Rick Perlstein, author of Before The Storm, the fine 2002 book about the 1964 Goldwater campaign, is getting some blogospheric buzz after posting a speech he did to a conservative confab at Princeton. In his acerbic remarks, which undoubtedly discomfited hosts who expected him to regale the group with AuH2O war stories, he examined the parallels between the Goldwater zealots who got caught up in the manifold ethical and legal problems of the Nixon administration, and those who today are distinguishing themselves likewise in scandals and other violations of conservative principle, such as fiscal profligacy.Rick’s observations about the corruption of conservative ideologues into what they once disparaged as mere “Republicans” are acute and on-target, but I’d add an additional thought about the second-generation conservatives who are now running and ruining our country.I wrote a review for Blueprint magazine earlier this year that compared and contrasted Perlstein’s book with Craig Shirley’s hagiography of Reagan’s failed but seminal 1976 campaign, Reagan’s Revolution. And Shirley’s book made it plain that most of the people who now control Washington made their bones in that and subsequent Reagan campaigns, not in Goldwater’s or Nixon’s efforts.If you compare the Goldwater and Reagan generations of conservatives, the first thing that jumps out at you is that the latter became convinced that conservatism needed for political reasons a much sunnier disposition, and a more popular agenda, than that offered bt the dour but principled Arizonan. The second thing that jumps out at you is that Reagan himself won the GOP nomination and the presidency after embracing a supply-side economic doctrine that made it easy to be conservative, offering tax cuts that paid for themselves without forcing any real decisions about the role of the federal government in national life.This doctrine has largely been discredited economically, but it’s had a sensational and still-vibrant run as the political underpinning of Republican fiscal policies that promise to square every circle, and invite every corruption of traditional conservative principles.The transition from supply-side theory to corrupt practices has been devious if predictable. But the big jump was supplied by Grover Norquist’s “starve the beast” concept (the phrase itself borrowed from Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, who ultimately deplored the idea), that conservatives should embrace tax cuts without worrying about spending cuts, since the former would eventually force the latter. In my own article about Norquist’s significance, I described “starve the beast” as offering Republicans the political equivalent of a bottomless crack pipe: you could support both tax cuts and spending increases, and use both to buy votes and reward favored constituencies, because it would all come out in the wash someday, when future administrations and Congresses would be forced to balance the books.The ready embrace of “starve the beast” ideology by the Republican Party of the W. era has also exposed another rotten underpinning of conservatism in power: if you don’t believe in the actual ability of the federal government to do anything of real value, then why not turn federal agencies into patronage machines and well-paid holding pens for rising young ideologues?This question, I suspect, explains how you get from Reaganesque critiques of bureaucratic incompetence to Brownie, in less than a generation.In other words, I believe the endemic corruption of conservatives in power we are witnessing today is not just a morality play about power’s corrupting influence, or about the descent of ideologues into the practical swamps of politics. Worse than that, it’s about the consequences of entrusting government’s vast power to people who can’t think of it as a force for the common good, and thus, inevitably, treat it as a force for private gain.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
I returned to one of my favorite themes at New York this week in the context of the ongoing MAGA delegitimization of elections:
Donald Trump’s obsession with inflated estimates of the crowd sizes at his various live events has been a long-running joke in American politics. This was exhibited most famously in his bitter argument with the National Park Service over the number of people who attended his inauguration five years ago. But as Elaine Godfrey notes at The Atlantic, the phenomenon persists even today, and it’s central to MAGA claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump:
“Before the 2020 election, Trump and his fans would often ask reporters how Joe Biden could possibly win when he didn’t have rallies as big as Trump’s. Now that Biden is president, Trump-rally goers say things like Trump couldn’t really have lost. Look at all of these people! In Arizona this weekend, 51-year-old Tammy Shutts put it this way to me: ‘100 percent, 1,000 percent, 1 million percent Biden didn’t win’ her state, she said, gesturing to the hordes of people around her. ‘I’ve been in Arizona for almost 21 years. There is no way—no way—we went blue.’”
As Godfrey acutely observes, big crowds aren’t “just a bragging point” for Trump and his supporters. It’s “proof they are part of the American majority.” This both reflects and reinforces the core belief in MAGA land that more objective measurements of Trump’s popularity, like polls and election results, are unreliable and likely “rigged.” The proof? Look at those crowds!
Th preference for subjective instead of objective standards for political strength was not, of course, invented by Trump or his followers. It’s pretty common among political groups who don’t want to accept evidence that they are outnumbered or outgunned. During the home stretch of the very competitive 2012 presidential campaign, with polls showing Barack Obama building a solid lead over Mitt Romney, there was a profusion of Republican wishful thinking based not only on comparative crowd size but on the number of Romney yard signs evident along the highways and byways of the country. This obsession with the display of popularity reached epic levels during Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, which greatly valued huge flags and signs, boat parades, owning the libs with obnoxious motorcades through Democratic areas, and, of course, Trump’s rallies. The Biden campaign could not remotely match all this frenetic activity, in part, to be clear, because it considered it unsafe to voters, campaign operatives, and volunteers alike in the middle of a pandemic. But to an extent that leaves coastal elites baffled, the conviction has spread that Biden’s base of support was a statistical Potemkin village because it was far less visible.
Political operatives and pundits should examine themselves in the mirror before making too much fun of this hammerheaded, snail’s-eye view of political popularity. Some of its also stems from the incessantly discussed and near-universally accepted emphasis in recent political discourse on enthusiasm as a tangible election-winning asset. It does matter, to be sure, particularly in midterm and off-year contests, in which lukewarm voters often do not participate. But a candidate does not get extra votes for having supporters who are teeming with joy or fury, and enthusiasm beyond the point needed to get voters to the polls only helps if it is communicable. As a substitute for objective data about electoral outcomes, enthusiasm and its visible signs can be actively misleading.
But if your favorite president and partisan media have told you day in and day out for years that polls are fake news and elections are rigged, then direct experience of the strength of the political cause you share with so many others (in many places, with virtually all of your friends and neighbors) is all you’ve got. Add in a polarized atmosphere in which the other “team” is deemed actively evil and its supporters are dismissed as dupes or fellow-travelers in sin, and you get January 6, 2021. On that day, another crowd — “the biggest crowd I’ve ever,” according to Trump — formed to overwhelm Congress with its conviction that Biden’s victory was a lie because the Democrat didn’t command those monster crowds.
The sense that the MAGA movement feels like a majority and thus must be one is naturally growing stronger at a time when Democratic enthusiasm is low and Trump is plotting a triumphant restoration to power, whatever it takes. As Yeats famously said of post–World War I Europe just over a century ago, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Unfortunately, some of the worst believe their passionate intensity entitles them to rule.