Is President Donald Trump a perversion of the American conservative movement — or simply an honest reflection of what it’s been for decades?
Ever since Trump’s victory in the Republican primary, this has been one of the big questions hanging over American politics. If Trump’s anti-intellectual and race-baiting brand of politics is a parasite on the American right, then it’s possible the Republican Party can be cleaned up after him. That’s the premise of the so-called Never Trump movement, a small group of Republican elites and conservative intellectuals who have denounced the president and his allies in no uncertain terms.
But it’s possible the Never Trumpers are wrong. It could be that they’re the ones who have been deluding themselves into thinking that the conservative movement is a higher intellectual calling, when in fact it’s been a cover for a shallow and vicious brand of white identity politics for decades. If that’s true, then there’s no coming back from Trumpism. The conservative movement and its core institutions need to be radically reformed, if not outright abolished and rebuilt.
One of the most prominent Never Trumpers, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, posed precisely this question at the end of an Atlantic essay on conservative polemicist and convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza. “Did they really change so much?” Frum muses about his Trump supporting allies, “Or did I?” Seth Cotlar, a professor of American history at Willamette University, set out to answer Frum’s question in a lengthy and extremely worthwhile Twitter thread — and suggested an answer the Never Trumper won’t like.
Cotlar, who grew up in a right-leaning community and teaches a course on the history of American conservatism, suggests that Frum is, in fact, the one who changed. He claims that for at least two decades, back when Frum was a mainstream conservative in good standing, the Republican Party and the conservative movement were already in the grips of a kind of proto-Trumpism. Here’s Cotlar’s argument, which I encourage you to read in full:
1. I would love to read a sympathetic (yet critical) essay that assessed a central claim made by Never Trumpers like @davidfrum--that conservatism today is an embarrassing bastardization of what conservatism once was. https://t.co/PpTn36jfT9— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
2. Let me start by saying that I take Frum and other Never Trumpers to be acting in good faith. I appreciate and respect the principled stand they have taken against Trumpist conservatism. But I have questions.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
3. First, the declensionist narrative. "Once conservatism was an intellectually robust political phenomenon, but now it is anti-intellectual pap." I'm willing to be convinced of this...but it's going to take some work. pic.twitter.com/uuZM8BVjB0— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
4. For example, let's rewind to the early 1990s, a time when today's Never Trumpers were unapologetic conservatives, and a time when a brash young Congressman from Georgia, Newt Gingrich (PhD in History), carried the mantle of "the conservative politician with the big ideas."— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
5. In 1995 Newt taught a course called "Renewing American Civilization," a mix of history, sociology, and politics designed to chart a course forward for the @gop and the nation. It was a shambolic mess, to put it politely. https://t.co/uwydnftXQ9— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
6. In 1995 I was a graduate student in American history and was curious what one of our major political leaders thought about the subject, so I opened up Netscape and downloaded the full text of Newt's lectures via 56K modem. They're still accessible at https://t.co/Uv3C7fLmHv— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
7. They read like the transcript of a Trump campaign rally, only with a 12th grade vocabulary instead of a 5th grade vocab. It's stream of consciousness gobbledygook. Like this gem. No one w/ a rudimentary knowledge of American History or social science could take Newt seriously. pic.twitter.com/FDF07qWjgc— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
8. Looking back at Newt's 1995 lectures from the vantage point of 2018, it's easy to see many of the building blocks of Trumpism--the disdain for elites, the faux populism, the culture war BS, etc. "2018 Trumpist Newt" doesn't seem like a departure from "1995 galaxy brain Newt."— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
9. In the 1990s I was no "raving leftist." I had two Republican voting grandparents and was educated in public schools in a conservative small town where my parents were small business owners.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
10. Sure, I went to Brown for college, but my primary US history prof was Gordon Wood, a man known to dine with Antonin Scalia. Despite that background, in 1995, at the age of 27, it only took me about 20 minutes to figure out Newt was full of sh*t. Because I had read some books.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
11. Newt is full of the same anti-intellectual sh*t today as he was in 1995, when he was the conservative "man of the hour." So I ask (& I really do mean this as an open question despite my snarky tone)...what did Frum et. al. see in Newt ca. 1995 that is unlike Trump ca. 2018?— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
12. The other great conservative "intellectual" of the early 1990s was Dinesh D'Souza. The Never Trumper declensionist narrative rests upon the distinction between the once respectable Dinesh and the now clownish Dinesh. pic.twitter.com/LBiiETnrVi— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
13. I will grant that D'Souza's 1991 book "Illiberal Education" is a less ludicrously clownish book than his most recent productions. But that would be akin to saying that the comedy stylings of Chevy Chase were more intellectually robust than those of Adam Sandler. True, but...— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
14. Illiberal Education benefited from a few generous reviews written by credentialed but curmodgeonly white male academics like C. Vann Woodward. Woodward's peers took him to task at the time. https://t.co/1P8vAKWcTb— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
15. The scholarly work that D'Souza (and Woodward) pilloried in the early 90's has stood the test of time. The 1990s work of D'Souza's reactionary defenders like Eugene Genovese and Woodward, however, has fared less well.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
16. Like Gingrich's lectures, D'Souza's Illiberal Education was a laughing stock amongst those who actually knew the universities and scholarly fields he claimed to expose. His stock and trade then was reactionary oversimplification. Same goes for today.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
17. Can we also just recall some of the greatest hits of Reaganite conservatism? Like the Laffer curve? Or EPA director James Watt, who thought we needn't protect the environment because the rapture was imminent? Or super-patriot Ollie North?— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
18. Voodoo economics is alive and well in Trumpist conservatism, Scott Pruitt was like James Watt redux, climate change denial is the 2018 version of the @gop's anti-science foot dragging on tobacco regulation, and Ollie North is back as the head of the GOP's favorite gun club.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
19. We might also remember that Dick Cheney and other "serious conservatives" defended our support of apartheid South Africa, and Reagan was pretty tolerant of dictators like Pinochet. More than a few echoes of Trumpian foreign policy here. https://t.co/VQTx18W1bh— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
20. When Never Trumpers express shock and dismay at what Trump has made of the Republican Party, it's hard for me not to wonder "how can this come as a surprise to you?"— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
21. As this excellent thread shows, the progressives of the mid-90s called much of this. They saw the embryo of Trumpism lurking within 90s conservatism. Yet at the time, conservative "intellectuals" supercilliously dismissed such critiques as hysterical. https://t.co/s4KLVUQRsc— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
22. Apologies if this has come off as "I told you so-ism." That's not how I mean it. I guess I just want to read a few articles that are less "I'm shocked, shocked that the @gop has become authoritarian & racist" and more "here's how I regretfully helped build this."— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
23. The Never Trumpers are important voices in our national conversation. They can grant us an insiders' perspective on how Trump was so easily able to co-opt the conservative movement. If there is truly daylight between Trumpism and conservatism, they can help us see it.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
24. Progressives will just say "see, Trumpism is what conservatism was all along. It's just now shown its true face." I suspect most Never Trumpers would disagree with that. So please, show us the receipts!— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
25. Speaking as someone who teaches a course on the history of conservatism that tries to treat that history on its own terms and with respect, I'd love to see a Never Trumper memoir or essay that started from the presumption that Trump is not a black swan, not an alien invasion.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
26. Wow, this thread has blown up far more than I expected it would. Upon reading some of the responses, I have just a few more take aways.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
27. First, if people wonder why there are so few conservatives in the academy, just read Gingrich's lectures and then compare them with some of Robert Reich's writings. Reich was arguably the Democrats' intellectual answer to Gingrich in the 90s.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
28. It's not that Reich was correct on everything. But he was a genuine intellectual, someone who cared about evidence & argumentation. It was pretty inconceivable in the 90s that a rigorous intellectual could stomach Gingrich. That's Gingrich's fault, not the academy's.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
29. So why are there so few conservative professors and intellectuals? In part because conservatism became so associated with jingoistic anti-intellectualism that it became nearly impossible for an educated person to defend it.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
30. This points to another thread in the history of conservatism that dates all the way back to Bill Buckley...conservatism has often defined itself largely AGAINST a phantom "left" that doesn't really exist as they think it does.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
31. Not only do conservatives tend to see that "left" as monolithic, they also see it as posing an existential threat to "western civilization" or "our way of life."— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
32. Without the slippery slope argument, conservatism loses much of its rhetorical punch. Want Medicare? You're secretly a commie. Support gay right? You hate the nuclear family! Support the rights of transgender people? There's no biological truth anymore!— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
33. This is not just a rhetorical device conservative politicians deployed to gin up votes. It's also been an essential piece of conservative intellectual thought as well. "Standing athwart history yelling stop," and such.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
34. We see both of these tendencies in Trumpism--from Michael Anton's "Flight 93 election" essay to TPUSA's dire warnings about the communist brainwashing that happens on college campuses. Without a scary, phantom "left" to bash, conservatives wouldn't have much to talk about.— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
35. For a fuller explication of this argument about how the right, from the beginning, has defined itself against a phantom, monstrous "left," read this article. h/t @DavidAstinWalsh https://t.co/2F2DPXKZuX— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) August 12, 2018
Perhaps Frum and his fellow travelers in the Never Trump movement have compelling answers to Cotlar’s critique. But it’s one they need to grapple with if they hope to pull the Republican Party back from the abyss.