That was quite a philippic Arizona Republican Jeff Flake delivered Tuesday from the Senate floor, announcing his decision not to seek re-election while denouncing President Donald Trump’s “reckless, outrageous and undignified” behavior and “flagrant disregard for truth and decency.”
And that was some speech George W. Bush gave in New York the other day, warning pointedly of “nationalism distorted into nativism,” and a politics “more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
And who will ever forget Republican Sen. Bob Corker’s acid description of the White House as an “adult day care center,” or John McCain’s magnificent denunciation of “people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems?”
Who will forget? Republicans will, led by the pro-Trump intelligentsia that has spent the past 18 months abasing itself so it could normalize him.
In 1927, French philosopher Julien Benda wrote “The Treason of the Intellectuals” (La Trahison des Clercs), a short book that pointed a damning finger at the ultranationalist thinkers of his time.
Benda excoriated them for “the intellectual organization of political hatreds.” He condemned them for worshiping a “cult of success,” which “says that when a will is successful that fact alone gives it a moral value, whereas the will which fails is for that reason alone deserving of contempt.”
He warned, prophetically, that this “great betrayal” of their philosophical vocation, along with their “desire to abase the values of knowledge before the values of action,” had put mankind on the road to “the greatest and most perfect war ever seen in the world.”
Benda is often celebrated by conservative writers for his understanding of how prone intellectuals can be to fatal political misjudgments. Think of Michel Foucault’s embrace of Ayatollah Khomeini, Noam Chomsky’s excuses for the Khmer Rouge or Naomi Klein’s effusions for Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. The list of intellectuals making fools of themselves is long.
So where are Benda’s conservative disciples today, the ones I remember from panel discussions on the importance of moral character, the dangers of relativism or the postmodern assault on the concept of truth?
It’s instructive to read the high-minded defenses of Trump offered by writers in Breitbart, The Washington Times, The Federalist and the rest of the pro-Trump press.
Their chief argument for Trump is that he won and is therefore a winner. Their argument against Never Trumpers is that we failed and are therefore losers. What about Trump’s character? It doesn’t matter so long as the Supreme Court remains conservative. Legislative failures are always and only the fault of “establishment Republicans.” Boorish habits are merely a matter of taste and something of a virtue in the era of snowflakes. As for the criticisms from Flake, Bush, Corker and McCain, who needs moral instruction from those sore losers and political has-beens?
Most telling is the Trumpians’ inability ever to utter a whisper of criticism of their man. Even Never Trumpers will occasionally find themselves agreeing with the administration over one issue or another. Not so the Trumpians. With instincts that recall the Stalinist intelligentsia of the 1940s, they mix the logical elasticity of the sophist with the unflinching loyalty of the toady. They are never anything except always all in.
All this suggests that what the media now trumpets as a looming GOP civil war isn’t going to happen. Corker and Flake aren’t stepping up; they’re bowing out. Political retirees are good for leading charities, not movements.
As for the rest of the conservative movement, through its liaison with Trump it is participating in its own moral degradation in much the same way that Xaviera Hollander — a Dutch consular secretary who realized she could make a much better living as a call girl and brothel operator — became the notorious “Happy Hooker” of the 1970s. Shameless, yes. Criminal, also. But a runaway success all the same, with a memoir that sold north of 15 million copies and a movie about her starring Lynn Redgrave.
The default assumption of nearly every opponent of Donald Trump is that, sooner or later, he is bound to fail, either because he will be overwhelmed by events, undermined by scandal or abandoned by his own supporters.
So far, none of that has happened. In one key respect, he is the most successful president in modern times. He has ripped out the ideological foundations on which his party once stood. The Democratic Party was still recognizably itself after Bill Clinton left office. The GOP will not be after Trump is done with it. Like it or not, that’s a testament to his charisma and power — aided and abetted by those conservative intellectuals who proved so quick to prostitute themselves on his behalf.