‘Vichy Republicans’ Can Do Lasting Damage

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:

Just as the “Vichy Republican” politicians are beginning to fall in line behind Donald Trump, a new wave of intellectuals—desperately seeking to retain their relevance in a brave new world—have subtly started to provide the air cover.

In politics, pandering is always to be expected, but the problem with opinion leaders is that they matter—or, at least, their ideas do. Opportunistic politicians and hack political operatives can change candidates on a dime, but the ideas injected into the political bloodstream by (often ostensibly conservative) opinion leaders could well outlive Trump-ism.

As such, there are a few especially pernicious narratives that I’m catching wind of that must be addressed—and refuted—before they fully take root.

First, there’s an emerging notion that hewing to a conservative political philosophy is antiquated and wrong—as if nihilism (or governing ad hoc) is somehow more noble. (To be sure, ideological purity can be taken to the extremes, but I don’t think I have to launch into an essay here on why conservatism works, much less, why we should expect our leaders to have some sort of a coherent worldview.)

It is true that conservative philosophy doesn’t seem to matter much to the base these days. That doesn’t mean this is a positive development that should be applauded. Trump has gotten a long way by persuading the Right that he is strong, as if that is inherently good. (Strength, of course, is philosophically and morally neutral; if someone has bad or evil ideas, you might hope they are too weak to implement them.)

Another concerning concept is the notion that being popular with the base bestows moral superiority. As we hopefully learn before grade school, there is no correlation between being popular and being correct; in fact, there may be an inverse relationship.

If being popular and “winning” is tantamount to rightness, then being unpopular suggests the opposite. Thus, conservatives who refuse to get with the Trump program are not deemed “heroic” or “courageous,” but, instead, cast as “out of touch” elitists.

And once the “out of touch” label is hurled, the accusation is typically buttressed by reminding everyone that few of us saw Trump coming.

I have thoughts on this, as well.

Being able to predict who will win a nomination a year out is hardly the most relevant criteria for assessing the added value a columnist should be expected deliver. I can only speak or myself here, but (to the degree that predictions do matter) my track record (see the GOP primary results, the timing of Boehner’s surprise retirement, and—most recently, [crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore]’s selection of Carly Fiorina as his running mate) is pretty solid. What is more, although I never envisioned Trump as the manifestation of this, I have long argued that “there is a huge underserved constituency [of] populist conservatives”—and that“There is an opening for a political party to address these populist concerns.”

So why didn’t I see Trump coming—way back when? Probably because I (wrongly) attributed my skepticism of politicians to the masses. This, of course, was an act of projection. I saw through his shtick, so why wouldn’t everyone else?  (Speaking of projection, have you noticed the irony that the people who complain loudest about “elites” and “establishment insiders” tend to all be—by definition—elites?)

Third, there is a sense that something fresh and new is afoot, when everything I know about history suggests that history repeats itself, and those who fail to learn from it are doomed to repeat its mistakes. The fear many of us have is that Trump’s popularity represents proof that we have forgotten some of the lessons of history.

Just as young people always think their generation is the first to discover sex, it’s understandable that young people can get swept up in the euphoria of a demagogue. But the politicians and opinion leaders I’m talking about here aren’t young, dumb, and quixotic. It’s really hard to give them a pass.

Matt K. Lewis