American Conservatism: Self-Interested Players Hurt Movement

Supporters of President Donald Trump at a “Stop the Steal” protest in Lansing, Mich., November 14, 2020. (Emily Elconin/Reuters)

Foot soldiers who place their own interests above the truth are hurting the cause.

Is American conservatism an unserious movement? Ned Ryun, the founder and CEO of American Majority, a 501(c)3 that “trains, organizes, mobilizes, and equips new grassroots conservative leaders,” certainly thinks so. In American Greatness, Ryun blasts the Republican Party for failing to construct a working national election system, and conservative donors for pouring money into institutions such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute — money that Ryun believes would have been better spent on American Majority.

It is certainly true that the conservative movement is plagued by grifters who take far more from the cause than they give. National Review’s own Jim Geraghty has written in detail about the problem of political action committees that exist ostensibly to elect conservatives but in truth just enrich their administrators. But are policy shops, whatever doubts one might have about their efficacy, really the chief roadblock to shifting the country rightward? I think not.

A fundamental unseriousness is, as Ryun suggests, a huge part of what holds back conservatives in this country. But the sources of that unseriousness are not what he thinks. He writes, for example, that “We [conservatives] meekly submitted to a mail-in ballot system which nearly all civilized nations, ones even the Left recognizes as among the most advanced, rejected decades ago.” His alternative to accepting that mail-in ballots would be used more widely in 2020 than ever before as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has now claimed over 250,000 American lives, is unclear. Elections are run by the states, and even if the federal government saw fit to intervene, Republicans would have been impeded by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and very possibly by the courts.

In truth, the movement’s unseriousness is best exemplified not by its failure to stop the expansion of mail-in voting, but by its attempts to argue that voter fraud cost President Trump a second term. Ryun, while careful not to make this argument explicitly, clearly implies it. Elsewhere, conservatives have been much less circumspect.

In Georgia, where President-elect Joe Biden squeaked out a win over Trump, Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are calling for the head of a fellow Republican, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, for crimes they are unable to articulate. In court in Michigan, Rudy Giuliani, a little more than a week removed from holding a press conference in front of a Philadelphia landscaping business, has asked a judge what “strict scrutiny” means, while his boss continues to falsely claim that more people voted in Detroit than actually live there. Meanwhile, fundraising emails sent by the Trump campaign — ostensibly meant to finance Giuliani’s legal efforts — admit in the fine print that most contributions will be spent retiring campaign debt.

Serious conservative voices — Henry Olsen at the Washington Post, Andy McCarthy and the aforementioned Geraghty here at National Review — have explained that, yes, voter fraud exists but, no, it did not hand Joe Biden the presidency. Noah Rothman at Commentary rightly blasted the president’s efforts to litigate his way to a win as a “flailing tantrum” with “no modern analog.” For this, he was mocked by The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, who, like Ryun, resists going full #StopTheSteal but appears mostly untroubled by the conduct of the Trump campaign and the president himself. Rothman’s real sin, Hemingway says, is that back in 2017 he dared to criticize Donald Trump Jr. for attempting to gather dirt on Hillary Clinton from a lawyer with ties to the Russian government. This, she writes, “helped contribute to the Russia collusion hoax at a time conservative readers were desperate for assistance in fighting the false narrative.”

Perhaps it’s the impulse of people like Ryun and Hemingway to coddle “conservative readers,” not contributions to think tanks or a supposed failure to ensure the integrity of our elections, that stains the conservative movement with unseriousness. For far too many pundits and politicians on the right, it has become profitable to either outright embrace or at least entertain conspiracy theories such as Trump’s stolen-election narrative. Instead of stating the obvious — the president lost the 2020 election because he ran an undisciplined campaign, mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, and turned off swing voters with four years of exhausting antics — they pretend that it is eminently reasonable to believe he only lost because of a vast, multi-state conspiracy to steal the race for Biden. Why? Because it’s what many Republicans want to hear and believe.

There are plenty of arguments to be had and actions to be taken regarding the various issues Ryun references in his own piece — Election integrity, “Big Tech,” immigration, education. But it’s difficult to imagine much progress being made on these issues when so many in the conservative leadership class are busy denying the GOP the chance at an honest 2020 post-mortem by egging on the behaviors that led to Trump’s loss. When a movement’s foot soldiers place their own financial and professional interests above the truth, unseriousness — and worse — can’t be far behind.

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