The Historical Misreading of Virtue Is a Vice

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I shall give Bret Stephens the opening shot:

“It was once the useful role of conservatives to [minimize shame] — to stand athwart declining moral standards, yelling Stop. They lost whatever right they had to play that role when they got behind Trump, not only acquiescing in the culture of shamelessness but also savoring its fruits. Among them: Never being beholden to what they said or wrote yesterday. Never holding themselves to the standards they demand of others. Never having to say they are sorry.

“Trump-supporting conservatives — the self-aware ones, at least — justify this bargain as a price worth paying in order to wage ideological combat against the hypostatized evil left. In fact it only makes them enablers in the degraded culture they once deplored.”

Stephens’ thematic essence is correct, although his timeline is a bit off — i.e., by about half a century.

Trump’s precursor of shamelessness, “movement conservatism,” was launched by its unlikeliest of founding fathers: Republicans’ 1964 presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater. Throughout his libertarian career, the Arizona senator had always honorably resisted — on ideological grounds — the public admixture of “social morality” and national politics. The cultural upheavals of the 1960s, however, allowed his advisers to persuade him that his only hope of winning the presidential contest was to go native with the fundamentalist crowd: the hustlers of right-wing Christianity, the Phyllis Schlafly types. Only in tub-thumping desperation did Goldwater agree — hence the true orange of today’s movement conservatism.

He never forgave himself for having inaugurated his successor: the shameless, morally pompous New Right of the 1970s, which further led to Reaganism, Gingrichism and the like. To quote Goldwater from memory, “Perhaps I’m one of the reasons this place [Washington] is so redneck.” This he conceded in his later senatorial career. What we call political religion is, by definition, uncompromising, which of course renders pluralism impossible. And Goldwater knew it.

Thus, historically, one cannot lay the “annihilation of shame” on only Trump and his supporters’ shoulders. Its misguided genealogy of exclusively appropriating family, flag and God extends decades.

Until NeverTrumpers — such as Bret Stephens — comprehend and accept their collectively shameful past, conservatism will remain destructive — both to itself and the nation.


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