Something struck me while over the weekend I was reading National Review contributor Andrew McCarthy’s defense of Donald Trump’s revocation of former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance. McCarthy is still best known to some of us as the guy who pressed the preposterous argument in 2008 that Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, was secretly ghostwritten by Weather Underground radical and Hyde Park, Chicago denizen Bill Ayers.
My mind drifted back to that famous issue of National Review in early 2016 grandly called Conservatives Against Trump. You remember that? It was a bold statement. NR got dozens of prominent conservatives to makes their various cases against Trump. In a pointed show of solidarity, the editors even invited people from competing magazines—Bill Kristol from The Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz of Commentary. That’s the kind of thing editors do on rare special occasions, when they want to emphasize to readers that they consider the matter at hand to be of unique importance. At the time, it seemed like the drawing of a line in the sand.
So I went and looked it up, and there McCarthy was, devoting three paragraphs to detailing Trump’s willed ignorance on national security and global politics before concluding: “Donald Trump does not have a clue about any of this, careening wildly from vows to stay out of the fray (leaving it in Vladimir Putin’s nefarious hands) to promises that the earth will be indiscriminately scorched.”
Last week, McCarthy was on Trump’s side. He did criticize Trump’s reason for moving against Brennan, but he clearly sees a man who spent 20-plus years in high-level counterterrorism jobs as a graver danger to the United States than the president whose ignorance he’d rightly berated two years ago: “I wish the president did not so thrive on political vendettas. As a matter of objective fact, John Brennan should not have a security clearance. Does turning objective fact into good policy always have to look like Romper Room?”
That special NR issue is worth browsing through. A few of its writers have stayed anti-Trump, notably Kristol and Podhoretz (ferocious in the former case, somewhat less so in the latter). But in other respects, it stands as a document of the intellectual corruption and capitulation of conservatism. The line in the sand that NR drew so boldly in 2016 has been redrawn several times now, each time more lightly, with the magazine ceding more territory to the president it once called a dangerous idiot, for example now defending the Muslim travel ban that some contributors to that 2016 issue denounced.
Former attorney general Michael Mukasey wrote in the issue that “to inspire the respect that creates fear and trust when and where each is necessary, we will need a president who summons our strength with a reality-based strategic vision, not one who summons applause with tantrums and homicidal fantasies.” This year, though, Mukasey has joined the amen corner of those saying Robert Mueller must end his investigation and has been in talks to join Trump’s legal team.
Glenn Beck opposed Trump on different grounds; he wrote in the issue that “if Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, there will once again be no opposition to an ever-expanding government. This is a crisis for conservatism.” But this May, Beck donned a MAGA hat and said the media’s twisting of Trump’s words—in this case, the flap over Trump’s use of the word “animals” to describe some violent immigrants—had given him no choice but to stand with Trump in 2020.
These are just three of many examples. The far worse cases are of course the elected officials. In my column before this one, which posted last Thursday, I wrote that Republicans failed to criticize Trump’s anti-democratic diatribes and actions not because they’re afraid of his base (the standard reason), but because they actually agree with him.
Sure enough, that very day, Orrin Hatch and Lindsey Graham among others came along to prove my point. They completely supported what Trump did to Brennan. Hatch: “I’m surprised it took him so long. Brennan has not been a friend to this administration at all.” Graham: “I think Mr. Brennan brought this upon himself by being so outrageous in his comments.”
Really? Brennan is under some obligation to prove himself “a friend to this administration” to keep his clearance? It’s all right to punish Brennan for “outrageous” comments? What?!? Is John Brennan protected or is he not protected by the First Amendment? If not, why not? The only outrageous thing here is that United States senators are talking this way.
There is of course no intellectually credible answer to the above questions. There’s only a political answer; only, in fact, an authoritarian answer. If a president wants to review and tighten lifetime security clearances, fine, do it; the process sounds like it needs a rethink.
However, arguing that Trump was wrong to do it this way but that Brennan deserved it anyway is to do two things. First, it’s to accept that a citizen can’t exercise his right—the very first right granted in the Bill of Rights, if we remember that quaint document—to speak his mind freely without fearing some measure of retribution from the government.
Second, it’s to excuse and endorse this explicitly authoritarian behavior. It would be like saying well, Hitler was wrong to start the Reichstag fire, but those German communists were bad guys anyway so they deserved to be framed.
Authoritarian? Hitler? The Reichstag fire? Tomasky, aren’t you getting a little overheated? Possibly. Maybe time and Trump and the Republicans will prove my overheated rhetoric wrong. However, it seems to me the bigger danger in this era is to be under-heated. We have enough of that sort of talk as it is.