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“A Rudderless Ship”: This Little-Discussed Organizational Issue Could Create Total Chaos At The Republican Convention

In early June, several hundred paid professionals and a supporting army of volunteers will slowly begin to assemble near the banks of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, with the quadrennial mission of planning and executing a Republican National Convention, scheduled for July 18 to 21, at Quicken Loans Arena, in Cleveland. The event is convened by the RNC, but the ostensible managers actually play a subordinate role. Over the past four decades, their job has been only to build an apparatus for the conclave — a solid but mindless machine — and then turn it over to the “putative nominee” along with a long list of decisions that must be made to bring the event to life and then to fruition.

In a normal election year, the RNC’s Committee on Arrangements gives the assumed general election candidate and his staff a schedule of speakers with no names; the skeleton of a platform with few planks; some ideas for framing acceptance speeches with no actual speeches; and a process for total control of every word placed on a teleprompter, and for making sure nothing else gets said in the hall, but missing the vetters and enforcers who will crack the supplied whip.

But this time around — if, say, neither Donald Trump nor (less likely) Ted Cruz manage to rack up 1237 delegates — there may be no one to whom the keys to this turnkey operation can be handed. If there is a contested convention with any doubt about the identity of the nominee, a planning process that depends entirely on the arrival of a candidate-captain at least a couple of weeks before the first gavel drops will instead be rudderless. That in turn could immensely complicate the process of naming a nominee, and at the same time turn the convention from the highly choreographed informercial we’ve seen in both parties for decades into a disorganized mess that undermines the show of unity these events are intended to produce.

News media interest in a contested convention so far has focused almost entirely on byzantine scenarios for the presidential balloting and what they might produce. But a better and more immediate question is whether chaos will break out long before the balloting begins, in the full view of cameras and with no one in particular in charge.

As I’ve confirmed by conversations with veterans of conventions in both parties (and from my own experience as a script and speech staffer at six Democratic conventions), the modern national party conclave is designed to be celebratory, not deliberative. Many internal convention decisions normally made by the putative nominee’s operatives will have to be made some other way, and the number of conflicts could massively proliferate if the nomination contest spills over into every corner of the event, making every routine decision part of the struggle for power. Is the chairman of the host committee who typically greets delegates after the opening gavel a Trump person or a Cruz person? Maybe the convention needs two greeters! Is there boilerplate language in the draft platform carried over from the last five conventions that could serve as a point of departure for undermining a candidate’s support (e.g., vague support for trade agreements condemned as job losers by Trump or for infrastructure investments condemned by Cruz as wasteful)? They won’t be boilerplate anymore; they could become the meat and potatoes of minority reports and platform fights. Normally non-controversial proceedings such as credentials and rules could and probably will become exceptionally controversial, making “neutral” decision-making by the event’s nomenklatura impossible.

The potential for and fallout from a fight over convention rules — normally something handled long before the convention itself, out of the public eye — was actually illustrated by the 2012 GOP convention. Putative nominee Mitt Romney’s people grew so annoyed by the possibility of trouble on the floor from Ron Paul delegates (many named in post-primary-delegate-selection events that diverged dramatically from actual voters’ preferences) that the rules were rewritten to make Paul officially a non-candidate. Traditionally at Republican conventions candidates just needed some supporters in five delegations to have their names placed in nomination and roll call votes recorded for them. In 2012, a new rule (Rule 40) was adopted raising the delegation threshold to a majority of eight delegations. If not amended or repealed prior to or at the Cleveland convention (by a Rules Committee composed of two delegates for each state, and then confirmed by the full convention) Rule 40 could, ironically (given its Establishment provenance), wind up ruling out or at least limiting any competition for Donald Trump.

If there are any unresolved state-level disputes over properly credentialed delegates at the end of the primary process, those, too, could be revived at the convention if a candidate has something to gain or lose from a particular delegate being ruled in or out. In recent years the convention’s Credentials Committee has done its work discreetly, but again, if seating decisions have any impact whatsoever on the arithmetic of the nomination contest, they will suddenly be a big and controversial deal.

In this leaderless situation, there are really only two basic approaches the convention management can take. It can treat the absence of a putative nominee as a vacuum to be filled and plunge ahead with good-faith decisions made in loco parentis, subject to reversal by the full convention. If, as seems likely, the two viable presidential candidates in Cleveland are Trump and Cruz, decisions that may affect their interests (on, say, credentials or rules challenges, or even on which friends or enemies get prime speaking roles) coming from Convention CEO Jeff Larson — Reince Priebus’s appointee — or from Convention Chairman Paul Ryan will draw immediate and intensely hostile attention. Remember that Trump and Cruz are living repudiations of everything the RNC called for in its famous post-2012 “autopsy” report. Many of the operational people they will confront during those potentially tense weeks in June when decisions about the convention simply have to be made are presumptive enemies and saboteurs. It will not make for a cooperative atmosphere.

Besides, there’s only so much party or convention officials can do to offset the absence of a putative nominee. The overriding purpose of the modern party convention is to tout the nominee’s sterling personal qualities, inspiring “story,” accomplished record, and courageous agenda. Not knowing the identity of the hero to be lionized leaves little to be done other than to attack the opposition, perhaps too often and too loudly for the party’s good. The 1992 Republican convention, which featured Patrick Buchanan’s prescient but controversial “culture war” speech, showed the risks of too negative a convention message.

The alternative and politically safer approach for a convention without a putative nominee is to allow representatives of all viable candidates for the nomination to participate in decisions. So if Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are the only active and feasible candidates going into Cleveland, the convention managers could simply duplicate the usual approach and have two sets of eyes on absolutely everything they do. Aside from making decisions harder rather than easier, this approach could politicize virtually everything the convention does, however minor, generating fight after fight.

This is the messy scenario that a contested convention is likely to create in the run-up to the event and over the first two to three days before the first (and possibly subsequent) presidential ballots are cast. If the chaos is allowed to proliferate or if inversely it is quelled with too much force, the legitimacy of the nomination itself could be called into question. And even if that doesn’t happen, very little time will be available after the nominee is known to get the party and the convention prepared for the rousing unity gestures of the crucial final night. One can easily imagine frantically suppressed protests, rows of empty seats, security and message-discipline lapses (like the Clint Eastwood fiasco of 2012), and just a bad scene all around.

The people already engaged in planning Cleveland surely know these growing risks, even if they are not eager to talk about it publicly, and even though the pundits haven’t focused on all the small and boring “process questions” that together add up to a potential calamity for Republicans. Maybe they can devise some radical changes in convention procedures to reduce the risk, such as front-loading the presidential balloting as much as possible to increase the percentage of the convention that’s “bossed” as it should be. Perhaps someone like Paul Ryan has the prestige to knock heads in those crucial days of late June and early July and force the remaining candidates to agree on as many things as possible out of sight of the cameras.

But all in all, and whatever their private candidate preferences, the people charged with executing this convention should probably hope Trump puts away the contest on June 7 decisively enough to remove the temptation of deliberation from Cleveland. For all the contrived gravity of motions made and seconded and votes recorded, American political conventions these days work best when they are Potemkin Villages built rapidly on the Prince’s orders to fool the casual observer.


By: Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, March 27, 2016

March 28, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Republican National Convention, Ted Cruz | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“It’s Tricky Dick All Over Again”: Donald Trump Is Running For Richard Nixon’s Third Term

Conservative candidates usually beg for comparisons with Ronald Reagan, but Donald Trump’s political spirit animal is Dick Nixon.

And in true Trump fashion, he hasn’t been subtle about wearing his unfashionable influence on his sleeve. The signs are everywhere.

Travel through the primary states and you’ll see the placards plastered at events and scattered by the roadside: “The Silent Majority Stands With Trump.” That is, of course, a direct lift from Nixon’s oft-resuscitated slogan, which was meant to resonate with the “non-shouters, non-demonstrators” during the Vietnam War.

It’s no small irony that the children of these “forgotten Americans” now are being asked to rally around the ultimate shouter in American politics, a billionaire who avoided military service during the draft. The economic and cultural resentments of the white working class Nixon courted have only grown more intense in the wake of the Great Recession amid a fundamentally more diverse America led by a black president.

But lifting Nixon’s Silent Majority slogan barely scratches the surface of the debt Trump owes Tricky Dick.

In 1968, Vietnam was raging and Nixon campaigned on a “secret plan to end the war.” Now we’re embroiled in a multi-front war with ISIS and—you guessed it—Trump has offered up a secret plan to end the war against ISIS.

Days after kicking off his campaign, he told Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren: “I do know what to do and I would know how to bring ISIS to the table, or beyond that, defeat ISIS very quickly… and I’m not gonna tell you what it is… I don’t want the enemy to know what I’m doing.”

Trump’s love of bluster balanced with a complete lack of policy detail doesn’t stop with war.

Take health care: Trump is running on a platform of “repeal and replace with something terrific.” When pressed for detail by George Stephanopoulos, The Donald replied, “Nobody knows health care better than Donald Trump”—retreating to Nixon’s favored third-person self-reference. “We’re going to work with our hospitals. We’re going to work with our doctors. We’ve got to do something… We’ll work something out. That doesn’t mean single-payer.”

In Trump’s world, it doesn’t matter that he once backed single-payer in a book that bears his name. And of course it doesn’t matter that Nixon’s own health care reform plan was considerably to the left of Obamacare. Our debates have been unburdened by fact for some time now, and that suits candidates like Trump just fine.

Nixon’s enemies list is another dark legacy Trump enthusiastically apes. Trump is quick to attack critics by name on the campaign trail—from mocking a disabled New York Times reporter to going after everyone from Megyn Kelly to George Will to The Daily Beast. For a candidate who loves to engage in rough-and-tumble verbal combat, his thin skin is a bit of a mystery. But Trump’s enemies list is so notorious that Vanity Fair lampooned it back in 2011 during his birther-backed flirtation with the presidency.

While Nixon’s enemies list can seem quaint almost a half-century later, they were far from simple partisan score-settling. We now know that Nixon’s lackeys looked at planting evidence on investigative journalist Jack Anderson, spreading damaging rumors about his sex life and even plotting to kill him, with the methods varying from putting poison in his medications to smearing massive doses of LSD on his steering wheel.

This is chilling stuff that smacks more of Vladimir Putin than an American president. But it’s a reminder of how much character matters in a commander in chief, because tone comes from the top. In an era of social media mobs and hardcore partisan news sites, pushback could turn to private citizen-directed opposition research and something uglier.

The deepest irony in the Trump-Nixon overlap has surfaced only in the past few weeks, as The Donald tries to appear more presidential. “Bring Us Together” was a signature Nixon 1968 campaign line, allegedly inspired by a sign held by a little girl at a rally and eagerly adopted by speechwriters like William Safire. Now Trump is punctuating his interviews and debate performances with the same line, promising to unite the nation if elected, despite all campaign tactics to the contrary.

Trump’s use of the line has already led to some surreal exchanges, as when Stephanopoulos asked him to explain how his opposition to marriage equality after the Supreme Court decision would lead to a more united nation. “It’s very simple,” he replied. “We’re going to bring our country together. We’re going to unify our country. We’re going to do whatever we have to do. I’m going to put the absolute best judges in position. If their views—we’re going to see what their views are. I will make the determination at that time.”

Such rhetorical tap-dancing means less than nothing and offers false comfort to some increasingly resigned establishment Republicans desperately looking for a silver lining if Trump is their party’s nominee. They hope the candidate doesn’t mean half of what he says, that he’s just pandering to get conservative populist votes. It’s a strained domestic extension of Nixon’s self-described “madman theory” in foreign policy, a belief that negotiating leverage is increased if your opponent believes that you might go nuclear. Extreme statements are all part of the art of the deal.

Perhaps not coincidentally, some prominent remaining Nixon aides have been backing or advising The Donald.

Trump’s sometime adviser Roger Stone, master of the dirty trick and artful smear, boasts a Nixon tattoo on his upper back. Former Nixon speechwriter and paleo-conservative populist Pat Buchanan, who innovated many of the anti-immigrant and anti-trade policies Trump now advances, declared him “The Future of the Republican Party.”

And while Trump’s once-close relationship with Fox News chairman Roger Ailes has been publicly strained with the recent Iowa debate boycott, Ailes basically innovated the cozy relationship between politics and television while working for Nixon in 1968.

Perhaps Trump is a secret political nerd who internalized all the divide-and-conquer strategies Nixon innovated at the time. Or perhaps he’s been getting advice on the dark arts of politics from acolytes of the former master.

Trump shares with Nixon a tough-guy pragmatism, a ruthless and occasionally unhinged determination to win driven by deep insecurity. Nixon also believed people vote out of fear more than hope. But whatever Nixon’s many failings, he was a policy wonk who loved the mechanics of politics. Trump is a blunt force instrument in politics, a born marketer with bluster a mile wide and an inch deep.

As he aims for the nomination, Trump might be taking Nixon’s cynical advice to “run right in the primary election, then run to the center in the general election” to heart. But as Nixon and the nation found out, character is destiny. And Trump’s exploitation of our worse impulses for political gain will also end in tears.


By: John Avlon, The Daily Beast, February 15, 2016

February 16, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Establishment Republicans, Richard Nixon | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Old Rules Are Out The Window”: America’s Political Parties Are Just Tribes Now

When it comes to politics, in 2015 we witnessed nothing less than a paradigm shift. The old rules are out the window. Technology and changing mores have conspired to lower barriers of entry—and acceptability. Gatekeepers no longer exist. What we have right now is closer to direct democracy than we’ve ever seen, and our civilization is regressing as a result.

One party (the Democrats) already represents the liberal half of the nation. The other half seems to consist of modern, Buckleyite conservatives, but also an increasingly large horde populist, nationalist, individualistic Americans—who now have a megaphone and a vessel in the form of Donald Trump.

Times change, and political parties adapt or are replaced. And make no mistake; if the Party of Lincoln becomes the Party of Trump, it would essentially redefine what it means to be a Republican. Conservatism, a coherent political philosophy, looks as if it’s being replaced by messy right-wing populism.

Just as the political parties sorted themselves out so that there are no more “conservative Democrats” or “liberal Republicans,” I fear we may be entering a new stage where there are essentially two distinct political tribes: One tribe consists of minorities and educated elites, while the other tribe increasingly consists of working-class whites.

The trends that brought us this situation have been in existence for decades, but 2015 may be remembered as the year when we broke apart, and political differences became primary cultural signifiers. Disagreements about ideological principles, or even policy preferences, seem to be taking a back seat to identity politics. It doesn’t matter what you believe in so much as what grouping you belong to, and how willing you are to fight for the sliver of America you represent. 2015 was the year of tribalism. Our politics are less high-minded than ever.

If tribes strike you as primitive, it’s not just you. Tribes tend to assign leadership, not based on experience or wisdom, but based on strength. Much of what we are witnessing today is very base (no pun intended) and essentially comes down to machismo: The other guys are out to get us so we need our toughest guy to get them first. This is the major rationale for Trump supporters, who see him as an “alpha” in a sea of wishy-washy Beltway insiders.

Conservatives once hated identity politics and victimhood—but then again, we once supported free trade, too. Perhaps our disdain for tribalism was always a high-minded, yet doomed, effort to suppress the natural, carnal state of a fallen humanity. You and I may view politics as being about ideas and human flourishing, but a lot of people believe it’s really about power—about making sure scarce resources are allocated to “our” people.

Although I didn’t see the Trump phenomenon coming, I think I sensed the populist zeitgeist that led both to him and to this larger breakdown into tribes. Here’s something I wrote back in April for the Beast—long before Trump was in the race:

…I think there is a huge underserved constituency in the GOP—and that constituency is what might best be termed populist conservatives. These folks tend to be white and working-class and who feel they’ve been left behind in America. They are culturally conservative—but they also want to keep government out of their Medicare.

Mitt Romney was arguably the worst candidate Republicans could have ever nominated to appeal to this constituency. But while candidates like Huckabee and Rick Santorum flirted with going full populist, something always seemed to keep them from really doubling down on it.

… The last time someone really tried this was when “Pitchfork” Pat Buchanan, and then Ross Perot, ran in 1992. It resonated then, but that was before the “giant sucking sound” really kicked in. Whether it’s globalization or immigration—or whatever “-ation” might have taken your job—it stands to reason that the same grassroots phenomenon that helped Buchanan and Perot tap into an underserved constituency might be even more potent today

I still think there’s a decent chance that this fever—which has been aided by an economic downturn, Obama’s election, and the rise of ISIS—will break. And I think that the rules governing the way the GOP allocates delegates will probably benefit someone who is a more mainstream and thoughtful conservative, like Marco Rubio.

It’s easy to see how a Rubio presidency could help reorder things in a different way—in a way that I believe would be healthier both for America and in terms of making sure conservatism can survive and thrive in the 21st century. A Rubio presidency would have the potential to grow the conservative movement by modernizing (not moderating) it—to make it more appealing to Hispanics, urbanites, and millennials. If conservatism is about ideas like freedom and entrepreneurship, not merely cultural signaling (the stereotype being that the definition of a conservative is a white guy with a gun rack), then there’s no reason the guy who orders an Uber shouldn’t be a conservative.

But this only works if the conservatives want to actually grow their numbers by choosing a modernizer. The last CNN/ORC poll I saw suggested that if you add Trump’s supporters together with those of Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, you were at about two-thirds of the national GOP primary voters. The rejection of candidates favored by the GOP establishment this past year has been unprecedented. The Republican base, at least right now, is rallying to the candidates who embrace this new tribalism.

Earlier, I said the rules have changed. And, indeed, they have. Conservatives used to care about electing men and women who have wisdom, experience or expertise, and will comport themselves in an appropriate or “statesmanlike” manner, and who have a conservative temperament. They were deeply invested in defending abstract concepts like a culture of life, the rule of law, and religious liberty, while also worrying about things like unintentional consequences. They wanted to unleash the power of a free market (of products and ideas) to encourage human flourishing.

These are the hallmarks of conservative philosophy, consistency, and a coherent worldview—something that looks increasingly passé to Republican voters.

In some cases, much of today’s GOP base is skeptical or even hostile to these conservative values. For example, they believe a conservative temperament is an antiquated concept guaranteed to produce weak leaders who won’t fight, and that conservatism as a temperament was essentially designed to fail. How else can you explain the near-triumph of contemporary liberalism, and the fact that the GOP has only won the popular vote in a presidential election once since the end of the Reagan era?

It’s hard to summon people to their better angels when those people feel aggrieved. It’s hard to advise those people to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs”—when there are literal beheadings taking place around the globe. The problem is that people like me are calling for civilized behavior and for modernization at a time when Republican voters want to get medieval. 2015 belonged to Donald Trump. But the real question is this: who will own 2016?


By: Matt K. Lewis, The Daily Beast, January 2, 2015

January 3, 2016 Posted by | Conservatism, Democracy, Donald Trump | , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“Angrier And More Toxic”: Donald Trump And The Revenge Of The Radical Center

The GOP may soon recover from the Donald Trump scare. Despite his maddeningly persistent lead in the polls, Trump isn’t building the normal campaign operations that are usually needed to win. He won’t get key endorsements. His voters may be the ones least likely to be active. It’s unclear how much, if any, of his fortune he’s willing to spend on advertising himself.

Nonetheless, Trump’s continued presence in the race is a danger to other viable candidates. Trump’s campaign may discredit the party in the eyes of many voters who are disgusted with Trump’s presence in the GOP, or other voters who are disgusted with the treatment of Trump’s supporters by the party apparatus.

And that brings us to the big lesson the GOP should take from the entire Trump affair: There is another side to the Republican Party, one that the GOP has tried to ignore, and can ignore no longer. It’s a side of the party that has learned to distrust its leaders on immigration, to be suspicious of a turbo-charged capitalism that threatens their way of life. And it may be a side of the party that is needed to return the GOP to presidential victories. It is the forgotten part of the Nixon-Reagan coalition. And by being ignored, it has turned angrier and more toxic.

The winning Republican coalition may still be the Nixon and Reagan coalition, old as it is. This is a coalition that includes conservatism, and is “anti-left,” certainly. But it also includes a huge number of people to whom the dogmas of conservatism are as foreign to their experience as Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville. The piece of the Nixon coalition that Trump has activated cares not for the ordered liberty of conservatism, nor the egalitarian project of progressivism. It cares about fairness, and just rewards for work and loyalty. There is nothing moderate about it. This is the radical center. And it explains why when Trump’s support is measured, it is almost always found to be strongest among “moderate” or “liberal” Republicans.

These are the voters who hate modern, tight-suited, Democratic-style liberalism not because it offends God, but because it is “killing” the America they knew. It threatens their jobs with globalization and immigration. They hate tassle-loafered right-wingers who flippantly tell them to get retrained in computers at age 58, and warn that Medicare might be cut. They built their lives around promises that have been broken and revoked over the past two decades. Trump looks like their savior. Someone who can’t be bought by the people who downsized them. Or at least, he is their revenge.

It is frustrating for most conservatives to take Trump seriously as a presidential candidate. He’s a ridiculous troll. He talks about renegotiating the global order with China based on “feel.” He also says he can “feel” terrorism about to strike, perhaps the way an arthritic can feel a storm coming. This is idiotic. But the Republican Party needs to learn a lesson from it. And learn it fast. Few have Trump’s resources, his can’t-look-away persona, or his absurdly high Q-rating among reality TV viewers. But many are watching him divide the GOP in twain, on issues like trade, jobs, and immigration. It would be surprising if no one tried to campaign on his mix of issues again after seeing his success.

This should have been obvious from the politics of the past two decades. Pat Buchanan’s challenge to the GOP in the mid-1990s focused on some of the same issues, though Buchanan was also a tub-thumping social conservative. Buchanan won four states in 1996, while suffering the same taunts about fascism that are now aimed at Trump. His race was premised on finding the “conservatives of the heart.” His 1992 convention speech begged Republicans to get in touch with “our people” who “don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke,” like the “hearty” mill worker of New Hampshire who told Buchanan, “Save our jobs.”

And it is not just populists. Even conservative wonks have been warning for years that the GOP was offering little of economic substance to their base of voters, save for the vain hope of transforming them into an ersatz investor class by privatizing Social Security, and making them manage health savings accounts. In the mid-2000s, there was the plea for a new Sam’s Club Republicanism, a harbinger of the so-called reform conservatism to come later. This was an attempt to connect with the middle American voter, really the Trump voter.

Republicans need to understand this not just to repair their coalition, but to head off Trump in the here and now. Flying banners over his rallies that say, “Trump will raise your taxes” is counterproductive. His supporters correctly perceive the burden of higher taxes will likely fall on those who already have more than they do. Similarly, all the attacks on Trump’s cronyism, or his relationships with Democrats, will fail as well. His supporters are weakly attached to the Republican Party. They won’t blame him for being the same way.

Trump’s candidacy is teaching the GOP that it has to deliver for voters who feel economic insecurity. If they don’t, the radical middle will rise not just to embarrass them, but to wound them as well.


By: Michael Brendan Dougherty; The Week, November 30, 2015

December 5, 2015 Posted by | Conservatism, GOP | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Hostility Is Clarifying”: Conservatives To Pope Francis: Stick With Salvation; We’ll Handle Politics

In a 1979 column, George Will quoted Chekhov describing a character in these terms: “He was a rationalist, but he had to confess that he liked the ringing of church bells.” To Chekhov’s lovely words, Will added his own smarmy endorsement, writing, “Me too.” In his column, Will was affirming the quote in the most literal way possible: He was writing to celebrate bells. But it’s not hard to discern in the quote a larger attitude toward religion. Will is, as he told an interviewer from this magazine, an atheist, yet as a conservative he finds religion to be socially useful and often praises it for that reason. Like the political philosopher Leo Strauss, who has shaped much of his broader outlook, Will has a utilitarian attitude toward religion: Christianity might not be true, but it helps create a cohesive society. To put it another way, Will believes in philosophy for the elite and religion for the masses.

Not surprisingly given this attitude, Will has been at the head of the conservative chorus denouncing Pope Francis’s advocacy for the environment, for migrants, and for the poor—a chorus that has grown more vehement in the run-up to Francis’s U.S. journey. In a syndicated column published on Saturday, Will came out firing: “Pope Francis embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony. With a convert’s indiscriminate zeal, he embraces ideas impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false, and deeply reactionary.”

Seeing religion as a tool for political ends, Will quite naturally praises religious figures he sees as politically simpatico (like Pope John Paul II) and savages those whose politics he finds politically unpalatable (like Pope Francis). It’s not surprising that Will is so nakedly partisan in his evaluation of religious leaders. What is perhaps more noteworthy is that the same pattern can be found among conservatives who claim to be genuinely devout. Some of these critics voice the objection that Francis is too political, but on closer inspection their real problem is the same as Will’s: They don’t like his politics.

In a 2005 column, for instance, Will praised John Paul II as one of the great heroes of the 20th century because he made common cause with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in fighting communism. Enthusiastically voicing a theme common to conservatives, Will marveled that “[i]n an amazingly fecund 27-month period, the cause of freedom was strengthened by the coming to high offices of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and John Paul II, who, like the president, had been an actor and was gifted at the presentational dimension of his office.”

Yet if John Paul II’s political interventions were held up as crucial in the battle against the enemies of civilization, then his successor Francis, seemingly embodying very different politics, stands condemned as a menace who threatens the very survival of capitalism. As one of America’s foremost climate change deniers, Will has nothing but contempt for Francis’s calls for environmental responsibility. In a 2014 column, Will condemned the Pope as a sanctimonious interloper whose ignorance of worldly matters threatens to leave millions impoverished. “He stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources,” Will thundered. “Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.”

In taking up the cause of the environment, Will argued over the weekend, the church was abandoning its “salvific mission.” Since Will doesn’t actually believe that the salvation the church offers is real, his polemic amounts to a call for the church to continue to offer consoling lies to parishioners and ignore real problems so that the social system continues to work the way Will wants it to. Continue ringing those church bells, Will is saying, so they’ll drown out the protests of environmentalists.

The cynicism of Will’s position hardly needs to be underlined. Yet it is broadly shared by others on the right. Writing at the Federalist, Joy Pullmann, managing editor of the publication and a fellow at the lavishly funded climate change denialist think tank The Heartland Institute, makes many of the same arguments that Will does: that in voicing concern for the environment, the Pope is overstepping his proper duties as a religious leader, and that serious efforts to combat climate change would lead to an economic catastrophe that would have its worst impact on the world’s poor. In an extremely confusing line of argument, Pullmann seems to suggest that an environmental apocalypse might actually be a welcome outcome from a Christian point of view:

We will never achieve utopia in this world. That’s kind of the central story arc of the Bible: How humans screwed themselves and the whole world up, and how Jesus has and will ultimately put things to right. Getting all the way to a perfect eternity, however, requires first an apocalypse.

So maybe Pope Francis should welcome the environmental apocalypse he thinks is coming. That’s partly a joke and partly serious, because every time I see another Planned Parenthood butchering video I am ready for Jesus to take me and my kiddos right up to Paradise and end this sick, mad world.

Pullmann’s words might seem lurid and even nonsensical, but they follow the basic contours of Will’s: The church should stick to saving souls and leave the job of running the world to big business. She also upholds John Paul II as an example of a pope whom it was possible “to respect and admire”—further proof that what is wanted is not an apolitical pope but a pope who aligned with the Republican Party.

Pat Buchanan, the legendary conservative columnist, takes the right-wing hostility toward Francis to its logical conclusion and sees the current Pope, along with President Obama, as being emblematic of the deep sickness in Western civilization. In a breathtaking recent column, Buchanan opines that Francis is promoting “moral confusion,” and argues that both Putin’s Russia and Communist China show much greater cultural health than either Obama’s America or Francis’s church:

America is a different country today, a secular and post-Christian nation on its way to becoming anti-Christian. Some feel like strangers in their own land. And from the standpoint of traditional Catholicism, American culture is an open sewer. A vast volume of the traffic on the Internet is pornography.

Ironically, as all this unfolds in what was once “God’s country,” Vladimir Putin seeks to re-establish Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the basis of morality and law in Russia. And one reads in The Wall Street Journal on Monday that Xi Jinping is trying to reintroduce his Chinese Communist comrades to the teachings of Confucianism.

The world is turned upside down. Every civilization seems to recognize the necessity of faith except for the West, which has lost its faith and is shrinking and dying for lack of it.

Will is a religious skeptic, while both Pullmann and Buchanan are believers. Will’s prose is elegant and measured, while both Pullmann and Buchanan write shrill screeds. Yet despite these surface differences, they are making the same argument: that the proper role of the church is promoting individual salvation and social morality, a mission Francis is jeopardizing by advocating for political change.

The hostility conservatives of all stripes have toward Francis is clarifying. It shows that issues of belief and non-belief are less important to conservatives than adherence to an ideological party line. Despite their different metaphysics, Will, Pullmann, and Buchanan can unite in opposing Francis as a political enemy. Theology serves merely as a convenient cloak for politics.


By: Jeet Heer, Senior Editor, The New Republic; September 22, 2015

September 23, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, George Will, Pope Francis | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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