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The Potemkin Village of Conservatism

Guys like us, we had it made... (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com)

Here’s a link to National Review‘s big “Standing Athwart Trump Yelling ‘Stop!'” symposium.  Here are excerpts from the short pieces I found most effective. R.R. Reno writes:

The Republican party has become home to a growing number of Americans who want to burn down our political and economic systems and hang our cultural elites. They’re tired of being policed by political correctness, often with the complicity of supposed conservatives. They don’t like Republican candidates who denounce them as “takers” with no future in the global economy. And they suspect, rightly, that the Chamber of Commerce will sell them down the river if it adds to the bottom line.

All true, but it’s sad that this frustrated cohort now fixes on Trump as its savior.

That’s probably the perspective in the entire symposium with which I most identify. Reno appears to say that the Trump supporters have good reason for feeling as they do, but Trump is a fatally flawed tribune.

John Podhoretz says Trump’s shameless vulgarity is a sign of our degenerate times, when the American political id dominates:

In any integrated personality, the id is supposed to be balanced by an ego and a superego—by a sense of self that gravitates toward behaving in a mature and responsible way when it comes to serious matters, and, failing that, has a sense of shame about transgressing norms and common decencies. Trump is an unbalanced force. He is the politicized American id. Should his election results match his polls, he would be, unquestionably, the worst thing to happen to the American common culture in my lifetime.

This makes sense to me. As a cultural conservative, I believe Trump’s persona embodies some of the worst aspects of our common culture, which has really become an anti-culture, in the sense Philip Rieff meant. In Rieff’s view, a culture depends on principles and modes of restraint; an anti-culture lets it all hang out. Trump represents the triumph of anti-culture. He truly is a man of his time.

There are many more pieces in the symposium, some of them making better points than others. The overall all sense I have in reading them, though, is one of futility. If I were Trump, I would be reading this and gloating over my breakfast toast. To be attacked by elites in the conservative pundit class only makes him more powerful. I understand that a magazine like NR can’t stay silent on this matter, but it’s an indication of how weak the conservative Establishment is that even their protest against Trump redounds to Trump’s benefit.

Why do you suppose that is? What does it tell us about Conservatism™?

First, I think it reveals that whatever movement conservatism and the GOP establishment once was, it no longer is. People don’t care what those leaders have to say. What discredited them? Maybe it was the widespread, vigorous support for the Iraq War, from which far too few among the leadership class of the Right have repented. Maybe it was the uncritical cheering for the free market, even when it was shipping the wage class’s jobs overseas. Maybe its disgust with the way the business class controls the GOP, manipulating it for its own benefit (Wall Street over Main Street), and how very little opposition to this has come out of the conservative pundit class over the years.

I think it is irrational to support Trump, for reasons Rusty Reno says. And yet, I understand why so many people do. And I understand why so many of those people have no interest in listening to people like me tell them otherwise.

It feels like an apocalypse to lots of people right now. Not a big-A Apocalypse, but an apocalypse in the strictly etymological sense of the word, which means “an unveiling.” They feel that the country has turned, or is about to turn, a corner, and people like them are about to be screwed, or screwed even worse than the are being screwed now.

That’s how it feels for us small-o orthodox Christians. There’s a reason that I’ve been talking for a decade about the Benedict Option, but it never really took off until after the Indiana RFRA debacle revealed that Big Business was a powerful opponent of religious liberty, and that the Republican Party would not stand up to it. More broadly, it revealed the extent to which orthodox Christians had radically lost ground in American culture. Big business had stayed out of culture war issues because they wanted to make money. They wouldn’t have taken the stand they did if they had feared a backlash from consumers. There was no backlash. The Obergefell ruling only codified a cultural fait accompli. And now, Christians who aren’t in denial can see the future unveiled in the present. It’s not going to be good.

Again, a lot of people are feeling that way in America today, says David Brooks. All kinds of people. Most people, even. More:

The fact is, for all the problems we may have with Wall Street or Washington, our biggest problems are systemic — the disruptions caused by technological progress and globalization, mass migration, family breakdown and so on. There’s no all-controlling Wizard of Oz to slay.

John Podhoretz writes in Commentary:

Put simply, nobody in American elite life — not in politics, not in finance, not in the intellectual world — has been able to find a convincing explanation for the transformative negative changes that characterize our time. These changes are spiritually and possibly literally earth-shattering. The family is falling apart and being redefined at the same time. Incomes have stagnated. Small stateless actors with global reach due to the Internet threaten the disruption and destruction of everyday life in places major (Paris) and minor (San Bernardino). And for many the ethnic complexion of America is changing in ways it has never changed before.


So along come Trump and Sanders, and what do they say? They both say the system doesn’t work. Trump says it’s because losers are in charge and that the goal needs to be “winning.” Sanders says the system is rigged, billionaires run everything and must be stripped of their power (and money), and bankers must be sent to jail by the dozens if not hundreds. Note that the key to understanding these appeals is that they are really not all that partisan. Trump doesn’t say Obama is to blame, though he says Obama is a “disaster” — but then, so was Bush in his estimation. Sanders doesn’t really say the problem is recalcitrant Republicans but rather the behavior of a superclass of people who stand above politics and manipulate it like puppeteers manipulate marionettes.

Their meta-message is this: The problems are bigger than the ideological choices of the guy in the White House or the sclerosis of the Senate. They are systemic — not politicallysystemic, but civilizationally systemic. Trump said in the last debate that he was content to be “a vessel for anger.” Sanders yells a lot in debate, thus signaling anger.

But this goes beyond anger. They are, in effect, saying, “We better do some extremely large things fast or this country is finished.” And finished fast. Like now. Like by 2020.

I think Brooks is right that our problems are systemic. And I think Podhoretz is right that people believe that the crisis is civilizational, and that our politics as usual aren’t up to dealing with these systemic and civilizational problems. And I think people who believe that are right. 

But nobody knows what to do, and that’s what’s so scary. With the Republicans, the same old Reaganesque stance towards the free market and foreign policy is no longer plausible. The George W. Bush presidency blew that all to hell, and the Republicans have not recovered from that, not really. The Democrats don’t have a real clue either. Anybody who believes that Hillary Clinton is not a conventional hawk, and that the Democratic Party isn’t beholden to Wall Street, is dreaming.

Again: nobody knows what to do. But people want something to be done.

This is not a profound observation, obviously, but it’s hard to go much beyond that. Here’s an interesting post from the Archdruid that a couple of you have cited in the comments.  The Archdruid says that the most important fact is that the past 40 years have seen the destruction of the “wage class” at the hands of the “salary class” and the “investment class.” He’s talking about both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans:

The destruction of the wage class was largely accomplished by way of two major shifts in American economic life. The first was the dismantling of the American industrial economy and its replacement by Third World sweatshops; the second was mass immigration from Third World countries. Both of these measures are ways of driving down wages—not, please note, salaries, returns on investment, or welfare payments—by slashing the number of wage-paying jobs, on the one hand, while boosting the number of people competing for them on the other. Both, in turn, were actively encouraged by government policies and, despite plenty of empty rhetoric on one or the other side of the Congressional aisle, both of them had, for all practical purposes, bipartisan support from the political establishment.

It’s probably going to be necessary to talk a bit about that last point. Both parties, despite occasional bursts of crocodile tears for American workers and their families, have backed the offshoring of jobs to the hilt. Immigration is a slightly more complex matter; the Democrats claim to be in favor of it, the Republicans now and then claim to oppose it, but what this means in practice is that legal immigration is difficult but illegal immigration is easy. The result was the creation of an immense work force of noncitizens who have no economic or political rights they have any hope of enforcing, which could then be used—and has been used, over and over again—to drive down wages, degrade working conditions, and advance the interests of employers over those of wage-earning employees.

Attempts by people in the wage class to mount any kind of effective challenge to the changes that have gutted their economic prospects and consigned them to a third-rate future have done very little so far. To some extent, that’s a function of the GOP’s sustained effort to lure wage class voters into backing Republican candidates on religious and moral grounds. It’s the mirror image of the ruse that’s been used by the Democratic party on a galaxy of interests on the leftward end of things—granted, the Democrats aren’t doing a thing about the issues that matter most to you, but neither are the Republicans, so you vote for the party that offends you least. Right? Sure, if you want to guarantee that the interests that matter most to you never get addressed at all.

There’s a further barrier, though, and that’s the response of the salary class across the board—left, right, middle, you name it—to any attempt by the wage class to bring up the issues that matter to it. On the rare occasions when this happens in the public sphere, the spokespeople of the wage class get shouted down with a double helping of the sneering mockery I discussed toward the beginning of this post. The same thing happens on a different scale on those occasions when the same thing happens in private. If you doubt this—and you probably do, if you belong to the salary class—try this experiment: get a bunch of your salary class friends together in some casual context and get them talking about ordinary American working guys. What you’ll hear will range from crude caricatures and one-dimensional stereotypes right on up to bona fide hate speech. People in the wage class are aware of this; they’ve heard it all; they’ve been called stupid, ignorant, etc., ad nauseam for failing to agree with whatever bit of self-serving dogma some representative of the salary class tried to push on them.

And that, dear reader, is where Donald Trump comes in.

The man is brilliant. I mean that without the smallest trace of mockery. He’s figured out that the most effective way to get the wage class to rally to his banner is to get himself attacked, with the usual sort of shrill mockery, by the salary class. The man’s worth several billion dollars—do you really think he can’t afford to get the kind of hairstyle that the salary class finds acceptable? Of course he can; he’s deliberately chosen otherwise, because he knows that every time some privileged buffoon in the media or on the internet trots out another round of insults directed at his failure to conform to salary class ideas of fashion, another hundred thousand wage class voters recall the endless sneering putdowns they’ve experienced from the salary class and think, “Trump’s one of us.”

The identical logic governs his deliberate flouting of the current rules of acceptable political discourse. Have you noticed that every time Trump says something that sends the pundits into a swivet, and the media starts trying to convince itself and its listeners that this time he’s gone too far and his campaign will surely collapse in humiliation, his poll numbers go up?  What he’s saying is exactly the sort of thing that you’ll hear people say in working class taverns and bowling alleys when subjects such as illegal immigration and Muslim jihadi terrorism come up for discussion. The shrieks of the media simply confirm, in the minds of the wage class voters to whom his appeal is aimed, that he’s one of them, an ordinary Joe with sensible ideas who’s being dissed by the suits.

The Republicans don’t really care about the economic suffering of the wage class. The Democrats don’t really care that much either, and they positively resent the social conservatism of many in that class. I’m not saying the wage class are total victims. But I am saying that deep skepticism of what the leaders in both parties, and the pundit class that gathers around them, has to say about all this is justified.

That doesn’t make Trump right. But it does make him understandable. And it makes the conservatism as defined by the political and pundit class harder to relate to. What, exactly, are they trying to conserve? Who are they trying to conserve?

As a religious and social conservative, I have no faith — none — that the Republicans are looking out for me, despite what they say. The thing most important to me at this point in history is religious liberty — that is, protecting our right to be left alone. We know that the Republicans aren’t going to do anything about that, because business doesn’t want them to. The only reason to vote Republican on that issue is that they almost certainly won’t be as bad as the Democrats. And other policies pursued by Republicans work to undermine the traditional family. This party is no friend of ours. The Democrats are in most cases enemies. That’s my view, anyway.

And so, Prof. MacIntyre:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.

I don’t think Trump voters are Benedict Option people, heaven knows. But I do think they are awfully close to ceasing to identify maintaining the “imperium” — the status quo — with their own personal and tribal interests. It’s a dangerous place for the country to be in, and it’s hard for me to grasp what set of circumstances could lead us out of it and onto more solid ground. Maybe something will turn up. Trump’s certainly not going to do it, but why, exactly, should we have confidence that anybody else on offer has the answer? I’m not asking rhetorically.

Trump or no Trump, a lot of conservatives are going to vote Republican this fall with no expectation that it’s going to do a damn bit of good in terms of turning around the fragmentation and stagnation of the country. This is not simply because the GOP is mostly useless (as are the Democrats), but because the sources of our disorder are not really political, except insofar as they have to do with the limits of the liberal order, which the GOP and the Democrats both embody.

UPDATE: A libertarian reader writes of NR‘s attack on Trump:

Barring a meltdown they just handed it to him.

At the very least they needed to acknowledge the establishment’s failings and endorse NOW. We are against this, but FOR this.

It LOOKS like a desperate cabal. Because it is.

If Trump had paid for an ad in NR, no way it could have been this effective.

But this is good for me to know. It proves that the establishment can’t run sh*t.

UPDATE.2: Rob G. writes:

Erstwhile blogger Jeff Martin once wrote: “The left can protest all it wants that it desires cultural liberation along with economic solidarity, but the former subverts the latter. The right can protest all it wants that it desires economic liberty along with traditionalism, but the former subverts the latter. Period. End of story.”

If this is the case with the two “sides,” (and I believe it is) is it any wonder that politics continues to fail and no one gives a damn about the “middle”? We’ve got two irreconcilable versions of liberalism fighting each other; perhaps the problem’s within liberalism itself.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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