RIP, Movement Conservatism
Among his other accomplishments, Donald Trump, without ever intending to, has fractured conservatism – something that was long overdue.
The American conservative movement has come quite a distance since the middle of the last century, from a small coterie viewed with contempt by the larger culture to the front ranks of a juggernaut that set back the plans of this country’s left-wing collectivists to a degree that its founders would not have considered possible. (Recall William F. Buckley’s statement that the role of conservatism was to “stand athwart history, yelling “stop.” Incredible as it may seem, “history” did stop.) Today, in large part due to its own success, it is on its way back to coterie status.
How has this come about? Here’s a simple outline of the conservative movement as it has consisted up until now: a group of conservative intellectuals, associated either with think tanks or journals, who work out philosophical and political stances, translate them into policy proposals, followed by attempts to put them into effect by the GOP, with the support of the mass of conservatives across the country.
This model has served the conservative cause well for half a century. It is now dead. It began to die long before Trump donned the robes of GOP crusader, when the core conservatives – what in the past I’ve called the Northeast Corridor conservatives – in 2008 turned against vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and in short order against the Tea Party movement that came into being as a response to the Obama regime.
Movements always outgrow their founders. They start as small, isolated groups, carefully transforming theory and principles into a platform and a cause for action. With luck, they begin to attract followers. Soon, the newcomers outnumber the old guard. They bring with them their own interests and concerns, and inevitably the “purity” of the original agenda becomes adulterated. After a time, the movement diverts somewhat from its original course, taking a route that it is both more pragmatic and more in tune with the larger and newer membership. The old guard is, resentfully or not, either left behind or dragged along (best illustrated by the story of the French revolutionary Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin who, seeing a mob rage past the café in which he was sitting, leapt up shouting “I must follow them, for I am their leader!") In this situation, the core group has two choices – to go along in hopes of steering the movement in the right direction, or to retreat into sullen defiance. Too many modern conservatives have unfortunately chosen the second.
Movement conservatives were quite suspicious of Donald Trump – and with some reason. Thirty years with the Democrats, an overly brash personality, more than a few contradictory statements. But Trump was what conservatives of the country class were looking for. In the past, movement conservatives pled a half-a-loaf stance – the GOP frontrunner, whether the name was Bush, McCain, or Romney, might not be exactly what was ordered, but should be accepted as the best we could get at the moment.
This went completely by the board with Trump. Not only did the movement core refuse to support Trump, many chose instead to throw their weight behind Hillary Clinton, the most repellent and corrupt American presidential candidate since Aaron Burr.
It’s not inaccurate to assert that these people represent the core of movement conservatism.
- Bill Kristol, editor in chief of the Weekly Standard, tweeted: “If you’re for Trump you functionally are for a man unfit to be president, and for the degradation of [American] conservatism.”
- George Will wrote a column titled “If Trump is nominated GOP must keep him out of the White House” in which he stated his hopes that Trump would lose all 50 states to Hillary Clinton.
- Tom Nichols of The Federalist, probably the keystone journal of the think-tank cons, titled his piece “I’ll Take Hillary Clinton Over Donald Trump.”
- John Ziegler, noted conservative documentary cineaste, wrote “The Case for Sane Conservatives to Strategically Vote for Hillary Clinton to Save the GOP.”
- Former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman publicly expressed her support for Clinton.
- Max Boot, longtime WSJ writer, stated “There’s no way to lie down with somebody like Trump without getting fleas,” while pledging to vote for Clinton.
- Erick Erickson, formerly of Red State, said “It’s ‘Never Trump’ as in come hell or high water we will never vote for Trump”. (Red State was something of a sweep. Editors Dan McLaughlin and Ben Howe and contributor Leon Wolf also jumped on the bandwagon. Howe, never one to miss an opportunity, started raising funds for a film on Trump titled The Sociopath.)
- James Kirchick wrote the Daily Beast op-ed “Hillary Clinton Is 2016’s Real Conservative -- Not Donald Trump.”
- And we can’t forget Peter Wehner, Commentary’s last man on the ramparts, who missed no chance to disparage Trump, the same as he had done to Sarah Palin eight years earlier. "I think right now, I would say it would be better for the country if she [Hillary] won than if he won… the dangers that he poses to the country are greater than hers because I think he's just so deeply unstable.”
…and we could go on to add Congressman Richard Hanna, Mike Treiser, Craig Snyder (who started a super PAC called Republicans for Her 2016), Charles Fried, Steve Deace (correction: he emails that he voted for the Constitution Party candidatem not Hillary), Charles Sykes, and Kyle Foley, all of whom stated they’d either vote Hillary or preferred her to win.
This is appalling. It would be one thing if it was a few fringe malcontents, but this list contains some of the major figures of conservatism. Apart from the cheaper careerists, all of them tried to justify themselves on conservative principles, as if the basic elements of modern American conservatism, worked out painstakingly over the better part of a century, could easily be twisted to support a woman who was not only the polar opposite of a conservative, but who makes Evita Peron look Mother Theresa.
Just as bad is the fact that they – all of them, no exception – have essentially walked. There have been no retractions, reconsiderations, or apologies. No effort has been made to hold them to account.
This cannot be regarded as error or misjudgment. It represents absolute political and moral bankruptcy. You do not give your support to one of the vilest human beings currently resident in this country, a woman who has violated ever last element of the social compact, who has stolen alms from the wretched of the earth, who sent an entire global region collapsing into near-apocalypse, and then walk it back or walk away from it.
But that’s what these people have tried to do. Forgive and forget, they say, seemingly on the grounds that it would be best to let bygones be bygones and allow wounds to heal.
But they haven’t healed. Instead, movement conservatives have doubled down. Consider the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin insisting that Trump be either prosecuted or prevented from taking office due to metaphysical “conflicts of interest.” Andrew Bacevich of the American Conservative seconded this by calling for “his removal by all legal means.” Kevin Williamson of the NRO abused not only Trump himself, but his innocent daughter Ivanka and his two sons: “My own view is that Donald and Ivanka and Uday and Qusay are genuinely bad human beings and that the American public has made a grave error in entrusting its highest office to this cast of American Psycho extras.”
For sheer irrational spite, these match anything being emitted by the “Antifa.” And there’s plenty more where they came from.
It’s safe to say that nothing’s going to change. The old guard can no longer be trusted. It has divorced itself from the conservative masses, the “country class.” It has cut itself off from the national taproot. It would be best to let it die.
Good riddance, say many Trump supporters. But it’s not that simple. Many Trump backers, politically naïve, believe that now that Trump has been voted in, all is right with the world and nothing more need be done. The Donald will take care of it all for us.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Trump is limited by the powers of his office. He can correct some things (the Supreme Court and immigration, in particular). But there are other factors beyond his reach. One of the major problems facing the U.S. is the institutionalization of the left. The “long march through the institutions” since the 1970s has left vast sectors of American society – including entertainment, the media, the academy, the bureaucracy, and recently, the military – in the hands of the activist left. A related problem involves the relentless dumbing down of much of the country’s population, accompanied by blatant leftist propagandizing. Vast numbers of Americans – including many conservatives – believe leftist axioms as a matter of faith. (Test yourself: how many times have you used the word “capitalism”?) A single president, no matter how effective, can do little to change this. It can only be countered by a movement, something that can carry out large-scale campaigns over the long haul.
Movement conservatism, for its own reasons – generally expressed as “we can’t get into the gutter with those people” – has refused to confront the institutional left. So its current decline may well be a blessing in disguise. While it’s unlikely that movement conservatism can be revived – how, exactly, does one go about rehabilitating Hillary Clinton fans? – it can, and it must be, reinvented and replaced.
How do we go about this?
The mass conservatism represented by the Tea Parties and the Trump supporters is welcome – even necessary -- but it also has serious flaws: lack of experience, ignorance, extremism, and the defensiveness that these qualities arouse. Too many in the new movement simply don’t know enough, and worse, don’t know how to find out, as the Alinsky fixation clearly reveals (Saul Alinsky, for those who haven’t caught up, was neither a Satanist, a Communist, nor a Marxist. Nor did he hold a particularly high status among the left until Obama happened along.) They are ready and, in many cases, willing to be swayed by the first maniac who leapt atop the barricades. Lack of experience leaves them wide open to manipulation of this sort. (Consider the widely stated admiration among mass conservatives for Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden, on the grounds that their opposition to Hillary makes them firm allies and cleanses them of any of their previous, leftist-oriented sins.) Many have fallen into extreme views without even being clearly be aware of it, having no basis of experience or knowledge to guide them. (The so-called “Alt.right” is largely made up of these people.) Extremists, including neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, Birchers, and so forth, are sniffing around the fringes of the movement to see who can they can tempt. We find them infesting the comment threads of Breitbart, ZeroHedge, Gateway Pundit, even here at AT. Too many people are letting them get away with it. (A couple of years ago I wrote a column condemning the racists and anti-Semites using AT comment threads to recruit. I was shocked and dismayed when several figures associated with the Tea Parties came to their defense.)
Any of these things alone could destroy a movement. Together, they are lethal. The old guard conservatives could very easily have overcome all this, if they were willing to engage with the new conservative populists. But that opportunity has come and gone.
As it stands, we have people who know things, but won’t do anything, and people who don’t know much, but will go raging off after any banner that appears. We badly need a combination that reinforces the good traits of both while eliminating the bad. We’re not going to win this thing by racing into pizzerias waving hunting rifles.
We need to find a way to meld the intensity and seriousness of purpose of the new populism with the knowledge and experience of the old conservative movement.
This may not be easy, but it’s far from impossible either. There are no doubt plenty of old guard conservatives who do not share the spite of their elders, and many on the other side who see the flaws of Tea Party conservatism and want to have them corrected. Both need to be encouraged on the widest scale possible.
We have the tool to do it – the Internet, and the large number of conservative sites that have arisen in opposition to institutional leftism. Up until now, the dialogue between the Trumpistas and the traditionals has been largely confined to backbiting and recriminations. This needs to cease in favor of serious discussion on how to revive a derelict movement, discussion about not what conservativism was, but what it can be. We have to think of first steps, and then what follows. Perhaps one of the business figures apt to donate would want to organize a meeting between grassroots activists and movement members eager to get off the crashing zeppelin.
The effort must be made, because it will happen one way or another. We cannot afford for the movement cons simply to regroup, regain lost ground, and resume their long-term policy of surrender to the left, all the while undermining Trump and the possibilities he has opened up. (Or, God forbid, an even worse possibility – an Alt.right-controlled movement made up crackpots, degenerates, and halfwits.)
The left has a large foothold, one that is growing daily. This is not a good thing
But keep this in mind: all said and done, leftism, made up as it is of the weird 19th-century theories of an odd gaggle of losers and bitter-enders, is just as dead as movement conservatism. To turn your back on one is to turn your back on both.
It’s time for us to make that move. We have nothing to lose but our blazers.