5/6/2016 0 Comments
Dr. David Cowan
Some will say that the triumph of Donald Trump gives added poignancy to the title of Matt Lewis’s book Too Dumb To Fail. They might say Trump is stupid and those who support him are stupid. Nothing beats timing, and Mr. Lewis’s book is very timely. However, his book is not just a book of the moment, because Mr. Lewis has tackled the causes that have brought the Republican Party to a point at which a Trump nomination is simply a symptom of a wider disease.
If one follows Mr. Lewis’s argument, Mr. Trump is inevitable on the trajectory. Not because he is stupid, but because he is clever and the electorate is stupid. Mr. Lewis has tracked a trajectory in the GOP that has seen it become “the stupid party,” a term used to describe British Tories over a century ago. The GOP has gradually, predating Trump’s announcement that he was running, been descending into simplicity, stupidity and anger. It has become the party of “no.” All of these are serious allegations, but are they true?
Before answering this, I would add a caveat to what Mr. Lewis is arguing, and that is the GOP is feeding into the stupidity, simplicity and emotionalism of society today, which is the zeitgeist of post-modernity. These are problems for liberals, as well as conservatives. The outbreak of political correctness and “triggers” on campuses up and down the nation represents the stupidity and simplicity on the Left. It has in part, I suggest, something to do with the communications overload and social media, and ultimately a loss of manners in our society. But, let’s move on.
The focus for Mr. Lewis is the conservative movement. An important distinction drawn here by Mr. Lewis lies in his encouragement to conservative writers not to be conservative political writers but to have ideas, which I suggest is something of a signature tune for both Mr. Lewis and the Daily Caller, of which he is a senior contributor. He says not to try to be the next William F. Buckley, jr., but the next Joan Didion. He is making an important argument here that conservatives should not fall, or fail, into a ghetto, which is another problem shared with the Left. People talk and listen to PLU (People Like us) all the time. Conservatives watch PLU on Fox and Liberals watch PLU on CNN. We might be better to switch off altogether! If we listen to Mr. Lewis though, we ought to be watching both.
Defining conservatism, as my son (who is an up and coming young conservative writer himself) would say, is like trying to nail Jello to the wall. Of course, you may well ask, why would anyone try and nail Jello to the wall? It’s a father and son thing, I guess! There are many who will read this book, probably without reading too much of it, disagree with it and throw it at the wall in anger. Mr. Lewis knows this and even has a section on anger. As the psychologist Robin Skynner commented, when people can’t control their anger, they try to control other people’s behavior. There is wisdom in this. Mr. Lewis argues this anger on the Right is because many people have woken up to the last 30 years and are fearful that the world, or at least America, is going to collapse. As a result, the conservative movement has followed a rubric of don’t get even, get mad.
These last two points are covered in a useful section of the book where Mr. Lewis offers advice on what conservatives can do about the situation today, assuming they agree with his central thesis. Mr. Lewis references an important book by Professor Mark Noll about evangelicalism called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, to which someone retorted the scandal is there is not much of a mind. Professor Noll was making an important point, and he actually wrote the scandal is there is not much of an evangelical mind. He argued the need for evangelicals to recover their intellectual heritage and get involved in culture and not ghettoize. Mr. Lewis is addressing a similar kind of argument to the conservative movement in America.
The two books connect in Mr. Lewis’s discussion of the Scopes Monkey Trial. In the background to the trial is The Fundamentals, a series of volumes (you can see an entire collection of the original 12 volumes in the Dayton, TN courthouse museum), which far from being simplistic “fundamentalism” as the term is bandied around today, is an in-depth work of theology by some serious theological minds of the day grappling with the impact of modernity and critical biblical studies on the Christian faith. They were conservative thinkers doing exactly what Mr. Lewis commends us to do today, but the impact was ridicule because of the populist nature of the trial, a kind of O.J. Simpson of its day, and Fundamentalists and many conservative Christians were scared out of the public square and ghettoized, only to return in the wake of the Roe v Wade ruling and the rise of the Moral Majority, having realized a segment of conservatives had missed a cultural revolution.
This has led to what Mr. Lewis has highlighted as the crisis of conservative thought, which is now reaching dizzy new heights of crisis with Donald Trump. I suggest here that Mr. Trump is simply interested in power, and is largely apolitical, grateful to the GOP and conservative base as useful idiots. Had things been otherwise and the Democrats been the easier picking, I believe Mr. Trump would have run with them. What Mr. Trump has done is appeal to the stupidity and anger of people who do not recognize the America of today. Which takes us back to the problem Mr. Lewis identifies.
The GOP is bereft of policy ideas and has become the party of “No.” In the 2008 election cycle I wrote then, in The American Conservative, that the GOP needed a new Jack Kemp. Nothing has changed since, hence the urgency of Mr. Lewis’s book. One strategy liberals have used successfully is to control language. If you listen to anyone who worked in the Clinton White House, you’ll hear them talk about “the language.” This was the liberal way of tackling the need for simplicity in an era of booming media and dumbing down. Unfortunately this language obsession has become the hydra of political correctness today, as even liberals cannot control the language anymore. Conservatives became victims of this language battle themselves, as the word “intellectual” came to mean someone who was moody, French or something, and certainly a liberal. The conservative moment is not short of intellectuals, they just need to wrestle with these problems, which is why Mr. Lewis’s chapter “What Can I Do?” is important for all activists and thinkers to read.
What Mr. Lewis does expertly is highlight the deep intellectual roots and traditions of conservatism, taking us on a journey through the successful eras of conservative activism, highlighting the Goldwater and Reagan years, from whom we can learn much. Today’s conservatism is too much based on emotionalism, with people talking about what they feel. Mr. Lewis wants to know what conservatives think, and to get that message out in a modern way rather than a moderate or simplistic way. To do this, conservatives need to rediscover the deep roots of thinking, the Burke and Kirk canons amongst other examples, and also to learn from history.
If there is a major defect in the American mind it is the lack of sense of history, which makes Mr. Lewis’s call a more problematic one. He traces the highlights of Buckley as a public intellectual, Goldwater as a thinking candidate and Reagan as, what Mr. Lewis calls, a balance of intellectual and “everyman optimism.” Reagan has become too much of an icon today, a name to shout out to show allegiance, rather than someone who is to be deeply studied and learned from. Mitt Romney may have practiced looking like Reagan in the mirror to project Reaganism, but he might have been more successful if he had tried being himself as someone who learned from Reagan and could offer an evolution of Reagan.
Friedrich von Hayek made an important point in his essay Why I am not a Conservative, and it is worth stating in full here. He wrote that conservatism by its very nature: “cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments”
This is at the heart of the conservative challenge, and Mr. Lewis’s optimism is a contrast to Professor Hayek’s pessimism that conservatives cannot affect future direction. Conservatives should stop saying “no,” stop looking back and stop trying to recapture the past. The past they yearn for, if it ever existed, is a foreign country, it is lost and nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. The task of conservatives is to look at America as it is today and offer it a conservative hope, conservative ideas that have learned from the past, and show what America can be tomorrow. Mr. Lewis says says Too Dumb To Fail shows how the GOP fails forward, and Trump is just another iteration of this failing forward. There is not time in 2016 to do much about it, but Mr. Lewis has made an important call to arms and offered a practical strategy on what can be done, and dare I say does so by providing a balance of intellectual and “everyman optimism.”
Too Dumb To Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots)
Hachette Books (2016)