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Play the Game

Have you ever noticed the conservative establishment is always compromised in the same way?

Hugh Hefner Gets Kiss from Girlfriend
Hugh Hefner (Bettmann / Contributor/ Getty Images)

When it comes to the conservative movement, the important thing to bear in mind is that it doesn’t exist. It never has and it probably never will.

From time to time, some intrepid soul will try to swim against the tide of liquid modernity. You know their names: Pat Buchanan, Russell Kirk, Dorothy Day, etc. But they’re vanishingly rare. Most of the folks we call conservatives just like to complain about stuff. They’re happy to put in a bad word about liberals or “the culture” or whatever, but try putting them on mute for a while. Never mind what they say; watch what they do. See how they live their lives, how they order their loves. Before long, you won’t be able to tell left from right.


Case in point. Last week, The New York Times ran an op-ed on the alleged feud between William F. Buckley (founder of National Review) and Hugh Hefner (founder of Playboy). The article’s author, Jane Coaston, recalls a televised debate between the two gentlemen that aired in 1966. In it, Hefner claimed that he was merely an anti-puritan. The Sexual Revolution, of which Playboy was the flagship, was only “a response to the puritan part of our culture.” 

Buckley, of course, didn’t see it that way. He argued that lads’ mags were not conducive to man’s “viable existence.” Pornographers like Hefner had “rewritten the ancient theological tablets”—Buckleyite for what most of us call the Ten Commandments—which had served as the basis of Judeo-Christian civilization for over 3,000 years. “Oughtn’t you claim some sort of moral authority to do so?” Buckley asked. “And if so, what is that moral authority?”

Ms. Coaston points out that Hefner’s “anti-puritanism” carried the day—and the Republican Party, too. Who better embodies the Playboy philosophy than Donald Trump? Nobody—not even Mr. Hefner. She also observes that Andrew Tate’s defenders have all come from the right. (Incidentally, Candace Owens called him a “modern Hugh Hefner.”) 

It’s surprising how unsurprising that is. Obviously, Tate’s fans would be more at home in the Party of Trump. It’s just odd that the Party of Trump is also still technically the Party of Romney and Pence.

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe this contradiction is a feature, not a bug. 


Ms. Coaston also notes that Buckley hedged his bets by writing for Penthouse, another lads’ mag. But that’s only the beginning. In his book Cruising Speed, Buckley talks about being an occasional contributor (as he called it) to Playboy itself. He was chagrined one year to receive a Christmas card from Hefner’s company thanking him for being a “member of the Playboy family.” When an angry reader asked why he wrote for America’s premier journal of smut, he replied: “To communicate my views to my son.” There’s the famous Buckley wit.

Now, look. I’m not trying to have a go at WFB. I’ve read most of his books and watched most of his YouTube videos. I keep a copy of his Lexicon in my bathroom. I even use one of those nifty mousepads National Review sells with his face on it. Yes, he was a hypocrite. But so what? Hypocrisy is after all the tribute vice pays to virtue. And thanks to original sin, none of us is free from vice. Hypocrites are the best we can hope to be. There’s only one way to be sure you never betray your own principles, and that’s to have no principles at all.

The problem is that conservatives are always hypocritical in the same way—the Buckley way. They always betray the same principle, that of the “enduring moral order.” Conservatives always—always—go soft on social issues first. And by “go soft,” I don’t mean “totally abandon.” I just mean… go soft. Drop their hands. Let the rope go slack. Roll over. Play dead. And why is that? Well, because they just don’t care as much about social issues as they pretend to. 

Put it this way. Buckley said that the Sexual Revolution threatened the very foundations of Western civilization. Incidentally, he said the same thing about the Soviet Union. In fact, that was the subject of his first article for Playboy. Yet I’ll bet he never would have written an article about the dangers of pornography for Pravda. He wouldn’t have joked casually about his son being a communist. And why is that? Because he actually believed the Soviet Union posed an existential threat to Western civilization. Porn? Not so much.

For as long as I can remember, we’ve been complaining about “establishment conservatives” selling out social traditionalists. In theory, we’re an integral part of the three-legged stool of the GOP—the other two legs being fiscal libertarians and foreign policy hawks. In reality, we’re just ballast. Conservatives pander to us in op-eds and stump speeches, but once they take power, they devote all their energy to cutting taxes and starting wars.

Again, that’s really more of a feature than a bug. This is how conservatives have run their institutions since at least the Sixties. That’s why we’ve lost every single battle of the “Culture War,” without exception. We never put up a fight. We’ve rattled our sabers plenty, yet we’ve just never so much as drawn them.

So, if you want to talk about how conservatives failed to stop the Sexual Revolution, be my guest. But let’s be honest. We never really tried. If you want to know how Hugh Hefner took over the GOP, the answer is simple. We let him. Few rattled their sabers more loudly than Bill Buckley—yet, once the firing started, he was over in the enemy camp, sipping eggnog with the bunnies. But, hey! Like I said, he was only human.


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