Neocons to Trump Voters: Drop Dead!

Image: Donald Trump in Arizona, June 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0.

What's splitting the Republican Party? Neoconservatives don't care, they'd rather just sneer.

Oh dear. Neoconservative writer Bret Stephens has gotten himself into a slap fight with radio host Sean Hannity. After Hannity pre-blamed Republican leaders in the event that Donald Trump loses the election, Stephens took to Twitter where he crowned Hannity “Fox News’ dumbest anchor.” Hannity then rejoined that Stephens is a “dumbass.” If you’re not familiar with the combatants, one is a star-spangled vitriol merchant who keeps his audience in thrall with simplistic us-versus-them rhetoric and has at best a cartoonish understanding of foreign policy. The other is a nationally syndicated radio host.

Stephens is the same egghead who wrote that John Kerry “always had a terrific soft spot” for Bashar al-Assad, eighteen months after Kerry compared Assad to Hitler. Normally he isn’t worth the bandwidth, but his feud with Hannity merits a look because it’s illustrative of the poverty that’s afflicted the elite response to Trump. Stephens is peeved because Hannity keeps batting his eyelashes at the Republican nominee; his preferred approach is to ensure Trump gets crushed on Election Day so that “Republican voters learn their lesson.”

Fair enough, and plenty of conservatives apparently agree with Stephens, given that 21 percent of them now say they’ll do the unthinkable and vote for Hillary Clinton. But roughly 40 percent of the country is still in Trump’s corner—pulverizing them, wiping the dust off your sleeves, and returning to regularly scheduled business isn’t exactly a plan for long-term political success. So what pumps the veins of Trumpism? What’s driven so many voters into the arms of a bombastic populist? A scan of the Stephens corpus turns up only dismissive scoffs over Trump’s appeal to “the privileges of a white ethnic bloc” and to “vulgarian” voters who “comprise a significant percentage of the GOP base,” comments that would immediately draw accusations of racism were he disdaining black underprivileged communities or Democratic voters. And, of course, there's his customary endless flogging of “neo-isolationism.”

Stephens—and many other pundits—treat the rise of Trump as inorganic, an oddball electoral spasm that will disappear after it’s been suppressed. This is shallow analysis, to say the least. Properly classified, Trump is a nationalist reactionary, which means something preceded him to which he’s now reacting. Historically we’ve viewed reactionaries disdainfully, as antiquated holdouts uncomfortable with pluralism or multiculturalism or social progress writ large. And surely there’s some of that festering beneath the Trump phenomenon.

But those breezy dismissals make an integral error. They assume that right-wing reaction is always a deleterious force—and while it often is, politics is never quite that simple. The reaction against the American counterculture of the 1960s that elected Richard Nixon had a racial element, but it was also driven by an understandable weariness with that decade’s endless social unrest. Likewise, the nationalists who voted for Brexit were reacting quite rationally to a European Union that had gobbled up its member nations’ sovereignty and enervated their economic growth. Just as the proper response to the slogan “war is not the answer” is “that depends on the question,” the rejoinder to condemnations of reaction is “well, what are they reacting to?”

Even when reaction is unquestionably a corrosive force, that’s no guarantee that the forces it’s responding to are any better. The rise of Franco in Spain, for example, was made inevitable by an incendiary Spanish left that was sparking violent strikes across the country. When powerful Spanish socialist Francisco Largo Caballero declared, “I want a republic without class war, but for that one class has to disappear,” many took him at his word, and when the leftists won the election of 1936, those recommended by Caballero for disappearance—the military, the landowners, some of the middle class—fought back. The reactionaries went on to win the ensuing civil war and rule Spain until Franco’s death in 1975.