If you’re trying to figure out the bizarre landscape that is American politics these days, one place to start would be a fascinating piece by Dennis Prager at National Review, in which he calls to task those conservatives who have not yet enlisted themselves as obedient soldiers in the Army of Trump.
To fully grasp the implications of the piece, it first helps to know where the author fits in the conservative media ecosystem. Prager sees himself as the intellectual among right-wing talk-radio hosts, and many conservatives seem to agree with him. He even hosts what he calls “Prager University,” described on his website as “an institution of higher learning on the Internet with a unique difference – all the courses are five minutes long.”
As Prager’s marketing material also reminds us, someone in the Los Angeles Times once described him as “an amazingly gifted man and moralist whose mission in life has been crystallized – ‘to get people obsessed with what is right and wrong.'” That’s clearly how he sees himself and how he wants to be seen.
So I know what you’re thinking: How could a moralist with intellectual ambitions, a man whose lifetime mission is to get people obsessed with right and wrong — how could such a person berate his fellow conservatives for not supporting a self-professed pussy-grabbing, wealth-obsessed New York City playboy whose idea of a tough reading assignment is a one-page outline with pictures?
For that, we must turn to National Review, where Prager poses the question in reverse: Why do some prominent conservatives still reject Trump’s leadership?
“The first and, by far, the greatest reason is this: They do not believe that America is engaged in a civil war, with the survival of America as we know it at stake. While they strongly differ with the Left, they do not regard the left–right battle as an existential battle for preserving our nation. On the other hand, I, and other conservative Trump supporters, do.”
That paragraph explains a lot. In fact, it explains almost everything.
It explains, for example, how Republicans who have traditionally looked upon Russia and Vladimir Putin as bitter enemies can suddenly begin to see Putin as a friend and ally. It’s because they see their real enemy, the one they fear and hate most, as American liberals, and if Putin is willing to help them in that effort they are more than happy to take that help. He’s far less threatening to them than Hillary Clinton.
It also explains why political compromise and cooperation have become impossible, because after all, compromise with those out to destroy America is in fact capitulation, and cooperation is treason. And if Republicans have lost the ability to govern in the normal sense, it’s because they are far more interested in using government as a weapon with which to wage this civil war than they are in delivering services or making lives better.
And of course it explains Trump, who turns out to be where this alarming trend has been taking us all along. In manner, faith, background, character and principle, Trump ought to be the embodiment of all that Prager and his supporters reject, yet he is embraced because in their eyes he is their last, best hope in what Prager has taken to calling America’s Second Civil War. As a result, nothing Trump does, nothing he says can be criticized because doing so weakens those defending America and gives aid and comfort to those attempting to destroy it.
As Prager puts it, again addressing “Never Trump” conservatives:
“They can join the fight. They can accept an imperfect reality and acknowledge that we are in a civil war, and that Trump, with all his flaws, is our general. If this general is going to win, he needs the best fighters. But too many of them, some of the best minds of the conservative movement, are AWOL. I beg them: Please report for duty.”
Please report for duty; please fall in line.
There are a lot of problems with that line of thought, including the notion that loyalty to Trump is loyalty to America. That mindset leads straight to trouble, and to their credit, at least some of the conservatives targeted by Prager still resist that.
“I’ll never defend conduct from Trump’s team that I would condemn in a Democrat. It’s sad to see the reflexive defenses of Trump’s conduct in, for example, the Comey firing when we know, we know, that similar conduct from Hillary Clinton would lead to nonstop calls for impeachment from the very same voices that so zealously defend Trump today. Either approach is wrong before the facts are in. Healthy skepticism and diligent investigation are mandatory. Culture matters more than politics, and a culture that abandons truth and the rule of law for the sake of short-term partisan advantage is a culture that sentences itself to death.”
The problem, of course, is that voices such as French, Bill Kristol, George Will and Jonah Goldberg are waning in influence among conservatives, and in fact are increasingly viewed as quislings within a movement to which they once lent a veneer of sophistication. Their numbers are dwindling as fast as their influence, as more and more “report for duty” and fall in lockstep.
There’s a deeper, more fundamental problem as well. If Prager and his audience feel besieged and under attack — and I accept that they feel that way — their sense of endangerment is based on cultural and demographic trends that are transforming the country in ways figuratively and literally foreign to them. And since they have no control over culture or demography, they turn in desperation to the one arena in which they can still make their numbers felt, which is politics.
But in the face of culture and demography, political power is helpless in the long run.
For example, the most recent Fox News poll puts Trump’s overall approval rating at 40 percent. However, among Americans 45 and younger, it’s an abysmal 27 percent. Those voters are America’s future and increasingly its present. And on the issue of the moment — climate change — 69 percent of those 45 and younger describe it as extremely or very important to them. In short, polar bears aren’t the only things endangered long-term by the GOP’s decision to pull out of the Paris accords. So is the GOP itself.
Those numbers are stark, and they repeat themselves in every context. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won by 14 percentage points among Americans 44 and younger. In the most recent WSB-TV poll of the hard-fought 6th District race, Jon Ossoff has a lead of 59-37 percent among voters under 40, a margin of 22 percentage points. He leads 52-43 among those aged 40-64. Republican Karen Handel is competitive in the district only because of her 58-39 percent lead among voters aged 65 and older.
As a result, Republicans are working that older demographic and the Second Civil War theme hard, hoping it will pay off one more time. You can see it in the pro-Handel TV ads being beamed into the district, depicting a world that is teetering on the verge of chaos thanks to the likes of Ossoff, who in case you hadn’t heard “isn’t one of us.”
They’re right, he isn’t. The 30-year-old Ossoff and his peers don’t recognize the world depicted in those ads. They’ve grown up in this environment, they’re confident in their ability to negotiate it. So who’s gonna win this “civil war”? Me, I’d bet on the side that has time as its ally, because time ain’t been beaten yet.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not worried. This concept of a Second American Civil War, which Prager named but certainly did not create, has the potential to do enormous damage to this country. It allows for no middle ground, and it rejects the notion that we share a common heritage and common future. It threatens institutions and understandings that have long served as well. It is, as Prager wants us to believe, all-out war.
“There will be unity only when the left vanquishes the right or the right vanquishes the left. Using the First Civil War analogy, American unity was achieved only after the South was vanquished and slavery was abolished… we are fighting for the survival of America no less than the Union troops were in the First Civil War.”
I don’t accept that.
“We are not enemies, but friends,” as Abraham Lincoln said on the precipice of the first such war. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”