It would be superfluous to rehearse the multiple stupidities of Adam Liptak’s Sunday New York Times article headed “How Conservatives Weaponized the First Amendment.” Others, including David Marcus of The Federalist, have already done that. But Mr. Liptak’s piece is so disingenuous that any attempt to answer his argument—if you can dignify it by that title—has the perverse effect of making it sound semi-reasonable instead of what it is, which is a mere howl of anger. Neither Mr. Liptak nor Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, whom he was quoting when he wrote of conservatives’ having “weaponized” the Free Speech clause, can really be as idiotic as such an opinion makes them sound. The one is a graduate of Yale’s Law School, the other of Harvard’s, so they are certified smart people.
Smart enough, you would think, to be ashamed to make an argument which Michael Anton proleptically paraphrased in these pages last month thus: “Bad people should not be allowed to make arguments in their defense.” That is an extraordinary idea for anyone to express, let alone a highly-trained lawyer. But it is one of the corollaries of the reduction of our politics to virtue signaling that, once you go in for virtue signaling, you have to keep doing it in order to re-affirm your own membership in the club of the virtuous. It must be like a drug to those who become addicted to it, for, like a drug, it requires ever more frequent and stronger doses to produce the same virtuous high.
In practice, this means making ever more strident exaggerations not only of one’s own virtue but also of the wickedness of those whom one has made its foil—especially if past associations with the wicked might otherwise cast the shadow of a doubt on one’s virtue. That could explain the now-customary vehemence of the conservative NeverTrumpers against their favorite hate-figure and, increasingly, any of their former allies who support him. Max Boot, for example, another certified smart person, has lately compared his formerly fellow-Republicans to Nazis—thus making his own rhetorical intemperance indistinguishable from that he attributes to those he hates so immoderately. In the same spirit, the “conservative” Jennifer Rubin says that Sarah Huckabee Sanders deserves a “life sentence” of being confronted and abused in public places for serving as Mr. Trump’s spokesman.
These are no more rational statements than those of Mr. Liptak or Justice Kagan but a form of emphatic apologia for a change of tribal loyalties. Just as a journalist or a lawyer might be expected to have a bad conscience about arguing for excluding unfavored groups from constitutional protections and restricting their freedom of speech, so might a former conservative or Republican be sensitive to the charge of betraying former comrades. One way around this for both, is to exaggerate the badness of those from whom they now wish to dissociate themselves—a badness so bad, so evil, so double-dyed dastardly that those who are guilty of it cannot even be allowed to make arguments in their own defense. In short, it is the badness of the Nazis, to whom the tribe of the virtuous have already made comparing them routine.
Declining to be outraged by such a patent slander but joining in with it thus becomes a way of reassuring your newly radicalized allies that you are on their side. The question that interests me is: How has the fashionable Left in this country—which can hardly be said to have existed in this newly militant and radical form before the Occupy Wall Street movement seven years ago—acquired the power to exact from its sympathizers such extreme affirmations of loyalty? Or, to put it another way, why are smart people in professions that would seem to demand a judicious and rational approach to political questions so eager to demonstrate their willingness to throw judgment and reason to the four winds for the sake of being counted among the good people? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I suspect it has something to do with the power of fashion in a political culture from which honor has been banished.