I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means
William Kristol, who defected from the conservative movement after decades of loyal service over Donald Trump’s attacks on democracy and American foreign policy, has some interesting reflections on how a party Establishment can change. Kristol began his career as a foot soldier in the insurgent conservative Reaganite wing, which supplanted the older Nixon-Ford-Bush mainstream Republican Establishment.
However, he notes, the old Establishment did not simply disappear. As power shifted, the older members who wished to survive accommodated themselves to the beliefs of their new leaders. The evolution is subtle. “When one establishment replaces another, not everything changes,” he observes. “Quite the contrary. The victory of a new establishment within a party (or in a movement) is marked by lots of assimilation, lots of accommodation, and lots of maneuvering as parts of the old establishment find their place in the new.”
And yet the change can still be quite profound. Kristol argues that the Trumpist Establishment has taken control of the Republican Party in the same fashion. The window to fight off the takeover has closed, and people loyal to Trump and his ideas have institutionalized their standing.
I wrote this week about the infusion of stop-the-steal activists into the Republican Party. The changes involve a combination of new people entering the party and older activists and officials altering their beliefs to make room for the new ones. Beliefs that once lay outside the power centers of the party now occupy its commanding heights.
The Times Thursday has a snapshot of another episode of this entryism at work. The Republican Party organization in Miami-Dade has seen an influx of Proud Boys, a brownshirt-style faction of extremists with a penchant for thuggery. What is most revealing about the report is not the efforts of Proud Boys to enlist in what was once an old-line Republican Establishment group but the Establishment’s utter lack of interest in fighting them off.
Brandon Diaz, the executive director, tells the Times, “I don’t know who is or who isn’t a Proud Boy,” he said, adding that he is not one. René García, the group’s chairman, says, “Yes, we have different points of view in our party. That’s how we are. And my job as Republican chairman is to protect everyone’s First Amendment right, however wrong they may be.”
The First Amendment guarantees against government censorship. It does not compel private groups to endorse beliefs they don’t wish to permit. There are some organizations — universities, newspapers, social-media platforms — that we expect to apply at least some version of free-speech norms respecting a range of opinions.
But political parties are the archetype of an institution that is not bound by free speech norms. The party’s purpose is to stand for a set of principles and ideas, and it is not only allowed but required to establish boundaries. Garcia cannot possibly believe the First Amendment — or any related principle — prevents her from excluding violent, racist goons from her group. She would not allow a member who endorses socialism, or even Joe Biden. The principle she means to invoke is not the First Amendment but “no enemies to the right.”
Trump may have accelerated his party’s turn against democracy and the rule of law, but he is no longer the pioneer of that trend. The most creative and effective practitioner of authoritarian politics is now clearly Ron DeSantis.
A month ago, DeSantis punished Disney for criticizing his anti-gay legislation by revoking its autonomous governing status, a privilege still enjoyed by several hundred corporations in the state. It was universally understood, even by people who tried very hard not to understand it, that the merits of Disney’s arrangements were completely superfluous. Whether or not it amounts to a subsidy or a special break, the breaks will continue to exist for firms that don’t step out of line politically.
However chilling, the maneuver was a triumph for DeSantis. A few conservatives clucked their tongues at this blatant use of tactics they used to call “gangster government,” but the vast majority were thrilled at the sight of him bullying their critics. And now he appears to be looking for new ways to employ state power to this end.
In a scoop that seems to have been hand-fed to the conservative sports publication Outkick, DeSantis plans to veto a $35 million bill subsidizing the Tampa Bay Rays spring stadium. Subsidies for sports franchises are highly controversial, but there is no pretense that DeSantis is acting out of fiscal conservatism or principled libertarianism. The story reports plainly that he is retaliating against the franchise for its expressions of support for gun control: “DeSantis’s decision is in response to the Rays politicizing recent shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde ahead of a matchup with the Yankees in May.”
Here, according to Outkick, is the tweet that cost the Rays $35 million:
The Disney episode was not a one-off but an apparent blueprint for DeSantis’s political model.
Another detailed look into DeSantis’s plans came to light this week. Reporter Jason Garcia used public-records requests to obtain plans developed by his office to centralize power over the university system through boards he would appoint. The boards, which DeSantis has stacked with supporters, including the usual retinue of corporate lobbyists and QAnon enthusiasts that encompass his coalition, would have enjoyed almost complete control over the school, including the ability to hire and fire faculty:
“For instance, the legislation would have given the Board of Governors more authority to initiate investigations of university presidents, veto school budgets and fire university employees. It would have required the board to launch new reviews of existing degree programs. And it would have prohibited the board from delegating many of its administrative powers to individual universities.”
This plan would have functionally ended academic freedom in the state.
Now, as Garcia notes, DeSantis has not introduced a bill to implement these measures yet. But he has already tightened his grip on the university system. The University of Florida last fall blocked professors from testifying about the state’s voting restrictions on the grounds that their status as state employees created a conflict of interest. Ultimately a court forced the state to back down. FIRE, a pro–academic freedom group that has criticized censorship in academia from the left and right alike, has blasted Florida’s attempts to prevent its faculty from speaking publicly.
In a very short period of time since narrowly winning the governor’s office, DeSantis has proven remarkably creative in discovering illiberal tools to intimidate critics across a variety of fronts.
DeSantis and Trump are both men who observe no distinction between the powers of the state and the interests of the party that controls it. The difference between the two is that DeSantis is intelligent.
Compact Magazine, the new journal that is attempting to synthesize a left-right (or, to put it less charitably but perhaps more accurately, a red-brown) coalition, has made a splash with a column by Josh Hawley. The Republican Senator’s essay is attempting to explain the opposition to the Ukraine aid bill, all the votes for which came from the Republican Party. Since that stance has gained enthusiasm from Donald Trump and his most fervent loyalists, Hawley’s column represents one of the clearest articulations of the Trumpist foreign-policy worldview.
It is, however, still quite bad. What I disagree with is not just his value judgements, although I do, but his ability to correctly use basic foreign policy terms.
To the extent Hawley presents any real argument at all, it is by asserting that it amounts to “nation-building”:
“Not so long ago, Republicans said they had sworn off nation-building. Following the failure of the neoconservative project in Iraq and Afghanistan, GOP leaders seemed to have learned their lesson. But apparently not. Now nation-building is back with force, with a massive aid package to Ukraine that makes that country a US client state. Up next: a debate over expanding NATO. Many Republicans in Congress have already lined up to support both, almost reflexively. Why? Perhaps because they have forgotten their foreign-policy heritage. They have traded the nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt for the globalism of Woodrow Wilson. That’s a mistake. What America needs is not nation-building, but nationalism.”
Whatever “nation-building” means — and there are probably some edge cases over which reasonable people can argue as to whether the label applies — aid to Ukraine is not it. Nation-building is an apt description of the Bush administration’s policy toward Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which entailed toppling a regime and then attempting to reconstruct a democratic state in a country riven by sectarian tensions that had never had a democracy before.
Aid to Ukraine satisfies none of these conditions. Rather than a scheme to topple or reconstruct a government, it relies on helping an existing one. And while the Afghan and Iraqi governments set up by Bush lost legitimacy precisely because they had support from the United States, Volodymyr Zelensky’s government enjoys wide support from its people, support that is only enhanced by receiving American aid.
I would like to quote the portion of Hawley’s column that argues why supplying Ukraine with military aid amounts to nation-building, but it does not exist. Hawley simply asserts that it is and pivots to calling advocates of the measure neoconservatives and associating them with the dread Woodrow Wilson. Hawley seems to be totally consumed with factional and ideological labeling and has not bothered to grapple even superficially with the facts of this case. That’s probably a smart choice given that those facts — a dictator committing an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign state and kidnapping or murdering its citizens en masse — are hardly promising grounds to apply his principles.
Because factional fighting has a deep appeal to political elites, conservatives who hate neoconservatism are rallying to Hawley’s column. But even a casual inspection shows it is embarrassingly glib.
Some NRA supporters found it inconvenient that the gun lobby’s annual convention took place within days of, and in the same state as, one of the periodic mass-murder events that accompany the policies it has helped create. But other politicians have found the confluence a blessing. The difficulty of the timing only highlights their loyalty. They are willing to stand with their allies and endure the calumnies of the fake-news liberal media. The bodies of dead children give them an opportunity to display the fullness of their devotion.
Two such figures are Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The former president appeared at the convention to mouth the group’s position that mass shootings, which occur regularly in no democratic country other than the United States, had nothing whatsoever to do with the availability of military-style weapons, which are banned or heavily regulated in every democracy other than the United States. The cause instead is a series of social problems that exist everywhere.
“While we don’t yet know enough about this week’s killing, we know there are many things we must do,” said Trump. “We must drastically change our approach to mental health. No law can cure the effects of a broken home. There is no substitute for a strong mom and a great dad.”
It is interesting to hear this focus on mental health from a man seen even by many of the people who chose to serve in his administration as crazy. It is likewise ironic to hear Trump blame violence on “broken homes,” which is universally defined to mean a home without two married parents — i.e., the situation faced by four of his children. (One of those children has indeed developed an unhealthy fixation with firearms along with an obviously unresolved longing for fatherly approval.)
That said, there are other democratic countries that have mentally ill people or broken homes, and they don’t accept periodic mass-shooting events.
Cruz delivered a speech at the convention but made his most revealing remark shortly after. “Inevitably,” he said, “when there’s a mass murder, within seconds, Democrats and the media begin calling for the exact same policies they were calling for the day before.”
You might think that calling for the same policies after a tragedy that you called for before the tragedy is a sign of vindication or at least consistency. If I was calling for the installation of smoke detectors in my building and then it burned down, it would be awfully strange for me to change my position afterward. It would be even stranger for my critics to use the fact that I wanted smoke detectors all along as a reason to discredit me. For Cruz, though, the consistency is evidence that Democrats and the media don’t actually want to stop children from being slaughtered but are in fact plotting to disarm and subject the populace.
The even more striking word in that passage is inevitably. Whatever gestures he might make toward mental health or reconfiguring school entrances, Cruz is conceding that mass murders via gunfire will continue to occur with regularity. What a place we have reached as a society, where a spokesman for the status quo can casually predicate his remarks by conceding the inevitability of mass murder.
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