During last year’s election season, we were treated to multiple comments about how Donald J. Trump was no Edmund Burke. As a historian and political observer I find such put-downs ridiculous. No Western politician today is following in the footsteps of Edmund Burke; nor can he.
His associates didn’t care what his views were on “women’s issues,” gay marriage or transgendered restrooms; and he developed a reputation as a reformer because he favored home rule under the Crown for Ireland, a gradual emancipation of slaves in the West Indies, and an end to the mercantile policies supported by his Tory opposition. Burke held extremely critical views about democracy and ridiculed the notion of “human rights,” which has become a pillar of American liberal internationalism. I for one agree with much of what Burke said on many subjects, particularly the French Revolution, but then I’m a septuagenarian political dinosaur who doesn’t belong to any significant political movement or party.
Of course it is possible to claim Burke, Aristotle, Kant or anyone whom a journalist or politician cares to invoke for any cause. One can attribute moderation or favorable intentions to anyone who is no longer on Earth and then maintain that if so-and-so were around, he’d be for Hillary, Obamacare, John Kasich, or sending weapons to Israel or Poland. People in the public eye do this all the time; and when they do, I find myself reciting the biblical passage about letting the dead bury the dead.
A related bad habit that I pound mercilessly in my anthology, Revisions and Dissents, is attaching obsolete labels and associations to contemporary movements and personalities. “Fascism,” “conservative,” and “liberal” are three terms that I would like to retire, since I don’t think they apply any longer to our politics. “Right” and “left” may still have relevance since they seem to me to be existential reference points that can exist independently of passing parties and movements. “Conservative” and “liberal” came out of the nineteenth-century and were centered on the struggle between the landed classes and the rising urban bourgeoisie. (A similar dialectic played itself out in this country in the clash between the Union and Confederacy in the Civil War.)
By contrast Right and Left can be easily recognized even if the social and political battles of nineteenth-century Europe are no longer with us. The Deplorables who backed Trump or the French ploucs who supported the FN, clearly represent the Right. They are rooted in a particular place, oppose globalist ventures and what we in the US call the deep state, and hold relatively traditional views about gender and family relations. The globalist, pro-immigration class, which is situated mostly in large cities, and which energetically backs progressive lifestyles, exemplifies our version of the Left. Describing the current Left as “socialist” or “Marxist” is ridiculous and usually dishonest, because the lines of division between Right and Left are now found elsewhere.
I’ve noticed that our authorized conservatives don’t say much about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s cultural radicalism. Instead they berate her and former president Obama as “socialists” and even “Marxists.” What such figures once in power did or would do in pursuing feminist, gay, or transgendered agendas hardly rates a mention from our Republican spokespersons and Fox News All Stars. Far more worrisome for them is how a Democratic president might affect the GNP, or whether Senator Warren if she became president would have the government pay more toward college tuitions.
Although I’m by no means in favor of these policies, they hardly fit the classical criteria of socialism, like nationalizing the forces of production. A really intrusive side of the current (post-Marxist) Left, namely, their drastic social engineering projects intended to overcome “prejudice,” makes little impression on most of the authorized Right. Could it be that these critics are at least partly in agreement with or mostly indifferent to this undertaking? Perhaps they also sense that the Left has already won the cultural battle, and it might be best to limit partisan campaigning to pocketbook issues.
Still it’s wearisome listening to our would-be conservatives trot out bellicose Cold War rhetoric. This is equally evident in the characterizations of right-wing Russian nationalist Vladimir Putin as a Soviet Communist. From what I can tell, Putin jettisoned that assumed identity decades ago.
What partly inspired this tirade was reading a book by French historian René Rémond about the three “Rights” that his nation inherited from the nineteenth century. According to Rémond, these three Rights, the legitimist one starting with the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty after the Napoleonic Wars, the Bonapartist Right which stressed French military glory, and finally the Orléaniste Right that issued from the liberal July Monarchy, established under Louis Philippe of Orléan in 1840, continue to shape our politics. In 2007, Rémond published a book, La Droite hier et aujourd’hui, that examines the continuing influence of these three French Rights. Rémond’s lines of descent are extremely problematic. One could easily place Charles de Gaulle in the nationalist military tradition of the French Bonapartists. Unfortunately, however, there’s been no national leader since le Grand Charles who can be cited by Rémond as a plausible successor to the Bonapartist strain of the French Right. Moreover, it’s stretching a point beyond credibility to trace the current French center-right (the rightness of which is also problematic) to the regime of Louis Philippe. The July Monarchy was fervently nationalist and monarchist in a nineteenth-century sort of way. Its base of support was the patriotic upper middle class of an earlier age, not the globalist class that helped elect Emanuel Macron.
Most problematically, Rémond presents as the successors to the legitimist monarchists of the early nineteenth century the Front National. But it’s hard to imagine how a modern populist party can be the direct linear successor of those monarchists who two hundred years ago totally rejected the French Revolution and yearned for the ancien régime. Mind you, I’m not condemning nineteenth-century legitimists or the Front National; and it is possible to argue that they both typified the Right, broadly understood, in different ages. Still we are dealing with different political phenomena in different centuries. Why the need for these overdrawn comparisons?
In most cases this happens because a party, movement or name-brand wishes to have the public believe they’re offering the same positions or products, even when they’re not. But people may also have a deep need for a continuing past, even an imaginary one, providing they can invoke it while seeing themselves standing in a “tradition” or while pointing to the supposed source of the sins that we’re being urged to expiate. Leaving expiation rituals to our media and public educational system, I shall confess my own reverence for earlier ages. Certainly we can learn from past thinkers and enjoy the cultural and artistic achievements produced by great civilizations. In morals, religion and the humanities we are totally in the debt of dead white males and others who helped create our unique Western heritage. But in politics, social developments, and popular culture, I see more disjunction than continuity. Since the 1950s when I grew up, the US has changed so fundamentally in so many respects, that it’s impossible for me to view it as the same country in which I once lived. One can only imagine how much greater the gulf is between the most recent present and Western societies two hundred years ago.
Attaching anachronistic labels to modern political figures and movements, like pretending that Obama was bringing back FDR’s New Deal or that Donald Trump is the reincarnated Andrew Jackson or Mussolini redivivus, won’t make altered historical circumstances go away. The past may offer lessons and precedents for the present. But we should be cautious about drawing extravagant comparisons between very different times. More often than not in our radically transformed America, we are moving in uncharted waters. Needless to say, I’m sure my admonition will be totally ignored by the media.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.