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Aren’t You Embarrassed?
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Aren’t You Embarrassed?

The endless cringe of the Trump-era right.

Donald Trump. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.)

It’s become immensely embarrassing to be a conservative in the United States.

Many of us have coped with that embarrassment by reregistering as independents. A few found it so intolerable that they changed their views on policy altogether. I’ve resisted that temptation as a matter of intellectual integrity, but I understand it. The shame one feels at being associated with the modern right might conceivably burn so hot that it can be cooled only by embracing an adversarial party.

Or, perhaps, some of those wayward conservatives who moved left did so because they no longer trust the good intentions of their former comrades. The wisdom of right-wing cultural policies may take on a different complexion when championed most visibly by authoritarians. And the leftist critique of those policies as dangerous and illiberal may hit harder.

Wherever you sit on the spectrum of disaffected right-wingers, you’re likely nagged by the sense that you’re no longer sure what your old comrades in the conservative movement are capable of. I torment myself regularly by wondering how many rank-and-file Republicans would have condoned a coup by Trump in 2020 if he had found some quasi-legal way to pull it off, giving it a patina of legitimacy.

We can debate the answer, but that debate wouldn’t take place within the parameters of “Would 5 percent have supported it or 10?” It would take place within the parameters of “Would a majority have supported it or only a near-majority?”

You might counter that I shouldn’t confuse conservatives with Republicans. As embarrassing as it may be to identify as Republican in the Trump era, there’s no reason to feel embarrassed about identifying as a member of an honorable intellectual tradition. The fact that illiberal populism has coopted America’s “conservative” party doesn’t discredit conservatism as an ideology.

I … generally agree. And so do you. You subscribe to The Dispatch, after all. If there were no difference between conservatism and Republicanism, this site wouldn’t exist, I wouldn’t be writing for it, and you wouldn’t be reading it.

But the fact that tens of millions of self-described “conservatives” voted for Trump twice and continue to support him, post-insurrection and pre-indictment (probably), should make us humble about how sturdy the intellectual pillars of conservatism are. It isn’t true that if you scratch a conservative you’ll find an authoritarian, but I also torment myself nowadays by wondering whether it’s a little truer than any of us wished. A movement that could go from ardent small-government Tea Party conservatism to a nationalist cult of personality in under a decade is a movement built on ideological sand.

Maybe conservatism—the classical liberal variety—is no longer viable culturally in modern America. Those of us who continue to favor it are little better, perhaps, than some breakaway sect of a faith that’s turned fundamentalist.

Or reverted at long last to its roots?

All of this is swirling in my head as I read about Trump’s embarrassing dinner with two well-known antisemites, Kanye West and Nick Fuentes.

“Embarrassing” is too small a word to describe it. When the leader of a major political party chooses to mainstream people given to outspoken conspiratorial criticism of Jews, one’s reaction should be stronger than to cringe.

Trump knew what he was doing, too. If he didn’t know who Fuentes was, which is plausible, some of his Very Online aides at Mar-a-Lago must have known. And he certainly knew who West was, and why West has been in the news lately

Tempers flared at the dinner, reportedly, but not because Trump confronted West and Fuentes about their politics. They flared only when West wounded the great man’s pride by asking Trump to run as his vice president in 2024. As for the other man there, “Trump liked Fuentes because he flattered him and encouraged his most pugilistic instincts,” the Washington Post noted. At one point Trump asked Fuentes whether he was part of the “fringe” of his base, which Fuentes confirmed. The dinner proceeded convivially regardless.

Afterward, amid a media firestorm, Trump’s aides encouraged him to denounce Fuentes. But he refused to do so over the course of issuing multiple damage-control statements and not just because he’s stubborn by nature.

Donald Trump repeatedly refused to disavow the outspoken antisemite and white supremacist Nick Fuentes after they spoke over dinner at his Mar-a-Lago resort, rejecting the advice from advisers over fears he might alienate a section of his base, two people familiar with the situation said.

Trump ultimately made clear that he fundamentally did not want to criticise Fuentes – a product of his dislike of confrontation and his anxiety that it might antagonise a devoted part of his base – and became more entrenched in his obstinance the more he was urged to do so.

But even with his ignorance of Fuentes taken at face value, the statements signal Trump will give extraordinary deference to the most fringe elements of his base – even if it means potentially losing support from more moderate Republicans who have not typically cared for his indulgence of extremism.

It’s more than “embarrassing” that this creature leads a movement with a large enough cohort of racists that he has to worry about jeopardizing his electoral viability if he denounces antisemitism.

But it is embarrassing, in the same special way that so many Trump-era political embarrassments are. Practically every day in modern right-wing politics you’ll encounter something that’s morally shameful yet so absurd in its particulars that it plays like comedy.

The Mar-a-Lago dinner is a sublime example. If I told you that a once and possibly future president held court with two famous Jew-baiters, you’d be mortified. But if I told you that one of those Jew-baiters was America’s most famous African American hip-hop star and his sidekick was a dweeby white nationalist incel, you’d find it hard to take seriously. The MAGA establishment is an endless freak show, and freak shows are scary—but also ridiculous.

Many memorable moments of the Trump era are like that. When I think back on them, it’s less a linear progression than a vertiginous kaleidoscope of preposterous yet sinister cringe. It’s an irreligious Trump holding up a Bible after pushing protesters out of Lafayette Park. It’s hair dye running down Rudy Giuliani’s face while conniving to overturn a national election. It’s Mike Lindell punctuating endless rants about voting machines to hawk pillows. It’s Sean Spicer bellowing that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest in history despite photographic proof to the contrary. It’s Steve Bannon in four layered collared shirts casually revealing Trump’s “Stop the Steal” plot in advance. It’s Kyle Rittenhouse walking out to virtual confetti and fireworks at a Turning Point USA event. It’s Kash Patel pushing conspiracy theories about the 2020 outcome in a children’s book. It’s grandmas and grandpas turning out for Trump rallies in “Q” tie-dye. It’s cop-punching goons carrying “Thin Blue Line” flags outside the Capitol on January 6. It’s anti-vaxxers dosing themselves with deworming medicine as a folk cure for COVID.

It’s everything that comes out of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s mouth.

It’s morally offensive but also viscerally embarrassing. It’s corny, repellent cringe. And it’s getting worse as the leader of the party recedes deeper into narcissistic delusion to cope with his momentarily diminished relevance and fear of prosecution.

On some days the embarrassment is marginal, on others it’s significant, but it’s always, always there. Open up your laptop at any given moment and you might be confronted by news of the crazy pillow guy running for chairman of the RNC or the Republican nominee for Senate in Georgia sounding incoherent. Or any number of 2020 election cranks handily winning statewide Republican primaries.

Or the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination hosting prominent antisemites for dinner at his home.

Conservatives who feel alienated from the broader American right take all of this in, day after day, and wonder of their former comrades: Aren’t you embarrassed?

Or, why aren’t you more embarrassed?

I could almost (not quite, but almost) understand swallowing the embarrassment if the GOP had a robust conservative policy agenda it hoped to enact after gaining power. It doesn’t. There’s a reason the first thing out of the mouths of House Republicans after they clinched a House majority was “something something Hunter Biden.”

“Conservatism plus endless embarrassment” might be worth voting for. Why is it still worth voting for once the “conservative” part has been removed?

And if the answer is that it beats government by Democrats, I would gently respond that conservatives believe in incentives, supposedly. Among other things, incentives are why the private sector is more responsive to the public’s desires than the public sector is. Readers may decide for themselves what sort of incentive is created for Republican officials when “embarrassment minus conservatism” is still enough to earn a vote on grounds of pure partisanship.

Some Republicans believe the right’s problems are fundamentally a “Trump problem.” Solve that problem in the next presidential primary and you’re on your way to rebuilding a respectable coalition.

Maybe. Excising Trump would improve things, I agree. President DeSantis won’t be having Kanye and Nick over for dinner.

He and every other Republican officeholder will still wrestle with the fact that, at a minimum, a huge minority of Republican primary voters will have cast their ballots for Trump in 2024, warts and all. Despite the insurrection, despite his chronic conspiracy theorizing and QAnon flirtations, despite his legal jeopardy, despite his bonhomie with anti-semitic pals, something close to half the party will inevitably vote for another four years of this freak show.

That’s why Trump reportedly worried about how it would play if he harshly denounced West and Fuentes. In one of his statements about the Mar-a-Lago dinner he claimed to have advised West not to run for president because “any voters you may have should vote for TRUMP.” As Semafor noted, “It’s telling that Trump himself raised concerns that West — in the middle of an antisemitic meltdown — would split the MAGA vote by running for president in 2024. When West ran in 2020, Republican operatives were eager to get him on the ballot. What changed?”

Only Trump himself knows how large or small he believes the “fringe” of his base to be, but it’s large enough in his mind that he’s been careful not to offend them since he first ran for president, even at the cost of alienating swing voters.

The uncertain size of that “fringe” also helps explain why few Republican officeholders have said anything about Trump’s rendezvous with West and Fuentes. Some are quiet because they don’t want to poke the big orange bear and make an enemy of him needlessly. But others may be silent because they just don’t know where right-wing base voters in an age of populist-nationalism stand on subjects like “Jewish control of the media.” Kevin Williamson wrote not long ago of the GOP, “Does it just happen to end up hand-in-glove with Q-Anon kookery — with every quack, charlatan, cretin, crackpot, tiki-torch Nazi, and Brideshead-cosplaying dork across the fruited plain — or is there something profoundly wrong with this organization, its animating spirit, and its people?” Even Republican officials aren’t sure anymore, I suspect.

Still, the reason most of them are keeping their heads down this week is that criticizing West and Fuentes would align them with the wrong people, specifically members of the left and the media. If two antisemites are friends of Trump and enemies of Democrats, any Republican who likewise treats them as enemies will be thought guilty of betraying the party. And the louder the criticism from the left is, the deeper the betrayal would be. As a wise pundit once said, a “strong man is a dishonorable man, ruthless in pursuit of his goals and untroubled by the civic hobby horses of weaklings.” Trump is untroubled by his meeting with West and Fuentes; a Republican who sides with the left in believing he should be troubled is therefore guilty of weakness.

And so, because spiting the libs trumps basic decency as a modern right-wing norm, Ilhan Omar’s party gets to posture as taking antisemitism more seriously than the right does.

Aren’t you embarrassed?

The most notable quote about the Mar-a-Lago dinner came from a longtime Trump adviser who spoke to NBC. “This is a f—ing nightmare,” he said. “If people are looking at [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis to run against Trump, here’s another reason why.”

From the fearful anonymity of the source to the concern about power rather than morals, it’s how the modern GOP operates to a T.

But it also reminds me of something I occasionally marvel at. Has there ever been a major public figure surrounded by a worse collection of human beings than Trump?

I don’t mean figures like James Mattis, Pat Cipollone, and bureaucrats who went to work for him in hopes of keeping the executive branch on the straight and narrow. And I don’t mean the sort of Republican voter who held their nose and very reluctantly preferred him to Democrats in 2016 and 2020, pre-insurrection.

I mean the people who are drawn to him and what he stands for and work for him at high levels, out of enthusiasm. Can you name me a single prominent figure in the MAGA Cinematic Universe of whom you’d say, “That person seems like a level-headed, basically moral, civic-minded average Joe”? Trolls, grifters, proto-fascists—Trump is an honest-to-God dookie magnet. (I’d use a stronger term but this is The Dispatch.) It’s almost miraculous. 

And so none of us should be surprised to see Kanye West and Nick Fuentes welcomed at Mar-a-Lago for an impromptu dinner with the president, even if Trump’s own views about Jews are somewhat more complicated, shall we say, than theirs are. He’s the star at the center of an immense populist solar system, an enormous constellation of cranks gravitating toward and forever in orbit around him. This is who he is. And it’s who he’ll be, even more so, in a second term when he’ll no longer need to worry about reelection.

That’s the choice that’ll be before Republican primary voters in 2024. Maybe they’ll feel sufficiently embarrassed next time to do something different. But if they don’t, what are we to conclude about the redeemability of this party?

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.