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After Conservatism

Trump has dispelled plenty of illusions about the GOP coalition. So what comes next?

For all his many faults, Donald Trump displays one great virtue as a presidential candidate: he is a remarkably effective dispeller of illusions. Early in the campaign, Trump dispelled the illusion that his rivals were the strongest field of candidates in the party’s history. As the frontrunner, he dispelled the illusion that “the party decides” on the nomination. As the presumptive nominee, he dispelled the illusion that candidates inevitably try to broaden their appeal beyond their core supporters. Who knows what illusions The Donald will dispel by November.

Of all the illusions Trump has dispelled, however, none is more significant than the illusion of the conservative movement. Rather than being the dominant force in the Republican Party, conservatives, Trump revealed, are just another pressure group. And not an especially large one. In state after state, voters indicated that they did not care much about conservative orthodoxy on the economy, foreign policy, or what used to be called family values.

The poor record of this orthodoxy as a governing philosophy is one reason for this indifference to conservative dogma. Some apologists blame Obama for provoking the Trump rebellion through a feat of reverse psychology. The truth is probably simpler. Many Americans remember the George W. Bush presidency as a disaster. Reasonably enough, they expect that another self-identified conservative administration would bring more of the same.

Demographic changes are also part of the explanation. The conservative movement is disproportionately comprised of middle-class white Christians. There are fewer of those than there used to be.

As the conservative movement approaches retirement age, finally, its rhetoric has become almost unintelligible to outsiders. Rather than making arguments addressed to normal people, conservative leaders invoke limited government almost fetishistically, as if the words themselves possessed the power to convince. Ted Cruz’s reputation as an orator rests on his mastery of this jargon.

The political scientist George Hawley’s Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism is among the most serious reflections on this situation yet to appear in print. Primarily a work of intellectual history, it attempts to explain how the conservative movement reached this low point in its fortunes—and what alternatives were excluded in the process. The book’s tone is exquisitely non-judgmental, but it is clear that Hawley’s interest is not just academic. Although it was written before Trump burst onto the stage, Right-Wing Critics is a step toward answering the question: what comes after the conservative movement?

Hawley begins with the observation that the historic pillars of the American conservative movement—limited government, an assertively anti-communist foreign policy, and quasi-Christian moralism—have no necessary connection. Beginning in the early ’50s, these elements were packaged together by a group of intellectuals and activists led by William F. Buckley. The story is often told as a process of addition, in which disparate constituencies were brought into a grand coalition. Hawley emphasizes that it was also a process of exclusion, as unsuitable ideas and characters were driven out.

All students of the conservative movement know about the marginalization of Robert Welch and other leaders of the John Birch Society. Hawley reminds readers that the purges did not begin there. National Review was established partly to distance conservatism from the anti-Semitism that bedeviled the Old Right. Its founding manifesto was also a statement of protest against so-called New Conservatives of the 1950s who accepted the New Deal. Secular-minded anticommunists like Max Eastman were theoretically welcome in conservative circles but found their ostentatiously pious tone intolerable. In its first decade, the conservative movement was defined as much by who was out as who was in.

This process of self-definition did not end with the nomination of Barry Goldwater, the first movement conservative to seek the presidency. Since then, Southern nostalgists, critics of the U.S.-Israel alliance, opponents of the Iraq War, and offenders against the movement’s code of racial etiquette have all been treated to quasi-official denunciations. Skeptics of supply-side economics have also been encouraged to make their homes elsewhere. This magazine has its origin in some of those disputes.

One result of this boundary-policing is a “true” conservatism of striking narrowness and rigidity. Its less recognized corollary is the development of a diverse ecology of ideas outside the movement’s ever shrinking tent. Some of these uncultivated growths are bitter and even poisonous. Others might contain the tonic that the right needs to recover its relevance.

Hawley is a highly competent guide to this wilderness. In chapters on localists, libertarians, paleoconservatives, and white nationalists, he provides thorough summaries of major figures and arguments. Hawley justifies his selections and omissions on the grounds that all belong to the right while standing at odds with the conservative movement. Borrowing an argument from Paul Gottfried, he defines the right negatively by the rejection of equality as the highest political value.

Hawley announces early in the book that he seeks to “examine each of these ideologies dispassionately.” That is a considerable virtue when treating such politically fraught material. In particular, Hawley provides the best introduction to the strangely overlapping worlds of radical libertarians and white nationalists. Because these defiantly unconventional movements are so easily caricatured, it is important to let their advocates speak for themselves.

But Hawley’s strenuous neutrality is distorting as well as clarifying. In his effort to survey so many neglected species of the right, he gives some more attention than their influence or achievements justify. It is often forgotten that pioneers of the American right like H.L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock were critics of revealed religion. But their epigones are few in number and have made no significant theoretical contribution. “Godless conservatism” deserves a footnote, not a chapter.

The long discussion of the European “New Right” also seems out of place. Although it is an important topic in itself, Hawley acknowledges that European writers have an extremely limited American audience.

Language barriers are part of the reason figures like Alain de Benoist and Alexander Dugin have not been received more widely, but there is a more fundamental obstacle of principle. Even when they are critics of egalitarianism, few Americans are willing to reject the basic tenets of liberal democracy. That leaves much of the ground on which the European Right has flourished off-limits.

Hawley could also be more forthcoming about where he stands in all this. One cannot blame him for wishing to avoid unnecessary controversy or prevent an academic study from becoming a polemic. But if he finds “some of the arguments discussed in this book persuasive and … others abhorrent,” he should not force readers to guess which are which.

Hawley’s analysis is mostly retrospective and focused on ideas rather than electoral strategies. He gestures, however, toward two scenarios for a post-conservative future. Neither is very appealing.

The first of these scenarios might be described as the rise of the libertarians. Libertarians have an independent network of the institutions that could survive the collapse of the conservative movement. Especially in economics, they also enjoy a certain academic legitimacy that makes their perspectives difficult to ignore in policy debates. Most importantly, libertarianism is not tied to declining demographic groups. Libertarians, therefore, should have a chance of success in a less white, less religious America.

The difficulty is that the principle that more freedom is always better is not very appealing to most people. Americans love to complain about excessive regulation and unlimited spending. Yet they also rely on an elaborate web of payments, subsidies, and services to secure them against dislocation, poverty, and disease.

Although libertarians make good cases that these programs should be simpler and more transparent, there is very little support for making government smaller on the whole. Mainstream conservatives are often criticized for their combination of libertarian rhetoric with operational progressivism. But their most libertarian positions—relatively unrestricted immigration and the privatization of entitlements—are also their least popular.

That leaves the second possibility, which Trump may already be realizing. In this scenario, the right becomes defined by ethno-class solidarity rather than a commitment to limited government. This is not exactly white nationalism, which Hawley defines as the belief “that the races should not live together in the same country at all, even if the prevailing social structure benefits whites.” But it is a form of identity politics that emphasizes the culture and interests of downscale whites—“middle American radicals,” as the sociologist Donald Warren dubbed them.

Moralizing aside, there are some serious political problems with this strategy. One is that the numbers don’t add up. In a previous work, White Voters in the 21st Century, Hawley argues that the GOP could balance its weakness among minorities by increasing its support among whites. The populist rhetoric likely to attract alienated whites, however, will drive away the dwindling portion of the suburban gentry that continues to vote Republican. Since whites’ overall share of the electorate is declining, this is like trying to run up a down escalator.     

thisarticleappearsSecond, no one has yet proposed a plausible agenda to help these voters. As the economist Tyler Cowen has argued in Average Is Over, no restrictions on trade are going to bring back the pre-globalization economy and no limits on future immigration will undo the demographic transformation of the last half-century. Without considerably more policy ingenuity than its advocates have shown so far, a right based on the support of blue-collar whites is likely to be little more than an exercise in trolling.

Third, the mainstreaming of white identity politics would almost certainly come at the expense of civil peace. Yet order is perhaps the most neglected of political values and one to which the right has historically been quite attentive. Actual racial nationalists might welcome further ethnic balkanization and embitterment. But no one else should. 

Compared to these alternatives, the search for a middle course between libertarianism and what some scholars call “welfare chauvinism” seems less quixotic. There is no doubt that the conservative movement has become isolated, myopic, and lazy. But its vocation—to remind a democratic society that equality is not the only important thing in order to preserve that society from its tendency toward despotism—has not disappeared. Right-wing critics of American conservatism often have a point. Even so, we will miss it when it is gone.

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University.



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