Heightening the Contradictions

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From the Boiling Frogs on The Dispatch

Campus radicals and Never Trump conservatives have something important in common, one of my editors pointed out this morning. We’re both deeply committed to our political ideals and are willing to burn down our respective political parties to vindicate them.

I hadn’t thought of that before but he had a point. I can quite easily picture Steve Hayes and Jonah Goldberg in keffiyehs, huddled inside a pup tent outside Mar-a-Lago.

Both groups are deeply morally contemptuous of the parties to which they nominally belong. Both are frustrated by their inability to move mainstream opinion. And both are prone to pretending that they’re bigger than they really are. We do have some things in common.

But we also have our differences. For instance, Never Trumpers don’t smash up buildings when they don’t get their way politically. That’s the other wing of the American right—and the radical wing of the American left:

As classical liberals, Never Trumpers also tend to sympathize with the only classically liberal nation in the Middle East. The post-liberal right does not. Neither do the left’s intifada LARPers:

One more unlikely difference between us is that our respective tolerances for a second Donald Trump presidency seem to be diverging.

Four years ago, we were united. Joe Biden clobbered Trump among young voters in the last election, winning the 18- to 29-year-old cohort by 24 points; he won comfortably among college graduates as well, more than offsetting Trump’s narrow advantage among the majority of Americans without a degree. When the chips were down in 2020, Never Trump conservatives locked arms with twentysomething progressives and ended the threat of right-wing authoritarianism.

Temporarily, it turns out.

With authoritarianism back on the ballot, we former allies are increasingly pitted against each other. Doomscrolling through the daily clips of mayhem at Columbia University and elsewhere this week, it’s fair for classical liberals to ask: Are these histrionic imbeciles actually going to end up tipping the election to Trump?

Do they actually want him to win?

It’s taken for granted that the war in Gaza is hurting Joe Biden politically, particularly among younger voters. There’s no way to disprove it, either: Even if he’s not actively losing support on the left, the backlash could be deepening the reluctance of progressives he’s already lost to “come home” to the Democratic nominee. According to one poll, no less than 52 percent of young voters across all parties are considering Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in November. Presumably that number would be smaller if not for the unrest over Israel and the Palestinians.

But assumptions are one thing, evidence is another. And evidence that Gaza is a major liability for Biden is surprisingly hard to come by.

For all of the upset on campus over the past month, Trump’s lead in national polling remains smaller than it’s been for most of the period since November. And a new survey from Harvard suggests that the average young American cares less about Gaza than we might think. Researchers compiled a list of 16 issues and asked a sample of 18- to 29-year-olds to choose which was more important to them when offered two at random. Israel/Palestine finished next to last; the top place went to inflation, as one might expect among a group that’s new-ish to the labor force and not earning much yet.

Rarely do Americans let foreign policy drive their votes, particularly when U.S. troops aren’t fighting a war somewhere. The admonitions from normie liberals to stop letting progressive tantrums dictate the ruling class’ political priorities are well taken.

What worries me about the campus protests isn’t that they’re persuading young voters or Democrats writ large to boycott Biden. It’s that they’re giving otherwise Trump-skeptical centrists a reason to hold their noses and support you-know-who.

There’s no hard evidence of that happening en masse (yet) but anecdotes abound among the Dispatch staff. One colleague told me this morning that an apolitical friend who cast write-in ballots for president in 2016 and 2020 is thinking of supporting the “clown” Donald Trump this time because of the impunity with which the campus intifada crowd has been treated. A second colleague chimed in that he’s heard the same thing recently from multiple acquaintances. The “vibes” from this episode are bad.

And sometimes, all it takes to tip an undecided voter into one column or the other is “vibes.”

In a piece published Tuesday by New York magazine, Jonathan Chait went as far as to imagine a de facto alliance between the pro-Hamas left and the Trumpist right. “The campus protests, with their ragged encampments and radical chants, enhance the image of chaos that Donald Trump claims has overtaken the country,” Chait writes. “The previous basis for the chaos theme was a rise in crime that has since abated. Obviously, neither Trump nor Fox News require claims to be true in order to make them a campaign theme. But the encampments are good visual fodder for conservative media that is always on the lookout for signs of counterculture radicals they can shove into the faces of its audience.”

Voters might not care much about Israel and Palestine but they do care about civic disorder, as Democrats learned the hard way in 2020. Trump knows it too, which is why he sabotaged the Senate compromise on immigration enforcement in February. He wasn’t worried that that deal would fail to solve the border crisis, he was worried that it would succeed. He craves chaos at the border and elsewhere because he’s intuited that voters will be more eager to turn to a strongman in November to reimpose law and order if they feel unsafe. That’s also why you don’t hear much from the right about the decline in crime lately: Authoritarianism never looks better than when things seem out of control.

Right now, things seem out of control on American campuses.

Needless to say of any analysis based on “vibes,” none of this is rational. It’s not rational for voters to hold the antics of campus radicals against Biden given that those radicals seem to hate “Genocide Joe” for his Israel policy more than his Republican critics do. (As others have noted, the left’s worst miscreants despise their party’s leader, the right’s worst miscreants worship theirs.) It isn’t rational either for undecideds to extol Trump as a force for “law and order” when he’s facing 90-plus criminal counts, egged on a violent insurrection that almost led to a coup, did little to prevent the riots that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020, and, as noted, spoiled a border bill a few months ago that might have slowed the flow of migrants seeking asylum.

In a better country, the right’s Trump-skeptics would digest all of that and reason that, whatever the solution to campus disorder might be, it surely doesn’t involve reinstating an agent of chaos to lead the executive branch. But in the country we have, some of those skeptics are prepared to support Trump again even though, by their own admission, he’s apt to make things worse rather than better—not just for the country but for the GOP.

Let’s talk about Bill Barr.

To a Never Trumper wandering in the political wilderness, doomscrolling is twice as grim as it is for a partisan because you’re free to blanch at fascist apologetics from both sides instead of just one. On the one hand there’s the immorality of masked droogs breaking windows for Palestine or whatever, on the other there’s the eternal competition to be the most pitifully amoral tribal partisan among the pro-Trump Republican establishment.

That competition is always stiff but it’s gotten more spirited lately as the election creeps closer.

Earlier this month, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu affirmed that he’ll be supporting his party’s nominee in November even if Trump is convicted of a crime before then. Mind you, Sununu backed Nikki Haley in this year’s primary and announced months ago that he won’t seek another term as governor, freeing him to vote his conscience this fall if he wishes.

He does not so wish. Or he has no conscience.

A few weeks later, Sen. Mitch McConnell was asked if he truly intends to vote for Trump again, as he’s claimed. McConnell is stepping down as minority leader this year and is almost certainly in his final Senate term, so he too has little to lose by breaking with his party. And he owes America, frankly, as it was his lousy Republican conference that made this election possible by declining to disqualify Trump from future office at his second impeachment trial.

No matter. Yes, I’ll be supporting Trump, McConnell told CBS News when asked. “Even if I chose to get involved in the presidential election, what kind of influence would I have?” one of the most powerful Republicans of the last 40 years wondered.

For sheer loathsomeness, though, no one tops the weak, slow-moving, gutless, lazy, but no longer lethargic Barr. Trump’s former attorney general was asked a few days ago about a claim that his old boss once casually mentioned in a meeting that a leaker should be executed. Barr neither holds public office nor stands to land a job in Trump’s next administration so he has even less to lose than Sununu or McConnell in turning firmly against Trump—yet he rolled over too.

Sure, he said, Trump might have talked casually about executing someone. But so what? It didn’t happen, did it?

“I think Trump would do less damage than Biden,” he went on to say, justifying his vote in 2024. “I think all this stuff about a threat to democracy, I think the real threat to democracy is the progressive movement and the Biden administration.”

That’s a familiar argument after nine years of this insanity. It’s the siren song of the anti-anti-Trump conservative: No matter how repulsively Trump behaves, he’ll deliver better policy results than the Democrats will. If you take that logic seriously, there’s no action so grotesquely authoritarian that it can’t be rationalized as a price worth paying to produce a better, more conservative America.

But you shouldn’t take it seriously because you won’t get better policy outcomes long-term under Trump. Just ask … Bill Barr.

A year ago, he astutely diagnosed the problem with entrusting the right’s agenda to a figure as erratic as Trump. “If you believe in his policies, what he’s advertising is his policies, he’s the last person who could actually execute them and achieve them,” he told an audience in Cleveland. “He does not have the discipline, he does not have the ability for strategic thinking and linear thinking or setting priorities or how to get things done in the system.”

“You may want his policies, but Trump will not deliver Trump policies,” he went on to say. “He will deliver chaos and, if anything, lead to a backlash that will set his policies much further back than they otherwise would be.”

All true. Under Trump’s influence, Republicans lost the House in 2018, lost the presidency and the Senate in 2020, and underperformed in the 2022 midterms, leaving the upper chamber in Democratic hands. The left capitalized on its good fortune by passing lots of expensive legislation in Biden’s first two years and confirming many liberal presidential nominees. Meanwhile, even on issues where Trump had strong arguments for his position as president, he managed to alienate voters into rallying behind the other side. In an alternate universe in which Hillary Clinton won in 2016, it’s plausible that the GOP would be in considerably better shape politically right now than it finds itself.

Bill Barr not only should know all of that, he apparently did know it as recently as a year ago. His diagnosis at the time was as haunting as it was true: He will deliver chaos. He’s exactly the type of traditional Republican who should scoff at Trump’s “law and order” blowhardery and commit to not supporting him this fall. Yet here he is, going on national television to try to persuade other Trump-leery conservatives to grit their teeth and embrace their nominee as the lesser of two evils.

The fate of the country depends on whether they listen to him or not. What’s happening at the moment on campus makes it more likely that they will.

To prevail this fall, the anti-Trump coalition needs the right to split. The ongoing spectacle of campus disorder risks drawing the right together.

After all, it’s hard to imagine a tribal foil better suited to antagonize right-wingers of all stripes. “Quasi-hippie Ivy League jihadist vandals” touches every sensitive spot in the Republican lizard brain. Throw in a feminist angle to the protests and the GOP would be ready to nuke Columbia.

Partisan hacks in the mold of Bill Barr would find some excuse to support Trump eventually irrespective of what the news cycle is serving up. But watching the spoiled children of the pup-tent commune smash windows and occupy buildings will cause even good-faith “Nikki Haley Republicans” to wonder whether the chaos Trump 2.0 would deliver in a second term might not be marginally more orderly than what another four years of Democratic government would bring.

I’ve always disliked the anti-anti-Trump habit of scolding liberals for their excesses by warning them that “This is how you got Trump,” partly because it shifts responsibility for the GOP’s degradation away from Republican voters and partly because it preemptively normalizes the right’s own future excesses. The sort of person inclined to justify right-wing illiberalism as a response to progressive illiberalism is far more comfortable with right-wing illiberalism in principle than they should be.

But as the campus protests get more obnoxious, my fear increases that we’ll be pointing back to this (and the border crisis) next year and groaning “This is how we got Trump.” We almost got Trump a second time in 2020 thanks to the “defund the police” fiasco, remember, and the man who defeated him then is now much older and much less popular. When Trump-haters as staunch as the Morning Joe crew are comparing the pro-Palestinian protests to January 6, one can only guess how less strident MAGA antagonists are processing all of this.

Which … suits the campus radicals, perhaps?

The average masked protester calling for a Judenrein Holy Land at Columbia may not prefer to have Donald Trump as president in the abstract but in practical effect they may regard it as just what the political doctor ordered. There are, in fact, Democratic voters so incensed about Gaza that they’re prepared to support Trump in the belief that, for all his faults, at least he didn’t deliver a Palestinian “genocide.” But left-wing radicals may see other virtues in helping him to a second term, starting with the fact that the ugly pageant of an authoritarian right-wing presidency will ensure a lot of new converts to militant progressivism.

You know what Lenin said about “heightening the contradictions”—and if you don’t, they certainly know. Illiberals of all stripes believe that the worse things get in the short term, the better they’ll get in the long term inasmuch as they’ll engineer a popular appetite for revolutionary change that’ll ultimately sweep them to power. That was Trump’s attitude toward the Senate border bill, not coincidentally, and it may well be progressives’ sotto voce attitude toward the ongoing debacle on campus. They share a goal with Trump of seeing Joe Biden defeated, perhaps. Turns out we Never Trumpers didn’t have much in common with them after all.

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