One of the greatest frustrations for libertarians and others who believe that principles matter lies in the all-too-often witnessing of people who claim to stand on principle, but throw it out the window when it gives them an answer they don’t like. It’s incredibly maddening to see, hear, and read people who pledge themselves as “true” something-or-other, but reject what that something-or-other calls for when it bothers them. Why assert principle only to ignore it when inconvenient?

Unfortunately for the principled, the pretenders are numerous, to the point of dominating both sides of the political spectrum. Today’s discussion is going to be about the Right, since it is there that I so often hear fealty to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And, just to pre-empt the inevitable, know now that what-about-ism, “play-by-the-Left’s-rules,” and other forms of tu quoque are affirmations, not rebuttals, of this premise. As are assertions of unique times and circumstances, i.e. that we face an existential crisis and threat if we don’t abandon principles.

Many who self-identify as conservatives fall into this pretender category. Conservatism is not libertarianism, no matter how much people like Ann Coulter want to pigeonhole the latter as a subset of the former, so it behooves me to take care not to assign the latter’s beliefs to the former. But, it’s pretty safe to say that conservatives tend to believe in the protections specified in the Bill of Rights. These include free speech, freedom of religion, assembly, and the press, gun rights, and a number of protections against government excess in prosecuting citizens. Conservatives have tended, in the past, to favor lower taxes, free trade, and a pro-business or pro-market stance by the government. Conservatives also are more likely to embrace nationalism, patriotism, and some degree of nativism than others, which can create conflicts with fealty to rights and Constitutional protections.

At present, it’s demonstrable that one highly-charged election and the victory of an unprincipled but “one of us” lightning rod in the White House to prompt many who self-identify as “conservatives” to throw a bunch of those beliefs out the window. Loyalty to the President, even when he espouses anti-conservative principles, supersedes adherence to principle.

So, when Trump starts slapping tariffs on imports, tosses out free trade agreements without bothering to make new ones, and rattles the trade-war saber, conservative fealty to free trade takes a back seat.

When Trump makes threats regarding the NFL kneeling controversy – something that’s happening in the private sector and therefore nothing a limited government should bother with, he gets hoo-rah’ed. When the principle of free speech – not the First Amendment, but the principle itself – is brought regarding kneeling, people say “[redacted] you – don’t disrespect the country!” Which would be fine – if it also didn’t include support for the President’s veiled and unveiled bullying. Ditto for other forms of national disrespect, including flag burning. Properly, a conservative would denounce and decry a flag burner while defending his right to do so, under fealty to 1A and free speech, but many instead want it banned, because it offends them and because that offense and patriotism supersede other principles.

When Christianity is attacked, we witness cries of protestation regarding religious freedom. But, those cries are reversed when it comes to the religious liberty of others, in particular Muslims. It’s unfair, we are told, to judge Christianity by the fringes and extremists, but it’s entirely correct to want Muslims muzzled en masse, and denied entry into the country en toto, despite the principle of religious liberty. While conservatism purports that American values are born of Judeo-Christian culture (a matter of dispute that’s an aside to the points herein), core Judeo-Christian values and the premise of the American civil religion don’t align with what’s going on today either. Immigrant children being separated from their parents belies the elevation of family. The raging hatred and bile we witness in the zero-sum political and cultural wars belies the “love your neighbor as yourself” and “turn the other cheek,” as does the anti-immigrant turn that directly belies the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Make no mistake, I don’t argue that the repressive teachings of Islam should be granted equal cultural status, just that arguing religious liberty in the fashion it is today is self-serving and divisive, rather than principled and “Christian.”

Immigration has been a hallmark of the nation ever since its founding, and anti-immigrant sentiments have been as well, to our shame. We generally look back at the hostility aimed at the Chinese, the Irish, the Italians, and other “waves” of immigration with lament and a recognition that it was wrong, but every time we see an identifiable wave of entry, we hear the same rattles of disapproval. Illegal immigration has been an unresolved but steady-state problem for decades, and in truth not that big a problem, but a bit of an economic crunch (which had nothing to do with illegals and everything to do with liberal government) and the nativist/tribalist drums got to beating. Now, we have conservatives, people who purport to champion the Constitution and want originalists appointed to the Court, actively denouncing birthright citizenship, a hallmark of Americanism, a core value of the nation, a Constitutionally protected right, and a fundamental reason for its nature and success.

Even the Press isn’t safe from the conservatives of convenience. Trump threatens news organizations, and some cheer. I don’t care if they’ve embarrassed themselves in their abandonment of journalistic standards (they have), they’re Fake News, or abject liars. It doesn’t bother me if a particular journalist is given the heave-ho from a publicly televised news conference for obnoxiousness – the public’s access isn’t affected one whit – but bullying or threatening the Press even for grossly unfair coverage is wrong, and the President crosses a line when he does it. And, yet, some of his supporters say “good!,” elevating (again) their partisanship over principle.

Many have reduced politics to a binary game. You’re with us or you’re against us, it’s that simple. That’s not a principle, that’s blind tribal partisanship. There’s no guiding ethos or tenet there, it’s driven solely by what the guy at the top says and does. Yes, the defense is what I noted above – that this is an extraordinary time, that the other guys are doing it too, that ceding an inch is ceding a mile and granting victories to the enemy. I repeat, that’s not principle, it’s the opposite, and those who engage in this behavior don’t get to claim the label.

But, what about the liberals?

What about them?

Should what they do change your principles, or alter your beliefs? If you answer yes, then simply embrace your partisanship and stop pretending you’re standing on principle. While it sounds good to say “I’m sticking to principle, and therefore I’ve got the moral high ground and my arguments are stronger and more valid,” it’s a lie. You may be able to put forth a well-reasoned case for any of the abandonments I’ve noted (and many more), but you can’t claim your principles strengthen that case when you only access them selectively.

I’ve long argued that progressives treat the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as a menu, to be chosen from or not as needed. This is increasingly true of many who today call themselves conservatives.

One of the great fears that legitimate conservatives have had regarding the Trump ascension is the damage it might do to conservatism. Indeed, as I detailed here, that damage is happening, simply by the continued misuse of the word in conjunction with un-conservative words and actions. Will this damage be lasting? Only time will tell. People have short and selective memories, and are not above revisionism when necessary to avoid cognitive dissonance, and the folks who’ve abandoned principle to back their current leader may suddenly re-find it when they become the opposition, or when a new leader arises who actually practices conservatism.

Or maybe not.

It may be that people have tasted this “Apple Pie Americanism,” with its red-white-and-blue nativism, and this conservatism of convenience, and found it to their liking. This may very well be the apotheosis of the “America, love it or leave it!” sentiment that’s been around for a long time. The problem, unfortunately, is that letting the guy in charge define “America” is the exact opposite of the underlying tenets of Americanism and love of country. You love your country and its principles, not your government. You can voice support for that guy when he does stuff that qualifies as conservative, but when he goes off-book, a principled conservative is not afraid to challenge, criticize, and denounce. You can even properly assert your conservative bona fides while having voted for Trump, simply by a personal calculus that expected conservatism to benefit more than suffer. I can and do support imperfect liberty lovers if I think they’re going to move matters in the right direction, but I don’t defend and support them when they say and do un-libertarian things.

Famed basketball coach John Wooden opined that “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” A test of principles may very well be how well we stick to them when others are watching, especially under pressure and strife. All our proclamations mean nothing if we decide we’d rather throw out principle for ease and quick benefit than stick to it through difficulty.

If that’s who you want to be, that’s your choice. Recognize it, though, as an abandonment of principle, and an abandonment of the ability, in the future, to claim “principles” as your moral high ground. Like journalists who’ve abandoned journalistic ethics, and like people who abandoned credibility, that posture of principle is one you don’t get back.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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