At the end of Adolf Hitler’s 1934 Nuremberg rally speech, Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess took the podium and declared:
“The Party is Hitler! But Hitler is Germany, as Germany is Hitler!”
You can watch it in this subtitled clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. If you don’t want to sit through Hitler’s speech, fast-forward to the 10:15 mark to hear Hess. You see what’s happening here: the identification of the Nazi Party with the person of Adolf Hitler, and the person of Adolf Hitler with the German nation, was made manifest and complete.
At the risk of going overly Godwin, those Hess lines came to mind when I read this Politico story about CPAC, in particular, this quote:
“In many ways, Donald Trump is the conservative movement right now,” Jim McLaughlin, the Republican pollster who conducted the survey, told CPAC attendees. “And the conservative movement is Donald Trump.”
The story, by Tim Alberta, is about how thoroughly Donald Trump has conquered movement conservatism. Alberta goes on:
To spend three days at this year’s CPAC, the annual right-wing carnival of politics and culture, was to witness an ideology conforming to an individual rather than the other way around. The president’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, set the tone Thursday morning when asked to assess Trump’s impact on the conservative movement. “Well, I think by tomorrow this will be TPAC,” she said. The moderator laughed and so did the audience members, but it wasn’t a joke: Anyone searching for a brand of conservatism independent of the new president would have walked away sorely disappointed.
To some extent, everyone expected to see Trump remake the Republican Party in his image; he became its leader upon clinching the presidential nomination last July and solidified that status for at least four years on November 8. But Trump was not supposed to bend conservatism to his will—at least, not this quickly. Certainly, he has thrilled the GOP grassroots with certain decisions, such as signing executive orders aimed at deregulation, beginning a crackdown on illegal immigration and nominating an originalist in Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. But he has also done other things—facilitating a deal with Carrier in Indiana that smacked of crony capitalism; bullying private corporations and individual citizens; declaring reporters the enemy of the American public; asserting a moral equivalence between the U.S. government and Vladimir Putin’s – that would typically put any politician in the crosshairs of the right.
Trump, however, has encountered scant dissent from his party’s ideological base. So he came to CPAC not to pay homage to the traditions of conservatism, but to bask in the supremacy of his own movement, one that he and his allies believe will supplant the outdated orthodoxies peddled for decades by the very people who greeted him like a conquering hero on Friday morning.
Read the whole thing. What is astonishing is a) how quickly ideological conservatism has collapsed within the core of movement conservatism, and b) how Trump has filled the vacuum with his own personality. Alberta:
It wasn’t just the ubiquitous deification of Trump that was so jarring. It was the degree to which his worldview was accepted, championed and cheered by conservative speakers and attendees with no obvious connection to the new president.
It can’t be a complete surprise that the basic catechism of movement conservatism has lost the loyalty of the faithful. The Iraq War and the financial crash revealed the bankruptcy of GOP claims to competent leadership, but they also revealed the threadbare nature of the left-right establishment consensus in favor of globalized free trade and American interventionism. We need a new conservatism. We have needed a new conservatism for a long time.
But here’s the thing: Trumpism is not a coherent, principled worldview, nor is it recognizably conservative in philosophical terms. It is certainly possible that a philosophically articulate new conservatism will emerge from a Trumpified Right. However, seeing how quickly the movement conservatives of CPAC abandoned their principles in favor of worshipping Trump’s personality is a dark sign. Look at this, from the Politico piece:
“Last year we were talking about a walkout if Trump showed up, and this year it’s all Trump all the time. It has completely changed,” said Dominic Moore, a University of North Carolina student who attended CPAC for the first time in 2016 and backed Rubio in the GOP primary. “Last year the Make America Great Again hats were few and far between. Now they’re everywhere. Last year the speakers were attacking him and now everyone’s done a full 180. They’re all on the bandwagon. Everything has changed.”
One cannot fault Trump for intuiting the fragility of the GOP and of post-Reagan movement conservatism, and knocking it all over. But what is he replacing it with? A cult of personality that depends on demonizing the media? Or what? That Trump was able to overwhelm movement conservatism so thoroughly and so quickly, and that he is remaking it in his image, ought to send a chill down the spines of principled conservatives — even conservatives who (like me) find some of what he stands for (like economic nationalism) worth supporting, at least in theory.
No, I don’t think Trump is Hitler. Still, every American ought to be deeply wary of identifying a political party or movement with a personality over a set of principles. To paraphrase Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons, if you’ve cut down all your conservative principles for the sake of investing Donald Trump with political power, what do you hide behind when Donald Trump turns on conservatives like you?
UPDATE: Carlo writes:
The comparison is weak because the reason for the identification is not so much the strength of Trump’s personality, but rather the complete cultural vacuum it is filling.
Well, that’s what I meant. Trump is too scatterbrained, abrasive, and incompetent to be Hitler, even if he wanted to be. The point I was making is that the conservative movement appears to be unmoored from any discernible principles at this point. I mean, love him or hate him, you knew where Reagan stood, because he had stood there for a very long time. Trump? No. I’m not so much worried about Trump as what follows him on the Right.
UPDATE.2: Eric Mader:
Watching the zombielike SJW crowds during the last of the Obama years, seeing the degree to which left liberals have abandoned real pluralism in the name of their non-discrimination regime, and now, on the other hand, seeing the rise of Trumpism, one might even conclude that authoritarianism is more likely than not as an outcome for us. With no principled moderates and conservatives in the room, are we going to be forced to choose between a left-authoritarian and a right-authoritarian regime?
It sounds alarmist maybe. But, in terms of left-authoritarians, look at 1) the self-righteousness and rigor with which the Obama administration pursued its LGBT policies, and 2) the culture on campuses. What will democratic politics look like when these hordes of PC students make up most of the population between age 20 and 40? On the other hand, in terms of right-authoritarianism, the question is simple: What will conservatives be willing to put up with in order to ensure they do not end up being ruled by SJW apparatchiks?
Yes, I think that a Trump-like figure on the left could accomplish the same thing, for the same reasons.
UPDATE.3: Two days on, I agree that the Hess comparison was ill-considered. Even though I said I don’t believe Trump is Hitler, the loudness of the analogy, however weak, drowns out the qualification. I still strongly believe that Trump’s takeover of movement conservatism — given Trump’s lack of vision — reflects very poorly on the principles of movement conservatism. But I regret the very shrill comparison.