12 July 2017

Are Republicans mourning Joe?

Joe Scarborough was a "Contract With America" Republican who was elected to Congress in the anti-Clinton wave of 1994. He served four terms before dropping out. Since then, he's been best known as the co-host and namesake of Morning Joe and the main representative of conservative opinion on MSNBC. Scarborough announced last night that while he still considered himself conservative on many issues, mostly economic, he no longer considered himself a Republican. His switch to "independent" status is intended as a personal repudiation of President Trump and a Republican majority too cowardly, in Scarborough's eyes, to criticize Trump's excesses. The TV host has in mind not just the insults Trump lobbed at his co-host and fiancee Mika Brzezinki via twitter, but a stench of bigotry he senses in the Trump movement. Perhaps now Eric Alterman will stop complaining in his Nation column about Scarborough's supposed sycophancy toward Trump, but I'm not sure this news will make anyone else change their minds about Trump or Scarborough. It may count as a milestone, however, in a Trumpification of the Republican party that may in return revise the terms of political discourse in this country. On Fox News, Sean Hannity calls Scarborough "Liberal Joe" for no better reason that I'm aware of than that Scarborough opposes Trump. I suspect many rank and file Republicans, or Trump voters at least, feel the same way: you're either for Trump or you're with the enemy, i.e. "liberalism." But as many ideological or self-styled "principled" conservatives continue to oppose the President of grounds of policy and/or temperament, will they all become "liberal" too? What does "liberal" mean at that point? If we still think of anti-Trump Republicans as "conservatives," since that's how they still think of themselves, can "liberal" still mean the opposite of "conservative?" Of course, these terms only became antonymical when Democrats identified with one term and Republicans with the other. Historically, the "conservatism" identified with the late 20th century Republican party was an outgrowth of "classical" (i.e. 19th century) liberalism, and probably wouldn't be recognized by the "conservatives" of earlier times as much like their own beliefs. Does that mean that Trump represents a "real conservatism" re-emerging as old debates over the role of the state in the economy lose their defining force? It's probably too early to say. For now, and should the Republicans crack up further, keep in mind that "liberal" can be the opposite not only of "conservative" but of "radical," by virtue of liberalism's reluctance to undertake reforms, much less revolutionary action, that may provoke or require violence in getting to the root of problems in the original sense of the word. The question of our time may not be whether Trump or Scarborough is the "real conservative," but whether the Trump movement is alienating Scarborough-style conservatives because it's something else entirely.

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