There’s a rather strange episode from Star Trek’s third season in which the Enterprise comes across—and I swear, I’m not making this up—Abraham Lincoln floating in space. Granted, this isn’t anywhere nearly as weird as Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for the first Trek movie in which Captain Kirk literally gets into a fist fight with Jesus, but in a season filled with trippy episodes this one truly stands out.
Eventually we discover that Abe is actually an alien, who whisks Kirk and Spock down to a molten planet where a rock creature wishes to study the human concepts of good and evil. Toward that end, Rocky assembles replicas of some of the greatest heroes from history to do battle alongside our Enterprise pals as they take on a squad of the worst villains. The result is silly as you would expect—but in the end, after the bad guys are vanquished, the alien has this very interesting exchange with Kirk:
ROCK: It would seem that evil retreats when forcibly confronted. However, you have failed to demonstrate to me any other difference between your philosophies. Your good and your evil use the same methods, achieve the same results. Do you have an explanation?
KIRK: You established the methods and the goals.
ROCK: For you to use as you chose.
KIRK: What did you offer the others if they won?
ROCK: What they wanted most. Power.
KIRK: You offered me the lives of my crew.
So in the end, the alien comes to understand that motive makes a tremendous difference as to whether acts—even identical ones—are good or bad. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in the context of this battle for the soul of conservatism that we see playing out among leading figures in the movement. The latest dust-up is between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. In case you missed it, Ahmari drew first blood by posting an article that stated, for all intents and purposes, that guys like French—and the principled, gentlemanly conservatism that he espouses—are ill-equipped to fight the relentless onslaught of leftism that has captured so much of the politics and culture today. French, meanwhile, has responded by insisting that we cannot fight leftism by abandoning the traditions of classical liberalism to the siren song of populism and nationalism.
I’m sympathetic to both arguments. French wisely says that it’s difficult—if not impossible—to maintain the institutions that provide the foundation for individual liberty without elevating principle above all else. After all, if we abandon who we are for the sake of gaining a temporary advantage, what will be left for us even if we emerge victorious? Ahmari, on the other hand, is worried that by not treating the culture war as a war—waging the same scorched-earth campaign that the left deploys against conservatives—we’ve all but hobbled ourselves. Principles are important, but they don’t win wars.
So we’re left with a debate over tactics. How far are we willing to go in order to win? And how much is that going to change the character of the conservative movement? For the people who elected and support Donald Trump, the answer to the first question seems to be, “Whatever it takes.” The second question, however, is more difficult, because there’s no way of knowing—not until after history has had a chance to sort out the long-term effects of Trumpism. But we can look back get a measure of how effective the conservative movement has been over the last couple of decades.
When we do, unfortunately, the picture that emerges isn’t very good. As I’ve pointed out, eight years of George W. Bush—who had almost universal support among movement conservatives—were terrible for conservatism itself. Deficits abounded, leading to an explosive growth in government and debt. Foreign adventures cost us dearly in blood and treasure, and yielded dubious results instead of victories. Illegal immigration is an even bigger problem than ever before, and the relentless march of leftism through our educational, cultural and even law enforcement institutions continues unabated. To be sure, the conservative movement has slowed the leftward lurch somewhat—but it seems disinclined to do the actual work of reversing it.
This is the vantage point from which people like Ahmari have observed the passing scene—and why they supported Trump. They wanted a guy who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty—or, as in Trump’s case, a guy whose hands were already dirty. They craved action over rhetoric, and actual policy gains over empty promises. And after being starved for a win for so many years, they didn’t much care how they got it.
Precarious? Certainly. Understandable? Absolutely.
Whether the principles-first contingent fully appreciates that, however, I’m not so sure. If so, that’s a big problem—because now that the populist beast has been loosed on the world, it’s not just going back into the box. If the movement wants to preserve conservative principles, it’ll have to find a way to work with the fighters—to secure the victories both factions want, while reining in each side’s worst instincts.
Otherwise we risk losing the war to the bad guys, or becoming the bad guys ourselves.