Conservative commentator Mona Charen was booed last week at CPAC, the preeminent annual gathering of conservative activists, for criticizing the attendees’ support of President Trump, and for calling the conference’s invitation of French nationalist Marion Le Pen “a disgrace.”
The difference between President Trump’s personal history and conservative aspirations for the re-moralizing of society is something pro-Trump Christian activists have struggled with, and there are legitimate arguments to be made both for and against those of us who have made our peace with the President’s past.
But it was Charen’s second point, about Le Pen and pro-Trump conservatism in general, that seemed to stir up the old Catholic NeverTrump warhorses in my newsfeed the most. It is a return to form for many of them, including as it does the usual moral superiority and name-calling.
The best of them said we were “hypocrites and snollygosters” in need of being “called out” by a “truth-teller” like Charen. The not-the-best of them said far worse. All of them seemed to agree that we who support Trump are not truly conservatives but merely rightists.
I object to their claims on two grounds.
First, the conservative movement in the immediate pre-Trump era was, from a Catholic point of view, a disaster.
Remember Mitt Romney ditching the social issues as soon as he had the nomination in 2012 and running on economics and nothing else?
Remember the last issue of both National Review and The Weekly Standard to go to press before the 2016 election containing articles with lines like “Some of you won’t read this column until after Hillary Clinton is elected 45th president of the United States”? Remember in particular the National Review cover with the GOP elephant about to be drowned by the blue tidal wave that the 2016 election would supposedly deliver?
Remember how the final pre-election issue of both magazines carried obituaries for the religious right, reporting in a detached fashion how we brought it on ourselves and our destruction is probably for the best? (Here and here.) And their lack of regret that a key constituency of the conservative movement, whose votes had given the Right what victories it had enjoyed ever since Reagan, was supposedly dying?
Did those who signed the Catholic NeverTrumper statement in 2016, ever object to the conservative movement’s frequent sidelining of social conservatism as strenuously as they now object to CPAC 2018?
No, they did not. Nor was there ever a joint statement bemoaning the betrayal of social conservatism by the immediate pre-Trump conservative movement on anything like the level of the 2016 Catholic NeverTrumper statement.
Which brings me to my second objection. Contrary to the Catholic NeverTrumpers, the post-Trump conservative movement is actually more Catholic than the immediate pre-Trump conservative movement was.
Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal and Rusty Reno at First Things have been writing on this for the last two years or so. I see it on the grassroots level.
It was common in the Obama era to hear Tea Party activists and their political heroes speak of the “47%,” of “the takers,” of Ayn Rand. That talk has now largely been replaced by calls to take care of our own vulnerable citizens, those whom Noonan calls “the unprotected.”
Or as Reno has written, what Americans are most lacking in right now is not liberty but solidarity. By responding to this need, Trump-era conservative politics is more closely-aligned with Catholic principles than was the libertarian politics of the immediate pre-Trump era.
The shift from libertarianism to solidarity is not what the GOP “donorocracy” wants (as some have noted). Yet the Patheos-types, who once complained about what Catholic blogger Mark Shea called “The Thing that Used to Be Conservatism” but now hug that Thing tight, are oddly blind to it. Catholic NeverTrumpers seem nostalgic for a Romneyesque GOP that would prioritize low taxes (not a bad thing in itself, that law was passed) while returning pro-lifers to the back of the bus.
As on the grassroots level, so too on the intellectual level.
It was actually one Catholic NeverTrumper, Michael Brendan Dougherty, who saw in Marion Le Pen’s speech what the others missed: It was more Catholic than the average politics of American conservativism. As Dougherty wrote, Le Pen said things about the importance of family and collective morality that most American conservatives would not say for fear of offending social libertarians. And she attacked as harmful to society reproductive technologies that are opposed by almost no one except Catholics.
Or as Rod Dreher, another other clear-eyed NeverTrumper, put it:
American conservatives don’t talk like this. We are so constrained by liberal-libertarian categories that we can’t seem to think outside of them. As a friend put it to me, it’s quite a commentary on the imaginative poverty of American conservatism that so many could only receive Le Pen’s speech as a manifestation of dark blood-and-soil nationalism.
We can expect that our fellow conservatives might be constrained by liberal-libertarian categories, that they might see only “dark blood-and-soil nationalism” in calls to place faith and family above the market. But our fellow Catholics, unconstrained by those categories, ought to see more.