COMMENTARY

Opinion: Conservatives were AWOL when their brand was hijacked

Leonard Pitts Jr.
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Where were you when we needed you?

That’s my blanket response to a persistent trickle of emails from readers who keep asking me to, in effect, stop using the word “conservative” when I mean “crazy.” “Or “fascist.” Or “mean.”  Which is to say that these people, most of whom consider themselves conservative, want me to stop using that word to describe the likes of Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ginni Thomas and other luminaries of the political right.

While “conservative” is, in fact, the descriptor Trump and his acolytes chose themselves, these readers argue that those folks are anything but adherents to the ideas of small government, muscular foreign policy and minimum regulation by which conservatism has traditionally been defined. Rather, they are extremists who have essentially hijacked the word and bent it to their own uses. The readers are correct, as far as it goes.

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There’s nothing traditionally “conservative” about scheming to overturn an election, as Thomas, wife of Supreme Court justice Clarence, has done. Or undermining an election, as Georgia Rep. Greene has done. Or inciting an insurrection, as Trump infamously did. Indeed, it’s no stretch to believe that architects of traditional conservatism like Ronald Reagan or William F. Buckley would regard their ideological namesakes with contempt.

When conservatives went AWOL

That said, I won’t be honoring my readers’ request. Here’s why:

There was a moment when every traditionally conservative voter, pundit and politician could have stood up against what conservatism has become, the rot it has inflicted. There was a time they might have even stopped it, had enough of them simply spoken out. Almost none of them did.

We didn’t reach the current state of things overnight, after all. To the contrary, this has been a 30-year train wreck, a slow-motion disaster that mangled conservatism into the moral monstrosity it is today. And it’s not as if nobody saw it happening. What with Newt Gingrich’s hostage-taking approach to government and Fox’s truth-optional approach to news, it was pretty obvious.

Indeed, right-leaning pundits tacitly acknowledged the shift years ago when they began finding it necessary to use the term “thoughtful conservatives” to distinguish themselves from the demagogues and flame throwers increasingly populating their side. Yet “thoughtful conservatives” were nevertheless all too willing to make common cause with unthoughtful ones in exchange for the jolt of energy and enthusiasm the latter brought to the cause.

Turning a blind eye to racism

So they did nothing as alternate reality became the forwarding address of the movement.

As newly brazen racism and xenophobia became the heart of the movement.

As conspiracy became the voice of the movement.

As violence became the good right arm of the movement.

As Trump became the face of the movement.

They stood by and watched as the values they claimed to venerate were smeared in sludge and the name they used to brand themselves was snatched away like money by a playground bully. What it used to mean, folks, it means no more. The fringe became the mainstream. The game played the player. The tail wagged the dog.

Now, along comes that trickle of readers wanting me to know that the Trump cultists are not “real” conservatives. I’m afraid they won’t find me particularly sympathetic.

Yes, it’s a good argument.

But they’re making it to the wrong audience, about 30 years too late.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at [email protected]

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