So many battles are fought in war and in civilian life, and nothing is gained by their victory. Every battle we fight will result in a gain for us or we will not fight . . . There is no great gain in merely being right. To be right about some unimportant subject is not important.
–General George S. Patton
Jonah Goldberg explains the problem of Trump better than anyone:
If you want a really good sense of the damage Donald Trump is doing to conservatism, consider the fact that for the last five years no issue has united the Right more than opposition to Obamacare. Opposition to socialized medicine in general has been a core tenet of American conservatism from Day One. Yet, when Republicans were told that Donald Trump favors single-payer health care, support for single-payer health care jumped from 16 percent to 44 percent.
There you go. If Trump favors socialism, then so do “conservatives.” At least 44 percent of them. (Sadly, the 56 percent who maintain opposition to socialized medicine are more likely to support Jeb Bush. How far we’ve fallen.)
We hear, as Mr. Goldberg recounts, that people who support Trump support him because “he fights.” What he fights against is secondary to the fact that he fights. Apparently conservatism now limits itself to fighting. Great.
But whom does Trump fight for?
We know against whom he fights: Fox News, immigration, and free trade. We know how he fights: insults. What we are not sure of is why he fights. At least I’m not sure.
And for me, everything starts with why.
Trump doesn’t have time for “why.” And that’s dangerous.
Here’s the danger: conservatives sometimes prefer fighting to winning. We sometimes choose impossible fights over winnable ones. We often pride ourselves in getting our butts kicked for arcane minutiae as if winning a lesser battle here and there is beneath us. (Wars are won and lost in the lesser battles prosecuted with vigor again and again.)
A few weeks ago, I pointed an instructive finger toward Arthur C. Brooks’s similar concern:
[I]n a democratic system, the minority is by definition the opposition. Their de facto position is fighting against the ideas of the other side. Political minorities fight against something that’s more powerful than they are. And over time, their entire self-identity can become utterly reliant on acting like the principled underdog.
–Arthur C Brooks, The Conservative Heart
In other words, conservatism could suffer from Self-defeating Personality Disorder.
From the DSM-III definition of the proposed psychological disorder:
Self-defeating personality disorder is:
A) A pervasive pattern of self-defeating behavior, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts. The person may often avoid or undermine pleasurable experiences, be drawn to situations or relationships in which they will suffer, and prevent others from helping them, as indicated by at least five of the following:
- chooses people and situations that lead to disappointment, failure, or mistreatment even when better options are clearly available
- rejects or renders ineffective the attempts of others to help them
- following positive personal events (e.g., new achievement), responds with depression, guilt, or a behavior that produces pain (e.g., an accident)
- incites angry or rejecting responses from others and then feels hurt, defeated, or humiliated (e.g., makes fun of spouse in public, provoking an angry retort, then feels devastated)
- rejects opportunities for pleasure, or is reluctant to acknowledge enjoying himself (despite having adequate social skills and the capacity for pleasure)
- fails to accomplish tasks crucial to their personal objectives despite demonstrated ability to do so, e.g., helps fellow students write papers, but is unable to write their own
- is uninterested in or rejects people who consistently treat them well
- engages in excessive self-sacrifice that is unsolicited by the intended recipients of the sacrifice
(Okay. I’m a little guilty of Number 6.)
Symptoms of the disorder present in Trump supporters I highlighted in bold.
Trump is the perfect enabler and exploiter of this condition. He proposes we fight battles an objective observer knows we’re likely to lose, like citizenship by birth. He encourages conservatives to abandon winnable principles, like fighting Obamacare, and take up dangerous and unlikely causes, such as trade wars.
I’m not saying Trump has self-defeating personality disorder. I’m saying he callously exploits the trait in others.
If final defeat of conservatism is your highest objective for conservatism–if we must destroy the movement in order to save it–then your pyrrhic victory is at hand. A Mr. Golberg concludes:
I am tempted to believe that Donald Trump’s biggest fans are not to be relied upon in the conservative cause. I have hope they will come to their senses. But it’s possible they won’t. And if the conservative movement and the Republican party allow themselves to be corrupted by this flim-flammery, then so be it. My job will be harder, my career will suffer, and I’ll be ideologically homeless (though hardly alone). That’s not so scary. Conservatism began in the wilderness and maybe, like the Hebrews, it would return from it stronger and ready to rule. But I’m not leaving without a fight. If my side loses that fight, all I ask is you stop calling the Trumpian cargo cult “conservative” and maybe stop the movement long enough for me to get off.
God help us.
On the other hand, this is just my opinion. I could be wrong.