I Sold My Soul to ‘Conservatism Inc.’ for a Tasty Martini

Plus, a quick note on Trump's immigration executive order.

Before I get to the main event, let’s start with a bit of legal/policy housekeeping. In the last newsletter, I briefly discussed Trump’s tweeted promise to “temporarily suspend immigration into the United States.” I withheld judgment on the legality and prudence of Trump’s order until it was issued (tweets aren’t executive orders after all).

The order is now out, and I have thoughts. First, Trump did not suspend all immigration. The first operative paragraph suspends entry generally, but it also points to a series of nine exceptions—including exceptions for lawful permanent residents, spouses of citizens, children of citizens, members of the armed forces (and their spouses and children), and—crucially—health care workers who can perform essential ‘work combating COVID-19. There are catch-all provisions that also allow for case-by-case exceptions.

Second, Trump’s order is almost certainly legal. (I say “almost” only because nothing is truly certain in court.) It’s less vulnerable to challenge than his earlier travel ban, and it seems squarely within the statutory grant of authority of 8 U.S.C. Section 1182(f), which permits him to suspend immigration when he “finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

Third, while a pandemic rages and American employment collapses, the order seems quite prudent—in both its scope and its exceptions. Necessary workers—and members of the American family—can still arrive. Now is not the time to increase the labor-market supply when the demand is so low, and the order contains a sunset clause (60 days). It’s a pause, not a halt, and for now, a pause is wise.

Now, on to the selling of souls ... 

One of my favorite comedies of all time is Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley on HBO. There’s a great scene where two members of a struggling tech startup are bitching about their boss. They start each complaint with a compliment, “Richard is a great, but you know ...” Eventually, they shorten the compliment to simply “RIGBY” and then vent their spleen. 

I’m going to do my own version of RIGBY, except applied to J.D. Vance. I know him a little bit. He seems like a great guy. I value an immense amount of his work, but I just read his recent essay in the American Mind, and I’ve got to confess that my first thought was pretty simple—I’m so tired of simplistic, slanderous, populist straw man arguments.

Vance seeks rather dramatic changes in American policy toward China. Fair enough. I do too. But he does it through the tired trope of framing American policy—built up through decades of navigating a series of exceptionally difficult strategic, commercial, and cultural challenges—through the prism of donor dollars and “Conservatism Inc.” Here’s a taste of the argument:

The specter of “the donors” hangs over many private conversations among conservative intellectuals these days. The donors who provide an overwhelming share of the capital to conservative campaigns and institutions have quite literally gotten rich off of the “Washington consensus” of neoliberalism and globalization. Accordingly, there are things you’re not allowed to say—about tax rates, the social value of financial engineering, and the size of government, especially—and things you must say—also about tax rates, the social value of financial engineering, and the size of government. Any departures from orthodoxy must be qualified—“this doesn’t mean we’re for big government”—if the check writers might see or hear.

In my experience, most people are aware of this pressure, even if they agree entirely with the priorities of Conservatism, Inc. Recently, after I publicly criticized donor influence on the conservative movement, one young conservative journalist told me privately that he’d like to join in, but “brutal self-awareness of my non-profit status prevents me.”

There’s a bit of irony here. Vance is currently a visiting fellow at the nonprofit and donor-funded American Enterprise Institute. He’s writing in a publication of the nonprofit and donor-funded Claremont Institute. He’s so stifled by “Conservatism Inc.” that he’s playing in multiple nonprofit sandboxes. I don’t sense much censorship of his thoughts.

Moreover, everyone has got their own donor stories. There was the time when a board member of one of the main funders of the nonprofit I worked for called me out from the main stage of my own nonprofit’s event. There was the time I finished a speech at a conservative Christian conference, and one of the funders of the event walked up to me, livid, and said, “I can’t believe they let you speak here.” 

This is the tip of the donor-pressure iceberg. Reader, after the coronavirus pandemic, if you buy me a drink I promise to regale you with fun and interesting stories. 

By the way, that donor pressure was not exerted on behalf of libertarian economic globalism. The anger was at my continued critiques of Donald Trump. The anger was on behalf of rising conservative populism. In other words, if you think donor pressure or donor anger runs only one way, I’ve got a bankrupt Trump casino to sell you.

It’s just lazy to attribute policy differences to donor cash. It’s lazy and it’s usually wrong. I’m no babe in the conservative woods. I know there are grifters and cowards out there (they exist in every movement), but the idea that one can engage in dialogue with any serious strand of the movement by attributing long-lasting, well-argued positions to “follow the money” is just odd. 

Grift and cowardice should be identified on a case-by-case basis, and the markers are often quite clear. Sudden changes of position from losing to winning political movements or politicians can be a red flag. Dramatic departures from past statements raise eyebrows. But even grifters and cowards make arguments, so it’s almost always better to address the argument than to try to peer into the writer’s soul.

The “Conservatism Inc.” phrase is particularly pernicious. It’s of a piece with the old claim that critics of GOP presidents or any given right-wing political movement are motivated by a desperate desire for New York Times column inches or to be welcomed into some kind of particularly alluring Washington, D.C., cocktail party circuit. 

It’s a sneering dismissal that implies both that your opponent is a paid drone and that the writer is a bold dissident. It’s insulting and self-aggrandizing all at once.

Moreover, it’s a dismissal that is particularly inappropriate when discussing China. Sorting out the right approach to China is difficult—fraught with dangerous challenges not just to our economy but also to world peace itself. Our engagement with China isn’t rooted in the desire of wealthy elites to make billions building cheap iPhones or more millions selling NBA jerseys but rather in one of the thorniest strategic challenges of the Cold War, combined with lessons we thought we learned following the largely peaceful collapse of the USSR. 

The history is way too complicated to comprehensively compress into the latter third of a newsletter, but Cold War American planners for years feared the possibility of a Sino-Soviet pact. It was a long-held strategic goal to drive a permanent wedge between the world’s two most powerful communist states and eventually create a stable American-Chinese alliance. 

Yet even that goal was at times quite controversial, especially if it meant abandoning Taiwan, then the nation we deemed the “true” China. 

While it’s a matter of debate whether China and Russia could have ever truly formed a united Communist front (there was not only a formal Sino-Soviet split beginning in the 1950s, the two countries fought a limited border war in 1969), the American strategic preference was clear—a neutral China was preferable to a Soviet-allied China, and pulling China closer to America was preferable to neutrality.

Make no mistake, overtures to China included trade. This wasn’t just realpolitik. There was an element of idealism as well. The hope was that trading partners would be less likely to go to war with each other, but it was more than that—the hope was also that open markets would lead to open minds and, eventually, to real democracy, human rights, and individual liberty.

Of course that may sound naïve today—as China is both capitalist and authoritarian—but for a time there was ample reason to believe (especially as the Cold War wound down) that open markets and free trade were a first vital step to the end of tyranny. 

I could say much more, but those who scorn American policy toward China as the work of short-sighted greedy policy elites who sell out for donor cash at the expense of the American worker all too often not only overlook this history, they neglect its two cardinal achievements: strategic isolation of the Soviet Union and continued peaceful relations with a nation that once fought us to a bloody stalemate on the Korean peninsula. 

When I was much younger, I was scornful of many of the overtures to China. I hated to see the People’s Republic receive most favored nation trading status while it was still in the grips of the Chinese Communist Party, persecuted Christians, and menaced Taiwan. For a brief moment in 1989 I thought pro-democracy protesters would bring down the regime ... and then the tanks rolled in. I’m still skeptical that we charted the right course.

I think it’s past time to recognize China as an adversary, to hold in abeyance the hope that its capitalism will yield liberalism and democracy, and to disentangle our nation from any dependence on the People’s Republic for vital materials or products. It’s definitely time for a debate about our China policy going forward. But I’ll say it again, it’s tired and lazy to attribute disagreement to donors or to make leftist-style chicken hawk arguments like this:

And if you look at the boards of most of our big conservative institutions, you’ll find many of those people. Increasingly, they talk a big game about China. They’ll express concern for the Uighurs, who are undoubtedly an oppressed people. They may even encourage a satellite military conflict in the years to come, because it won’t be their children loading the magazines or firing the rifles.

There should be a new China policy. Like the old China policy, it will be difficult, and it will be dangerous. When conservatives in think tanks disagree with Vance, a sneer isn’t an answer, and donor cash isn’t the explanation. A field of blazing straw men generates all heat and no light. 

One last thing ... 

Ok, normally I like to end with sports, but I’ve got China on my mind, and when I think of China, I think of Korea. Few people remember the terrifying entry of China into the Korean War and the stunning initial rout of American forces. Well, except for the Marines. The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir is one of the most epic stories in all of American history. And few Americans know it:

Photograph of J.D. Vance by Astrid Riecken for the Washington Post/Getty Images.