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The Shock Troops: Never Trumpers and right-wing agitprop

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DB here:

To my usual morning news mix, I’ve lately added Twitter feeds. I don’t like Twitter and don’t participate myself, but I enjoy checking the streams issuing from Never Trumpers, particularly those allied with the Lincoln Project [2]. Should I join Twitter? Nah. That would take away the small pleasure of typing into Google: Rick Wilson twit, George Conway twit, David Frum twit

These streams have many virtues. For one thing, they often tip me to scandalous stories before the august papers have caught on. For another, the Never Trumpers attract the sort of disrespectful exchanges that represent the spontaneous genius of the American people. Viz:

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Just as attractive to me is the cast of characters. Rick Wilson [4], striving to become the Dr. Hunter S. Thompson of the 2010s, can write good polemic. His most scabrous stuff is reserved for his Daily Beast column [5] but can be glimpsed in tweet-size doses and heard on the New Abnormal podcast [6] (liberally salted with the f-word, so you know he’s damn sincere). George Conway [7], mysteriously still cohabiting with the Kraken Queen of the Trump regime, strives for a modicum of dignity. He pursued, with a fervor that he never lets you forget, the startling thesis that Trump is deeply nuts. Steve Schmidt [8], he of the orotund tones and rolling parallel syntax, wants to come off as a Roman senator daring the barbarians to fling a spear his way.

They all like dogs.

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David Frum [12], who accurately predicted the Trump coronavirus policy (“Take the punch” [13]), has written A Very Serious Book [14] and when not pushing his latest podcast appearance, offers free autographed bookplates [15]. The very conceit that people want books, let alone want sticky paper to paste in them, carries a certain charm. But then Frum comes from Canada.

Wisconsin’s Rush Limbaugh [16] Charlie Sykes, waking up to realize that his listeners were just waiting for him to go full Trump, [17] has left our verdant COVID landscape to run The Bulwark [18], the newest outpost of desperate neocon hopes. Jennifer Rubin [19] has been a traveler on the anti-Trump train ever since Mitt (Quiet Rooms) Romney fizzled out. Her current WaPo columns make her sound like a 60s protest marcher. A “small-l liberal party” [20] must

defend democratic institutions, address yawning gaps in wealth and opportunity, integrate into a global economy, tackle systemic problems such as climate change and racism, root out corruption and cronyism, and exercise leadership in a world in which illiberal regimes are increasingly aggressive and confident.

No mention of women, LBGQT, or global warming, but give her time. Those columns don’t write themselves. Actually, come to think of it, they do.

Another WaPo fixture, fedora-wearing Max Boot, [21] has seen the light too, and of course produced a book about it [22]. Bringing up the rear is the smirking, reliably ineffectual William Kristol [23], whose latest hand-wringing column ponders whether the Republican Party should be crushed to powder [24]. Result: Maybe? Maybe not! Who knows?

Many of these Never Trumpers have gained media purchase through the green rooms (now green screens) of CNN and MSNBC. In this last venue, perpetually pert Nicolle Wallace, former fixture of the Bush White House and now surrogate for COVID Moms, blasts fire at the GOP.

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Those of us who think that the biggest threats to civilization are guns, religion, and Republicans might believe that we have true allies in this swaggering brigade of old GOP buccaneers. Seeing them Zooming in from luxurious quarters (check Schmidt’s ocean view) paid for in the blood of losing Democratic candidates might be unsettling, but perhaps they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Have they not put their very particular set of skills [26] to the task of unseating Trump? Haven’t they reconciled themselves to installing Biden? Have not some committed their energies to wiping the current version of the Republican Party from the public sphere altogether?

 

Non-Soviet montage

When not writing columns and filling podcast hours, some are becoming media renegades, launching guerrilla raids through video broadsides. They have joined progressive groups like VoteVets [27] in assailing Trump’s failure. Here the Lincoln Project [28] is the leader, although it’s joined by initiatives from less self-publicizing cadres: Republican Voters Against Trump [29], The Meidas Touch [30], and other groups.

I suspect that what has rallied Never Trumpers to Black Lives Matter and the turmoil in the streets are the waves of irrefutable evidence of systematic police brutality. Spinmeisters trying to be public intellectuals, they are supersensitive to the power of images and sounds. They have created viral ads for decades, and now history is giving them a mountain of material to play with. Even if they’re genuinely revulsed by what their former party has done to our society, there’s the itch of  tradecraft: time to try out new blades for shiv-in-the-ribs politics.

What’s fascinating to me as a film researcher is how those efforts exploit the conventions of left-wing agitprop from the silent era onward. True, sometimes they resort to classic documentary techniques, such as the hammering voice-over that instructs you what to think. Here’s one of the most spine-tingling, a Lincoln Project spot going after Trump’s legislative bootlickers.

And here’s the Lincoln Project’s “Mourning in America.”

At the visual level, the slamming cuts and pounding titles recall Soviet Montage techniques. Thanks to these devices, often there’s no need for voice-over at all. The image/ sound juxtapositions do the work, in the manner displayed in Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig. An instance is the way  the Meidas Touch wields the First Daughter’s voice-over against her.

Sometimes just parallel editing does the trick. In Kino-Eye (1924) [31], Dziga Vertov juxtaposed a sequence showing mental patients with one showing petty criminals working outside the interests of the state. The same tactic of side-by-side comparison can  be repurposed for Internet skirmishes.

Nice to see people who hate Leninism using dialectical montage.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I enjoy this spray of media shrapnel. Democrats have not understood the nature of the threat posed by Republicans, going way back. The 1964 “daisy ad” [32] was the last time I remember them playing hardball. (Was Hillary, then a Goldwater Girl, traumatized by it?) Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” The Never Trumper agitki reply: When they go low, we press their cheek into the pavement, jam our knee on their throat, and glare at the camera, as if to say, “You’re next.”

But let’s remember some things. The Never Trumpers were loyal Republicans through the years of Agnew, Haldeman, Erlichman, Mitchell, Atwater, Luntz, Rove, Ailes, Buchanan, Gingrich,  the two Bushes, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Boehner, Graham, the “Young Guns,” the Tea Party, and early McConnell. They ceaselessly upbraided Obama for golfing and wearing a tan suit, while introducing the public to a word seldom used before. [33]

Wilson worked on the detestable campaign against Max Cleland [34]. While writing hilariously mistaken columns for the Times, Kristol was key in giving us Sarah Palin [35], the proto-Trump. Another Palin fan, Steve Schmidt was a close ally of Cheney’s and helped install Alito and Roberts [36] on the Supreme Court. Frum’s stint in the Bush White House included vigorous commitment [37]to the Iraq war.

Conway, a Federalist Society stalwart, lived in Trump Tower and with Ann Coulter scrutinized Bill Clinton’s groin anatomy [38]. Choking up in the forthcoming A Duty to Warn [39] documentary Unfit [40], he says that only recently did he realize that Trump is a racist. Cheerleading Republicans from the ramparts of WaPo in 2015, Jennifer Rubin suspended her support for Mitt (Binders Full of Women) Romney long enough to praise Wisconsin’s own Scott Walker [41]  as presidential timber:

Whether he’s successful or not, the potential addition of Walker to the race is a plus for the GOP and a sign that the party has a new generation of stars ready for the national stage.

True, Max Boot was among the first to use the F-word [42] (no, not that one) in describing candidate Trump.

Trump is a fascist. And that’s not a term I use loosely or often. But he’s earned it.

Yet this assessment didn’t stop Boot from hoping that Trump would correct the Middle East errors of the Obama years. Praising [43] Trump’s choice of  “the thoughtful new secretary of defense, General Jim Mattis”–now long gone–Boot has his fingers crossed:

Let’s hope that the Trump team carefully studies—and with an open mind—what went wrong under Obama.

It’s those open-minded fascists we need.

 

Coming off the bench

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©Steve Sack, at The Week [45] (2017).

A large part of what irks the Never Trumpers is the career criminal’s bodacious bad manners, what the base loves and what the more discreet call his “character.” Run the tape of history backward, though, and delete Trump. If we had President Kasich or President Rubio or President Haley or even President Cruz, we would have the same rollback of regulations, the same planting of incompetent judges, the same tax windfalls for the wealthiest, the same efforts to wipe out DACA and Obamacare, and the same rise in inequality. How many Never Trumpers would object? Trump just brought a machete and noise to the amputations the GOP would have preferred to conduct more surgically in quiet rooms.

Proof of their intransigence is the ceaseless veneration of Reagan. I have yet to find among the Never Trumpers’ voluminous output a single repudiation of this disastrous president. If he came back from the grave, they would be right alongside him, castigating “welfare queens” and declaring, in the midst of tens of thousands of deaths, that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”  [46] Cute enough to recruit college Republicans, but not a motto for managing a pandemic and a depression.

As for Trump’s criminal conduct, do we need to be reminded of Iran-Contra, or the S & L fiasco, or the 2008 economic collapse? Trump is a gangster, but the GOP has never shied away from the grift. As Brecht puts it: What is robbing a bank compared to founding a bank? And yes, Trump commuted the sentence of Roger Stone–in the grand tradition of Gerald Ford pardoning Nixon and George W. Bush commuting the sentence of Scooter Libby.

I suggest that the Never Trumpers hose themselves down and stop using the “pure conservative” excuse. They should stop bemoaning the loss of the sort of civil debate they never fostered. They should admit that for sixty years the Republican party has been a home to reaction and repression.

In defending their support of conservative “principles,” the Never Trumpers want us to forget that they ignored the practical consequences of putting the GOP in power: the ransacking of civil society undertaken by corporations, lobbyists, and enterprising bandits. The party’s assault on Obama made little sense in terms of principle; he was practically the last Rockefeller Republican left in DC. Moreover, the GOP attacks displayed flagrant racism long before Trump came on the scene.

In the light of this, it’s implausible to think that all those Representatives and Senators suddenly turned pusillanimous on 6 November 2016. Trump’s dialing of everything up to 11 forced his acolytes in the House and Senate to reveal what they have always been, and what they managed to coat with bland politesse for decades.

So the Never Trumpers should stop chattering about rebuilding that infested party or creating something fresh and pure, and admit that all the diversity they claim to prize can be found within the Democratic party and outside it in a range of liberal, radical, and centrist organizations. Right now, in the world we inhabit, the US Republican party is simply an indulgence that no civilization can afford.

More broadly, since they claim to be interested in Big Ideas, the Never Trumpers should admit that conservatism is at bottom simply a defensive reaction to dispossessed and exploited people coming forward to demand equality and a measure of humanity. Blather about “limited government” and “sane fiscal policy” has always been simply cover for the exercise of power–and now everybody but The Bulwark admits it. Trump is not a betrayal of neoconservatism. He came to fulfill it. He embodies the Reagan mandate: “Government doesn’t work. Elect us and we’ll prove it.”

So, yes, savor along with me powerful videos eviscerating Trump and his sycophants. Hope, as I do, that mockery and indignation and sheer fatigue [47] will sway some of those voters who might admit that they were abysmally stupid in 2016. (Those of us who despise the Clintons still saw the difference between herpes and cancer.) And continue to work, however we can, to keep our society from spiraling into despair.

Just don’t treat the Never Trumpers as anything but what they are. They are our Hessians, our Blackwater special ops, our Shock Troops of Death. Eager to crawl to the front lines and slit throats at nightfall, to become relevant once more, they should be praised for coming to our aid. But when we really needed their particular skills was in the decades leading up to our current catastrophe. Then they failed us.

They’re willing to be cannon fodder, and I’m glad. But assuming we come through this, they should be sent back to their beachfronts. The dogs are waiting.


This blog entry was written early in the day of President™ Trump’s 14 July News conference [48]. After that gibbering display, which ought to provide enough lunacy for a dozen opposition ads, I have to say that he may self-destruct before the Never Trumper brigades get the final boot in.

The one Never Trumper I know who has shrieved himself properly appears to be another cashiered GOP hack, Stuart Stevens. He has a forthcoming book (of course) with the intriguingly frank title It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump [49]. I reserve judgment until I’ve read it, but it could point the way toward some truth-and-reconciliation confessionals to come.

Other comments related to the Trump regime are here [50], here [51], and here [52].

P.s. 17 July 2020: In a similar, but nastier vein, there’s this interview with Rick Wilson [53]and some cartoon characters. Thanks to Diane Verma for the link.

P.P.S. 21 July 2020: In the same spirit, from the never-surrendering Elie Mystal [54].

P.P.P.P.S 22 July: A WaPo interview with a Lincoln project leader in which he “concedes complicity” [55]in bringing us to this state of affairs.

P.P.P.P.P.S 29 July: Stuart Stevens tells all [56] in NYT, as teaser for the book mentioned above.

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The Lincoln Project National Virtual Town Hall, 9 July 2020.