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Twilight of the Ordnungsmacht

Debating what it means to be “conservative” is mostly an old dorm-room pastime (and yes,  now you know all you need to know about how exciting life was in our dorm rooms). But one definition of the word surely has to be an orientation toward preserving existing institutions and arrangements.

In that sense, America is a naturally conservative power, and both of our political parties are naturally conservative political institutions, because incumbents necessarily benefit disproportionately from existing arrangements. But for various reasons, sometimes within the incumbent’s control and sometimes beyond it, a country or an institution may find its position increasingly precarious, requiring more and more effort to preserve.

This is the position Republican establishment has been in since about 2004 or so, and in 2016 it finally fell, to a barbarian invader who had no clear idea of what to replace it with nor much capacity to do so if he had an idea. It’s also the position the United States has been in internationally since roughly 1991, the high point of America’s global influence and clout. President Trump is now kicking out the props out from under that order as well, and in the process revealing just how rickety it was, and how much of his predecessor’s policy mix was oriented around shoring that shaky order up.

That’s the theme of my latest column at The Week:

In both the domestic and international spheres, having a dyspeptic void at the head of the executive branch is rapidly revealing the degree to which the Obama administration was engaged in the small-c conservative project of propping up arrangements and institutions that were already losing their natural cohesion. With the props removed, get ready for change to accelerate.

It’s far too soon to know whether what follows, either domestically or internationally, is going to be productive of a new order or purely destructive of order itself. The Democratic Party could undergo a much-needed revolution, and emerge as a stronger and more unifying national political movement. Or both parties could be eclipsed by a new centrist force (as has happened in France). Or we could see a widening spiral of bitterness and anger in the domestic political sphere.

Similarly, in the international sphere, France and Germany could successfully pursue a deeper (and smaller) European Union with a common fiscal and defense policy that forms the beginning of a true European state — but if it does so, it will likely be at least in part to provide a counterweight to America rather than to be a more supportive ally. Or Europe may fall apart. Our more important Asian allies may increasingly bandwagon around a patient and burgeoning China — or the U.S. and China may stumble into direct conflict.

It’s too soon to know what change will come — but like it says in the play: “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.” And I am highly skeptical that we are ready.

Read the whole thing there.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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