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The Saruman Conservatives

Ross Douthat confers with an intern on the writing of his next column (Lord of the Rings screengrab)

In an Atlantic piece today, Never Trump conservative Eliot Cohen likens Ross Douthat to Saruman, who, in The Lord of the Rings, made a pitch to the good men of Middle Earth to recognize that Mordor’s time has come, and that they would do well to ally with it. They may even, according to Saruman, come to direct Mordor’s decisions.

It was a trap, of course. Cohen says a recent Douthat column about Never Trumpers put him in mind of Saruman’s trap. Cohen characterizes the Douthat column this way:

After dismissing some of those conservatives he no longer agrees with as “converts and apostates,” he urges his readers to turn instead to those “thinkers and writers who basically accept the populist turn, and whose goal is to supply coherence and intellectual ballast, to purge populism of its bigotries and inject good policy instead.”

In other words, Douthat offers a “measured” (Cohen’s word) version of Saruman’s trap.

That is a deeply unfair characterization. I urge you to read the entire column. Douthat has never hidden his contempt for Trump. But he is trying to be what Never Trumpers like the establishmentarian Eliot Cohen are not: realistic. In his column, Douthat recognizes that whether we like it or not, Trump has changed what it means to be politically conservative in America.

Douthat is not debating the meaning of philosophical conservatism. That’s pointless as a matter of practical politics, and besides, Donald Trump has never been troubled by a philosophical thought. Furthermore, political parties aren’t traditional churches. They aren’t guided by revelation and authoritative dogmas. A Roman Catholic can point to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to settle the question of whether or not a fellow Catholic is being faithful to authoritative teaching. No such document exists for the GOP. Conservatism, like liberalism, is whatever most of the people who identify with that label in a given time and place say it is.

(This is more true of religion than people like me want to admit, but that’s another topic.)

Douthat is sensibly recognizing that when the party of the right has been captured by a man like Donald Trump, and what Trump stands for is likely to be what that party stands for even after Trump departs the scene, then it’s silly to carry on as if “conservatism” meant what it meant from 1980 until the arrival of Trump — just as it would have been silly to pretend that “conservatism” after Reagan had much to do with the views and policies of Nixon, Ford, and Rockefeller, or that Bill Clinton didn’t substantively change what it meant to be liberal in America.

Instead, Douthat points to several examples of conservatives who are trying to adjust creatively to this new reality, and to harness it for the good. Douthat writes:

I don’t know if any of these efforts can pull the post-Trump right away from anti-intellectualism and chauvinism. But their project is the one that matters to what conservatism is right now, not what it might have been had John McCain been elected president, or had the Iraq War been something other than a misbegotten mess, or had the 2000-era opening to China gone the way free traders hoped.

This is exactly right. Douthat’s column must have stung Cohen deeply for him to have accused Douthat of immorally lusting after power. What Douthat — who, again, has always been opposed to Trump — says to Cohen and his conservative establishment tribe, indirectly, is: Your day is over. You don’t matter anymore. Conservatives have to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it would be.

Seems to me that that’s a rather conservative thought. Douthat has been talking this way for over a decade, since he and Reihan Salam wrote an essay about “The Party Of Sam’s Club,” which they turned into a 2008 book. In this review essay from a decade ago, Patrick Deneen gets to the heart of the book:

Herein lies the great virtue of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party, an expansion of their seminal Weekly Standard essay, “Party of Sam’s Club” (Volume 11, No. 9, November 14, 2005). Douthat and Salam—young conservatives who are willing to break ranks with their elders and think in new directions—concentrate their attention on this segment of the electorate, those who seek savings by buying in bulk at Sam’s Club and who aren’t embarrassed about it. In contrast to Frank’s Kansans, the working class they describe is less blue-collar and less rural, more likely to work in healthcare or office administration than on the farm, and above all, more likely to live in one of America’s far-flung “exurbs” rather than on the land. They are not poor, but given the massive dislocations engendered by the modern global economy, they are insecure, their wages have stagnated, and the prospects for their children’s future look dimmer than ever.

Douthat and Salam rightly note that, for this segment of the electorate, traditionalist social issues are intimately connected with their economic concerns and anxieties. “Safe streets, successful marriages, cultural solidarity, and vibrant religious and civic institutions make working-class Americans more likely to be wealthy, healthy, and upwardly mobile. Public disorder, family disintegration, cultural fragmentation, and civic and religious disaffection, on the other hand, breed downward mobility and financial strain—which in turn breeds further social dislocation, in a vicious cycle that threatens to transform a working class into an underclass.”

Douthat and Salam—unfashionably, even heretically, in contemporary Republican circles—recognize that the new globalizing age, with the attendant dislocations being experienced by the “Sam’s Club” citizenry, calls for some considerable amount of government intervention. Given that Sam’s Club citizens are in many respects the backbone of the American citizenry, the nation has a decided interest in actively protecting the increasingly fragile institutions that support the values of hard work, self-sacrifice, family values, communal norms, and good citizenship.

Echoing older observations of Tocqueville, Douthat and Salam repeatedly note the likelihood that as democratic citizens are forced onto their own devices and are shorn of the bulwark of extended family and community, they will of necessity turn to the government for assistance, potentially ushering in a “massive tutelary state” that will gladly assume the functions of soft despotism. In the absence of public policies aimed at undergirding the unsteady pillars of civil society, the authors rightly suggest that truly collectivist policies of dependence will be the likely outcome if the only alternative on offer is a cold insistence on free markets and self-reliance alone.

Seems to me that if the Republican establishment had paid attention to Douthat and Salam a decade ago, and recognized that the Reagan paradigm was ending, they might not be dealing with Donald Trump today. It does not pay to ignore Ross Douthat on these matters.

UPDATE: In case I’m not crystal-clear, I’m arguing that Douthat is not saying that conservatives should make their peace with Trump. What he’s saying is that conservatives need to make their peace with the fact that what Trump represents is a paradigm shift within the country in general, and conservatism in particular. The conservatives who are going to have anything to say about the future are those who have absorbed this lesson, whatever they personally think of Donald Trump.

By the way, I am quite familiar with how futile it can be to stand athwart conservatism yelling, “Stop! That’s not what conservatism is!”

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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