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Fusionism & The Conservative Future

Can an old idea find new life in the Age of Trump? Should traditionalist conservatives care?

Writing in the conservative journal Modern Age, Samuel Goldman counsels fellow conservatives to move with extreme caution in the Age of Trump:

Conservatism does have to adapt if it is to survive the Age of Trump. But a conservatism that panders to populist fantasies and embraces the morality of professional wrestling is not worth saving. One place to start rebuilding amid the ruins is a return to the blueprint developed by political theorist Frank Meyer as the modern conservative movement was first taking shape. “Fusionism” is part of the conservative past. But it may also be the future.

Fusionism, as you probably know, is the concept that united the libertarian Right and the traditionalist Right in the 1950s. It found a way to accommodate the small-government/pro-market beliefs of libertarians with the concern for virtue and social order among traditionalists. Ronald Reagan was the ultimate fusionist conservative candidate.

Goldman delivers a good basic explanation of fusionism (which readers new to the term will recognize as mainstream American conservatism of the last half-century), and contrasts it to Trumpian populism. He notes fusionism’s failures, and concedes that however crude Trumpism may be, it didn’t come from nowhere. Yet he believes that Trumpian populism does not provide any kind of solution to the problems fusionism has failed to resolve. Excerpt:

[T]he insufficiency of one solution does not necessarily mean that a better one is available. The midcentury industrial workplace really did provide a stable and dignified life, especially for men who took pride in their mastery of things rather than facility with numbers or words. Unfortunately, we have no idea how to bring it back.

We also have no idea how to restore a “thick” national identity without employing unacceptably coercive means. It is easy to forget that the common culture of fond memory was made possible by policies that included the legal suppression of America’s largest immigrant culture (the German-speaking Midwest) during the First World War, and mass conscription and a virtual takeover of the economy and media during World War II. The comfortable sense of belonging many Americans enjoyed half a century ago was also buttressed by the formal and informal exclusion of black people from the mainstream of American life. These were bad measures that no one seriously proposes to revive.

I think Goldman has hit on the very serious dilemma facing conservatives now. The old way of doing things — fusionism — has failed to address deep structural problems in American life. Populism, though, proposes solutions that are arguably unjust and unworkable. Giving the state more power does not bother traditionalists as much as it does libertarians, but only because traditionalists don’t mind using the state to achieve virtuous ends. But trads (like me) have to confront the fact that we are a post-Christian democratic nation, and that concentrating power in the hands of the state will in most cases be used against us.

Read Goldman’s entire essay. He contends that conservatives should abandon the idea that we will ever have a polity as unified as we once did, and that a reformed fusionism — reformed in light of the failures of the fusionist status quo that gave rise to Trumpist populism — still gives us the best principled hope for realizing conservative ends in this environment.

I guess I agree with this by default, if only because I see no prospect that Trumpism, for which I have a certain sympathy, can work. Even if Trump were to seek to empower and to encourage virtue — that’s okay, I can wait for you to stop laughing — the plain fact is that we are now too fissiparous a society even to agree on what virtue is. What fusionism works out to in practice, it seems to me, is business interests using traditionalists (chiefly Christian conservatives) as useful idiots to get what they want out of government. Do you see the Republican Party standing up for traditional values and virtues in the face of the LGBT juggernaut within corporate America? Of course not. And the truth is, traditional values on matters of sex and sexuality are increasingly unpopular. We really are a post-Christian nation.

That said, it still makes sense for trads to work within the Republican Party. If the GOP is not promoting our interests, at least it is not outright hostile to them, as the Democrats are. The long-term trend in our country, however, is running against traditionalist Christians. We cannot expect GOP politicians in a democracy to stand up for values that a diminishing number of American share. And we cannot expect politics to solve, or even adequately address, the core crises of American culture and society. We are much more likely to get the breathing space to work on our own localist solutions if Republicans (either populist or fusionist) are in power, but that’s about all we can hope for.

Despite what you’ve heard from some quarters, the Benedict Option does not call on Christians to abandon political involvement. Rather, it calls for Christians to re-prioritize their concerns. For too long, too many conservative Christians have acted as if the most important thing we can do for the country is to vote Republicans into office. Meanwhile, our churches have rotted from within. Massive numbers of Millennials are drifting away from the church, and those who stay are, like most of the older generations, really Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. As Robert Louis Wilken said back in 2004:

At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic.

This is not surrender. It is a strategy for facing our post-Christian reality. It is not a call for Christians to abandon politics entirely — I don’t believe we can or should do that — but it is a call to understand the nature of the times, and to commit our attention and our resources to building up the life of the church in truly countercultural ways. We cannot expect as much from Republican politicians or politics itself as many of us wish to think that we can. Continuing to respond as if we were in normal times in this regard amounts to a fruitless shoring up of the declining imperium, when what is most needed — not exclusively needed, but most needed — is what we have neglected among ourselves for far too long: building up the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic.

In his most recent column, Dennis Prager (who is Jewish) criticizes Trump-opposing conservatives:

I have concluded that there are a few reasons that explain conservatives who were Never-Trumpers during the election, and who remain anti-Trump today.

The first and, by far, the greatest reason is this: They do not believe that America is engaged in a civil war, with the survival of America as we know it at stake.

While they strongly differ with the left, they do not regard the left-right battle as an existential battle for preserving our nation. On the other hand, I, and other conservative Trump supporters, do.

Well, I wasn’t one of the Never-Trumpers, and I do believe that we are indeed engaged in a great battle in this country. The difference between Prager and me has to do with the nature of the war. The idea that Donald Trump is in charge of the forces of righteousness is farcical. And the idea that the line between the forces of good and evil in this war is drawn between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, is delusional.

Prager also makes the shopworn “Georgetown cocktail party” criticisms, accusing Never-Trumpers of being too prissy and self-involved to embrace Trump:

They can join the fight. They can accept an imperfect reality and acknowledge that we are in a civil war, and that Trump, with all his flaws, is our general. If this general is going to win, he needs the best fighters. But too many of them, some of the best minds of the conservative movement, are AWOL.

I beg them: Please report for duty.

What, exactly, is Donald Trump fighting for? And why is the righteousness of that cause so overwhelmingly clear that it requires conservatives to abandon their principles for the sake of winning power? This is not clear at all to me. The Trump phenomenon is, to me, a sign that we traditionalist conservatives have already lost the war. The Benedict Option is the most important form of resistance open to us.

As I have written here, a conservative Evangelical friend who doesn’t like Trump told me that his crowd has gone all-in for him because “they don’t have a Plan B” — meaning that they have no idea what to do if they lose power. They don’t realize that they — that we — have already lost power, and if we keep telling ourselves that we can win it back, we will continue to neglect the most important work we can and should be doing right now.

We are not engaged in a battle to “preserve the nation”. We are engaged in a battle to save the church. It is entirely possible that we could preserve the nation, whatever that means, but lose the church. Both are important to me, but I know which one matters more.

UPDATE: Patrick Deneen has an essay about conservatism in the Age of Trump in the same issue. Excerpts:

In the roughly half century of political ascendancy of American conservatism, little was recognizably conserved. The economic landscape of America was remade not only by a series of free trade agreements that accelerated globalization and economic integration but also by internal policies, both federal and local, that favored large corporations over small business. The rise of big-box stores was coincident with the postwar creation of suburbia and settlement patterns that found Americans increasingly living often at vast distances from work, school, church, and commerce. Findings by social scientists, most prominently Robert Putnam, demonstrated a consistent and substantial decline in the associational life of Americans and the rise of forms of what Tocqueville predicted would be the dominant democratic ethic of individualism. Every religious tradition, with the notable exception of Mormonism, saw extensive losses in adherents, especially pronounced among the millennial generation whose commitments to “none” began approaching the 50 percent mark. Schooling increasingly emphasized both sensitivity and utilitarian skills, rejecting traditional efforts to steward history and perpetuate a culture. Universities, in turn, became dominated by left-wing identitarians and a bloated corporate administrative class that together eviscerated distinctive cultural and religious institutional traditions in a deracinated commitment to vague social justice and job preparation. The media became saturated with explicit sexuality, incessant sarcasm, and default mockery of traditionalist beliefs. Pornography went mainstream. Demonstrations of bathetic patriotism became obligatory at every public event even though a tiny minority of Americans would ever be directly affected by the inconveniences of military service. In nearly every aspect of American life, little worth conserving was conserved.

American conservatism was ultimately a failure because it advanced a liberalism that has now been visibly revealed to be fundamentally destructive of the fabric of lives of a wide swath of countrymen, particularly those who are in many respects by design the “losers” in the liberal order. The rejection of American conservatism was most fundamentally a rejection of American liberalism, and Trump was the carrier of anxieties not over the course of the Republican and Democratic parties but the American order itself. Yet, far from ensuring the rise of a new and more credible conservatism, the rise of Trump may signal that no conservatism arising from the morass of contemporary American anticulture is viable. [Emphasis mine. — RD]


If nothing else, the exceedingly narrow victory of Donald Trump may be understood as the last gasp of a dying conservatism that has been destroyed by American liberalism. That “instinctive understanding of inherent limits” may be the animating attraction to a vision of Trump’s promises for a nation with a border and a common culture; a foreign policy largely defensive instead of a de facto empire; a capital drained of cronies and riggers; and the liberty to call things as they really are, including men, women, and children. Yet protection of this instinct was given to a man with no apparent conservative values or vision, less a sign of hope than desperation. Conservatism may have a future in America, but it will arise most likely from families and intentional communities that live as a counterculture to self-immolating American liberalism, and not as something that will be created in a political laboratory by the educated or from the wreckage of a Flight 93 administration in Washington, D.C.

Yes. This. Shore up the imperium if you like, but understand that in doing so you are conserving very little that matters, or should matter, to socially conservative religious traditionalists.