A mile wide and an inch deep — again
by Tom Sullivan
Platte River in central Nebraska. Panorama photo by Jetuusp via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.
People's devotion to American institutions, the very idea of the United States of America, is not as rooted as they believe. Like teenage boys in a high school locker room boasting about sexual romps, those who talk about it the most sometimes do it the least. Boasts about love of country can be like that. Hugging flags by someone who invites foreign interference in American elections is like that.
Patriotism is a secular religion. For all their hands-over-hearts public piety, I have long written many of our conservative countrymen's faith in their country is a mile wide and an inch deep. But like believers' faith in Jesus, we can, as 2nd Amendment devotees do, be selective about what parts of the Constitution we believe sacrosanct and which we treat more as suggestions when pressed.
The Week's Damion Linker examines the religious right's shift away from considering themselves in the 1980s and 90s a moral majority — allied with social conservatives — to seeing themselves as an embattled minority making a last stand arrayed against “the tyrant state.”
The presidency of George W. Bush with his "faith-based initiatives" cooled their fervor temporarily. But with Sen. John McCain's loss to Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney's in 2012, plus the declaration of same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, they flocked to Donald Trump for protection.
"It would be a purely transactional relationship, like the one a businessman struggling with neighborhood crime might enter into with a local mob boss," Linker writes. If democracy is not giving them the America they demand, social conservatives (a faction, anyway) are prepared to discard it to preserve political control by the religious right:
Maybe its problem isn't that it's too weak but that it's accepted the legitimacy of liberal rules that place it at a competitive disadvantage in its battles with the left. Instead, social conservatives need to fight harder and even be willing to fight dirty, seeking to win at any cost, just as their secular liberal enemies do.Or so they believe. Certainly, for some time social conservatives have considered themselves the only Real Americans™. All others are pretenders and illegitimate. For decades now, conservatives have trafficked in rumors of rampant voter fraud perpetrated by (non-white) liberal foes, undetected, yet present behind any election loss by champions of the right. To fight these implacable, invisible foes, American true believers needed tougher measures. They would, like Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor of the New York Post, question "the legitimacy of a system designed to keep liberals in charge," Linker argues.
When social conservatives thought they were the moral majority, it made sense for them to dream of exercising real political power. When they recognized that they were a minority, it made sense for them to resign themselves to adopting a defensive posture and preparing to live out their days in a country as dissenters from the reigning liberal consensus.Linker's column focuses on Ahmari's minority views among social conservatives. But the view that any president not carrying the Republican brand is illegitimate is long-established. As is superficial piety from people publicly supporting spreading the blessings of democracy to the world while privately undermining democracy here.
What makes no sense is for social conservatives to think they can be both weak and strong at the same time — a minority that wields the power of a majority.
Unless, of course, social conservatives no longer care about democracy.
Since the rise of Trump, the American right has been offered a stark choice between the democratic ideals it has long claimed to believe in, and the sectarian ethno-nationalism of the president, which privileges white identity and right-wing Christianity over all. Scalia didn’t quite have it right: The fundamental question for American democracy since the founding has indeed been whether it is a “racial entitlement,” but only because of those who have tried for centuries to ensure that white people alone are entitled to it.A mile wide and an inch deep. The Trump GOP has already abandoned "the pretense of liberal democracy," Serwer concludes, in favor of securing "white political hegemony over a changing electorate."
Maybe you do not much care about the future of the Republican Party. You should. Conservatives will always be with us. If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.Frum was late to his own former party.