Conservatives who spent their career decrying moral relativism are now openly embracing it. That’s the argument Jonathan Chait recently made, flagging articles by Roger Kimball and Henry Olsen as examples.
Days later, Rush Limbaugh offered a more naked illustration of the trend. In the erstwhile conservative’s telling, Mitt Romney, who criticized President Donald Trump’s character in The Washington Post, embodies an “out of touch” Republican establishment that is “unable to adapt.” They still think character matters. Limbaugh says he used to be like them:
I remember the 1992 campaign. I myself engaged in this. It was thought that if people would just learn about the massive character defects of Bill Clinton, that no way would they elect him president, because, at the time, it was widely believed that character was the most important qualification. I remember reading to you from The Federalist Papers, James Madison describing exactly why character was paramount in a president, in a chief executive of the United States. Without character and without the required morality stemming from a belief in God, that there is no way the job could be properly performed … Character in the chief executive was a central qualification for the Founders.
Limbaugh would tout that position for many years:
So back in the campaign of ’92 and all throughout the Clinton presidency, we harped on the deficiency in character. When he would show up in the Oval Office after a jog, sweaty, in ball cap and T-shirt—in the Oval Office!—with a bunch of floozies hanging on his arm posing for pictures, we said, “This is disrespectful to the office!” The American people said, “Pfft you!” When the Lewinsky stuff came up, we thought the American people would finally see what a character defect he had. In fact, in the ’96 campaign, there’s Bob Dole out there, and one of his major campaign phrases is “Where’s the outrage?”
What he meant was, Why aren’t people outraged over the character deficiencies of this guy? Everybody knew that he had cheated on his wife who knows how many times, the Whitewater stuff. He was a walking character defect. And you know what? Even though it was all true, it didn’t matter.
When Limbaugh kept going, it seemed at first that he would argue in favor of character despite voters’ indifference:
Well … the Never Trumper crowd and the conservative-literature crowd, they’re still back in those days. They still believe that the No. 1 way to overcome Cortez or Pelosi or Obama is with character. Good manners. Articulate. Compassion. Where are they? What kind of a factor is it, really? We can sit here and lament the fact that it doesn’t seem to be an important thing to a lot of people anymore. But that does happen to be the fact. It doesn’t mean you abandon it. Don’t misunderstand. It doesn’t mean you throw people overboard and yourself.
Yet Limbaugh began arguing in the very next sentence that conservatives should abandon their former concerns in the name of expediency:
But when the objective is winning elections, and if something comes along and doesn’t matter. And here comes Donald Trump, and there is nobody, even the people that vote for him, gonna tell you he’s a paragon of virtue. He’s a paragon of some kinds of virtues, but he’s not a paragon of character, and there’s nobody in the world who expects him to be and nobody voted for him hoping he would be.
It wasn’t the slightest bit of a factor for people who voted for him. Because the situation on the ground, the reality of life in America, is far more dangerous. Stopping Hillary Clinton was paramount. There’s nothing else that mattered. There was nothing else that got even close to mattering. Stopping Hillary Clinton and the continuation and the intensification of the Obama agenda meant saving this country.
Of course, the GOP electorate chose Trump in its primary, too. Limbaugh continued:
Well, the Romney crowd thinks that’s laughable. Country’s never threatened. America doesn’t need to be saved. America is America. There’s nothing that’ll ever happen to America, certainly not internally. They think the idea that America’s in some kind of crisis is literally laughable …
Many proudly announced they voted for Hillary, they were so repulsed by Donald Trump! It’s with all of that as the foundation that Romney wrote this silly op-ed in which he tried to say, Some Trump policies are really good, but I can’t support him because the guy is such a reprobate.
Here’s what Romney actually stated:
I will act as I would with any president, in or out of my party: I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state, and oppose those that are not. I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault. But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.
In savaging Romney’s op-ed, Limbaugh was not merely standing against character criticism in a binary election against a Democrat who he thought would be worse overall for the country. He was standing against any character criticism of Republican presidents, even criticism coupled with explicit support for conservative parts of their agenda. To support Trump as Limbaugh thinks conservatives should, it isn’t enough to vote for his worthy ideas. One must hold one’s tongue.
Well, none of us is clean and pure; none of us is impeccable. I don’t care what image any of us have created for ourselves, and I don’t care what buzz we’ve got the media reporting. There’s not a one of us that does not have character defects. The idea that superior people are defined by their character and nothing else is one of the greatest political lost opportunities because these people are—in fact, I actually think this devotion to character they have is simply an excuse.
It’s simply a way for them to constantly say they are better people than Trump. The most amazing thing—and I say this to anybody who will listen—these are people, the conservative intelligentsia, the conservative Never Trumpers, the conservative intellectuals, they have devoted their lives ostensibly to the implementation of conservative ideas because of their importance, because they work, because they’re good for America.
And here for the most part they are watching the things they’ve devoted their lives to be implemented, and they hate it! And they’re opposing it! And they’re trying to stop it! And it doesn’t make any sense.
In the space of a few paragraphs, Limbaugh went from recounting his own bygone stance that liberals should’ve removed Clinton from office, despite agreeing with his substantive agenda, because of his character; to asserting that conservatives should still care about character, even if no one else does, even if they hold their nose to win elections; to asserting that it doesn’t make “any sense” for conservatives to criticize a sitting president when he is implementing policies they like. The self-contradiction was glaring, yet he didn’t recognize it.