My colleague Jay Nordlinger likes to gripe that “you should run for president” is uttered far too swiftly on the right nowadays, the injunction tending to follow almost every instance of public-facing conservative competence. A man has made an impressive speech, full of critiques of which you approved? He should be president! A governor is doing well in a state that is usually run by the other side. Shouldn’t he be our commander-in-chief? We have someone in the legislature who is fluent in fiscal policy? Let’s remove him from his area of expertise and put him immediately into the White House. More often than not, it has to be said, this happens with minorities and with women — the tendency serving perhaps as the Republican party’s own form of affirmative action. If we could just parachute this gifted black man into a position of prominence, the thought goes, our image problem would be solved.
This proclivity is not entirely unwise, of course. Washington D.C.’s insider culture is certainly a real problem, and the abundance of career politicians and wannabe lobbyists does render substantial retrenchment unlikely. On occasion, we really do need outsiders to shake things up. But there are talented political newcomers and there are mavericks and then there are rank amateurs and flavors of the month, and the difference between these two types is the difference between a Dwight Eisenhower or a Rudy Giuliani and a Herman Cain or a Donald Trump. One would like to imagine that the prospect of an unknown’s being held up as the face of a centuries-old party and a timeless political movement would set loud alarm bells ringing in the ears of those who characterize themselves as “conservatives.” That for so many it does not is troubling indeed.
As a rule, we on the right like to tell ourselves that we are steadfastly opposed to heroes in politics, and that we are especially opposed to heroes who promise that their election to the executive branch will result in sweeping changes or in a post-partisan utopia. The United States, we argue, was set up in opposition to princes and to aristocrats, with the express recognition that politics will always be with us and with the explicit understanding that the influence of individual players would be strictly limited by the system. Long before anybody in the wider electorate so much as knew Barack Obama’s name, this instinct was a virtuous and a sensible one. But if we have learned anything from his presidency, it is just how prudent that conviction was. Somehow, however, the hope that a shining knight will come to save the republic from itself remains common within conservative circles. What gives?