Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Coronavirus & Conservatism’s Future

Of 'folk libertarianism,' and what the pandemic reveals about the American right
White House Coronavirus Task Force Holds Daily Briefing

Ross Douthat has an insightful column today about how the coronavirus has tested a certain theory of liberalism and conservatism (though he mostly focuses on conservatism). Excerpts:

Both the crude and sophisticated efforts tended to agree, though, that the supposed conservative mind is more attuned to external threat and internal contamination, more inclined to support authority and hierarchy, and fear subversion and dissent. And so the political responses to the pandemic have put these psychological theories to a very interesting test.

In the coronavirus, America confronts a contaminating force (a deadly disease) that originated in our leading geopolitical rival (an external threat) and that plainly requires a strong, even authoritarian government response. If there was ever a crisis tailored to the conservative mind-set, surely it would be this one, with the main peril being that conservatives would wildly overreact to such a trigger.

But that’s not what happened, as Douthat explains:

A certain kind of conservative personality (a kind that includes more than a few of my own friends) really did seem particularly well attuned to this crisis and ended up out ahead of the conventional wisdom in exactly the way that you would expect a mind-set attuned to risk and danger, shot through with pessimism and inclined to in-group loyalty to be.

People like this nut:

But mostly it’s been following whatever Trump says. Douthat:

At the same time, the behavior of what you might call “normie” Republicans — not Very Online right-wingers or MAGA populists but longtime Fox News and talk-radio consumers — suggests that any such conservative mind-set is easily confounded by other factors, partisanship chief among them. The fact that the virus seemed poised to help Democrats and hurt the Trump administration, the fact that it was being hyped by CNN and played down by Hannity, the fact that Trump himself declined to take it seriously — all of this mattered more to many Republicans than the fear of foreign contamination that the virus theoretically should have activated or the ways in which its progress seemed to confirm certain right-wing priors.

So one might say that the pandemic illustrates the power of partisan mood affiliation over any kind of deeper ideological mind-set. Or relatedly, it illustrates the ways in which under the right circumstances, people can easily swing between different moral intuitions. (This holds for liberals as well as conservatives: A good liberal will be as deferential to authority as any conservative when the authority has the right academic degrees, and as zealous about purity and contamination when it’s their own neighborhood that’s threatened.)

Douthat says that the pandemic crisis has revealed that American conservatism is too heterogeneous a thing to conform to what psychologists identify as a “conservative” mindset. Douthat has a great coinage when he speaks of “an incredibly powerful streak of what you might call folk libertarianism.” I was reading this McKay Coppins piece last night, and of what form of right-wingery this woman instantiates:

Katherine Vincent-Crowson, a 35-year-old self-defense instructor from Slidell, Louisiana, has watched in horror this month as businesses around her city were forced to close by state decree. A devotee of Ayn Rand, Vincent-Crowson told me Louisiana’s shelter-in-place order was a frightening example of government overreach.

“It feels very militaristic,” she said. “I’m just like, ‘What the hell, is this 1940s Germany?’”

But when we spoke, she seemed even more aggravated by the “self-righteous” people on social media who spend their time publicly shaming anyone who isn’t staying locked in their house. “It really reminds me of my kids who tattle on their siblings when they do something bad,” she said. “I’m a libertarian … I don’t really like being told what to do.”

There’s not enough information here to indicate whether this woman is an ideologically pure libertarian or a Folk Libertarian; the fact that she identifies herself as a Randian means she’s probably theoretically woke to doctrinal libertarianism. But in her final line, I hear the voice of so very many of my fellow Southern conservatives. In fact, I think folk libertarianism is the purest expression of contemporary popular American conservatism. It is not a consistent libertarianism. Vincent-Crowson was too young at the time of the Iraq War to have had a meaningful opinion of it, but I guarantee you that folk libertarians in Louisiana had zero sympathy for people who were against that war. Hating Dixie Chicks and other antiwar people — that view would be 100 percent against classical libertarian thought — which is why it is “folk libertarianism” — the unorthodox libertarianism actually practiced by ordinary people. It’s like the syncretic, heretical folk Christianity you find in rural Latin America, or in rusticated pre-Soviet Russia. It’s libertarian-ish, but highly idiosyncratic.

The entire Trump presidency has shown how feeble a grip philosophical conservatism has on the American mind (and, if I’m reading Douthat correctly, the weakness of “psychological conservatism” on the same). You would be much more likely to understand how the American right — the American right that exists outside of think tanks and journals of opinion — thinks about current issues and events by listening to the mercurial meanderings of Donald Trump, and the party line broadcast by Fox News, than by consulting the works of Russell Kirk or any other conservative intellectual.

This is not entirely a bad thing. Kirk himself always taught that conservatism was not an ideology, but rather a way of seeing the world. What counts as properly conservative in 1950 may not be so in 2020, and not because people are hypocrites. Conservatism, understood that way, is somewhat protean and practical, emerging as a particular defense of basic principles.

For example, Kirk once said that conservatives know that institutions are important to conserve, and that the institution most important to conserve is the family. A Kirkian conservative, then, would normally not oppose efforts by the state to pass laws favoring protecting and promoting the family. But a libertarian of the right would oppose this. American conservatism, broadly speaking, has been far, far more embracing of classical liberal principles (which, in its right-wing form, means libertarianism) than it has of philosophical conservatism. This didn’t start with Trump.

Take a look at Kirk’s Ten Principles of Conservatism. The Venn diagram between these and Donald Trump Republicanism would manifest only the faintest crossover. Take, for instance, this first of Kirk’s principles:

First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.

This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth. Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato taught this doctrine, but even the educated nowadays find it difficult to understand. The problem of order has been a principal concern of conservatives ever since conservative became a term of politics.

Our twentieth-century world has experienced the hideous consequences of the collapse of belief in a moral order. Like the atrocities and disasters of Greece in the fifth century before Christ, the ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self-interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an oldfangled moral order.

It has been said by liberal intellectuals that the conservative believes all social questions, at heart, to be questions of private morality. Properly understood, this statement is quite true. A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.

Kirk goes on like that. It’s a deep, rich, beautiful list. It’s the reason I continue to call myself a conservative. It is a statement of what conservatives aspire to; we no more achieve them in this world than the Church achieves the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. The Kirkian principles are important as a statement of ideals. But even as such, it is striking how little they describe what American conservatism has become. I’m not offering a “No True Scotsman” theory of conservatism. American conservatism is whatever the party of the right in America supports at any given moment in history. In my own case, I am very much a Kirkian conservative, in a Christian vein, but I am not Trumpian (though I concede that he has done some good things). Under Trump, American conservatism is authoritarian personality cult + folk libertarianism in power. 

(Similarly, actual existing American liberalism is abandoning liberal principles, and becoming identity-politics soft totalitarianism — the Pink Police State. But that’s another story. I’m talking about actual existing American conservatism here.)

Here’s why it worries me. It’s not really about Trump, but what comes after Trump. To repeat: the Trump presidency, especially in how the president has responded to this unprecedented crisis (with the strong support of his usual followers), has unveiled the feebleness of philosophical conservatism. It’s not conservative at all; it’s just a species of right-wingery. Hear me: I’m not saying that as a criticism, but as a description. As my TAC colleague Emile Doak writes in the Catholic journal Crisis, of the era that has just ended:

Christians are in uncharted political territory. Once a formidable force in our politics, the Religious Right is now effectively irrelevant, undermined as much by its own hypocrisy and short-sightedness as by growing secularism.

Until recently, most conservative Christians have subscribed to a philosophy known as fusionism: a combination of free-market economics, social traditionalism, and foreign-policy interventionism. Yet the fusionist elites in politics and media have consistently proven themselves to be far more concerned with delivering on its libertarian economics at home and hawkishness abroad. They are far less with those pesky “traditional values,” which have received lip service and garnered erratic Court picks over the decades. And that’s to say nothing of the consistency (or lack thereof) between Catholic social teaching and the other two legs of that “conservative” three-legged stool.

(I hope you’ll read all of Emile’s article — in it, he proposes a post-fusionist Christian conservative politics. I’m going to write about it later.)

Let me further stipulate that unlike the Never Trumpers, I am glad that the galoot from Queens demolished the old Republican Party, which had grown decadent — incapable of meaningful change, but only relying on reheated Reaganism. Kirk, who died in 1994, was a devout Reaganite, but in his Ten Principles, writes:

Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.

Change was essential to the Republican Party too. Reagan was the change it needed at the end of the stagnant 1970s. but by the time Trump came along, Reaganism had hardened into dry dogmas. Trumpism wasn’t exactly the change I was hoping for, but it’s the change we got — and it’s not all bad. In particular, Trump’s hostility to globalism is something that I think is properly conservative. I think the virus has ensured that this aspect of Trumpism will long outlast Trump’s presidency.

That said, as a conservative who was not anti-Trump in 2016 as much as I was anti-anti-Trump, I have to concede that the Never Trumpers were more right about him than I was. I could not and would not defend the establishment GOP, as I took the Never Trumpers to be doing, and after Trump was elected (without my vote; I sat out the 2016 presidential election), I hoped for the best from him. The great worry I had was that the country would face an overwhelming crisis, and Trump would not have it in him to rise to the occasion. That has happened.

But as usual, I digress. Anyway, look: here’s what worries me about American conservatism having become a Trumpish cult of personality, plus folk libertarianism. Here is a passage from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. In it, she’s talking about Heinrich Himmler:

He proved his supreme ability for organizing the masses into total domination by assuming that mot people are neither bohemians, fanatics, adventurers, sex maniacs, crackpots, nor social failures [as the rest of the Nazi leadership was], but first and foremost job holders and good family men.

The philistine’s retirement into private life, his single-minded devotion to matters of family and career was the last, and already degenerated, product of the bourgeoisie’s belief in the primacy of private interest. The philistine is the bourgeois isolated from his own class, the atomized individual who is produced by the breakdown of the bourgeois class itself. The mass man whom Himmler organized for the greatest mass crimes ever committed in history bore the features of the philistine rather than of the mob man, and was the bourgeois who in the midst of the ruins of his world worries about nothing so much as his private security, was ready to sacrifice everything — belief, honor, dignity — on the slightest provocation. Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives. …

Arendt is talking about the Nazis here, but there was a Bolshevik version of this too. Her book is not about the origins of Nazism, but the origins of totalitarianism, and that includes Soviet totalitarianism. Now, I quote Arendt here because this passage makes me think of what we might be left with after the virus has destroyed our economy and brought 32 percent unemployment (yesterday’s estimate from the St. Louis Fed) to the nation — a higher rate than in the Great Depression.

The United States in 2020 is a much wealthier (in material terms) nation than it was in the advent of the Great Depression. But our stock of social capital is massively depleted. We are already far more atomized than our grandparents and great-grandparents were in the 1930s. World War I destroyed the economies of Germany and Russia, and wrecked the political systems. It led to revolution in Russia, and the weak Weimar Republic in Germany. Germany was a much more advanced nation than Russia, which went from semi-feudal autocracy to one-party dictatorship overnight. It took the decadence of 1920s Weimar — a reaction to the social and psychological traumas of the war — and the advent of the Great Depression to break Germany. The thing to keep in mind is that Hitler’s appeal wasn’t just to the criminals and crazies. He spoke to decent family men who had lost everything, including their sense of belonging, of being part of something greater than themselves.

As regular readers know, I have spent most of the last year studying left-wing totalitarianism, and how it is showing itself in the identity politics of the American left. This project also entails an examination of American society, and how it finds itself (unwittingly) in a pre-totalitarian state. People on the American left cannot imagine that a tyranny of the left threatens us. It does, and I explain why in my forthcoming book. I’m not going to go into that in this post.

But I have to say, people on the American right equally cannot imagine that a tyranny of the right threatens us. I think it does. I don’t think it is as likely as a left-wing tyranny, but it can’t be dismissed as easily as so many of my fellow conservatives wish to. I refer you back to a post I did on the late John Lukacs, the Hungarian-born, self-described “reactionary” historian, who, in a book from the early 2000s, expressed his concern with the rising populism on the right. This is a quote from a 2005 profile Jeet Heer did of him in the Boston Globe:

In conversation, he’s willing to grant praise to a certain form of populism, citing the mass movements that have brought democracy to Central and Eastern Europe. ”The people are often right,” he notes. ”Just think of my country. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a real popular uprising. Although it was defeated it had very salutary consequences in the long run. It was the Stalingrad of international communism. The repression in Hungary afterward was much less. They did not quite restore 100 percent terror. That is why in 1989 the change of the regime came along without bloodshed.”

But even when pressed, Lukacs has difficulty finding any good words for populism, American-style. To him, the rise of right-wing populism here is troubling because it means that the conservatives no longer serve as a shield against the dangers of mass politics. Instead, ”conservative” has come to mean simply ”antiliberal.”

”Nationalism is a very low and cheap common denominator that unites people,” he says. ”It is hatred that unites people. People take satisfaction from the idea that we are good because our enemies are evil. This is a very American syndrome but it is also universally true of mankind.”

”In this country the Republicans are the nationalist party,” he continues. ”That’s why they won the election-on the basis of symbols. I think the importance of economics in people’s political choice of vote is vastly exaggerated. We live in such an age of intellectual stupidity that people use the wrong terms. People think this is a ‘cultural issue’ or a ‘moral issue.’ These are half-truths.”

Although Lukacs has won his share of esteem in a career that spans more than five decades, he now finds himself oddly isolated as someone who criticizes the Republican party from a traditionalist vantage point.

”What is there traditional in George Bush?” he asks with exasperation. ”Nothing. Nothing.”

That was fifteen years ago. This quote stands out to me today:

To him, the rise of right-wing populism here is troubling because it means that the conservatives no longer serve as a shield against the dangers of mass politics. Instead, ”conservative” has come to mean simply ”antiliberal.”

That is far more true today than in 2005, don’t you think? Lukacs, who died last year aged 95, was a strong anti-populist conservative, certainly more than I am. Perhaps he had more faith in institutions than is warranted today. Or perhaps, as a refugee from Nazified Hungary, he saw more deeply into the movements of history than people like me.

Now, think about antiliberal mass politics in a nation in which an atomized people has been impoverished by catastrophe. We will see a left-wing version of this, and we will see a right-wing version of this. The near-total collapse of intellectual liberalism in the face of progressive identity politics, and the ongoing capture of institutions by the progressive, antiliberal left, means that there is no real defense against this on the left. Does anybody really think that Joe Biden is the Democratic future? On the right, Trumpy folk libertarianism — which is going to remain after Trump leaves the scene — is not going to protect us from rightist mass politics of the kind Lukacs and Arendt feared.

I’m a pessimist, as you know, so maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we can defeat the virus in relatively short order, and the economy will come roaring back by year’s end. I hope so. Because if not, given that the center is not really holding, what is left to restrain extremism on either the left or the right? I have long believed that what keeps social order in the United States, post-1960s, is material progress — in other words, money. If the money is gone, then what? In that situation — I’m not talking about the fall election, but over the next few years — the left will be all-in for identity-politics authoritarian socialism, and on the right, Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles will look as antiquated as the Code of Hammurabi.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now