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In column about Biden, Bret Stephens gives a conservative critique of Trump

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Donald Trump
We’ve used the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to discuss American ideological and policy matters for my entire life, but I’ve often been struck by the fuzziness of both terms.

In fact, “liberal,” which means sort of center-left in American usage, means pretty far right in many other countries. Conservative used to refer to a perhaps healthy reluctance to change things too radically or too fast.

With the Trump takeover of the supposedly more conservative of our two major parties, the idea that there is anything cautious about the Trumpian version of conservatism, or “Republicanism” in a tradition that has meant many things from Lincoln to Reagan, is now laughable. If Trumpism is the latest model of conservatism, the term has lost any connection to what I thought of as the enduring meaning of conservatism.

Which brings me to a fine illustration of the difference between old-fashioned principled, rational conservatism – the kind that I, as a lifelong “liberal,” have long respected if not embraced, as opposed to the bizarre new Trumpist version of the C-word. 

It came in a Saturday column by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who has been classified as a “conservative” voice in the Times lineup, but who now finds himself hoping for a Joe Biden presidency in 2021 because, while Bernie Sanders is way too far  left for Stephens, he seems to hold the prospect of four more years of the current incumbent as equally dreadful.

Personally, I don’t share his dread of Sanders. And even those who think Sanders’ brand of “democratic socialism” is too extreme should take comfort that many of his leftiest ideas could not be enacted by any Congress likely to be elected in the foreseeable future. 

But Stephens’ column, above all, was a conservative’s list of problems and horrors that the election of an old-fashioned moderately liberal Biden would spare the country from, compared with four more years of the incumbent, who, in Stephens’ expert conservative opinion, is no conservative at all.

An excerpt from that portion of his argument, from Stephens’ column of Saturday:

If Biden wins the White House, I won’t have to worry about the president trying to criminalize his political opponent. Not with demagogic chants of ‘Lock her up,’ nor with quiet attempts to strong-arm an ally for the sake of digging up dirt on an American citizen. I won’t have to worry about White House officials being forced to choose between their ethical obligations and their loyalty to the president. I won’t have to worry about an attorney general who chooses loyalty over obligation — and, a year later, is bluntly reprimanded by a Republican-appointed federal judge for doing so.

If Biden wins, I won’t have to fear that the president might order the abrogation of a free-trade agreement with a major trading partner — only for a watchful adviser to snatch the order from his desk before he can sign it. I won’t have to read about frantic aides wondering if the president is really serious about his threats to withdraw the U.S. from NATO. I won’t have to cross my fingers hoping that a clever general will convince the president that the reason we shouldn’t betray our desperate Kurdish allies in Syria is so we can keep the oil. …

If Biden wins, I will write column after column opposing him on policy grounds. But at least I’ll feel relief that the American people didn’t vindicate Trumpism and the nativism and meanness it represents. …

If Biden wins, it will not mean a great American presidency. It will mean a decent one. That will be more than enough for me.

The full Stephens column is viewable here.

I’m sure I don’t agree with Stephens on many substantive policy issues. But I hope his column represents the thinking of enough rational conservatives of good conscience to make a difference in November.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/09/2020 - 09:39 am.

    “…I hope his column represents the thinking of enough rational conservatives of good conscience to make a difference in November.”

    As do I.

  2. Submitted by BK Anderson on 03/09/2020 - 09:57 am.

    Waiting for “rational conservatives” (I won’t make the obvious swipe about the oxymoron) to show up is simply Waiting for Godot.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/09/2020 - 12:16 pm.

    All well and good, but it misses the real point. he personality traits and stylistic flaws that these conservatives bemoan is exactly what makes Trump so appealing to his followers. They like it when he calls names. They like it when he insults anyone he feels like. They like it when he ignores the norms of governance that the United States has followed throughout its existence (the real American exceptionalism).
    How many times have you heard it said that Trump “says what we’re thinking”? Or that he won’t let “political correctness” stand in the way (in the way of what? Offending as many as possible?)? Trumps supporters like and admire the fact that he’s a lawless thug.
    It speaks volumes about them.

    • Submitted by Steve Roth on 03/09/2020 - 12:28 pm.

      During Trump’s government shutdown, when it was affecting people of all political persuasions, I saw an interview with a Trump supporter who was having financial issues due to it. She said, “he’s not hurting the people he’s supposed to hurt.”

      That right there speaks volumes, doesn’t it?

  4. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/09/2020 - 03:36 pm.

    I don’t know what a conservative is, best guess, folks that want to trash the constitution and drag us back to the early 1800’s where industry and advantaged white man rule was the law of the day.

  5. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 03/09/2020 - 04:19 pm.

    I do not agree with the description of Eric’s “old-fashioned moderately liberal Biden.”
    A Monday article from Axios, authored by Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen, states that Biden and his advisers are considering Jamie Dimon for Treasury Secretary and Mike Bloomberg to head the World Bank. Even thinking of these two men as possibilities should cause concern about a Biden administration.

    • Submitted by David Markle on 03/09/2020 - 06:01 pm.

      Concerns, yes, certainly, but lesser than those about the Trump administration or of the other alternative (the old guy who favors state control of the means of production),

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/09/2020 - 07:31 pm.

      Not to get cross wise, But Dimon & Bloomberg are some pretty smart guys. or would we prefer more Pence, Kudlow types?

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/10/2020 - 09:44 pm.

        Jeez it’s guys like Dimon that lead us into the worst recession since the 30’s. Then, guys like that bailed out the banks & let home owners drown. This neo-liberal response is what tank the Clinto campaign & lead us to Don Trump.

        We don’t need the Goldman Sachs Wall Street crowd running the show again. No to Bob Rubin. No to Larry Summers. No to Dimon.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/10/2020 - 06:03 am.

      Egads, Jamie Dimon??? Larry Summers would be better.

      Progressives will need to work for Biden, then keep the heat on him. No letting up like they did with Obama. Rham Emanuel told progressives, “Shut up, at least you have a seat at the table.” We need to not keep quiet this time.

      Well behaved progressives rarely make history.

  6. Submitted by Mike Chrun on 03/09/2020 - 04:41 pm.

    Near as I can tell, the great leader’s strength comes mainly from “stick it to the lefties.” The cultists see no danger to the country and the Constitution is pretty much a meaningless document to them as long as feminists, blacks, immigrants, tree huggers, government workers, teachers, socialists, bicycle riders, etc. are kept in their place. Well, meaningless other than the part that lets them have firearms with as few restrictions as possible. Tax breaks, judges, and abortion are at play also; but the more and more the buffoonery is totally ignored, it is apparent that the most important thing is to beat the Obama voters.

  7. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/09/2020 - 09:16 pm.

    As Amy Klobuchar is described as a “moderate” in the Democratic Party, I think that Mr. Stephens might be best described as a “moderate” at the Times.

  8. Submitted by BK Anderson on 03/10/2020 - 08:22 am.

    The other problem with Stephens’ (too-little, too late) alarm over our poor-man’s Fuhrer is that Trumpism is the natural and logical endpoint of the American “conservative” movement. Of course an irrational, militarist, anti-democratic, anti-environmental, presidentialist, science-denigrating, plutocrat-worshiping, minority-bashing, spiteful political movement would ultimately result in reactionary autocratic white nationalism that seeks to rule via minority faction.

    Now, like the cynical police inspector Claude Rains in Casablanca, Stephens is “shocked, shocked to find virulent fascism operating in this establishment!” You loved the anti-democratic conservative transformation of the Supreme Court, the almost inconceivable fiscal misrule, the pro-gun extremism, and the complete deregulation of the economy, Brett; it now seems rather churlish to bemoan the flawed vessel that gave all those wonderful “conservative” policies to you!

    Conservatives will not turn on Trump in any appreciable numbers, just as they did not turn on Bush Jr after he lied the nation into an illegal war of aggression. This is because reactionary Strongman Trump is what the conservative movement has been working towards for decades.

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