Trump, the Boy Scout Jamboree, and Conservativism’s New Celebration of Crudeness
There’s obviously been an awful lot of awfulness in the past decade, especially in the last two years, but Monday night’s Trump appearance at the Boy Scout Jamboree in WV highlights in a unique way how conservatives have migrated from professed defenders of culture, decency and virtue to attackers of those ideals.
Back when I first started following politics in the late ‘80’s the Republican Party ostensibly believed in certain ideals, liking to portray itself as the party of morality, standing against a Democratic Party that advocated on behalf of sexual depravity, R-rated movies and moral relativism.
At the same time, and in some conflict with this moralizing posture, Republicans began to criticize “political correctness”. Conservative Republicans especially regarded “political correctness” as a trend by liberals to make what conservatives thought was wrong, seem right; or conversely, the attempt to apply a new liberal moral code in opposition to things conservatives felt were right (say, guns for instance).
These somewhat contradictory features of modern Conservatism existed somewhat uneasily for most of the past decades, but a series of Republican Party presidential standard bearers more or less managed to keep the party’s political tone respectable. Think George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush as prime examples. These leaders were willing to countenance dirty politics as a means to an end (recall the Willie Horton ad, Father Bush’s attack on Michael Dukakis’ patriotism amidst a debate over the Pledge of Allegiance).
But the Party’s reputation for virtue and desire to purify the culture of its decadent aspects was important to them and a stated rationale of their campaigns. Once the campaign seasons ended, most Republicans joined with Democrats, in varying degrees, to establish some sort of working, civil order, where the public good was emphasized (think George W Bush’s unwillingness to label Islam and Muslims in general as the enemy after 9/11).
That’s all now out the window. The emergence of Donald Trump and his takeover of the Republican Party has created the space for a new culture of rhetorical destruction and political smearing that extends beyond the bounds of normal campaigning and has spilled over into the times and spaces between elections and in all contexts: In short, DJT is politicizing everything, and in so doing, eschewing most policy-related criticisms of rivals to make the crude, the nasty, the vulgar attacks on opponents (both past and present) the starring act in the play. And his audience and supporters are lapping it up.
Conservatives in the Era of Trump have embraced a new moral relativism based on the desire to be able to say anything about anyone at any time regardless of the impact. To restrict their vulgarity is to be a practitioner of that least desirable of all political and social traits, Political Correctness. Against PC, Republicans now appear to believe, anything goes, anything is permissible. Hillary Clinton’s use of the term “deplorable” to describe some Trump supporters became for Trump’s most fervent followers, a term of endearment to be worn proudly on one’s social media avatar, rather than as a term to be shunned or denied.
Not all Republicans, and not even all Conservatives subscribe to this of course. And I think the continued opposition represented by GOP pundits, campaign managers and officials, from Anna Navarro and Bill Kristol, to John Weaver and Stuart Stevens, to John Kasich, to name a few, illustrates how many Republicans and perhaps former Republicans recognize the shift in cultural norms I have alluded to above. I hope more will eventually sign on and make their opposition known.
For Democrats the new Republican crudeness represents an opportunity to reclaim the mantle of moral decency—at least regarding how the public has long viewed the two parties. But to the extent enough of the public follows Trump’s lead in Making America Crude Again, our culture and political climate suffer.
And in the meantime, as Trump’s speeches continue to attack and belittle members of the opposition (and even his own cabinet and party in Congress), his cheering audiences need to be held accountable, or to at least be challenged to explain how their acceptance and collusion with the new Republican, Trumpian crudeness and ugliness can be acceptable in an America we all hope exists to elevate the condition of mankind.