device into the Situation Room. But she’s just the latest example of the motley crew Trump has made famous.
Take, for example, the president’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who is currently on trial for tax and bank fraud and reportedly paid more than $18,000 for a python jacket. Or Trump’s former senior adviser, Steve Bannon, who studies obscure Italian fascists and insists on wearing multiple layers of clothing yet doesn’t seem to own a comb or a razor.
And let’s not forget Rob Porter, the straight-looking Trump staffer who (allegedly) beat the hell out of two of his ex-wives before dating Hope Hicks. Seb Gorka was the Hungarian fugitive who was a villain straight out of central casting. Scott Pruitt was the former head of the EPA with a penchant for French cuisine and Ritz Carlton hand lotion.
Only the best people?
Clearly, Trump likes casting people who are not just interesting characters, but who are also cartoon caricatures. There’s Rudy Giuliani, the bulging-eyed former “Mayor of America” who has become a parody of himself. There’s Mooch (Anthony Scaramucci), who is essentially a caricature of a fast-talking Italian businessman.
And Michael Cohen, the Trump lawyer who watched Goodfellas one too many times. And Corey Lewandowski, the erstwhile campaign manager who probably still has a poster of Lee Atwater hanging on his bedroom wall. And even Stephen Miller’s own uncle thinks he’s a schmuck. I could go on.
It’s almost as if Trump visited the far corners of the universe to bring together a collection of supervillains.
When Brad Pitt tries to assemble his diverse team of “proper villains” in Ocean’s Eleven, he says that to get the job done, “I'd say you're looking at a Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald.”
Trump seems to have a similar affinity for casting archetypes. One can imagine his campaign desperately searching for “an Atwater, a Joe Pesci, two Himmlers, not to mention a Robin Quivers.”
I miss the good old days when the best weirdos were on the other side of the aisle. Back in the 1990s, when I was a devoted fan of The Rush Limbaugh Show, El Rushbo had a line that resonated with me in its simplicity. Speaking of unusually large number of close friends and associates of Bill Clinton who either died mysteriously or were indicted, Rush would rhetorically ask his Ditto Heads something like, “How many of your close friends are in jail?”
Today, the roles are reversed. Normal Americans find ourselves asking a similar question—this time about a Republican administration: How many people do you know who have (allegedly) beaten the hell out of two ex-wives? How many people do you know who worked for Russian oligarchs? How many people do you know who have been indicted? Any members of your family own a python jacket?
Now, I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t weird people on the left; there are (see Anthony Weiner). And I’m not going to say they don’t have some horrifically stupid ideas (a new survey shows Dems prefer socialism to capitalism) I’m just saying that, in recent years, the balance has gotten out of whack.
Think of it this way: Even if you prefer the implementation of conservative public policy (as I do), on the micro level, who would you trust alone to watch your children? Donald Trump? Rudy? Gorka? Or Barack Obama? I have to say, I’d trust Obama in a minute.
But it’s not just the Trump administration that looks like a cast of supervillains. Take a good look at what has happened to the entertainment wing of the right. Consider the last decade of Dinesh D’Souza’s life. Consider the career trajectory of Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Consider Alex Jones’ insane conspiracy theories. And—just last week—consider Mark Levin’s theory that Robert Mueller is a “greater threat” to America than Vladimir Putin--or the toxicity Laura Ingraham’s recent rant about immigration.
Speaking of Ingraham, on Monday, a Morning Joe producer tweeted some remarks Ronald Reagan made in 1989 about immigration, in which Reagan says the U.S. leads the world because "we draw our people, our strength, from every country and every corner of the world." It was, quite simply, a reminder that the Gipper espoused the exact opposite message from the one Ingraham is peddling nightly on her Fox News show.
I grew up with (and signed on for) Reagan’s version of conservatism. In recent years, I have become disenchanted—not with the intellectual philosophy of Edmund Burke or the governing philosophy of Ronald Reagan—but with what passes for conservatism today.
The 1980s, for a set of historical reasons, was a time when conservatism had real intellectual credibility. Not only was Reagan a decent man, his conservatism was (without having to market it as such) compassionate. I thought this was a culmination, that conservatism had outgrown the earlier extremism and kookiness that existed before I came of age. But what if it was an aberration?
In recent years, the worst trends seem to have disproportionately hit the American right. It’s unclear why the right was more susceptible to forces that ultimately gave us Donald Trump’s “legion of doom,” but my guess is that conservatives felt like they had to create alternative media outlets to distribute their message. Along the way, those alternative media outlets (most famously, talk radio and Fox News), metastasized from alternate outlets into alternate realities. Liberals, still wedded to mainstream media outlets, are (for now) more moored to reality.
If I were coming of age today and my example for conservatism was based on Donald Trump, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity, would I sign up? I can’t imagine that I would join that cause. Should this trend continue, it’s going to be increasingly hard for Republicans to attract thoughtful, compassionate, and even sane supporters. If that happens, not only will the GOP become progressively whiter, older, more rural, and more male, it will also become…weirder.