June 6, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Conservatives no longer stand athwart history yelling stop. They seek to inflict pain, for pleasure.
Last month, I wrote about the so-called Never Trumpers, those highly paid conservative intellectuals who find themselves on the outside of the Republican Party looking in. I said not to worry much about their critique of “smug liberals.” That is a species of argument that can’t be proved, and anyway proving it isn’t the point. The point is expressing the kind of status shock that comes with discovering that conservatives in the Republican Party no longer requires your services.
I want to build on that argument today to suggest that the Never Trumpers are valuable to the cause of liberalism.
That may sound daft, but it’s not. Liberalism has always stood for individual liberty, free markets and self-government. This is what it meant to cut ties from the Crown. At the time, anything that wasn’t monarchy was liberalism. Yes, liberalism evolved over the course of the 20th century to include welfare politics and minority rights, but liberty and democracy remained its core.
That might surprise you given how conservatives claim to be the right and true champions of liberty. But that was really a reaction to the rise of federal power after the Great Depression and Brown vs. the Board of Education, which held that the states could no longer legally oppress their residents. Since then, “liberty” has been really a stand-in for a state’s right to do whatever the hell it wanted to black people.
A lot of conservatism has been dedicated to preserving a state’s right to do whatever the hell it wanted to black people. William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review, famously defended segregation, and his magazine is home even now to a handful of writers willing to rationalize white supremacy. But there is a strain of conservatism that agreed with the historical tenets of liberalism though not its embrace of managed economics and minority rights. You know them as neoconservatives.
I won’t go into its rich history except to say that neoconservatism eventually evolved into something like liberalism-lite. Though it never warmed up to managed economics, it learned to appreciate the quest for political equality was the striving for liberty. True, it was a kind of liberalism most 21st-century progressives hated. True, it was hawkish and thought military power would spread democracy around the world. These things were and are contestable, but the heart of the neocon argument—supporting liberty, opposing barbarism—was still liberal. My point is that such conservative thinking at least envisioned a political project beyond sadism.
That is not currently the case. The principle aim of contemporary conservatism is sadism. Yes, there are conservatives out there who long to preserve tradition without harming others. The Never Trumpers, I presume, are a case in point. But they are not currently in power. Their party no longer has any use for them. The conservative Republicans now running the country do not stand athwart history yelling stop. They deliberately seek out victims to inflict pain for their pleasure.
Too much? I don’t see why. White House advisor Stephen Miller “represents a rising generation of conservatives for whom ‘melting the snowflakes’ and ‘triggering the libs’ are first principles,” wrote McKay Coppins. I’d joke that Miller believes in nothing, like the nihilists in The Big Lebowski, but that’s incorrect. He believes in at least one thing: the pleasure derived from the discomfort and suffering of others.
This isn’t mere talk. The Trump administration wants to raise the rent on poor people living in public housing by more than 50 percent in some cases, the AP reports. According to a new study, the overall increase would be around 20 percent, still six times faster than growth in hourly wages. The rationale is that forcing the poor to pay money they don’t have will force them to work more. Given that hourly wages have mostly stagnated, homelessness will be the more likely result. But working according to plan isn’t the point. The point is the strong being free to hurt the weak.
Consider the president’s border policy. The administration is taking children away from immigrants crossing the border as a means of deterring border crossers. That is the administration’s stated rationale. It is now housing these children, some are infants, in shelters, including military bases. US Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, went to one in Texas. He reported seeing weeping mothers and children in cages.
Some say the administration is merely enforcing the law, but that’s ingenuous at best. For one thing, the law broken by border crossers is a misdemeanor, like reckless driving. For another, border agents are taking children away from moms and dads seeking political asylum, which is entirely legal. Literally, the American government’s response to the weak asking for help is to inflict pain and suffering on them.
Consider also the plain fact that the federal government ignored Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria leveled the US territory, resulting in 4,645 deaths, according to report in the New England Journal of Medicine. To this day, the president of the United States has said more about “fake news” than thousands of dead American citizens.
Yes, Never Trumpers are valuable to the cause of liberalism. Republican sadists are creating a political context in which Never Trumpers are discovering, or rather rediscovering, their inner-liberals. Most won’t admit it, though some have. Eventually, Republican sadism, as it splits and fractures the republic, will provide a line as bright as the one that once divided American colonists from King George III.
Anything that’s not sadism is liberalism.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.