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The Stories Dan Crenshaw Tells Himself

The pathos of Trump’s most effective defender.
April 29, 2020
The Stories Dan Crenshaw Tells Himself
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

In a new book out this month, a Republican member of Congress offers one of the most brutal and surgical eviscerations of President Trump’s leadership style that has been put to print.

“The problem with today’s society is that it is swelling with the wrong role models,” he writes. “Abandoning traditional heroes for new and exciting villains who represent self-indulgence, loud-mouthed commentary, angry fist-shaking activism, or insulting spitfire politics.”

This is, he says, infecting our entire society, which “has grown out of control often at the expense of logic, decency, and virtue.” We now “mock virtue without considering how its abandonment accelerates our moral decay” and “don a mantle of fragility, of anger, of childishness, and are utterly shameless in doing so.”

“A culture characterized by self-pity, indulgence, outrage, and resentment is a culture that falls apart,” he argues.

On Earth 2, this may have been the launching pad for a courageous and ambitious primary campaign that stands up for virtue in the face of our fragile, angry, childish, shameless, self-indulgent, loud-mouthed, insulting, self-pitying, and resentful president.

Here on Earth 1, the book is called Fortitude and its author is Rep. Dan Crenshaw, one of the most visible defenders of Donald Trump.

Crenshaw surely understands this inherent contradiction.

For starters, he is a Purple Heart recipient who, after being blown up by an IED, demanded that he walk himself to medical evacuation because he didn’t want to expose other servicemen to unnecessary enemy fire. That makes him a badass who knows what courageous leadership is and what it isn’t. He’s also a bilingual graduate of Tufts and Harvard who is an insightful interlocutor on essentially any matter except the objective reality concerning the current president of the United States.

And then there’s the fact that before Crenshaw’s political fortunes required a baseline level of Trumpitude, he candidly assessed Trump’s failings himself, writing on Facebook that the then-candidate was an “idiot” whose rhetoric was “insane” and “hateful.”

Such assessments are no longer convenient for the former Navy SEAL who at first pitched himself to voters as a McCain-style antidote to the bitter partisanship that defines Trump’s Washington.

Eighteen short months later Crenshaw has found himself as part of a colloquy of pleasers jockeying for a spot at the pinnacle of Trump’s GOP with a path to succeeding the president in 2024. (That is, should Trump’s children or Trump himself take a pass on the race.)

He has ingratiated himself by putting on a masterclass in anti-anti Trumpism, using his considerable debate skills to spar with the worst excesses of the left and savage what he argues is media bias against Trump. At key inflection points, such as the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, Crenshaw has risen to defend Trump and suggest that anyone who thinks that the leader of the free world’s words and behavior matter is lacking nuance and seriousness.

In Fortitude, a book ostensibly about courage in the face of adversity, Crenshaw demonstrates that the values instilled in him as a SEAL that he believes will save the country apply to everything except his own political career.

Crenshaw is fond of lecturing liberal journalists who ask him about the president with a riposte that is some version of the phrase “conservatives can hold two ideas in their head at the same time.” The two ideas Crenshaw alludes to are (1) that Trump has character flaws but (2) his administration is doing a good job.

This is a theory that might have some merit if both halves of the formulation were true.

They are not.

But what’s really striking is that in practice, Crenshaw can’t even bring himself to hold to both parts of the false pairing. That’s because it is no more possible for Crenshaw or any other non-Romney elected Republican to speak honestly about Trump’s character flaws than it would’ve been for members of the Soprano clan to speak the truth about Tony.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Crenshaw’s handling of Trump while he’s been hawking his book.

While Trump’s most essential character traits are savaged throughout Crenshaw’s 250 pages, his name is mentioned but 9 times, while the “media” is mentioned 9 times in the first 8 pages alone. Seven of the mentions of Trump are critiques of the media for being unfair to him. One is about an encounter Crenshaw had with anti-Trump activists. The final one is pushing back on right-wing conspiracies about the Deep State going after Trump.

So while Crenshaw might be holding two different thoughts about the president in his head, readers of Fortitude—a book that is marketed as being about “tough love leadership”—would have no idea what sort of tough love Crenshaw would offer to the most important leader in the world today.

Some might say that Crenshaw’s views about Trump are implicit in the text. Yet when he’s been asked about this directly, he either deflects or goes to stunning lengths to shower praise on the president for his leadership.

On the Bill Maher show, for example, Crenshaw offered a curious portrayal of the president as the type of calm and optimistic leader who would’ve excelled commanding Navy SEALs.

When bullets are flying past my head, I don’t need to raise my voice . . . calm breeds calm, panic breeds panic. Exuding positivity and calmness in crisis is exactly how we ask our SEALs to lead.

How this devotion to calm positivity squares with almost daily rants about how mean Jim Acosta is and ALL CAPS tweets about protesters liberating themselves from their duly elected government is . . . interesting. And whenever he’s asked about this incongruity, Crenshaw pivots to say that questions about Trump are unfair attacks by an outrage-driven media that should be asking him about more important things.

So when Maher pressed about Trump’s proclivity to “pass the buck, lie, finger-point, shirk responsibility,” Crenshaw dodged:

Republicans always get asked this question. There’s this demand that we always have to answer, “What do you feel about him, don’t you want to comment on this latest tweet, the way he lashed out?” And no I don’t.

So maybe Crenshaw really is holding two thoughts in his head. It’s just that he only feels safe voicing one of them.

In a visit to The View to discuss his Washington Post op-ed that called for “restoring civility to the public debate” Crenshaw said that his baseline view was that politicians shouldn’t “insult each other” or “make disingenuous attempts to undermine character.”

Abby Huntsman made the obvious retort: “The president’s not listening to you.”

To which Crenshaw replied: “Nobody is.”

This may be true in the broadest possible sense about politics in general. But if you bring it down to individual actors, it is demonstrably false. Mitt Romney does not insult people. Sherrod Brown does not insult people. Tammy Duckworth and Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden and Ben Sasse and Heidi Heitkamp and Jeb Bush do not, as matters of routine, mock and belittle others.

So it isn’t actually true-true—not in any real sense.

Because in the real sense, no other American president has even been in the same galaxy as Donald Trump when it comes to engaging in the behavior Crenshaw decries.

Why can’t Crenshaw just say this obviously true thing out loud?

These sorts of evasions and half-truths are standard fare for the average elected Republican these days. Disingenuousness and hypocrisy are no longer part of their considerations.

But Crenshaw isn’t your average elected Republican. He’s made calls for “good faith” arguments that home in on “the truth” rather than “outrage culture” central to his brand. He repeatedly gallivants about on a high horse lecturing everyone else about fairness in argumentation and acting with honor in the public square. And then hops out of the saddle the minute anyone asks him about Trump’s affront to these virtues.

The frustrating thing for Crenshaw’s opponents is that he’s really good at it.

Unlike many of the president’s defenders, who’ll inject themselves with any bleach the president tells them to, Crenshaw has chosen his spots and his “nuanced” defenses of Trump are designed to confound anyone who isn’t fully versed in the particulars of each administration scandal.

Crenshaw was a staunch defender on impeachment, going so far as to present his “no vote” to Trump in a really embarrassing display of suck-up-itude at a Charlie Kirk confab. On The View he defended Trump’s Charlottesville comments, spreading the hoax that the president’s “very fine people” comment was about some other group of protesters, not the murdering white nationalists. He’s defended the administration everywhere from the New York Times to late-night comedy shows—his allies say he is competitive by nature and both enjoys and sees value in sparring outside the friendly confines of Conservatism Inc. (Though not universally so: I reached out to Rep. Crenshsaw’s office twice to see if he wanted to push back on my assessment for this article. I received no response.)

Crenshaw’s skill in defending the Trumpian indefensible reached its apex this month when his video “debunking” criticisms of the Trump administration over COVID-19 preparedness was shared on social media by both the president and his large adult son—and was sent to all GOP congressional offices to use as a model. The video garnered about 8 million views on Twitter alone.

In the explainer-style video that Crenshaw brands as the “truth” about the administration’s response, he paints the picture of a president who was on the ball—or even ahead of the game!—when it came to the virus.

To do so, he nutpicks the worst media takes about the virus from January and February, ignores everything the president said and did in March, shifts the responsibility for testing and PPE to the Obama administration and federal bureaucracy, and knocks down the straw man suggestion that we should’ve “shut everything down” in February. (Which was not a widespread recommendation by public health experts.)

Aaron Blake has already done a thorough debunking of Crenshaw’s “debunking.” (Because he is merciful, Blake didn’t bother dunking on Crenshaw’s shameless characterization that it was Trump who pushed for COVID-stimulus funds in February. In fact Democratic leaders gave the president $6 billion more than the administration asked for—only to be mocked by Trump as “Cryin’ Chuck” who only wanted “publicity.”)

The actual truth—the true-truth—is Donald Trump downplayed the threat of the coronavirus long after every important politician save Bill de Blasio and a handful of MAGA governors. The president was still comparing the virus to the flu and car accidents on March 23—an entire month after any of the media flubs Crenshaw highlights in the video.

If Crenshaw was actually trying to “get the truth out there” then he would at least acknowledge the obvious presidential failings that anyone in their right mind can see.

The fact that he doesn’t is the tell that he isn’t actually trying to get to the truth. He’s not even trying to argue in good faith. He’s just doing a more sophisticated form of MAGA propaganda that’s based on the idea of sleight-of-hand persuasion rather than bullying dominance.

That’s something? I guess?

The penultimate chapter of Fortitude is titled “The Stories We Tell Ourselves.” In it, Crenshaw writes that “after every failure, after every hardship, we create a personal narrative to account for that moment. We tell ourselves a story.”

Citing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, Crenshaw makes the case that people should not buy stories that remove personal responsibility—stories where people see themselves as a victim. He writes that the “most devastating mental state” is one in which people consider themselves helpless in the face of adversity.

I suspect that this is what makes Crenshaw’s dilemma so agonizing for him.

In the story Dan Crenshaw tells himself, he sees himself as a good man, a rational man, a man who can make the world a better place by staying in it and fighting for truth and virtue. All of that may be true. But there’s just one catch: The price of admission is that Crenshaw must put one large, but inconvenient, truth in a box over to the side. And he must never open it, or even speak about it.

Because if he does, the insane, hateful idiot who leads the political cult Crenshaw belongs to will excommunicate him and force him out of public life.

So this is Crenshaw’s choice:

Say out loud the second part of the thoughts he holds in his head. And be consigned to exile with Mia Love and Jeff Flake and Mitt Romney and the others.


Fudge the truth about Trump and subject himself to the most devastating mental state he can imagine: One where he is helpless to stand up to someone who isn’t half the man he is, who is the embodiment of everything that he thinks is wrong with our society, who in any other circumstance he would regard with disdain. But have the chance to make a difference.

The story he tells himself is that his political life depends on choosing the latter and that the adversary is the media which doesn’t recognize his obvious goodness and forces him to answer for that choice.

The problem is that the story he tells himself isn’t one of political fortitude. It’s a story of victimization, resentment, and helplessness.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.