After the election, American conservatives cannot simply pretend that Donald Trump never happened. The Republican Party must fully reject Trumpism and then reach out to voters with a brighter, most optimistic conservative message
Jonah Goldberg, addressing an Ashbrook Center event in Cleveland, Ohio back in 2014, when Donald Trump was just a loudmouth birther and not, y’know, a major party presidential candidate:
I love first principles, I’m all about first principles, I think that’s great stuff. But people forget that politics has to be about persuasion, about bringing people to your side who don’t already agree with you. Otherwise it might as well be a Civil War re-enactment club or a Dungeons & Dragons society where we just play our little roles and then we go home.
And this is something that a lot of conservatives have lost. And one of the things we have lost is the ability to tell stories.
Goldberg goes on to criticise the excessive hagiography of Ronald Reagan, pointing out that Reagan’s recent reputation as an unbelievably principled conservative who never once sullied himself with compromise actually much more closely fits Barry Goldwater – who of course went down to glorious defeat.
The point, I suppose, is that Donald Trump fails both tests. He is not a conservative – or at least he has done absolutely nothing to prove that his Damascene conversion to traditional Republican values and talking points is remotely genuine, and not simply a convenient ploy to co-opt supporters.
Worse still, Trump is incapable of telling an authentically conservative story which might actually attract and persuade undecided voters, because every time he opens his mouth to tell a story a new victimhood-soaked conspiracy theory dribbles out instead.
I also post the quote as a reminder to myself. Lord knows that I have a lot of issues with the current British Conservative Party and the direction it has gone under Cameron and May (well, really since mid-Thatcher, when I was born). But when you rant on the internet every day it is easy to preach to the choir sometimes and forget that there are some good Conservative MPs of principle out there who do want to take the country in a different, more small-L liberal direction, and who have no truck with Labour’s vacuous centrists-in-exile or Theresa May’s flirtation with authoritarianism.
But more than anything, the Goldberg quote is a reminder of the huge rebuilding exercise the Republican Party will have to do after Donald Trump. Whatever story they previously used to connect with voters, however battered and dubious it may have been, has now been utterly obliterated. Some say that the GOP can (and will) simply forget that Trump ever happened, and move on serenely. I’m not sure that will be possible – not least because many Republican grassroots members may not let it happen. They may well find an heir to Trump, and throw their support behind Trump Mark II.
Besides, this crisis represents too great an opportunity for American conservatism to re-invent itself. This blog has been intermittently banging on about the need for small government conservatism to come to terms with our modern, globalised world – a world in which supply chains and labour markets are international, and the kind of mass, semi-skilled manufacturing work which once paid well enough to support a comfortable middle class life has either permanently disappeared, or else barely pays a subsistence wage.
This is a particular challenge for conservatives, who believe in empowering the individual and restricting the overbearing hand of government. Left-wingers can simply wave their arms and promise a new government programme to retrain vast swathes of the population, or buy their silence with benefits. Conservatives do not have this luxury.
But the eventual answer will, I am sure, have to come from conservatives. Cranking up the size of the state until it is all things to all people is unsustainable, squelching innovation at best and provoking economic crisis at worst, as proven every single time it has been attempted. Globalisation continues apace and the burning question continues to go unanswered.
Perhaps, once the Republicans are finished debasing themselves by their association with Donald Trump, they might care to have a crack at solving it.
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An inspiring (if unattainable) example from across the Atlantic
How to respond to a national walkout by government employees who perform a critical job for a large organisation, and who cynically advance their demands for more money under the false banner of concern for public safety?
Ronald Reagan offers us one blueprint, from back in that dim and distant time when both Britain and America were blessed with leaders who (for their various faults and blind spots) were not afraid to lead, and to take bold and decisive action when necessary.
This is the speech Reagan gave in August 1981 when PATCO, the American air traffic controllers union, called an illegal strike (federal workers being prohibited from striking under the Taft-Hartley Act) demanding, among other things, a 32-hour work week:
This morning at 7 AM the union representing those who man America’s air traffic control facilities called a strike. This was the culmination of 7 months of negotiations between the Federal Aviation Administration and the union. At one point in these negotiations agreement was reached and signed by both sides, granting a $40 million increase in salaries and benefits. This is twice what other government employees can expect. It was granted in recognition of the difficulties inherent in the work these people perform. Now, however, the union demands are 17 times what had been agreed to – $681 million. This would impose a tax burden on their fellow citizens which is unacceptable.
I would like to thank the supervisors and controllers who are on the job today, helping to get the nation’s air system operating safely. In the New York area, for example, four supervisors were scheduled to report for work, and 17 additionally volunteered. At National Airport a traffic controller told a newsperson he had resigned from the union and reported to work because, “How can I ask my kids to obey the law if I don’t?” This is a great tribute to America.
Let me make one thing plain. I respect the right of workers in the private sector to strike. Indeed, as president of my own union, I led the first strike ever called by that union. I guess I’m maybe the first one to ever hold this office who is a lifetime member of an AFL – CIO union. But we cannot compare labor-management relations in the private sector with government. Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services which are government’s reason for being.
It was in recognition of this that the Congress passed a law forbidding strikes by government employees against the public safety. Let me read the solemn oath taken by each of these employees, a sworn affidavit, when they accepted their jobs: “I am not participating in any strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, and I will not so participate while an employee of the Government of the United States or any agency thereof.”
It is for this reason that I must tell those who fail to report for duty this morning they are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.
Obviously such a feat could not be repeated by the British government in its dealings with striking NHS staff – though the case for banning strikes by national public sector workers becomes more compelling by the day.
This blog firmly believes that the NHS model is broken and than a system conceived in the 1940s is barely adequate to the demands of the 2010s, and will be hopelessly inadequate to the demands of the 2040s. If we are to persist with a public option, then there is no reason why healthcare should continue to be provided by a monolithic government organisation, the fifth largest employer in the entire world (with all the baggage, internal politics and resistance to change which that stunning fact implies).
There is no good reason why we cannot look closely at the healthcare systems of countries such as France, Germany, Japan or Canada and redesign our system accordingly – if only we could rediscover our sense of national ambition and shed our increasingly unwarranted pride in the NHS. We could even still call the new healthcare system “the NHS” if our cult-like attachment to the brand really runs so deep.
The time is long overdue for Britain to have that national conversation, endlessly kicked down the road by politicians terrified of upsetting nervous voters and governments which have proved constitutionally incapable of daring mighty things. But first we need to overcome this peculiar, anachronistic industrial dispute – one which belongs more comfortably in 1976 than 2016 – and end the junior doctors’ strike, by imposing the current contract offered if necessary.
And in that effort, let the spirit of Ronald Reagan guide Jeremy Hunt.
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Whether we meet triumph or disaster in our national endeavours, our politicians – and their words – are no longer up to the job of inspiring us to move forward
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat”
Responding to the tragedy, which was witnessed by millions of people on live television – including many schoolchildren, for one of the astronauts was to be the first teacher in space – US president Ronald Reagan addressed the nation. He said:
We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and, perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s take-off. I know it’s hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.
[..] There’s a coincidence today. On this day three hundred and ninety years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today, we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
Two decades earlier, and another tragedy. On April 4 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was been shot and killed by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee.
On hearing the news, Robert Kennedy, then junior senator from New York, addressed a crowd of people in the open air in Indianapolis, saying:
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.
We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.
My favorite poem, my – my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
[..] And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
Now think about the last great British political speech you remember.
And don’t mention Hillary Benn huffing about Britain doing “our bit” to defeat ISIS in Syria, because competent and well delivered though it was, if that now passes for a great political speech for the ages then we are all ruined.
Imagine if David Cameron responded to some future aviation or exploration disaster by talking about slipping the surly bonds of Earth and touching the face of God. Just picture it. He would be laughed out of office – or at least mercilessly pilloried in the press – for speaking in what we would now consider to be such a pompous way. At best you might tease from him a few careless, cookie-cutter lines about the families of the victims being in our “thoughtsnprayers” (or just thoughts now, more commonly). But nothing big picture. Nothing that encourages us to look beyond ourselves for one second.
That’s because in our society today, there is nothing bigger than the Self. We are the gods of our own lives – or at least we often think so. And politicians, painfully aware of this fact, talk down to us as though we were children, always seeking to catch our eye with flashy pledges of “what’s in it for us” rather than what is necessarily good for the country, or for human liberty and progress.
Vote Labour and your NHS waiting times will go down. But don’t worry, we’ll get them to pay for it through higher taxes. Vote Conservative and your taxes will go down, and if that means fewer public services for them, so be it.
Now I’m certainly not suggesting that taxes and public spending are not important issues. But when even the Conservative Party can fight the 2015 general election on an offensively paternalistic manifesto promising “a plan for every stage of your life“, can we really deny that we have become a nation of consumers rather than citizens, more interested in who will deliver the most goodies for ourselves and the people we like than who will best steer the ship of state through challenging times?
That’s what we now expect from our prime ministers today – not a world leader, but a lowly Comptroller of Public Services. No call to arms in service of a great national goal. Nothing remotely inspirational at all. Just a checklist of things promised to us in return for our vote. I’m not assigning blame for this depressing chicken-or-egg state of affairs. But this is how our politics now works, more than ever. Less asking “what you can do for your country”, and much more emphasis on “what your country can do for you”.
Even the coming EU referendum – when the British people have a vanishingly rare opportunity to reconsider the very way that we are governed, the way we face the world and deal with the challenges and opportunities of globalisation – is being treated by the main campaign groups on either side as a parsimonious matter of saving or incurring relatively trivial sums of money, with rival (and equally ludicrous) numbers being batted back and forth by the rival camps.
It’s all so tediously depressing and uninspiring. Is it any wonder then that political apathy is on the rise, and that those of us who remain engaged increasingly opt for virulently anti-establishment parties like UKIP or the SNP? Or that with the decline of moderate religion and our failure to confidently express and transmit British values through our culture, some disaffected young Muslims, rootless and yearning to feel part of something bigger, are stealing away to Syria to fight for ISIS?
I’m a political blogger, and for my sins I sit and listen to far too many political speeches by cabinet ministers, shadow ministers and other establishment types. And to begin with, I thought that I would judge a speech according to whether it felt in any way inspirational, transcendent or like a genuine attempt to rally people toward a goal beyond their own personal enrichment and the state-sanctioned smiting of the hated “other”. A speech which, regardless of its political leaning, might set the pulse racing a little with possibility.
Well, four years later and my pulse continues to flatline. I haven’t heard a genuinely good speech yet – as in one that you might actually remember six months later or recite a key passage from – at least not one hailing from the three main parties. If anybody believes that they have heard one, please send me a link or transcript and I will be forever in your debt.
Maybe I’m just romanticising the past. Maybe in thirty years’ time when Ed Miliband’s kid is running for the leadership of the Labour Party, we will all look back on Ed’s fifteenth personal relaunch speech or David Cameron’s 2015 general election stump speech and hail them as bold, visionary masterpieces. Maybe.
But I strongly suspect that in the year 2046, anybody wanting to listen to listen to a great British political speech – with the exception of those made by firebrands like Margaret Thatcher – will have to look back in time almost a century, and certainly past the haunted late years of the 2010s.
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