GOP Dropping the Pretense?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Peter Suderman of Reason Magazine argues that, "Under Trump, Republicans Have Become the Party of No Ideas." Suderman makes some disturbing connections of data with his thesis, such as the following:

Ayn Rand's image of the hollow oak seems particularly apt, but this will do. (Image via Pixabay)
... Republicans are not merely struggling with difficult vote math, or with converting broad ideas into legislative form. They are abandoning the notion of a policy agenda entirely.

That abandonment can be seen in the slew of GOP retirements -- more than two dozen so far, including a large number of committee heads, who have historically taken charge of writing legislation and moving it through the congressional process.
In a very real sense, the Republican Party, or at least the party as we have known it, is calling it quits.

The most notable of the retirees is Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a veteran lawmaker who built his career as a legislative entrepreneur, the closest thing the GOP had to an idea man, pitching a broad policy agenda he at one point dubbed "A Better Way."

Even among Republicans, Ryan's ideas, especially on entitlements, were always more popular in theory than in practice, and Ryan's status as a deficit hawk was often overrated. But at the very least his ideas served as a sort of ideological placeholder, a sense of what the party should, or could, aim for in the absence of a more promising program. [bold added]
Signs of this were evident during the campaign, as Bret Stephens noted in the Wall Street Journal back in 2016, when he commented on the leadership of the GOP folding like a cheap law chair after Trump became the nominee:
What isn't normal is the ease with which so many conservative leaders, political and intellectual, have prostrated themselves before Mr. Trump simply because he won. In July, Dan Senor, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012, tweeted that he had once commiserated with a Midwestern governor about how unacceptable Mr. Trump was as the GOP nominee. That governor? Mike Pence.

As for conservative thought leaders, the book that comes to mind is Julien Benda's 1927 classic, La Trahison des clercs, "The Treason of the Intellectuals." Benda railed against a new class of European thinkers who specialized in "the intellectual organization of political hatreds," the "desire to abase the values of knowledge before the values of action," and above all "the cult of success," based on "the teaching that says that when a will is successful that fact alone gives it a moral value, whereas the will which fails is for that reason alone deserving of contempt." [bold added, links omitted, format edits]
But lest you think Stephens is some kind of prophet, consider the following words, written over a half-century ago by Ayn Rand:
[T]o those of you who do wish to contest [this country's uncontested collapse] -- particularly those of you who are young and are not ready to surrender -- I want to give a warning: nothing is as dead as the stillborn. Nothing is as futile as a movement without goals, or a crusade without ideals, or a battle without ammunition. A bad argument is worse than ineffectual: it lends credence to the arguments of your opponents. A half-battle is worse than none: it does not end in mere defeat -- it helps and hastens the victory of your enemies.

At a time when the world is torn by a profound ideological conflict, do not join those who have no ideology -- no ideas, no philosophy -- to offer you. Do not go into battle armed with nothing but stale slogans, pious platitudes, and meaningless generalities. Do not join any so-called "conservative" group, organization, or person that advocates any variant of the arguments from "faith," from "tradition," or from "depravity." Any home-grown sophist in any village debate can refute those arguments and can drive you into evasions in about five minutes. What would happen to you, with such ammunition, on the philosophical battlefield of the world? But you would never reach that battlefield: you would not be heard on it, since you would have nothing to say.

It is not by means of evasions that one saves civilization. It is not by means of empty slogans that one saves a world perishing for lack of intellectual leadership. It is not by means of ignoring its causes that one cures a deadly disease. [bold added]
This is what Rand said of the conservatives back then, when they still were pretending to offer an alternative to the left. Suderman and Stephens rightly observe the effects of what Rand discussed then, but they don't go far enough. It's not just that the conservatives failed in 2016 or now -- it's that they are no longer even bothering to pretend to be serious opponents of the left. Whether that be because they don't know or don't care what will happen as a result of failing to do so, is as irrelevant as they will prove to be in the long term.

As for anyone not wishing for a Bernie Sanders's version of the American dream (as is being realized today in Venezuela), I strongly recommend reading the entirety of Rand's "Conservatism: An Obituary." We need ideas, and if Donald Trump has given us anything more than a few random rollbacks to particularly bad regulations, it is this: He has shown -- sooner rather than later -- that the GOP is not the "party of ideas" we need for an actual return of America to the greatness of capitalism.

-- CAV


Today: (1) Added a title. (2) Added missing quotes from title of Rand essay.


Jennifer Snow said...

Trump's lack of anything resembling principles is the primary reason why I don't get excited over anything "good" he happens to do and imagine that it represents some sort of trend. I mean, I'll take it, I'm not going to complain when it happens, but it's a bit like being excited that a tornado took down that tree you were planning on removing anyway. It could have taken out the house, too.

Gus Van Horn said...

I like the analogy, but that might still be too good to describe most of what he does that's "good". The regulations and executive orders, especially: The next Democrat will just "repair" the "damage" since the GOP is doing zilch to do away with the regulatory apparatus or the bad precedents.

Steven Kaldor said...

In his Warsaw speech, President Trump framed his political ideology in terms of Western values. The people of the West, he said, “seek to know everything.” And what they know best is the value of “individual freedom and sovereignty.” He is by no means an Objectivist, but in terms of fundamentals, no modern president has sounded more like a classical liberal.

I do have a question for anti-Trump Objectivists: Is America facing an imminent coup d´etat by the deep state? If it is not, you should criticize Trump to your hearts content. If it is, you might want to rethink your priorities.

Gus Van Horn said...


Bernie Sanders "frames" his Soviet-era ideas in terms of "the American Dream" and that doesn't make them any better. Protectionists who rule (like Obama) with a phone and a pen to boot do not sound like classical liberals at all to me. And if you think the federal bureaucracy even needs to conduct a coup to be a major threat to individual rights, I'm not so sure you appreciate the nature of the battle for freedom in America.

We have a strong man who likes (but does not really understand) America in office. The fact that our situation could be worse does not make Trump even a Reagan Lite.


Steven Kaldor said...

I don’t know your policy on follow-up comments. I’ve only written a few comments in my life, and I think they’ve all been on your blog, which has been on my “favorites bar” for many years. So, if you don’t post this, that’s OK.

My point, which could have been more explicit and less blunt, is that if America is facing a coup d’etat by the deep state, criticism of the deep state would be more important than criticism of Donald Trump.

The deep state revealed itself with the election of Donald Trump — government officials dedicated to defend and protect statism. The problem, of course, is that government officials are supposed to defend and protect the constitution. So, it is a dangerous time for the republic. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that revolution is in the air.

The deep state is not something new. Leonard Peikoff often said that America’s greatest threat comes not from the Kremlin, but from Harvard. The revelation of America’s deep state, however, has made his provocative point manifest, even to non-intellectuals, which is why “CNN sucks” became a favorite chant at Trump rallies, a chant that says a lot about how American politics has changed.

Anyway, it seems to me, that, when Democrats make impeaching the president their campaign theme for the congressional election, criticism of Trump and Republicans for lacking ideas seems misplaced. What I think Americans need to know from its intellectuals is why the special prosecutor acts like a thug, why the media lies, and why Harvard is to blame.

Gus Van Horn said...


Fair enough, if you think it's more important to criticize them over Trump, but that doesn't exempt him from criticism.

More important to me (and since this piece was aimed more at the GOP, anyway) is that we have a viable alternative to socialism that we can discuss. The GOP isn't even pretending to do this now. This makes it easier in some ways and harder in others to advocate liberty, but in the meantime, it's the socialism of the hard-left vs. the hated status quo (rather than even the somewhat capitalistic vision of a Reagan).

Republicans have long complained about how improper government seems to advance in the fashion of a ratchet. I shudder to imagine what kind of advances we might see the next time the Democrats get power.