News and Commentary

The Conservative Movement Needs Both Bomb Throwers and Bomb Squads

Last week, in a bit of journalistic hackery that would be merely scurrilous were its timing over Sukkot not so utterly pusillanimous, The New York Times saw fit to print a hit piece by Jane Coaston on Daily Wire Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro. Ben is more than capable of defending himself against Coaston’s distortions and falsehoods, and, indeed, he did precisely that on Monday’s podcast. Since I am a fan of The Godfather and believe dead horses are better suited for Jack Woltz’s bedroom than for superfluous beatings, I withhold any further riposte to Coaston’s insipid drudgery.

In the aftermath of Coaston’s screed, Philip H. DeVoe wrote a short piece defending Ben at National Review‘s “The Corner” blog, to which Coaston then responded via tweet storm. Two of her tweets, in particular, merit further reflection:

Again, it is not my intention to add an additional defense of Ben to his already perfectly competent defense of himself. The notion that Ben does not seek to convince leftists of conservatism’s superiority is quite comical; indeed, I can personally attest that a close law school friend has become markedly more conservative since graduating, due in no small part to her becoming a loyal listener of Ben’s podcast.

Instead, the umbrage I take from Coaston’s tweets is of a subtler variety. Coaston seems to think that the raison d’être of the conservative commentator — and, extrapolating a bit, of all generally engaged conservatives — is “to attempt to convince” non-conservatives of their inherent faultiness. It is axiomatic, of course, that such a purpose is indeed a focal point for so many of us entering into the public discourse. The dialectic, as perhaps best demonstrated by the Socratic dialogues, permits colloquists to employ logic and reason to engage each other in a common pursuit of the truth. And it is no exaggeration to suggest that, in Western civilization, the dialectic serves as the cornerstone for the existence of the academy.

But contrary to Coaston’s implication, there are other reasons, besides the art of persuasion, for engaged citizens to enter the public discourse. This is disproportionately true, perhaps, in the political context. And within the political context, it is idiosyncratically true, perhaps, in the conservative context.

Within the conservative fold, we tend to have “bomb throwers,” and we tend to have a “bomb squad.” Whereas the conservative bomb throwers seek to rally the base and/or ensure that the conservative movement retains an intellectual and philosophical backbone, the conservative bomb squad seeks to defuse tensions and present an amicable front in the exchange of ideas and the persuasion of hearts and minds. Neither label is intended to be a pejorative.

For conservatives, both of these roles are indispensable to the promotion of our vision of the nation-state and the social compact that undergirds it. Neither our bomb throwers nor our bomb squadsmen, so long as prudence is shown in the rejection of both amoral Alinskyism and the insidious “eye for an eye” race to the bottom that is the temptation of the tribalist, have a monopoly on the propriety of their morals or tactics. Moreover, neither our bomb throwers nor our bomb squadsmen, perhaps counter-intuitively, necessarily have a superior claim to conservative purity.

The post-Russell Kirk/William F. Buckley, Jr. conservative movement is a largely creedal one. While our principles are timeless, many in the broader tent invariably fall astray. Venal and virtue-signaling politicians in Washington fall victim to economic or cultural cronyism. Echo chamber groupthink pushed by the K Street “smart set,” on issues as wide-ranging as health care to immigration to Middle East geopolitics, can easily come to predominate. In such an environment, and especially amid surging tribalism and “whataboutism” percolating through our increasingly balkanized political fabric, bomb throwers are acutely needed to maintain fealty to principle. As I asked in June, “What good is our fight, after all, if we become so consumed with victory that we lose sight of why we are fighting in the first place?” A few of our notable conservatives more known for being bomb throwers are Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and my friends Erick Erickson of The Resurgent and Daniel Horowitz of Conservative Review.

Yet, while the principled guardianship of conservatism is indeed pivotal, so too is the role of the bomb squad in defusing tensions and putting on a happy warrior visage for the persuasion of hearts and minds in the public square. There is little point, after all, in preserving our conservative creed if we stand no chance of ultimately enacting our agenda by germinating our ideological convictions all throughout the land. And such germination, of course, is not possible unless we eloquently and amicably seek to evangelize our ideals and win conversions at an individual level. The conservative bomb squadsman requires not necessarily a quixotic naivete, but certainly a cheerful optimism. A few of our notable conservatives more known for being bomb squadsmen — those whose demeanors and dispositions are most naturally suited for engagement in the dialectic with those of differing ideological stripes — are Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Prof. Robert P. George of Princeton University, and Mary Katharine Ham of CNN and The Federalist.

Neither the bomb thrower nor the bombsquadsman is necessarily more or less important than is the other. Neither even necessarily has a claim, as evidenced by my placing of Sen. Cruz in one camp and Sen. Lee in the other camp, to superior conservative bona fides; rather, where one feels more at home is a function of non-ideological character traits such as demeanor, and perhaps a more ethereal and visceral sense of purpose within the broader movement. For some, specialization feels like the best maximization of talent; personally, I have long felt more at home in the bomb thrower camp. For others, dexterity in serving multiple roles is best; for example, as it pertains to our own fearless Editor-in-Chief here, I believe Ben has grown over the years from the erstwhile single-faceted bomb thrower of the Breitbart blogging and Piers Morgan gun debating days to a more multi-faceted conservative figure also fully capable of engaging leftists in sustained and intellectually meaningful colloquy.

Which means, of course, that Jane Coaston is wrong about Ben Shapiro. But you already knew that. What you perhaps did not already realize is that Coaston is also wrong about who populates the conservative commentariat, and the conservative movement, more broadly. Indeed, we need both our bomb throwers and our bomb squad.