“Never Trump” agitators continue to work themselves up into a sanctimonious lather, indulging in a puritanical alarmism about Trump they normally pooh-pooh when it threatens one of their favored heterodox candidates. Gone are the “half a loaf is better than none” lectures they delivered to hector conservatives into supporting Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and many other imperfect and idiosyncratic candidates warmly welcomed into their “Big Tent.”
In Trump, they see untold horrors. But Hillary, as the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens put it, is a “survivable event.” George Will, who has made a career out of tailoring his stuffy but substanceless conservatism to the sensibilities of pretentious, PBS-style liberals, now punctuates with it one more act of preening about supposed GOP indecency.
He is the shocked puritan, who can’t understand how Paul Ryan could end up endorsing such an imperfect man, as if Ryan were presiding over a canonization proceeding rather than a party convention. Like other shocked puritans opposed to Trump, Will is a supporter of gay marriage. From the anti-Trump, David Brooks-style moralists have come a whole literature of the “conservative case” for this or that social change to our vulgar society. But their flexible moralizing excludes Trump, who is treated as uniquely evil. Yet what exactly has he done? Whenever they draw up a list of his monstrous deeds on the campaign trail, it consists mainly of transgressions against taste and nitpicking about this or that overinterpreted moment of the campaign. There is a lot of straining at the gnat and swallowing the camel.
That the tastemakers can be so hysterical about Trump and so blasé about Hillary testifies to the hollowness of the prevailing political culture: it is far more concerned with words than deeds. Recall the horror over 2012 Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, whom Karl Rove wished “mysteriously murdered.” Akin was deemed hopelessly indecent for nothing more than garbling an answer to a question about abortion. Had he performed an abortion or paid for one, he would have been treated far less severely.
To “conservatives” who take their cues from the chattering class’s criterion of “decency,” Trump’s bombast is worse than Hillary’s corruption. They can live with her felonies; they can’t live with his contempt for the received wisdom. She falls within the political parameters drawn up by the ruling class; he doesn’t. Even if Trump were as unassuming and proper as Senator Sessions, one of his few supporters in the Senate, they would still oppose him, because in the end what places Trump outside of normal political discourse in their eyes is not his personality but his positions.
While posturing as gatekeepers of conservative orthodoxy, they have more often attacked Trump from the fashionable left than from the right. He sees Islam as a religion of jihad; they don’t. He sees illegal immigration as harmful; they see it as benign. Many of their hair-on-fire hysterics have followed not his deviations from strict conservatism but from what they see as gauche ratifications of it, such as the time he entertained the possibility of punishment for abortion. Most of the insults they hurl at him—that he is a bigot, racist, xenophobe, chauvinist—are only persuasive if one accepts politically correct categories of thought. The anti-Trump conservatives have swallowed those categories whole in their evaluation of Trump.
Alternating between puritanism and pragmatism, they bash Trump at one moment as a low creature of the culture and then bash him in the next for not pandering to it. Playing this game, George Will sniffs at the conservatism of Trump while rebuking him for not paying homage to liberal pieties before which all must genuflect.
The other day Will was warning conservatives not to trust Trump’s judicial picks, just a few weeks after urging Republicans to embrace Obama’s nomination to the court. For Will, “conservatism” has always amounted to conserving liberal changes to society. He sometimes quibbles about their pace but never their direction. Before supporting gay marriage, he praised the rise of feminism and the welfare state, fretted over how the GOP could remain in the “contemporary political discussion” and made sure to keep his distance from conservatives deemed disreputable by his social peers. The great sin of those conservatives was to uphold a Burkean conservatism that Will was merely playing at. His celebrated status as a “conservative” came not from conservatives in the hinterland but from liberal mandarins in Washington, D.C., who saw him as harmless poseur and feckless foil on their contrived chat shows.
Safely ensconced in the ruling class, the Wills can be cavalier about a Hillary presidency. They will retain their roles as well-paid, non-threatening quibblers without having to deal with the disruption of Trump on the issues closest to their hearts—war, immigration, and trade. And even though they won’t admit it, the cultural liberalism that Hillary’s judiciary would cement in place represents a change to America with which they are perfectly comfortable. Far more frightening to them is the populism of Trump and his indifference to their privileges and influence. Unlike Obama, Trump won’t be trotting off to George Will’s house for dinner.