Normal human beings read thrillers or romances on vacation; newspaper columnists assign themselves political polemics.
Judged by their covers, the two books that I chose to spoil my August days seem as different as their authors. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s “Conscience of a Conservative” is the lament of a NeverTrump politician for his party’s loss of principle and honor. Dinesh D’Souza’s “The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left” is a jujitsu exercise that argues that only Donald Trump’s GOP can “denazify” a USA in thrall to liberal totalitarianism.
But the two books are also sometimes weirdly similar, making them respectable and disreputable embodiments of the same crisis in the right-wing mind.
Flake borrows his title from Barry Goldwater’s famous 1960 statement of libertarian principle, a response to big government hubris and a foundational text for the conservatism that eventually elected Ronald Reagan. For Flake, as for many Republican critics of the current president, Goldwater-to-Reagan conservatism is the true faith that Trump has profaned, to which the right must return if it wishes to be public-spirited again.
With that return in mind, Flake envisions a less populist and blustering and bigoted party, which would offer “the simple, strong ideas of limited government and economic freedom.” His imagined GOP would no longer need to “ascribe the absolute worst motives” to liberals, “traffic in outlandish conspiracy theories,” or otherwise engage in the kind of demagogy that informs, well, Dinesh D’Souza’s recent work.
D’Souza’s latest plea-for-attention title isn’t false advertising: His book really does attempt to pin just about every crime in our nation’s history, plus certain famous German crimes as well, on the left and Democrats (categories used interchangeably and ahistorically throughout).
Because D’Souza has a debater’s gifts, his wild argument is piled atop a legitimate foundation. The historical relationship between progressive politics and various evils — racism, anti-Semitism, imperialism, eugenics, authoritarianism — that liberals prefer to pin exclusively on the right is complicated and sometimes damning, and that ideological history shapes progressivism still.
But because D’Souza has become a hack, even his best material basically just rehashes Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism” from 10 years ago, and because D’Souza has become a professional deceiver, what he adds are extraordinary elisions, sweeping calumnies and laughable leaps.
To pick just one example: It would be nonsense at any juncture to argue that because famed Indian-fighter Andrew Jackson was a Democrat and the Nazis admired the expulsion of the Indians, contemporary Democrats are basically Nazis. To make the argument during a Republican presidency that has explicitly laid claim to Andrew Jackson even as Democrats disavow Old Hickory is so bizarre that the term “big lie” might be usefully applied.
So D’Souza’s book embodies the outrageous right-wing style that Flake’s book condemns. Which makes it all the more striking when D’Souza, the Trump-defending huckster, comes around to many of the same economic policy prescriptions as Flake, the Trump-abjuring would-be statesman. Whether in the name of honorable libertarianism or frenzied “I’m not saying they’re Nazis, but they’re Nazis” anti-liberalism, the senator and the demagogue both think that conservatives need to ... cut social programs in order to cut taxes on the rich.
That striking agreement distills conservatism’s crisis. As Flake’s sharpest critics on the right have pointed out, a simple “cut the safety net to pay for upper-bracket tax cuts” agenda is both wildly unpopular and a nonresponse to our present socioeconomic problems.
Indeed, its unpopularity and anachronism is precisely the reason that Trump, with his Jacksonian populism, was able to defeat so many of Flake’s fellow Republicans on his way to the GOP nomination — because he alone was not bound by right-wing ideological correctness. But now, as a weak and corrupt and unpopular president, those constraints have come to imprison him as well.
So long as they are not broken, the GOP has two options. It can follow Flake’s lead and be a high-minded party of small-government principle, disavowing bigotry and paranoia — and it will lose elections, because purist libertarianism plus supply-side economics is not a winner in the current crisis.
Or it can follow D’Souza’s lead (and Trump’s, now that his populist agenda seems all-but-dead) and wrap unpopular economic policies in wild attacks on liberalism. With this combination, the Republican Party can win elections, at least for now — not because most Americans can be persuaded that liberals are literally Nazis, but because liberalism’s intolerant and utopian tendencies make people fear the prospect of granting progressives political power to match their cultural hegemony.
Winning this way is a purely negative achievement for the right, a recipe for failed governance extending years ahead.
But for Republicans to escape this future, they need their leaders and activists and donors to have an intellectual epiphany, and to realize that the way up from Trumpism requires rethinking the policies where Jeff Flake and Dinesh D’Souza find a strange sort of common ground.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.