Four years ago, National Review famously published an issue headlined “Against Trump,” declaring, “If Trump were to become the president, the Republican nominee, or even a failed candidate with strong conservative support, what would that say about conservatives?” NR stopped asking the question once the hypothetical became a reality.
Its emphasis has turned to anti-anti-Trumpism. Most of the magazine’s writers are too embarrassed to defend Trump’s behavior outright. Instead, they focus on the foibles of his opponents, making the case for Trump indirectly.
Kyle Smith’s cover story on Joe Biden is a classic of the anti-anti-Trump genre. The main theme of the story is a fairly rote recitation of the reasons conservative Republicans disapprove of the Democratic nominee. Obviously, people committed to shrinking the welfare state, shrinking regulations, and so on would have good reasons to disapprove of Biden’s agenda. The revealing part is the argument hovering around the margins, just outside the main scope of the essay, but implicitly shaping its contours.
The story’s intended audience is voters who agree with Republicans on policy but harbor qualms about Donald Trump’s character and fitness for office. Smith suggests, but is perhaps too embarrassed to argue explicitly, that Biden’s character is equally disqualifying.
One part of the argument consists in the familiar anti-anti-Trumpist device of summing up Trump’s failings as just a handful of poorly worded tweets. “The distractions of personality foibles, Twitter wars, and misadventures in assertions of truth aside,” he argues, “the crux of this election is that we are confronted as usual with one party that says, “Let’s get to work reshaping everything in the United States” and another party that says, ‘Let’s not.’”
That might be a reasonable premise if Trump were indeed just a lovable scamp going off message here and there. But the actual charge is that he is utterly immoral and intellectually incapable of doing his job. What’s more, large numbers of Republicans, including a high percentage of Republican officials appointed by Donald Trump himself, consider Trump unfit for office. They don’t just wish the old guy would put down the iPhone. They think he’s ignorant of basic facts, unable and unwilling to learn, and sociopathically indifferent to any consideration except his own political and financial well-being. Nobody thinks that about Joe Biden. Certainly, it seems highly unlikely that, should Biden be elected, there will be a distinct literary genre of books by and about Biden advisers warning that Biden constitutes a mortal threat to the republic.
Yet that is the distinction Smith needs to collapse. He lavishes attention on Biden’s failings — which, as a normal politician with a very long record, Biden certainly has. At one point, he delves into an allegation that Biden’s relationship with Jill preceded the dissolution of her first marriage. Apparently, the point of this is to assure any Republicans queasy about voting for a man who has boasted about committing sexual assault, paid hush money to porn stars, visited extremely obscene sex clubs, and hosted teenage beauty pageants so he could walk into the dressing room and ogle the contestants nude that the fidelity issue is basically a tie, because it’s possible Jill Biden cheated on her first husband.
Smith mainly leaves the comparison unstated, though he does at one point come out and say that Biden’s various lies show that he’s no better of a human being than his opponent:
“‘Character is on the ballot,’ Uncle Joe likes to tell us. Is it? Will we be able to select a knight of virtue, or even an obviously decent bloke, this November? I’d say what we have on the ballot is two characters.
Sure, if your only standard for evaluating character is a “knight of virtue, yes or no” test, Biden and Trump would be tied. This is how conservatives manage to rationalize entrusting one of the worst people in the entire country with its most powerful position.
Having worked himself into a righteous lather at the prospect that a moral monster like Biden might ascend to the Oval Office, Smith laments that his appeal might work because of his opponent: “Biden’s voter pitch is this: Ignore a half-century record of dishonesty, incompetence, and wretched judgment and think only this: ‘Joe’s a nice guy who reaches across the aisle.’ It may work, given exogenous circumstances.”
Ah, yes, exogenous circumstances. That is Smith’s delicate way of acknowledging that, despite his normal-politician shortcomings, Biden might win because his opponent has engaged in disqualifying behavior on a daily basis. The very decision to treat these circumstances as exogenous is the essence of anti-anti-Trumpism; Trump’s critics became the center of the analysis, and the thing they are reacting to lies outside the frame. Perhaps if National Review had to do it all over again, its 2016 issue would have run the headline “Against Exogenous Circumstances.” It would have made it much less embarrassing to endorse four more years of them.