Conservatives swimming against the tide

Conservatives have long felt that they are swimming against a liberal (as in whatever they oppose) tide. William F. Buckley famously wrote in the National Review’s mission statement that the publication “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”[1] George Nash wrote of the capitalist libertarian Albert Jay Nock that he

abandoned his early Jeffersonian idealism in revulsion from the hopeless, uneducable masses. Nock the classicist, the man of culture, became convinced that the masses could never be saved. But—and here he appealed to many later conservatives—the Remnant could. For in every age there existed a small Remnant of truly intelligent people; it was the task of each would-be Isaiah, alarmed at decay and impending doom, simply to preach. The members of the Remnant would eventually find him; they would come.[2]

Thomas Frank explains that his ‘Cons’ (authoritarian populists) bear something more than a sense of grievance:

Conservatives often speak of their first bout of indignation as a sort of conversion experience, a quasi-religious revelation. . . . The virtuous [conservatives] are persecuted by the “sanctimonious,” by the arrogant, by the falsely pious, by the corrupt [liberals]; . . . it is an epiphany, a revelation of the Christlike nature of the right. Liberals are relativists to whom nothing is sacred and yet, at the same time, omnipotent inquisitors able to call down instant censure on the heads of innocent Americans.[3]

Much of this is delusional. The range of acceptable political discourse has moved steadly rightward since the 1970s; from what I can gather, “liberal” became a dirty word with the near-bankruptcy of New York City, which then-President Gerald Ford refused to bail out.[4] Neoconservatism and neoliberalism are prevailing orthodoxies, reproductive rights (and therefore women’s lives) remain under relentless attack, Black lives are at risk with every encounter with the police, and the notion (embraced by some conservatives as well as radicals on the left) that maybe we’d all be a lot safer if we’d just butt out of the Middle East is extremist.

We should not be blind, however, when conservatives really do take a courageous stand and really do seem to be swimming against the tide. Such is the case with the National Review‘s special edition condemning Republican presidential primary candidate Donald Trump,[5] the man I believe likely to win not only the Republican nomination but the presidency.[6]

This is an important development. Many conservatives have long seen the National Review as a sort of gatekeeper of conservatism,[7] “excluding from the ranks of acceptable conservatives anti-Semites, the atheist Ayn Rand, the conspiracist John Birch Society, anti–Vietnam War libertarians, and most recently the opponents of the Iraq War epitomized by Pat Buchanan.”[8] It was under the National Review’s auspices that Frank Meyer launched his fusionist project, seeking ideological harmony among capitalist libertarians, traditionalist conservatives, and anti-communists. Meyer’s project probably failed in terms of coherence but brilliantly succeeded in increasing conservative influence.[9] So when the National Review says Trump is not a conservative, it’s important. And as Conor Friedersdorf points out,

the anti-Trump message didn’t just coming from NR editors. The issue includes contributions from 22 right-leaning intellectuals. The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and the Cato Institute’s David Boaz don’t have much in common. Neither do Commentary’s John Podhoretz and Glenn Beck. But all are anti-Trump.[10]

Friedersdorf goes on to argue,

Now a broad, concerted effort to stop [Trump] has finally been joined. If it fails, principled conservatives will be forced to ask how the Republican Party can be an effective political instrument “while it is led by a man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points . . . so far removed from common sense? The underlying problem is whether conservatives can continue to acquiesce quietly in a rendition of the causes of the decline of the Republic and the entire Western world which is false, and, besides that, crucially different in practical emphasis from their own.”[11]

Friedersdorf’s analysis seems to me to be basically sound and I recommend reading it in full. But I do not agree with him that “the fact that so many prominent conservatives and libertarians who disagree about so much all believe that Trump is worth fighting strikes me as a promising sign for those who want him to be defeated.” As Friedersdorf continues, “Until now, the conservative movement hasn’t quite dared to believe that Trump could actually win” and while the National Review is certainly the sort of big gun the anti-Trump crowd needs to bring to the fight, they are very late in doing so, and I would agree with a passage Friedersdorf quotes from Matt Welch:

“Many or even most of the people who make a living working in politics and political commentary—even those who think of themselves as outsiders, such as nonpartisan libertarians—inevitably begin to view their field as one dedicated primarily to ideas, ideology, philosophy, policy, and so forth,” he wrote, “and NOT to the emotional, ideologically unmoored cultural passions of a given (and perhaps fleeting) moment. Trump—and more importantly, his supporters, who go all but unmentioned here—illustrate that that gap is, well, yuuge.”[12]

This, in fact, is the problem. The National Review sees the Tea Party (the latest incarnation of authoritarian populism) as “represent[ing] a revival of an understanding of American greatness in these terms [limited government, entitlement reform, the Constitution, and ordered liberty], an understanding to which Trump is tone-deaf at best and implicitly hostile at worst.”[13] That’s only partly right and it misunderstands the authoritarian populist motivation.

Yes, authoritarian populists hate expansive government and want entitlements drastically curtailed. But this view arises not from principle but rather a sense that urban, academic, and political elites are arrogantly destroying their lives, that unauthorized migrants are taking their jobs, and that money for entitlements is coming out of their ever-thinning wallets. It is, though authoritarian populists are often slow to admit it, exacerbated by the economic woes caused by neoliberal policy, including so-called “free trade” and “offshoring” of jobs. And it is antagonized by a sense that “liberals” (mainstream Democrats) have abandoned them in, though authoritarian populists are also slow to acknowledge this, their embrace of neoconservative and neoliberal orthodoxy. It is, at core, an “us versus them” resentment and in no way a coherent system of political thought.[14] As the National Review also acknowledges, late in its editorial,

If responsible men irresponsibly ignore an issue as important as immigration, it will be taken up by the reckless. If they cannot explain their Beltway maneuvers — worse, if their maneuvering is indefensible — they will be rejected by their own voters. If they cannot advance a compelling working-class agenda, the legitimate anxieties and discontents of blue-collar voters will be exploited by demagogues. We sympathize with many of the complaints of Trump supporters about the GOP, but that doesn’t make the mogul any less flawed a vessel for them.[15]

What the National Review fails to see is that authoritarian populists are reckless, that rather than supporting the fusionist project, authoritarian populists “identify the country as a whole with an idealized version of themselves, and to equate any dissent from their values with disloyalty by alien, ‘un-American’ forces.”[16] Trump is very effectively playing to that audience.

  1. [1]William F. Buckley, Jr., “Our Mission Statement,” National Review, November 19, 1955, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/223549/our-mission-statement-william-f-buckley-jr
  2. [2]George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006), p. 18.
  3. [3]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005), p. 122.
  4. [4]Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).
  5. [5]National Review, “Against Trump,” January 21, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/430137/donald-trump-conservative-movement-menace; Jack Fowler to National Review mailing list, “Thanks for Support,” January 22, 2016.
  6. [6]David Benfell, “The very possible and increasingly probable President Trump,” Not Housebroken, January 21, 2016, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=8562
  7. [7]George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  8. [8]Martin Durham, “On American Conservatism and Kim Phillips-Fein’s Survey of the Field,” Journal of American History 98, no. 3 (2011): 758, doi: 10.1093/jahist/jar410
  9. [9]George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  10. [10]Conor Friedersdorf, “Standing Athwart History Yelling, ‘Stop Donald Trump!'” Atlantic, January 22, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/standing-athwart-history-yelling-stop-donald-trump/426504/
  11. [11]Conor Friedersdorf, “Standing Athwart History Yelling, ‘Stop Donald Trump!'” Atlantic, January 22, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/standing-athwart-history-yelling-stop-donald-trump/426504/
  12. [12]Matt Welch, quoted in Conor Friedersdorf, “Standing Athwart History Yelling, ‘Stop Donald Trump!'” Atlantic, January 22, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/standing-athwart-history-yelling-stop-donald-trump/426504/
  13. [13]National Review, “Against Trump,” January 21, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/430137/donald-trump-conservative-movement-menace
  14. [14]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2015), doi: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4776.2001; Chip Berlet, “Taking Tea Parties Seriously: Corporate Globalization, Populism, and Resentment,” Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 10 (2011): 11-29, doi: 10.1163/156914911X555071; Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  15. [15]National Review, “Against Trump,” January 21, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/430137/donald-trump-conservative-movement-menace
  16. [16]Kim Messick, “Modern GOP is still the party of Dixie,” Salon, October 12, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/10/12/modern_gop_is_still_the_party_of_dixie/

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