Henry: Out with ‘left,’ ‘right’; who’s ‘Neville’?

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A question for history buffs: In politics, where did the terms “left” and “right” originate? If you answered the French National Assembly of 1789, pat yourself on the back.

Back then, the delegates sat on the right if they supported the king and on the left if they backed the revolutionaries.

The point is the political divisions of France in 1789 don’t readily fit America in 2017, although it is fun to pretend.

For example, President Donald Trump can be viewed as today’s preening monarch. Though posing as a people’s sovereign, he is surrounded by groveling courtiers, rules by whim, and lives in digs that make the Palace of Versailles look like a Motel 6.

Certainly the labels did make a rough sense for a while. Left and right were shorthand for those who held differing views of how much power the federal government should wield, one of the oldest arguments in the republic.

But Trump has changed everything. Many have argued that he is not a true conservative, but like it or not, he has remade conservatism in his unconservative image. While he retains some old conservative themes, he has basically reduced the philosophy to its grossest and meanest components and taken it all to extremes. He has made conservatism into a parody of itself.

Let us all admit that being conservative is not necessarily about bullying, boasting and serial lying. And surely it is not conservative to conceive of deficit-perpetuating plans to lower taxes on the rich while increasing spending on goofy projects such as a border wall.

Surely being conservative is not about kicking out 800,000 people who, through no fault of their own, came to this country when they were 6 or so and became Americans in all but official papers. Tell me if I am crazy in believing that being conservative is not about a full flight from old-fashioned common sense and decency.

Of course, I say this as a liberal but not one from the far left, where the illiberal liberals live. I believe in equal opportunity, hard work and personal responsibility. I am someone from the great middle and I’d be happy to have any sensible conservative at my side. What name for us?

As the old left and right labels have become threadbare in political crazyland, perhaps we should take our political terms from an era closer than 1789. How about 1938?

That was the year when a conservative British prime minister came back from Munich waving a piece of paper promising “peace for our time” after meeting with Adolf Hitler. The great appeaser was a good man in many ways — none other than Winston Churchill was to acknowledge this — but he made a historic mistake.

Now, Donald Trump is not a Nazi, but he is a dangerous autocrat driven by ego and bile. What he does not need is appeasement.

Yet he is surrounded by Neville Chamberlains, both in the White House and in the nation at large. Some are good people who had respectable reasons for initially supporting Trump. But no respectable reason remains to persist in a cultlike loyalty that forgives him everything.


Reg Henry is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. Email: rhenry@post-gazette.com