Guest Post by Scott Greer

President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech presented a rare opportunity for conservative pundits. It was one of the first political events in recent memory free from Donald Trump. No mention of the 2020 election, no allusion to January 6. The address centered on a subject the conservative commentariat found agreeable: Ukraine. They all gushed over a foreign flag filling up America’s chamber of power. They applauded as the president acted as if Vladimir Putin is the greatest enemy to our nation.

Ukraine dominated Biden’s speech. Much of the speech sounded like Marco Rubio’s pseudo-populist turn, with paeans to paid family leave, buy American, and foreign policy hawkishness. The only real differences were the mentions of gender issues (“To our younger transgender Americans, I will always have your back as your president”), COVID, and climate policy. But conservatives didn’t really throw a fit over the transgender stuff. That would’ve been a bit too “bigoted.” They instead opted to have a fit over Biden’s Covid hypocrisy, his energy policy, and random gaffes.

It was a return to pre-Trump form for Conservative Inc. They could now agree with Democrats on the big issues like Ukraine and get back to their true passion: arguing over minutiae. They can now obsess over Biden saying “Iranian” people instead of “Ukrainian” people while agreeing with Biden’s basic point: that Putin is a global menace. They believe America has moved on from the orange racist president. They stand in unison with liberals and declare that America is a nation of immigrants, January 6 was a terrorist attack, there are austere norms we must respect, and we must stand with the Globalist American Empire.

Conservative Inc. agrees with liberalism on the big picture, they just get apoplectic over the details. This is petty conservatism.

There are two styles of petty conservatism. The lowbrow kind provides red meat and the “highbrow” kind seeks to criticize from a lofty perch. In the pre-Trump days, the lowbrow commentary was provided by talk radio and the blogosphere. They would call Barack Obama a communist for not believing in American exceptionalism (an idea once associated with liberals) and rage over Obama’s latte salute. The highbrow set, best represented by National Review and the Weekly Standard, would not use such language, but they largely agreed with their angrier allies. They also thought it outrageous that Obama questioned American exceptionalism and wasn’t tough enough on Russia. But they held out more hope than the lowbrow entertainers that liberals and conservatives could come together for the good of the country.

These two different styles were found aplenty after Biden’s speech.

Ben Shapiro provided an example of the lowbrow style. He praised Biden’s remarks on Ukraine, but still called the president the “Kurt Cobain of politics” for his other policies. According to Shapiro, Biden has “put a shotgun into the mouth of the American body politic and pulled the trigger. And the brains are on the wall.” That’s just like Kurt Cobain! It’s a statement meant to shock, but there’s nothing to the shock. This is not like Trump wondering why we take in immigrants from “shithole countries”—this is just Ben saying Biden blew America’s brain out to generate clicks.

Ben Domenech provided an example of the highbrow style. The Federalist founder bemoaned that Biden missed the opportunity to unite the country over Ukraine with divisive talk on energy policy. In his statement on the speech, Domenech managed to unite two conservative cliches (referencing Charles Krauthammer and a random classical source) in the same sentence to complain the president didn’t offer an olive branch to Republicans. It was not meant to shock like Shapiro’s comments—it was designed to make you admire Domenech’s intellect. But the Cicero quote doesn’t make it meaningful. It’s just a boilerplate comment you’d hear from Kevin McCarthy. And, like Shapiro, Domenech agrees with Biden on Ukraine and is firmly committed to the Globalist American Empire.

The differences between highbrow and lowbrow petty conservatism aren’t that important. They share the same views and ideas. They merely articulate these views in different fashions.

The archetype of petty conservatism is Erick Erickson. He was considered the hardest of the far right in the pre-Trump era. He was hated by liberals for calling Michelle Obama a “Marxist harpy” and former Supreme Court Justice David Souter “a goat fucking child molester,” among other things. None of these insults made any real point. They were just insults done for shock value and to entertain his audience. When Trump came along and said controversial things with an actual point, Erickson recoiled. He didn’t like a presidential candidate bringing up uncomfortable questions about race, mass immigration, white alienation, civilizational decline, and foreign interventionism. These controversial subjects were beyond the pale for many of the fire breathing conservatives of the Obama era. They just wanted a candidate to call Michelle Obama a Bolshevik for her school lunch plan.

Erickson, like all petty conservatives, relishes the thought of a “post-Trump” era. He no longer courts as much controversy from the Left as he once did. Liberals see him as a respectable conservative because he agrees with them on the important subjects. He supported the Black Lives Matter protests over George Floyd, says our nation was founded by refugees, and was “appalled” that Marjorie Taylor Greene spoke at the America First Political Action Conference. He only really talks tough about those to the right of them. He said police should’ve mowed down the January 6 protesters—a statement he would’ve never made about Black Lives Matter rioters. Erickson still wants to make over-the-top statements, but now he sticks to safe targets that won’t cost him advertisers.

And that’s ultimately what this is all about: staying in bounds. You can call Trump every name in the book. You can wish for war crimes to be committed against captured Russian soldiers. And, if you’re really adventurous, you can state there are only two genders. But you cannot question the fundamental beliefs upon which the Globalist American Empire is based. That will get you canceled.

Petty conservatives desperately want to rid themselves of Trump. Without Trump at the helm, they believe they can steer the discourse back to safe terrain. They can fervently tweet out about how Biden is the real racist because of his patronizing comments to blacks or he’s the real homophobe because he once opposed gay marriage. That discourse energizes partisan brains, but it only reaffirms the GAE’s ideology. It keeps the discussion completely safe and full of meaningless quips.

The bad news for them is that Trump isn’t going away anytime soon. He essentially announced he’s running for president again at CPAC and every poll shows him well ahead of the pack. But that doesn’t stop petty conservatives from dreaming of a time where they could attack liberals without the taint of Trumpism.

Frivolity is really what makes Con Inc tick. It isn’t representing the legitimate interests of Middle America or trying to push back at civilizational decline, it’s retweeting an old clip of Biden saying “you ain’t black” for the 89th time. It’s standing athwart history, snarking, “I’m with you on Russia. But will you apologize for Obama telling Mitt Romney the 80s wants his policy back?”

Scott M. Greer is the host of the popular “Highly Respected” podcast.