The enduring value of the political heretic

Reviled insiders such as socialist opponents of Corbyn or anti-Trump Republicans can provide a useful guide through the mire of our times

Nick Cohen

The movements that matter most insist on treating the smallest dissent as intolerable. Nothing is more abhorrent to them than former allies who have turned on Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn or the Brexit Right. They can cope with avowed opponents—welcome them, indeed, as useful enemies who can scare the faithful into line as surely fear of the dark frightens children. Heretics are another matter. I speak from my experience of the British Left when I say they raise a hatred that appears at first glance to be out of all proportion to their influence.

The Republican supporters of Trump control a superpower, and their hatreds are the most significant. On a psychological level, Trump’s dominance of conservative America raises questions about how the politically committed delude themselves. The Trump movement includes the majority of white Protestant evangelicals, who once dismissed left-wing attempts to blame the ills of society on broad social and economic causes. They emphasised the importance of having the strength of character to stick to the Bible’s teaching. Now they support a character who is a liar, lecher, groper and what their ancestors would called a whoremonger, given his record of buying sex from porn stars. Conservatives once believed in fiscal as well as personal responsibility. Now they support a president whose tax cuts for the people who need them least is increasing the budget deficit. They once believed in free trade. Now they support a president who uses tariffs as a foreign policy weapon. They once believed in the rule of law and the US constitution. Now they cheer a demagogue who gets his mobs to cry “lock her up” and rejects congressional scrutiny.

The innocent might believe that the president’s incessant lying and attacks on freedom of the press would trouble conservative intellectuals more than any other fault. The defence of basic standards of truthfulness is meant to be the intellectual’s prime concern. A cursory knowledge of  20th-century history would tell them that intellectuals can be the most abject power-worshippers of all. The record of the 21st is looking no better, if Victor Davis Hanson’s recently-published book The Case for Trump is a guide. Hanson, a former classics professor and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, displays two evils which are everywhere in the writing of the authoritarian Right and Left. The book’s main theme is a mawkish attempt to paint Trump as a tragic victim of respectable society’s hypocrisy. Trump is the guy who gets the job done and expects no thanks for it. All his faults, and by extension all his followers’ betrayals of conservative principle, are excused because Trump has revived the US economy, taken on China and pulled out of climate change accords. You can doubt whether Hanson’s implicit rejection of man-made global warming is evidence-based, or shake your head at his gormless belief that trade wars and debt-driven boosts to the economy in the boom years of a cycle can ever end well. But I found the lachrymose appeal to victimhood more revealing than the politics and economics. They would have conservatives labelled snowflakes in other circumstances.

Hanson variously compares the draft-dodging Trump, who never put himself in harm’s way, to Dirty Harry, Ajax, Shane and Patton: men of action who do the brutal but necessary work and are not over-pernickety about the methods they use. Like Trump, they can’t help but fight. Hanson quotes Shane’s line when he finds he has to turn into a gunfighter once again to save the farmers he has befriended: “It’s a brand, a brand that sticks. There’s no going back.” Where I see Shane as a quiet man in the classic Western mode, Hanson sees a forerunner of the liar and braggart and know-nothing ignoramus who sits in the White House. Like Shane, Trump himself will one day ride off into the wilderness because polite society will want nothing to do with his rough ways when the battle is won.

Trump’s rejection by the country he is saving is assured, Hanson concludes. The double-dealing beneficiaries of his achievement will either shun him when he is “out of office and no longer useful” or be so embarrassed by his bitter but necessary medicine they will limit him to a single term. You wouldn’t be surprised if Hanson burst into tears and repeated Kipling’s lines:

For it’s Tommy this,  an’ Tommy that,  an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of  ’is country” when the guns begin to shoot.

The Case for Trump is such a good example of modern propaganda because its appeal to victimhood is matched by a contempt for heretics who refuse to applaud the brute.

Hanson cannot leave the conservative critics of the once-powerful Never Trump movement alone. They are “obdurate”, “irrelevant” and “orphaned from the Republican Party”. At one moment, they are priggish virgins who show their unworldliness by being shocked by Trump’s “invective and earthiness”. Man up, he tells them, and get real. Remember Eisenhower’s affairs, and Kennedy’s and Clinton’s sexual exploitation of women before you start complaining about Trump’s pussy-grabbing. At the next, he transforms them from frigid prudes into decadent metropolitan sophisticates, who display an “elite contempt” for “poor white folks”.

The obsession seems all the stranger because the Never Trump movement barely exists. It is indeed orphaned from the Republican Party. When I asked conservative journalists who had no time for Trump from the Washington, DC-based magazine The American Interest how it was faring, they looked faintly embarrassed. To speak of a “Never Trump movement” was a bit of stretch, they said. All that remained was a loose collection of writers, academics and retired officials who could speak out without fear of losing their jobs.

In 2016, the grandees of the Republican Party opposed Trump. Now they have either gone over to his side or learned to bite their tongues. The old British Labour Party has shown more spirit. Dozens of moderate Labour politicians have risked their careers by fighting the far Left. Yet the British Left can be reasonably compared with the US Right. Hardly any leftist or far-leftist dares call for Corbyn to go. Even that level of subservience is not good enough for his supporters. Paul Mason, a Marxist commentator, was treated as a traitor when he said Corbyn’s communist aides must go. He didn’t dare say a word against Corbyn. It was enough that he had criticised his team’s belief that Brexit could lead to socialism for the dogs to start howling. Corbyn’s supporters accused him of organising a “coup”, as if arguments in a democracy were the equivalents of tanks in the streets and men in combat fatigues seizing control of the TV stations. Pro-European critics from the Left were seeking to “undermine Jeremy Corbyn and prevent the election of a truly socialist Labour government”, the leader’s allies declared—even though not one of the critics had found the political courage to take Corbyn on directly.

Leadership cults and the power-worship that attends them are as strong in Britain as in America. And yet, despite their dominance, the existence of a handful of heretics disturbs the sleep of strongmen’s courtiers.

I could go on. The attacks in the right-wing press on the tiny group of Conservative politicians who are still prepared to put the interests of the British economy before a hard Brexit again appear grotesquely lopsided. The argument for Europe has been lost in the Conservative Party and wider Right. Why do the victors feel the need to hunt down every survivor from a defeated army?

Like a medieval inquisitor reading a list of the damned from the pulpit, Hanson stops his narrative to name each one of his sinners: Max Boot, David Frum, David Brooks, Mona Charen, Eliot Cohen, Robert Kagan, Jennifer Rubin, George Will and Bret Stephens. Why, given that no rival conservative has a hope of winning the 2020 Republican nomination and few Republican politicians can hope to prosper if they oppose him, do his supporters waste their time by even caring about what marginal writers say?

The power of heretics lies in their refusal to be infidels. They do not abandon one religion and swear loyalty to another. The British Left knows what to say about writers in the Melanie Phillips mould who leave their former friends to become conservatives. They denounce them, but only so they can warn others of the punishment that would await them if they thought of taking the same path. British leftists always said their opponents were closet Tories. For over a decade, the US Right has denounced its rivals as “Republicans in name only”. Nothing would give them greater pleasure than their targets justifying the insult by abandoning conservatism. They could sleep easy then, safe in the knowledge that their enemies had permanently disqualified themselves from the arguments on the Right.

Heretics never leave them in peace. They nag away at their betrayals of principle, and remind our generation’s fanatics of what they once were. As with the medieval Church, they inspire the fear that they could lead the faithful away. They know how to talk to believers and to appeal to their instincts and prejudices. However small in number, they are far more dangerous than avowed enemies. The Catholic Church has nothing against the heresy of people who hold erroneous doctrines because they were not brought up in the Catholic faith. They commit no sin because they know no better. Excommunication is a punishment for insiders: heretics baptised into the Church yet showing “the wilful and persistent adherence to an error in matters of faith”.

What applies in religion applies in politics. American liberals have produced many brilliant and scathing assessments of the Trump presidency. But they have no instinctive feel for conservatism. They cannot speak with the same conviction to conservatives as a writer who understands the Right because he is a part of it. Leaving all other considerations to one side, liberals would attack any Republican president as a matter of course. They have no answer to the greatest cynical question of all: “Well, you would say that wouldn’t you?” Heretics have an answer. They say it because they mean it.

When I spoke to David Frum, he succinctly explained the continuing obsession with the small band of Never-Trumpers. Their heresy rankled because they were “a moral, not a political movement”. Hanson boasts that once-critical conservatives have fallen into line. He should not celebrate their surrender too enthusiastically for it is a capitulation moralists can damn with ease. You cannot doubt the scale of the rout. In February 2016 the right-wing magazine National Review ran a special “Conservatives Against Trump” issue. Not all the writers’ warnings   have stood up. One fretted that Trump was a closet liberal who supported abortion, a fear the president’s judicial appointments have squashed. But most of their predictions stand the test of time as it was pathetically easy to see in 2016 what Trump was and to predict what he would become in office. One contributor warned that Trump’s nativism and fondness for one-man rule offended the best of the American tradition. Another feared “runaway executive power”. A third said, “He doesn’t know the constitution, history, law, political philosophy, nuclear strategy, diplomacy, defence, economics beyond real estate, or even, despite his low-level-mafioso comportment, how ordinary people live.” The conservative editor William Kristol delivered the best line: “Isn’t Trumpism a two-bit Caesarism of a kind that American conservatives have always disdained?”

Indeed it is, but conservatives no longer disdain it. Half of the National Review writers made their peace with Trump and one, Reince Priebus, went on to be his chief of staff. Money mattered. You could not get a job on a right-wing think-tank or a contract with Fox News if you spoke out of turn. In his memoir The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, Max Boot, one of the intellectuals on Hanson’s heretic list, recounts how the head of a conservative think-tank told him that he agreed with Boot’s criticisms. Like him, he regretted he had not made a stand against the extremism on the Right before it was too late. He would not say so publicly, however, for fear of offending his board of directors. In Britain, the conformism is nowhere near as bad. Right-wing papers employ reporters who delineate the delusions of Brexit. You can oppose Corbyn and work in the left-wing press. We should not be too smug, however. Conservative opponents of Brexit aren’t often found on the opinion pages of the Tory press, while social democrat opponents of Corbyn shouldn’t apply for jobs in the modern Labour Party or many of the trade unions.

Money isn’t everything. It can make dissidents sound noble and heretics sound prophetic. Most people believe they cannot match their purity, because they fear the political costs of speaking out. An anti-Trump conservative is not a liberal any more than a social democratic opponent of the modern Left is a Tory. Yet, their former friends note, the dissident Republican’s arguments delight Democrats, and the Corbyn critic pleases conservatives. Most dangerously, they speak for swing voters. In the worlds they have either left or are trying to reform, heretics can be insignificant non-people. But if partisan loyalists stand back and look at the suburban Republican women who are voting Democrat for the first time or the millions of centre-Left British voters who are leaving Labour, they have every right to see them as formidably dangerous figures.

Writers and intellectuals face an apparent dilemma, which I’ve seen cripple many, The people most likely to publish a Boot or a Frum will be liberal editors. A large proportion of their audience will be liberal readers. I spent several years worrying that by some process of osmosis I would become more right-wing when I was published by right-wing newspapers. In the end, I concluded I should stop being so self-obsessed and care only about what I wrote. I would tell any heretic of Right or Left to worry about what you say, not where you say it. This is an easy sentiment to utter, but a hard one to follow in a time of polarisation which forces people to place bets they thought they would never have to make.

Modern British leftists must believe they can get the renationalisation of the utilities and an end to the miserly treatment of the public services without risking the corruption of public life—that the paranoia and prejudice that so mark their party’s leaders won’t, when it comes down to it, affect how a Labour government will rule. Likewise, they have to dismiss as a side issue their leaders’ history of support for secular tyrannies and Sunni and Shia Islamist theocracies, and their fellow-travelling with Britain’s Leninist parties. Even though Corbyn and the men and women around him supported tyranny abroad, they can be trusted with democracy at home. Few put it so starkly. On the contrary, they denounce heretical left-wingers for peddling “smears” and promoting “Tory lies”. But their anger is no more than a gambler’s bluster. They have placed a bet that anti-Semitism is a price worth paying for the renationalisation of the rail network; that support for the Russian and Iranian regimes is as nothing when set against the abolition of tuition fees; and that some mysterious alchemy will allow a Labour government to support Brexit while still finding money for the welfare state.

I accept there is a section of Labour support that delights in the Jew-baiting, and shares the leadership’s paranoid fantasies. But most are just betting that they can have socialism without tears.

Equally, there’s a section of Trump’s support that relishes his every vice. His lies are their lies. If their president can break the rules, they reason that they can too. Respectable Republicans have to dismiss Trump’s mendacity and vainglory as irrelevances or tragic flaws. In return for the tax cuts, immigration controls and assertions of national greatness, they have gambled that Trump’s viciousness is a sideshow that merely winds up liberals, and his misogyny and racism aren’t deeply-held prejudices but a necessary balance to the overexcited demands of the PC Left. That tax cuts are worth the trade wars, in other words. The trade wars won’t turn into shooting wars, and the appointment of judicial conservatives is worth the open contempt for the Bill of Rights. The chips are different but the gamble is the same.

Few stop to think that they never had to place these bets before. Between 1945 and 2016, American conservatives didn’t have to choose between free trade and tax cuts. They could have both. If you were a British leftist, you didn’t have to choose between social democracy and opposition to anti-Semitism. It was once as absurd to believe the Labour Party could be institutionally racist as it was to believe the Republican Party could be protectionist.

You do not need enormous reserves of imaginative sympathy to put yourself in the gamblers’ shoes. They hate and fear their opponents, and want to hear nothing that might give their enemies comfort. They dream of an America made great again or a socialist Britain and will block out the warnings that their leaders have taken them for fools, and are fools themselves. Sympathy should have its limits, however: to understand is not to pardon. Movements whose propagandists descend to the level of treating Donald Trump as a tragic hero or Jeremy Corbyn as a Christ figure persecuted by enemies who seek to smear him have given fair warning that they are not to be trusted.

I always listen to heretics. Their inside knowledge of the movements they have left means that it is worth taking the time to talk to them, as long as you remember they don’t have a sacred status. Minorities can be as wrong as majorities, and just because their former allies revile them does not mean they are right. But come now, look around—in our times heretics are the best guides we have through the mire.

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