Lies, Damned Lies, and NeverTrump: A Defense of Dennis Prager

Note: an abridged version of this column appears at The Federalist Papers Project.

Dennis Prager set the conservative blogosphere ablaze last week with a column asking why there are conservatives “who still snipe (or worse) at President Trump,” who “remain anti-Trump today” despite the fact that for the next three and a half years, he’s our only means of getting national conservative policies across the finish line.

Prager’s first suspected reason:

While they strongly differ with the Left, they do not regard the left–right battle as an existential battle for preserving our nation. On the other hand, I, and other conservative Trump supporters, do […] To my amazement, no anti-Trump conservative writer sees it that way. They all thought during the election, and still think, that while it would not have been a good thing if Hillary Clinton had won, it wouldn’t have been a catastrophe either.

Exactly right, and a crucial point that NeverTrumpers, for all their self-righteousness, never seriously addressed.

Prager’s conclusion:

They can accept an imperfect reality and acknowledge that we are in a civil war, and that Trump, with all his flaws, is our general. If this general is going to win, he needs the best fighters. But too many of them, some of the best minds of the conservative movement, are AWOL.

I beg them: Please report for duty.

Amen! This column was a much-needed reminder of the big picture, which NeverTrumpers tend to sorely lack. And sure enough, a string of pundits jumped at the opportunity to demonstrate that they’ve done no introspection whatsoever since the election.

National Review’s Jonah Goldberg was the first to fire back, but he didn’t actually grapple with Prager’s arguments; he first nitpicked the “general” and “civil war” language (Jim Geraghty struggled here too) and mocked the idea that some conservatives distanced themselves from Trump “to attend elite dinner parties” (which, incredibly, some seem to think was about literal dinner parties, rather than obvious shorthand for respectability in elite circles).

But Prager’s observation is manifestly true. For a golden example, remember PJ O’Rourke’s call, endorsed at National Review by Charles Murray, to vote for Clinton because she, unlike Trump, was “wrong within normal parameters”? (Oh, and to support this demented notion Murray cited the New York Times’ token “conservatives” Ross Douthat and David Brooks, and conspiracy-mongering liberal Andrew Sullivan. Nope, no pandering to elites here!)

Excuse me, but who the hell defined “normal parameters” that exclude Trump’s flaws, but permit Clinton’s lying, lawbreaking, statism, and unabashed support for slaughtering preborn babies? Certainly not principled conservatives immune to leftist disapproval.

Ultimately, Goldberg is upset that Prager “insinuat[ed] that conservative thinkers and writers are vain elitists who are betraying their cause by not becoming spinners.” But curiously, neither he nor his allies have produce a single quote in which Prager explicitly or implicitly calls for spinning anything on Trump’s behalf. A more responsible reading would be that Prager’s talking not about legitimate critiques, but about those who continue to cast Trump as the Right’s enemy and are hell-bent on tearing him down no matter what he does or what the alternative is.

Second, it’s fair to object that Dennis neglected to specify the people or conduct he had in mind (I suspect he thinks more highly of his opponents than I do, and assumed they’d read his words in good faith). But at the same time, it’s telling that Prager’s critics immediately assume he was talking about them. Did you guys recognize yourselves in the diagnosis, or have the extremes of NeverTrump escaped your memories?

To take just post-election examples: Bill Kristol’s persistent Trump hate, Jennifer Rubin doing a 180 on the Paris Accords solely to attack Trump, George Will suggesting Trump’s just as unbalanced as Kim Jong-un, Bret Stephens declaring Trump “mentally ill,” and Matt Lewis blowing up at Jay Sekulow for dismantling the anti-Trump spin on James Comey’s firing. Indeed, NR’s own Dan McLaughlin recently called out Charlie Sykes’ “suggestion that we have some sort of obligation to do nothing else but criticize Trump,” so NR certainly isn’t unfamiliar with the phenomenon.

Next up at NR was David French, who chides Prager for “answering the wrong question” when the real question is “how do we evaluate [Trump’s] words and actions as president?” He answers that we should cheer Trump for doing good and chide him for doing bad, rather than serving as “Trump’s defense lawyers” no matter the controversy (to be fair, French may be the only critic who doesn’t attribute the latter approach to Prager). That’s all fine, but it’s irrelevant, since Prager never suggested otherwise. On Dennis’s actual arguments, French has nothing to say.

Fourth up at bat was McLaughlin, who despite his aforementioned recognition of the very tendencies Prager’s talking about, accuses him of just “telling talk-radio Trump fans what they want to hear.” He straw-mans Prager’s argument with another lecture about the dangers of compromising the truth to defend Trump, and dissects Trump’s record. I share much of McLaughlin’s presidential assessment, but he completely misses Dennis’s point—not that Trump is flawless, but that NeverTrumpers swore he’d never do any of the good he’s already delivered!

The fifth (!) NR attack came from David Harsanyi. Desperate to establish an equivalence between tribe mentality on both the Left and the Right (and apparently forgetting about actual Trump shills with which to credibly make the point, like Sean Hannity), he accuses Prager of “demand[ing] to ignore every scandal and fumble for the greater good.” Again, this is a lie. Re-read the column. Look for this demand. It’s not there.

(I asked Harsanyi on Twitter to show where Prager expressed this position, repeatedly. He couldn’t. He just dug in his heels, despite having no justification beyond lamely repeating variations of “[read] the entire piece.” NeverTrump ethics, ladies and gentlemen!)

As for the talk of “reporting for duty” to help “our general win,” Prager’s detractors call to mind the Left’s hyperventilating over Rush Limbaugh’s infamous “I hope Obama fails” wish. In both cases, the fair and reasonable interpretation is winning/failing to accomplish what the president was elected for, not presidential fortunes for their own sake. Just as hoping Obama failed meant hoping he failed to impose more leftism on America, helping Trump win means helping him achieve conservative results. Of course that includes—requires, in fact!—constructive criticism when Trump errs, but it means our criticism should be geared toward pushing him in the right direction, and leave behind the pettiness and hysteria.

Prager had other detractors (Weekly Standard writer Jay Cost’s attempt was particularly stupid), but the fact that National Review alone ran five of them, and zero defenses, is telling.

As NeverTrump revealed last year and reminded us last week, the upper echelons of conservative punditry have a very real groupthink problem, more benign than the leftist variety dominating college campuses, but just as corrosive to critical thinking, self-awareness, intellectual honesty, and moral seriousness.

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