It shouldn’t be breaking news when a member of your political tribe commits an act of decency. Yet when conservative author and syndicated columnist Mona Charen remarked upon the president’s misogyny during a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference, she was treated like a CNN reporter at a Donald Trump rally. Boos rained down upon her, along with threats. Politico’s chief political correspondent tweeted afterward that Charen was being led out of CPAC by security. She was being protected, not ejected.
The crowd was angry because Charen, a critic of Trump, said this about him without ever mentioning his name. “I am disappointed in people on our side for being hypocrites about sexual harassers and abusers of women, who are in our party, who are sitting in the White House, who brag about their extramarital affairs, who brag about mistreating women — and because he happens to have an ‘R’ next to his name we look the other way.” Before condemning French radical rightist and fellow CPAC speaker Marion Marechal-Le Pen, Charen spotlighted a different kind of moral turpitude. “This is a party that endorsed Roy Moore for the Senate in the state of Alabama even though he was a credibly accused child molester. You cannot claim that you stand for women and put up with that.”
Unfortunately, Charen went on to use this moment to distance herself from the cruel and openly vitriolic mess the party has become. As much as we all need more folks like Charon speaking the truth about Trump’s moral abscess, it’ll never be healed as long as conservatives like her keep asserting that their beloved movement had nothing to do with it.
Defiant in the face of harassment, Charen wrote an op-ed in The New York Times the day after making her infamous comments. It doubled as a rebuke to her haters and a sly effort to rinse her hands of what her party has become. “What happened to me at CPAC is the perfect illustration of the collective experience of a whole swath of conservatives since Donald Trump became the Republican nominee,” she wrote. “We built and organized this party — but now we’re made to feel like interlopers.”
Say what now? Martyrs are too easily made if Charen and other #NeverTrumpers are the real victims of this political moment. Charen is not alone in her selective outrage. Earlier this month, Bari Weiss, a New York Times opinion editor known for her conservative bent, tweeted, “I know I should be over it, but the speed at which the organized conservative movement became the ideological home of Marion Le Pen, Seb Gorka, Nigel Farage, Dinesh D’Souza and their ilk remains shocking to me.” Steve Schmidt, the former John McCain campaign manager, echoed Weiss in his response, writing that “sometimes I feel like a sucker who got conned by the shady salesman” ― as if the party hadn’t been shady since at least 2008, when Schmidt managed the campaign of John McCain and Sarah Palin.
There is, of course, good reason to be shocked and awed at the utter depravity that the Republican Party and conservative movement have exhibited of late. Still, folks like Charen, Weiss and Schmidt are in denial; they, like other modern Republicans, are conveniently ignoring the role they played in paving the way for a clown like Trump. These concerned Republicans appear to be more concerned about their own redemptive arcs and protecting the legacy of their sacred conservatism than about addressing their role in its degradation. Meanwhile, Trump proves that they have more in common with their president than they care to admit.
There are some #NeverTrumpers on the right, such as strategist Rick Wilson and Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, who have shown a willingness to reckon with conservatism’s true crises. But too many on the right are trying to cover themselves in glory, promoting their suddenly contrarian and anti-Trump views in a bid to cover their own asses — well beyond the moment when conservatism’s decline should’ve alarmed them.
Too many on the right are trying to cover themselves in glory, promoting their suddenly contrarian and anti-Trump views in a bid to cover their own asses.
There were plenty of opportunities for conservatives with a conscience to cause this kind of ruckus. When Trump began his political ascendance with the birther crusade against Barack Obama, for example, and Republicans like Mitt Romney kept seeking his endorsement, that might have been the right moment.
Or when the National Rifle Association took over their party, turning them into thought-and-prayer automatons as schoolchildren were slaughtered.
Perhaps they could’ve been this loud when George W. Bush was leading us into unnecessary wars, or when he was letting New Orleans rot after Hurricane Katrina (Republicans, rather than deal seriously with what went wrong during those years, have instead shucked Bush as if he hadn’t existed).
Maybe they could have raised this kind of objection when Schmidt brought Palin, a walking dog whistle, onto the national stage, paving the way for Americans to see imbeciles taken seriously (again) as potential presidents.
Or possibly when Rush Limbaugh was creating a formula for fact-optional conservative media that Fox News has run away and hid with.
Perhaps conservatives could have gotten this loud and indignant when the John Birch Society opposed every piece of civil rights legislation during the 1960s. Whereas liberals have arguably overcorrected in some cases in reaction to their own extreme elements and most obvious Democratic failures, William F. Buckley of National Review was able to cast folks like those at the Birch Society as fringe extremists without truly reckoning with what their ideologies were doing to conservatism.
And now Buckley’s heirs, the newly concerned defenders of conservatism, go on television and take to Twitter to decry the rot of their beloved party. Even the most agreeable Republican, the ones liberals love to see on MSNBC nowadays slamming the president, were doing the work that blazed the path for a demagogue.
Their denialism usually takes the form of what we saw from Charen, Weiss and Schmidt: the performance of utter incredulity at what the Republican Party has become, paired with bewilderment at how the conservative movement arrived at this point. But what the party and the conservative movement have become is the result of a lengthy project for which they now want no credit. The monster they created is alive and pillaging, and yet they not only claim that they aren’t to blame, they also insist that the thing they were working on was still good. Tell that to the many black and brown victims of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and those being targeted now by this president. Ask them how good conservatism has been to them.
Columnist Max Boot, fresh off his own horrified awakening, recently declared that if this is what conservatism has become, he’s out. But Boot has it backwards. This is when we need people like him, who semi-get it, to stay in and fight. How else will they understand how to save their beloved conservative movement from being lost? They can’t wait for a fresh Democratic opponent to get this going.
Like many on the left, I’m interested in intellectually honest political debate, which requires a healthy opposition. If the right has any hope of climbing out of the festering hole it’s dug for itself, conservatives need to acknowledge their role rather than continuing to perform shock and horror. They created this problem, whether through negligence or intelligent design. If people like Charen feel like “interlopers” in the Republican Party, it is because they don’t recognize their own handiwork.
Jamil Smith is a journalist and radio host. He covered the 2016 election for MTV News and, in addition to his HuffPost column, is a contributing opinion writer for the Los Angeles Times.