OpEd: The United States of Me

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Old-line conservatives like to distance themselves from Donald Trump's loony priorities and scorched earth policies. I was listening to George Will promoting his new book a few days ago. The venerable bastion of the conservative ideology was aghast, as he should be, at what Trump has done to the cause. Most of it has to be laid in a messy bundle at the doorstep of conservatism whether Mr. Will likes it or not. George Will and David Brooks can disperse sparks of righteous indignity till they light up the sky. But it was Will and Brooks and their contemporaries — and they are legion — who have spent their professional lives building a stage and carefully arranging the props upon it. Now, they don't particularly like the circus that is being enacted upon it with a clown in the center ring. Donald Trump won't ever be hailed as a Reaganesque symbol of traditional conservatism, but his all-encompassing self-indulgence is both the living embodiment and the logical result of it. Am I being unfair? How can a man with no anchor to anything beyond his own best interests possibly be the bearer of the conservative flame? Mr. Trump is so inarticulate when Will and company pronounce every word with such calculated precision. Mr. Trump is so crude and thuggish when they are so dignified and stately. Mr. Trump's mind, such as it is, is so chaotic when they are so thoughtful and focused. Mr. Will would like us to believe it is simply a matter of respecting the core values and principles that have served us so effectively for so long. That might pass muster with the dividend set on Park Avenue, but try and convince a single mother with two kids in the Bronx that she doesn't need any help as long as she is privileged to live in a country that offers such boundless opportunities. To me, conservatism is tantamount to freeze-drying your mind; not allowing for the fact that the world is organic, it changes, its potential expands as man's knowledge of it increases and it is threatened by man's inability to accept that knowledge. The Koch brothers' flacks can go on sneering at the possibility that the earth's climate is being dangerously impacted by the continued use of carbon based fuels, but that doesn't change the fact that we are experiencing the phenomena (massive wildfires, devastating storms) that scientists have been warning us about for years. The basis for the concerted denial of scientific fact lies in — what else? — the financial ramifications for certain businesses if they concede that climate change is both real and potentially catastrophic. Trump can cruelly play savior to coal miners in West Virginia, but coal is never going to recover the prominence it once had as an energy source in the world, no matter how many false promises he makes. The loss of jobs in the mining sector can be compensated by the infusion of work opportunities in new, technologically advanced facets of the energy industry. One of the basic tenets of conservative philosophy is to limit the role government should play in our lives (with the downright peculiar exception of our bedrooms). Most conservatives rail against government interference in business as "overreach," contending with a naivety that would astonish Bambi, that big business has both the capacity and the integrity to police itself without any kind of federal oversight. In the 1980s, Beech Nut was pedaling sugar water and caramel as apple juice for babies. A few short years ago General Motors decided it was cheaper to settle lawsuits against the company than to fix the faulty ignition switch in Chevrolets that was killing people. Hoosick Falls is still attempting to recover from Saint Gobain's polluting its water supply with toxic chemicals. Three hundred and forty-six people had to die before Boeing admitted that there might be a problem with the new 737 Max jetliners. Big business policing itself? My response to that fantasy is much the same as Michael Bloomberg's when Donald Trump said he would run the country the way he had run his businesses: "God help us."

George Will, with all his measured, deeply felt, convincingly enunciated convictions about the glories of conservatism failed to convince me about what I have always thought was its bedrock principle. It is an ode to the individual. No matter how you slice it, saut it, bake it, boil it, or fry it, when it's served up, conservatism is all about me — what's good for me, even if thousands of others pay the price for it. There's a deep-seated cynicism in conservatism that holds that anyone who needs help from what they contemptuously refer to as government "entitlement programs" is somehow taking personal advantage of them. What is conveniently missing from the gripe is the fact that federal aid to the poor is dwarfed in comparison to tax breaks and other government handouts to the rich. Years ago, I was walking through Cambridge, Massachusetts, after spending a day in Boston buying things I probably didn't need. It was late fall and there was a chill in the air. I was in a hurry to get back to my car. A young man was standing on the sidewalk and, as I passed by, he asked for money because, he said, "I'm hungry."

Most conservatives would probably hold that the man would have used the money to buy drugs. Maybe he would have.

I didn't give him any money. As I walked on, I heard him say, "Please." And that word still haunts me today. What, I ask myself now, would it have mattered to me what he did with the money?

He might have used it to buy drugs. He might really have been hungry. But, I just walked away, not realizing that the boy's "Please" would still echo in my mind decades later.

Alden Graves writes a regular column for the Journal.

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