Ideas Don’t Have Consequences

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When the University of Chicago Press brought out Richard Weaver’s book Ideas Have Consequences in 1948, it was instantly hailed as a landmark text on American conservatism. The title itself has become a sort of rallying cry for the conservative intelligentsia. I’d wager that 98 percent of those who utter the phrase “Ideas have consequences!” have never read the book, nor even heard of Richard Weaver.

What’s ironic is that Weaver himself hated the title. He hated it so much, in fact, that he nearly pulled the book. Looking back, his objection was prophetic. When it comes to the American right, ideas—good or bad—have no consequences whatsoever.

Take the war in Iraq, the greatest policy snafu in American history. Our crusade to depose Saddam Hussein was built on lies: that he was in possession of nuclear weapons, that he was sheltering Al Qaeda, etc. Granted, many of those lies came straight from the “intelligence community.” But, from day one, there were voices on the right who called B.S. Many of them gathered together in a magazine called The American Conservative; maybe you’ve heard of it.

Even if one can be forgiven for trusting the U.S. government back in those halcyon days, pro-war pundits also promised that Iraq would be over in five months, tops. That wasn’t just wrong; it was insane. The idea that we could purge the Iraqi government of Ba’athists right down to the last postman, install a stable transitional government, and leave Afghanistan a functional modern democracy—all in five months—was insane. Anyone who repeated that line was either stupid, evil, or both.

Some, like Bill Kristol, went even further. In November of 2002, he said: “We can remove Saddam because that could start a chain reaction in the Arab world that would be very healthy.” That’s nuts. It’s just nuts.

Now, tell me this. Once every single argument in favor of the Iraq war was proved categorically false, did anyone lose their jobs? Did any politicians or pundits suddenly disappear from the airwaves? Did their bad, stupid, evil ideas have any consequences? (For their careers, I mean. Their ideas certainly had consequences for the hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers and civilians.) Of course not.

What about those hawks who referred to the war’s critics as “unpatriotic conservatives”? Most of them are making six figures in the legacy media. Others are “senior fellows” at any of the millions of think-tanks across the Beltway. Because ideas don’t have consequences.

It’s not just Iraq (or Afghanistan, or Syria, or Yemen, or…). Let’s review the infamous “Conservatives Against Trump” symposium published in February of 2016, which was accompanied by a cute little doodle of the Donald in fascist garb. Or the anti-Trump open letter “An Appeal to Our Fellow Catholics” published a month later. How many of them now position themselves as champions of Trumpism? Over half, by my count. As soon it became clear that they couldn’t scold the base into voting for Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, they turned coat and set themselves up as the president’s praetorian guard. Whole magazines tried to suicide-bomb the populist movement; when that didn’t work, they quickly donned their MAGA hats and joined the rabble. Because ideas don’t have consequences.

Look: I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to change their minds. They absolutely should. In the real world, it takes a certain maturity—a certain intellectual humility—to admit that you were wrong and embrace the truth. But that’s because, in the real world, ideas do have consequences. If your stockbroker witnessed the rise of Netflix and invested all your money in Blockbuster, his bad idea would have consequences—i.e., you’d find another stockbroker. If your alma mater decided to name its new film school after Harvey Weinstein, you bet there would be consequences.

But conservative media isn’t the real world. Here, ideas don’t have consequences. You can be consistently wrong on every major political issue of the century and be absolutely certain that you’ll keep your magazine column, your think-tank fellowship, and your cushy book deal. Ideas don’t have consequences.

What’s more, you can be consistently right on every major political issue of the century and still be considered a pariah. Look at Pat Buchanan. The man coined the phrase “culture wars.” He founded this magazine in 2002 to oppose regime change in the Middle East. He was talking about raising tariffs and securing the border before Donald Trump launched The Apprentice. He has been warning us about the economic and security threat posed by China for decades. The same folks who would eventually go on to form the GOP’s pro-war, NeverTrump wing have been trying to cancel Pat since at least 1991. Have they ever apologized? Of course not. Because ideas don’t have consequences. Not even good ideas.

You’ve heard all of this before, dear reader. And maybe you thought that, after 2016, all that would all change. I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t look like it.

Take, for example, Mr. Charlie Kirk. Charlie is the wunderkind of the Trump movement. He’s good pals with Donald Trump, Jr., and served as DJT’s unofficial youth outreach officer. On April 21, he tweeted:

And you know what? I agree! I’ve been saying the same thing for years—as have many other, far more eminent thinkers. Paleoconservatives have always argued that the biggest threat posed to this country comes not from big government, but from big business. Corporate greed has hollowed out American industries and leveled American communities. Those corporations have used their profits to bankroll Democratic candidates and fund progressive think-tanks like the ACLU. Lately, they’ve poured hundreds of millions of dollars into radical activist groups like Black Lives Matter.

How have mainstream conservatives responded? By calling for Republicans to slash corporate taxes, repeal regulations, and cut welfare programs. All very stupid ideas.

So, I agree with Mr. Kirk one hundred percent. And yet, as of writing, the Turning Point USA store still has a whole “Socialism Sucks” collection. That includes a wifebeater that shows Uncle Sam dressed as a bandito with the caption, “Taxation Is Theft.” Give me a break, Chuck.

What’s funny is that Mr. Kirk has always been totally out of step with the Trumpian cause. As the Republican Party has shifted rapidly towards protectionism, he has consistently espoused this socialism-sucks, taxation-is-theft line. And just when American conservatism was pivoting towards an ardent nationalism, he declared:

Of course, I love the Grand Canyon. I love the Rocky Mountains. And I love Boston. And I love Chicago. But if all that disappeared, if all I had was ideas, and we were on an island, that’s America. That’s Israel. And that’s what people have to realize. America’s just a placeholder for timeless ideas. And if you fall too in love with, oh, the specific place, and all this… that’s not what it is.

In my day, we had a word for guys like Chuck. We called them neocons. And despite his close ties with the Trump family, Charlie Kirk has always been a neocon.

Now, if Mr. Kirk has seen the error of his ways, good for him. We should always fess up to our mistakes. But when you’ve built a national platform and a sizable war-chest on ideas—in Charlie’s case, neoconservative ideas—you shouldn’t be able to do a complete 180 and go on with business as usual. Like so many hundreds of conservative elites, Mr. Kirk clearly lacks good judgment. And yet having good judgement is their whole job.

While Mr. Kirk’s honesty may come cheap, at least he’s sort of admitting his errors. On April 20, TAC’s own Arthur Bloom profiled the new “Trump Lite” think-tank America First Policy Institute. As Arthur wrote:

The biggest name on the roster is probably Larry Kudlow, who is a staunch free-trader opposed to social spending, not exactly the type you’d expect to champion creative ideas for restoring the American middle class. Other hires are even more puzzling, like Javon Price, who came from the anti-Trump Republican group GenZGOP. About Paula White, who will chair the “Center for American Values,” the less said the better.

I looked up the AFPI team to see who else was leading the charge. Each employee has a little profile, which is accompanied by a favorite quote. Some of them are laughable. Linda McMahon went with a favorite by Lucille Ball: “If you want something done, give it to a busy woman to do it.”  (Empowering!) Pam Bondi went for Coco Chanel’s aphorism, “Keep your heels, head and standards high.” (Sexy!) Kudlow actually quotes himself: “Free market capitalism is the best path to prosperity.”  

Arthur calls it “Trump Lite”; I call it “pure grift.” They took the same curdled, lukewarm fusionism, slapped an America First label on the jar, and now they’re marketing it as a brand-new product. And it’s taking the market by storm! At last, the base has found its champions!

Look, my beef isn’t really with Kirk or Kudlow.  It’s not with those hundreds of conservative elites who were Reaganites in 1980, Bushists in 2000, and Trumpists in 2016.  They’ve always known that ideas don’t have consequences.  At this point, nobody should be surprised that our elites don’t really believe what they say.  Expecting a conservative pundit to have convictions is like getting mad at Apple for bringing out a new iPhone that’s actually worse than the old iPhone. The point isn’t to offer the public a superior product; it’s to make money. Kirk, Kudlow & Co. know their industry. Don’t hate the player, as the kids say. Hate the game.

My beef is with the conservative base: you, me, and Joe the Plumber. We’ve refused to hold these guys accountable. We need leaders, but we settle for weathervanes.  That’s on us.

I have more respect for guys like Bill Kristol or Max Boot. And I’m not just saying that, either. They’re consistently wrong, but at least they’re consistent. When their ideas fell out of fashion with the GOP, they quit the party and found new platforms. Kristol started The Bulwark; Boot went over to the liberal Washington Post. I’ll take an honest fool over a wily grifter any day of the week.

So, I would like to propose something called “the Kristol-Boot Rule.” If you’re a conservative politician, journalist, or activist, and you have a change of heart, God bless you. But you have to do three things.

First, you have to publicly admit that you were wrong. You have to disavow your old position and state clearly that you’re embracing a new one.

Second, you have to apologize to all the guys you slandered and defamed. If you trashed Pat Buchanan for thirty-odd years, you don’t get to buy yourself a commission in the Buchanan Brigades. If you spent 2015 trying to torpedo the Trump campaign, you don’t get to set yourself up as a kind of nationalist vanguard.

Third, you have to resign your platform. You don’t get to keep the fruits of your bad judgment. You have to start from the bottom rung and work your way back up—assuming, of course, that anyone wants you on the ladder at all. Which they probably shouldn’t.

There would be exceptions, of course. Early on in the 2016 election, Tucker Carlson had a sincere conversion to the Trumpist cause. He’s admitted over and over that he was wrong about Iraq et al. He took a huge professional risk, and it happened to pay off, but he could just as easily have gone down on Trump’s ship. Even after Trump won, Tucker was more than willing to stand up to him when he broke his promises. He’s an honest man, and he deserves his platform.

Who will enforce the Kristol-Boot Rule? We will—you, me, and Joe the Plumber. We’ll refuse to waste our time or money on these grifters, because they’re not entitled to either. And that’s what’s most infuriating about all of this: the sense of entitlement. “I’ve been your stockbroker for forty years!  You think you can fire me just because I lost all your money?” Actually, yes. We do. Because we don’t need all these weathervanes who clutter up the airwaves. We need leaders.

Ideas don’t have consequences, but they should.

Michael Warren Davis is the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021).  Read more at www.northofboston.blog.

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