Normal human beings read thrillers or romances on vacation; newspaper columnists assign themselves political polemics.
Judged by their covers, the two books that I chose to spoil my August days seem as different as their authors. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s “Conscience of a Conservative” is the lament of a NeverTrump politician for his party’s loss of principle and honor. Dinesh D’Souza’s “The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left” is a jujitsu exercise that argues that only President Donald Trump’s GOP can “denazify” a U.S.A. in thrall to liberal totalitarianism.
But the two books are also sometimes weirdly similar, making them respectable and disreputable embodiments of the same crisis in the right-wing mind.
Flake borrows his title from Barry Goldwater’s famous 1960 statement of libertarian principle, a response to big government hubris and a foundational text for the conservatism that eventually elected Ronald Reagan. For Flake, as for many Republican critics of the current president, Goldwater-to-Reagan conservatism is the true faith that Trump has profaned, to which the right must return if it wishes to be public-spirited again.
He envisions a less populist and blustering and bigoted party, which would offer “the simple, strong ideas of limited government and economic freedom.” His imagined GOP would no longer need to “ascribe the absolute worst motives” to liberals, “traffic in outlandish conspiracy theories,” or otherwise engage in the kind of demagogy that informs, well, Dinesh D’Souza’s work.
D’Souza’s latest plea-for-attention title isn’t false advertising: His book really does attempt to pin just about every crime in our nation’s history, plus certain famous German crimes as well, on the left and Democrats (categories used interchangeably and ahistorically throughout).
Because D’Souza has a debater’s gifts, his wild argument is piled atop a legitimate foundation. The historical relationship between progressive politics and various evils — racism, anti-Semitism, imperialism, eugenics, authoritarianism — that liberals prefer to pin exclusively on the right is complicated and sometimes damning, and that ideological history shapes progressivism still.
But because D’Souza has become a hack, even his best material basically just rehashes Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism” from 10 years ago, and because D’Souza has become a professional deceiver, what he adds are extraordinary elisions, sweeping calumnies and laughable leaps.
It would be nonsense at any juncture to argue that because famed Indian-fighter Andrew Jackson was a Democrat and the Nazis admired the expulsion of the Indians, contemporary Democrats are basically Nazis. To make the argument during a Republican presidency that has explicitly laid claim to Andrew Jackson even as Democrats disavow Old Hickory is so bizarre that the term “big lie” might be usefully applied.
So D’Souza’s book embodies the outrageous right-wing style that Flake’s book condemns. Which makes it all the more striking when D’Souza, the Trump-defending huckster, comes around to many of the same economic policy prescriptions as Flake, the Trump-abjuring would-be statesman. Whether in the name of honorable libertarianism or frenzied “I’m not saying they’re Nazis, but they’re Nazis” anti-liberalism, the senator and the demagogue both think that conservatives need to … cut social programs in order to cut taxes on the rich.
That striking agreement distills conservatism’s crisis. As Flake’s sharpest critics on the right have pointed out, a simple “cut the safety net to pay for upper-bracket tax cuts” agenda is both wildly unpopular and a nonresponse to our present socioeconomic problems.
The GOP can follow D’Souza’s lead (and Trump’s, now that his populist agenda seems all-but-dead) and wrap unpopular economic policies in wild attacks on liberalism. Winning this way is a purely negative achievement for the right, a recipe for failed governance extending years ahead.