“If only I had said…” is something most human beings have said to themselves at one time or another.
This regret has intensified for conservatives since the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election coupled with the rise of wokeness and the nastier side of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The disdain of progressives for Donald Trump and for Republicans generally has spilled over into everyday encounters. Many conservatives, myself included, for the sake of social peace and out of a misguided sense of neighborliness, career protection, and even personal safety concerns, have shrugged and fallen into a, “Why bother?” or “It’s not worth it,” mentality in such situations. I have come to see, however, that this passive attitude among many conservatives is not healthy for us or for the nation.
How do we fight back?
It is not easy. A lot of anti-conservative animus is subtle and it is difficult to respond effectively to comments that are oblique rather than direct. Conservatives are aware that we and what we believe are the target of little digs and jibes in all sorts of social settings from classrooms to symphony concerts. But if we take umbrage, we risk coming across as belligerent or being labeled “snowflakes.” Nevertheless, it is important for our self-respect and for progressives themselves that we speak up and let progressives know that they are not going to be allowed to change our culture or render conservatives politically impotent without a fight.
There are some words that we need to be aware of words that leftists employ to portray conservatives as either a) irrational bigots or ignoramuses or b) devious, unprincipled, malefactors forever scheming diabolically to effect all sorts of damage to the liberal project and the oppressed. These words are “weaponize” and “politicize.”
For example, if a woman suddenly finds that a man “identifying” as a woman is in a spa when the actual woman is in a state of undress and therefore, obviously, in an unsafe situation and complains about this outrage and conservatives side with her the conservatives are accused of “politicizing” the situation and “weaponizing” gender issues. How a woman rightly complaining about a gross invasion of her privacy while unclothed has “weaponized” anything is beyond me. But employing the terminology of warfare and violence for any sort of non-progressive speech has worked perfectly for the left when it comes to tarring anyone who dissents from their agenda as an aggressor and an extremist. The mute button is being hit on conservatives in all kinds of situations. The spa incident typifies the way that progressives are enforcing compliance not just with the law but with radical social mores in every conceivable venue.
I’d like to share a few examples of such settings and discuss what I wish I had said and some of the few instances when I finally did speak up.
Often, we conservatives consign the fight for our principles to politicians (Ron DeSantis), media figures (Tucker Carlson), public intellectuals (Robert P. George) or myriad advocacy or faith-based organizations (e.g., Alliance Defending Freedom, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the recently founded Academic Freedom Alliance). Meanwhile, as individuals when we encounter anti-conservative sneers we have chosen the path of least resistance or, as Robert P. George might more sternly put it in his most morally rigorous mode, cowardice.
Like many conservatives, I have been aware of the habit of liberals of assuming that everyone around them is a progressive because to them every enlightened, sophisticated, cultivated, decent person naturally is. But this relatively benign attitude on the part of many on the left hardened into the “Resistance” upon the election of Donald Trump. Overnight, sixtyish retired white college liberal arts professors began to fancy themselves frontline “anti-fascists” as if they were Jean Moulin or Sophie Scholl. This grandiose view of themselves affected every aspect of their lives and made them question if it was even morally acceptable to maintain friendships with conservatives.
At first, like many conservatives, I assumed that this hatred of all things Trump would not lead to anything more than the coarseness and the silliness of the pussy hat. I was wrong.
I—we—underestimated the potency of the anti-Trump movement which regarded him as the fount of all evil and his supporters as equally iniquitous. The hatred of Trump led to everything from classical music concerts to women’s health events becoming venues for anti-Trump sniping, while conservatives were expected to sit quietly—and, indeed, to subsidize the takeover of culture at the local level by virulent anti-Trump and, eventually, anti-Republican forces.
After the death of George Floyd, the target of the left’s fury expanded beyond Trump and his administration and supporters (like, you know, millions upon millions of Americans) to “white supremacists”—which, to white progressives and their non-white compatriots, meant every white person—or, indeed, every person—who was not a progressive.
None of this is news. But it helps set the scene for some reflections on the way forward for conservatives in our own communities. Let’s think about ways we can equip ourselves for fighting mini-battles and let the left know that we exist and we’re not going to let their snark and sniping go unanswered anymore. It is important (to use a word the left loves) to openly “identify” as conservatives so as to maintain the visibility of our values and not let the left control our cultural lives at every level and in every art form and public policy or public health and welfare forum.
It took me a long while to acknowledge that I was failing to take opportunities to defend my conservative values (or, really, basic fairness). Part of the problem, as noted above, is that many of these anti-conservative jabs occurred in social settings that one does not usually expect politics to rear its often-ugly head, so I was caught off guard. But given that it has become commonplace—indeed, they seem to regard it as obligatory—for progressives to suggest that Republicans and conservatives are backward, dangerous, puritanical, violence-prone, stupid and so on, it behooves us to have civil but forceful ripostes in our heads ready for any occasion.
I have not actually tried to stand up in a public meeting and say from my seat in the audience to a university symphony orchestra conductor, for example, what I wish I had said during the first Trump impeachment trial, “Maestro, I just want to point out that there are Republicans in the audience here today who came to hear the concert and not your personal views on President Trump. Classical music is one of the few things left to all Americans that we should be allowed to enjoy together in harmony and sans discord. I would also remind you that classical music as a genre is struggling to maintain audience and financial support and politicizing it is a sure way to decrease both. Your political grandstanding today is only going to harm the career prospects of the student musicians surrounding you up there. In a spirit of goodwill and mutual respect, could we please just hear the music now and refrain from polarizing for a few hours at least?”
It would not have been comfortable, but I should have done it, and I regret not doing it.
Of course, there is a danger that a conservative who speaks up in such a situation could herself be shouted down and written off as herself disruptive and furthering division. I leave it up to the individual to gauge each situation. But it does seem to me that ceding the field in the arts (for example) is not desirable.
Shortly after the 2016 election I attended day-long workshop for cancer patients. Again, a speaker in an utterly irrelevant fashion made some anti-Trump comments.
Here again, I was not prepared to suddenly have Trump hatred interjected into what should have been a nonpolitical event. This was before we all came to expect this sort of thing. I wish I had said, “I just want to say that being diagnosed with cancer is stressful enough without the added burden of politics being introduced into an event that is supposed to be focused on a disease that does not discriminate on the basis of political views. Could we please return to the subject at hand and focus on the common enemy, which in this case is cancer and not Mr. Trump? There are conservative doctors and liberal doctors, liberal patients and conservative patients. We should all be friends here today. Thank you.”
I did not say that. I wish I had.
I am happy to report that in less intimidating situations, I have learned that one should simply quietly and politely indicate that one is a conservative when a progressive is taking for granted that one is not and is happily spouting off about how dumb, evil, unpatriotic, etc. Republicans are. I do this with some glee, truth be told, because one gets so few opportunities in life to see looks of utter astonishment on other people’s faces and to see a pontificating person deflated in a matter of seconds and left, briefly at least, speechless.
This is most effectively done when the conservative is able to say at a community service event something like, “Well, you know what? I am a Trump-voting Republican and we like to clean highway roadsides too. Would you hand me another garbage bag, please?”
Or at an annual Christmas brunch of a local medical clinic or at the grocery store one can simply lean forward and say quietly, “Just you so you know…I am a Republican.”
Occasionally, this has led to further acrimony such as a reaction such as, “How can you possibly support those…” As a rule, there is just an awkward silence. But the point has been made.
I confess I still don’t do this consistently. If one is from a liberal family, as I am, and talking to friends of one’s relatives, it is hard to say, “Um, I am a Republican. Would you say I am an idiot and brimming with bad intentions or was brain damaged at birth, as you just said most Republicans were?”
Sometimes we need to reclaim, as it were, public spaces such as parks and the peacefulness of strolls therein. For example, when a neighbor shortly after the events of January 6, 2021 at the Capitol launched into a diatribe about the evil Republicans I replied, “Well, given that progressives said nothing when the federal courthouse in Portland was under attack for weeks on end by antifa rioters who tried to burn it down—” and continued on my way.
The point is not to engage in an endless game of one-upmanship, but to signal to progressives that they are perfectly free to speak their minds, but that conservatives are not going to remain supine forever. Forbearance has its place, but we need not be slaves to it. Be always ready to ask questions that might lead to productive dialogue such as:
“Which Republican, in particular, do you think is a racist? Could you be specific?”
“Could you please give me an example of the kind of conspiracy theory you think Republicans are deluded by?”
“Could you please provide me as specifically as possible an instance of what you mean when you say “misinformation?”
We also need to avoid coming across as wanting to suppress speech ourselves (as could be argued in the cases of what I wish I had said at the orchestra concert and cancer workshop). But it does seem to me that making our presence felt as conservatives in what used to be—and should be—apolitical venues, and identifying as conservatives at times when we are being patrons of the arts or engaging in beautification or other community service work or simply going about our business, is a non-threatening but firm way of saying, “We are conservatives. We are here. We are good people. Just so you know…” That’s good for everybody.