挂羊头卖狗肉—the End of the Long Con

A butcher returns change to a customer at a market in Beijing

If you are selling a product that people actually want to buy, then all you have to do is describe the product truthfully, and Bob’s your uncle: people will buy it.

If you are selling a product that few people want to buy, then you have to do what the Chinese idiom captures in an arresting word picture: gua yang tou, mai gou rou, hang up a sheep’s head while selling your dog meat.

There is pretty much zero constituency for principled conservatism. Here’s Charlie Sykes, repentant right-wing talk show host,  being interviewed by Jonathan Chait:

Sykes: Starting with Hayek, and extending to Milton Friedman, I think there was a principled critique of the limits of government knowledge and, hence, of the ability of the central state to run the economy. There was also an attempt to fuse together various branches of conservatism into the concept of ordered liberty. These thinkers (and I would include people like Jack Kemp later) genuinely thought that limited government, free markets, and economic freedom would provide the greatest scope and opportunities for Americans. But, as you suggest, these ideas were indeed hard to translate into policies that could win elections.

This brings us to the politicians. Richard Nixon, who embraced the most aggressive versions of the Southern Strategy, was not a conservative of this school, but I do think that there was a temptation among the political class to use both cultural and racial issues to substitute for other issues. Conservatives too often gave in to that temptation. Even those who did not turned a blind eye to the grievances among folks whose vote they needed.

Fast-forward to 2016. Trump deftly exploited those grievances, and continues to do so. Rather than talk about health care, he attacks the NFL. It’s very much the old pattern.But: This doesn’t mean that people whose views were shaped by Hayek, von Mises, or Friedman are therefore responsible for the alt-right.

In other words, there is a conservative tradition that is clearly separable and distinct from Trumpism.  But it is a tradition that clearly has been abandoned by much of the political class and GOP electorate.

In short, the principled conservatives were selling dog meat that no one wanted to buy, so they had to hang up a sheep head of racism and grievance to sell their product.

Josh Barro makes the same point, with specific reference to Jeff Flake, a rare principled conservative:

Flake is helpless because there’s no real constituency in America for what he favors: low taxes and spending, openness to immigration and trade, international collaboration where America honors its commitments, and polite public behavior.

There is one coalition of voters that favors a much larger and more active government than Flake wants. Many of these voters share a portion of Flake’s values (they may share his commitment to openness and politeness, for example) but they also oppose him on various social issues where he is conservative and they are liberal. Flake does not have a home in the Democratic Party with these voters.

The other coalition of voters is the one Flake relied on all along to get elected. But it turns out they don’t care very much about some of the policy ideas Flake thought were important. And they outright oppose him on others, like immigration. And many of these voters have come to view nastiness and crudity as virtues, since they think politeness norms have been weaponized by an establishment that wants to exclude them — or just because they are jerks.

It was essentially an accident that Flake and elected officials like him were able to harness the Republican electoral coalition for so long to back an agenda that excluded policies those voters cared about (like immigration restriction) and included ones they opposed (like cutting Medicare). Now that’s over, and he has nowhere to go. 

In sum, the few principled conservatives left in Republican public life are being chewed up and spit out. Here’s Barro again:

Flake should consider that ideas with no natural constituency might be bad ideas. If “traditional Republicans” could only ever be elected by people who didn’t care about their animating ideals, people who could be tempted to support a man like Trump, maybe those ideals were never any good to begin with.

And maybe the willingness of Republican voters to choose a president of such poor character and temperament suggests those voters have always had poor judgment — including when they elected Jeff Flake.

Meanwhile, other politicians are pushing forward with a program of Damn the Deficit, I Want my Tax Cut, and I Want it Now! It’s a different species of dog meat, but marketed under the same racist sheep head—what Sykes delicately calls using racial and cultural grievances to sell other issues. The “other issues” would be tax cuts for billionaires.

On this second front, things remain confused. The sockpuppets for billionaires crowd—let’s call ‘em the unprincipled pseudo-conservatives—think they still might pull it off. I don’t think so. I think Steve Bannon and his howling mobs are going to chew them up and spit them out, too.

Remember Big Luther?

Roy Moore is a-comin’ to town.

If and when the giant tax cut crashes and burns, a lot of plutocratic political dabblers are going to stop supporting the McConnell-Ryan crowd. They will take their gazillions and turn to new hobbies. Probably someone will think to found a new religion, teaching that  the degree of God’s favor varies directly with your net worth. I’m surprised they haven’t already thought of that.

Meanwhile, corporate America will wake up and smell the coffee, realize that the Long Con is over, and discover a new fondness for “moderation” in support of global capitalism. Susan Collins will be the founding member of the Moderation for America Party.