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Why Are Conservatives In Despair?

Because the country is falling apart and being taken over by totalitarian ideologues
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As many of you know, David Brooks and I are friends. I can tell you that it’s hard to find a more generous and decent man anywhere. That’s really true, and that, besides my innate loyalty to friends, is why I ball up my internal fist whenever I hear people criticize him harshly. And it’s why I’m not going to publish any comments on this blog that criticize him personally (as distinct from criticizing his ideas). But I also recognize that David is dispositionally and convictionally more liberal than I am, and far more optimist about the way of the world. This is a preface to say that his column today is halfway about me and people like me.

It starts like this:

Those of us who had hoped America would calm down when we no longer had Donald Trump spewing poison from the Oval Office have been sadly disabused. There are increasing signs that the Trumpian base is radicalizing. My Republican friends report vicious divisions in their churches and families. Republican politicians who don’t toe the Trump line are speaking of death threats and menacing verbal attacks.

It’s as if the Trump base felt some security when their man was at the top, and that’s now gone. Maybe Trump was the restraining force.

What’s happening can only be called a venomous panic attack. Since the election, large swathes of the Trumpian right have decided America is facing a crisis like never before and they are the small army of warriors fighting with Alamo-level desperation to ensure the survival of the country as they conceive it.

The first important survey data to understand this moment is the one pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson discussed with my colleague Ezra Klein. When asked in late January if politics is more about “enacting good public policy” or “ensuring the survival of the country as we know it,” 51 percent of Trump Republicans said survival; only 19 percent said policy.

The level of Republican pessimism is off the charts. A February Economist-YouGov poll asked Americans which statement is closest to their view: “It’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated” or “Our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves.”

Over 75 percent of Biden voters chose “a big, beautiful world.” Two-thirds of Trump voters chose “our lives are threatened.”

This level of catastrophism, nearly despair, has fed into an amped-up warrior mentality.

“The decent know that they must become ruthless. They must become the stuff of nightmares,” Jack Kerwick writes in the Trumpian magazine American Greatness. “The good man must spare not a moment to train, in both body and mind, to become the monster that he may need to become in order to slay the monsters that prey upon the vulnerable.”

Here’s why it’s “halfway” about me.

As you know, I was never a Trumper, but also not a Never Trumper — and Brooks’s column today illustrates why. I did not and utterly do not share the sense among the Never Trumpers (Republican or Democrat) that the system is basically okay, and the country is basically okay. Neither did I share the view that Donald Trump was any kind of solution.

My book Live Not By Lies came out on September 29 last year, but the manuscript was completed in March 2020, before Covid became the catastrophe is has been, and before George Floyd was killed. When the paperback is eventually published, those two tectonic events will be in an additional chapter, but so too will be the rise of QAnon on the Right, and the insane behavior of many on the Right in the post-election period. I had not seen that Kerwick quote before Brooks’s column, but that is the kind of logic that one uses to steel oneself to behave like Bosnian Serb militia at Srebrenica. I want no part of it.

(That said, read the whole Kerwick column; the quote Brooks uses is much less offensive in context. Berwick is not talking about going on the offense. He’s talking about being defensive against rioters and Antifa. He’s saying if you want to protect yourself, your property, and your neighborhood from these bullies, you have to be prepared to be violent in response to violence. I actually agree with that. Some Christians are pacifists; most are not. I am not. If Berwick had not written the odious paragraph Brooks cited, I would have agreed with his column.)

Anyway, Brooks goes on:

Republicans and conservatives who believe in the liberal project need to organize and draw a bright line between themselves and the illiberals on their own side. This is no longer just about Trump the man, it’s about how you are going to look at reality — as the muddle its always been, or as an apocalyptic hellscape. It’s about how you pursue change — through the conversation and compromise of politics, or through intimidations of macho display.

I can tell a story in which the Trumpians self-marginalize or exhaust themselves. Permanent catastrophism is hard. But apocalyptic pessimism has a tendency to deteriorate into nihilism, and people eventually turn to the strong man to salve the darkness and chaos inside themselves.

OK, let’s get to work.

Here’s the one good thing I can say about this analysis: “macho display” is a real problem on the Right. Yesterday here in Budapest, I was talking with some political-minded Hungarians about the situation in the US. I told them that we conservatives hurt ourselves by falling for loudmouth grifters who are good at being performative, but don’t actually get anything done. “Owning the libs” is fine, I guess, but it’s not the same thing as accomplishing real change. I have zero interest in lib-owners who separate the gullible from their money, and who rage impotently (but profitably) while the Left consolidates its victories.

That said, the column is the kind of thing you’d have expected to see in a liberal St. Petersburg newspaper in 1915. I don’t say that to be insulting. I say it descriptively. It is the opinion of an intelligent, cultivated liberal observer who cannot see how bad things have become. The fact that Donald Trump was no kind of realistic solution does not mean that the conditions that led to his rise are false, or that the Republicans who see things apocalyptically are wrong. I too would have been one of the 51 percent of conservatives in that poll who said that politics is primarily about “ensuring the survival of the country,” though I emphatically do not believe the threat to us comes from terrorists, criminals, and illegal immigrants. The threat to us comes primarily from the elite leadership class in government, academia, corporate America, media, and other institutions.

It is true that conservatives are badly led, and that those who think things will be okay if we just cling tighter to Trump are only making things worse, if only because they have chosen a false solution. But I genuinely don’t understand how any non-progressive person can think things are basically fine. Let me put a fine point on it: I don’t understand how any non-progressive person can be anything just short of apocalyptic, given the state of things.

Let me explain.

We are living in a country whose elites are teaching us to see each other primarily on the basis of race, and to hate each other for it. Look at what political scientist Zach Goldberg has found:

The elite leadership class is jamming this neoracist ideology down everybody’s throat at every turn. Now even the US military does it too. Here, from today’s news, is just one of the impacts on ordinary people:

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) is moving to eliminate all accelerated math options prior to 11th grade, effectively keeping higher-achieving students from advancing as they usually would in the school system.

Loudoun County school board member Ian Serotkin posted about the change via Facebook on Tuesday. According to Serotkin, he learned of the change the night prior during a briefing from staff on the Virginia Mathematics Pathway Initiative (VMPI).

“[A]s currently planned, this initiative will eliminate ALL math acceleration prior to 11th grade,” he said. “That is not an exaggeration, nor does there appear to be any discretion in how local districts implement this. All 6th graders will take Foundational Concepts 6. All 7th graders will take Foundational Concepts 7. All 10th graders will take Essential Concepts 10. Only in 11th and 12th grade is there any opportunity for choice in higher math courses.”

His post included a chart with what appeared to be set math courses for 2022-2030.

VDOE spokesperson Charles Pyle indicated to Fox News that the courses would allow for at least some variation depending on students’ skill level. “Differentiated instruction means providing instruction that is catered to the learning needs of each child (appropriate levels of challenge and academic rigor),” Pyle said.

On VDOE’s website, the state features an infographic that indicates VMPI would require “concepts” courses for each grade level. It states various goals like “[i]mprove equity in mathematics learning opportunities,” “[e]mpower students to be active participants in a quantitative world,” and “[i]dentify K-12 mathematics pathways that support future success.”

Because most black students, for whatever reasons, are disproportionately underachieving in math, the state, in its bountiful compassion, is going to level everybody else down. You know what’s going to happen, then, right? The rich will be able to afford to take their kids out of public schools and put them into schools where they won’t be held back to the standards of the weakest students. The middle class and the poor are out of luck.

How is this justice? This kind of thing is advancing everywhere in this new America.

Now we learn that the Biden administration is planning to go big on pushing Critical Race Theory on all public schools in America. 

This neoracist ideology, which has become the dominant ideology among American elites and their institutions, is going to destroy the country. I honestly do not understand why writers like my friend David Brooks are not alarmed by this. I’m not kidding: Critical Race Theory is going to destroy America as we know it, as this Christopher Rufo explainer makes clear.

Bari Weiss, this blog, and others have been reporting on the very important fight going on in elite NYC public schools over the effects of critical race theory on the curricula there. Its important because whatever happens with the elites — the future power-holders in this country — is important. If you wanted to know what was going to be common on campuses nationwise in 2021, you would have done well to look at the Ivies a decade earlier. Allow me to quote from Live Not By Lies:

In our populist era, politicians and talk-radio polemicists can rile up a crowd by denouncing elites. Nevertheless, in most societies, intellectual and cultural elites determine its long-term direction. “[T]he key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks,” writes sociologist James Davison Hunter.  Though a revolutionary idea might emerge from the masses, says Hunter, “it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites” working through their “well-developed networks and powerful institutions.”

This is why it is critically important to keep an eye on intellectual discourse. Those who do not will leave the gates unguarded. As the Polish dissident and émigré Czesław Miłosz put it, “It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.”

Arendt warns that the twentieth-century totalitarian experience shows how a determined and skillful minority can come to rule over an indifferent and disengaged majority. In our time, most people regard the politically correct insanity of campus radicals as not worthy of attention. They mock them as “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors.”

This is a serious mistake. In radicalizing the broader class of elites, social justice warriors (SJWs) are playing a similar historic role to the Bolsheviks in prerevolutionary Russia. SJW ranks are full of middle-class, secular, educated young people wracked by guilt and anxiety over their own privilege, alienated from their own traditions, and desperate to identify with something, or someone, to give them a sense of wholeness and purpose. For them, the ideology of social justice—as defined not by church teaching but by critical theorists in the academy—functions as a pseudo-religion. Far from being confined to campuses and dry intellectual journals, SJW ideals are transforming elite institutions and networks of power and influence.

The social justice cultists of our day are pale imitations of Lenin and his fiery disciples. Aside from the ruthless antifa faction, they restrict their violence to words and bullying within bourgeois institutional contexts. They prefer to push around college administrators, professors, and white-collar professionals. Unlike the Bolsheviks, who were hardened revolutionaries, SJWs get their way not by shedding blood but by shedding tears.

Yet there are clear parallels—parallels that those who once lived under communism identify.

Like the early Bolsheviks, they are radically alienated from society. They too believe that justice depends on group identity, and that achieving justice means taking power away from the exploiters and handing it to the exploited.

Social justice cultists, like the first Bolsheviks, are intellectuals whose gospel is spread by intellectual agitation. It is a gospel that depends on awakening and inspiring hatred in the hearts of those it wishes to induce into revolutionary consciousness. This is why it matters immensely that they have established their base within universities, where they can indoctrinate in spiteful ideology those who will be going out to work in society’s institutions.

This is happening to us right now! And these radicals, in power in institutions and corporate suites, are advancing their illiberal revolution, within the formally liberal rules of our society. Amazon is deciding not to publish certain kinds of books — which is its right, but which is also illiberal. Publishers are withdrawing books based on certain unproven accusations against writers. Here in Budapest, I was discussing yesterday with some Hungarians the complaints from Hungarian liberals that the Orban government and its supporters monopolize the media and suppress dissenting views. While I have only been here a few days, and don’t yet know how much of that is true, I can say for sure that our own leading media, while not under any kind of government pressure, nevertheless absolutely and without apology marginalize views they dislike. Remember, the process that resulted ultimately in Bari Weiss resigning from the Times began when the paper refused to publish an op-ed from a US Senator whose view — that the National Guard should be called in to stop rioting — was shared by over half the American public. [UPDATE: A reader points out correctly that I got that wrong — that they published the op-ed, but it caused intense blowback in the newsroom, and ultimately the firing of James Bennet. — RD] If you are waiting to see op-eds  seriously opposing BLM, or transgender ideology, or anything else beloved of our ruling class, in our top newspapers, or if you are hoping for fair coverage of these issues from our major media, you are on serious drugs.

I hear all the time from college students telling me about how afraid they are to say what’s on their mind in their classes, for fear of being failed by their professors, or attacked by a mob of students. This has been going on for years; I have the receipts in my email in-box. Do you ever read about this in our mainstream media? Rarely, if ever. They only see what they want to see. This is all happening in an America that is formally liberal and democratic, but there’s nothing liberal and democratic about any of it.

This week we saw a white police officer shoot to death a black teenage girl who was in the process of trying to stab another black female. He saved the life of a black woman — and for that, he was denounced by the usual suspects as a racist killer, and one of the richest and most powerful athletes in the country, LeBron James, tweeted out the cop’s face and a threat. Why anybody would want to be a police officer in a country like ours is becoming, I have no idea. In the name of this utopian ideology, we are destroying our schools, and we are destroying the ability of the police to maintain law and order. Hannah Arendt, whom I quote in LNBL, said something similar happened in pre-totalitarian Germany and Russia:

The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.

And now we get to gender ideology. I won’t recap here the many cases to which I’ve drawn attention of American children being catechized in these malicious lies in schools. Yesterday I met a young Hungarian scholar, and talked to him briefly about the “Uncle Jay Should Move To Budapest” post, and how gender ideologues in schools are teaching American and Canadian kids to reject what their parents say, and to regard their parents as backward fools. His eyes widened, and he said, “I did my PhD thesis on how the first thing totalitarian regimes do to start gaining control is to insert themselves into the family, and began to separate children psychologically from parents.”

And now we learn that the US Postal Service has been monitoring social media posts of ordinary Americans, looking to root out “extremists.” Where are the Republicans on this? Too busy fighting opponents of the Iran deal to scrutinize a purge of domestic political opponents of the Left? Did you see that a Norfolk, Va., police officer was fired for the perfectly legal act of donating $25 to the defense fund of Kyle Rittenhouse? Madness.

Did you know that in one of Philadelphia’s poorest and worst schools, they’re teaching children to celebrate “black communism”? I kid you not. And now, as the invaluable Christopher Rufo has documented using whistleblower leaks, Philadelphia public schools are using George Floyd to further radicalize children:

The day after the Chauvin verdict, Philadelphia Public Schools teaches kindergarteners that “George Floyd was killed by a police officer” and that America is built on a “pyramid of hate” culminating in “genocide.”

The lesson plan, produced by Philadelphia’s Office of School Climate and Culture, instructs kindergarten through second grade teachers to encourage students to discuss “what happened to George Floyd and the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement.”

The teachers are told to share a “social story” presenting the case in racial terms: “George Floyd was killed by a police officer”; “Mr. Floyd was African American, the officer was white.” The lesson teaches that for years, “some police officers have hurt African Americans.”

Finally, the teachers are asked to discuss the “Pyramid of Hate” with the children as young as four years old, teaching that “our society” is built on “biased attitudes,” “systemic discrimination,” and “bias-motivated violence,” which can lead to “genocide.”

From the documents, this “Pyramid of Hate” designed by the ADL:

Read the fine print. We go from a “lack of self-reflection or awareness of privilege” to “cultural appropriation,” and ultimately to genocide. The clear implication is that if you don’t stamp out things at the base, you will eventually have genocide.

This is stone-cold ideological indoctrination designed to smear anybody who objects to left-wing radicalism as a potential génocidaire. This week, in the establishment publication Foreign Policy, an essay appeared calling for truth commissions and reparations in the wake of the George Floyd verdict.

I could go on.

It’s happening. It’s happening right now in America, and it’s accelerating. Contra David Brooks, though there are indeed some dark American hearts, the greater darkness is not in the hearts of Americans, but in the hearts of these proto-totalitarian elites who are transforming the country. When Brooks faults alarmists like me for failing to recognize that the way to achieve change is through the “conversation and compromise of politics” I feel that I’m being gaslit. Yes, I would very much like to discuss conversation and compromise — but this is not on offer from the illiberal left, and its establishment enablers. I don’t understand why Brooks and those like him can’t grasp how the things happening in the country look to so many of us. Talk to the left-liberals Bari Weiss, Bret Weinstein, and Heather Heying about “conversation and compromise of politics.” It scarcely exists. We are being demonized and driven out of our jobs and livelihoods, having our children propagandized by ideologues trying to separate them from their families and even their understanding of themselves as male or female, and being told that we are guilty of racist bigotry simply for believing in rewards for achievement — things that were common in America until the day before yesterday.

The reason I wrote Live Not By Lies is because people who grew up under communist totalitarianism could see all this coming, and have been trying to warn their fellow Americans. The book has become by far my biggest seller, despite the fact that, by contrast to The Benedict Option (also a big seller), it has received almost no mainstream media attention. I’m sure that there was no conspiracy to suppress attention to the book. It’s just that the idea that the United States is moving towards “soft totalitarianism” strikes people in the ruling class as crazy — this, despite the many examples I give in the book, and every week in this blog space. They cannot comprehend what’s actually happening in this country. Once again, I turn to Arendt, from The Origins of Totalitarianism (also quoted in Live Not By Lies):

There is a great temptation to explain away the intrinsically incredible by means of liberal rationalizations. In each one of us, there lurks such a liberal, wheedling us with the voice of common sense. The road to totalitarian domination leads through many intermediate stages for which we can find numerous analogues and precedents. . . . What common sense and “normal people” refuse to believe is that everything is possible.

This is how I read columns like David Brooks’s: as rationalizations to explain away the intrinsically incredible, but actually existing, state of affairs. Brooks duns the radical pessimism of the Right, but he doesn’t actually engage with why so many of us are radically pessimistic, and whether or not we have a right to be, considering the things we believe.

Again, part of my own despair is that at this point on the Right, we have the ever-useless Republican Party, and impotent and often crackpot rage of the fire-in-the-belly Trumpers, who give their minds over to dipshit conspiracies like QAnon, while their enemies, having marched through the institutions, are now marching outward, conquering everything. One problem is that good people like David Brooks want to defend liberal democracy, but liberal democracy is ceasing to exist, because even the liberals are now illiberal. The time to have defended liberal democracy is when the mobs were coming for professors like Nicholas and Erika Christakis at Yale. We are supposed to believe now, though, that what is now mainstream on the left — e.g., Biden’s coming push for mainstreaming Critical Race Theory in US public schools — is in any way classically liberal or democratic?

And when people get sick and tired of two standards of justice for people of different races, and get fed up with their children being told that the should hate themselves for being white, and that maybe, despite having man-parts, they might actually be female, and people start fighting back substantively — with public protests and legislation, not tweets and lib-owning commentaries — these same defenders of liberal democracy are going to wonder how on earth we got here.

In conversation with a politically aware Hungarian yesterday, I explained to him why I thought the totalitarianism coming into being in the US now is “soft” — because it presents itself in therapeutic terms, and because it is being carried out under cover of “liberal democracy.” He looked at me, cocked his brow, and said, “But you know, it won’t stay soft for long.”

No, it won’t. What I suspect will happen is that many of us on the Right will get sick and tired of being pushed like this, and some will react in destructive ways (e.g., January 6). This will give the state, and its allies in corporations, the justification they want to crack down hard.

That’s why we who are its targets had better refuse false hope, and prepare to hold out for the long run, while we still can. I hope that we can figure out some ways to put a stop to this, but at this point, in the first half of 2021, I seen nothing and no one on the horizon. We cannot afford to sit back and wait for a savior figure. One of the most important lessons the Right should have learned from the Trump administration is that performative anti-wokeness is useless.  You have to know how to use power to get things done.

Ultimately, though, our core problem is spiritual — and that’s not something that can be solved through politics. But that’s something for another post. Let me restate a Brooks passage:

The level of Republican pessimism is off the charts. A February Economist-YouGov poll asked Americans which statement is closest to their view: “It’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated” or “Our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves.” Over 75 percent of Biden voters chose “a big, beautiful world.” Two-thirds of Trump voters chose “our lives are threatened.”

For me, my personal challenge, as a man of the Right and as a Christian, is how to live through this:

It’s a big beautiful world, mostly full of good people, but our lives are threatened by a loss of God, and of a deep sense of the Good, and by technocratic, progressive ideologues who call Evil good, and who are forcing on us a world in which identifying the good and living faithfully to it is becoming more difficult. How can we resist this without surrendering to an Evil that promises falsely to help us?

I’ll leave you with a poem I read today, after looking up the name of the man whose image leads this page. It’s a statue in Budapest. Miklos Radnoti was one of the greatest Hungarian poets of the twentieth century. He was a Jew who converted to Catholicism, but who died in the Holocaust. His poetry was optimistic and full of life, until in the late 1930s, the shadow of totalitarianism over Europe changed him.

This is one of his final poems before his murder. What is so touching about it, at least to me, is how he draws attention to the details of the lives of those he loves and knows, and contrasts that with the abstraction they all become to the bomber pilot flying overhead. Radnoti was writing as a captive held by fascists in a war, but I would say that the ideological abstractions that led to the war are the same abstractions that are allowing the progressive ideologues to make culture war on a diverse country and a diverse people whom they don’t know, but certainly despise:

UPDATE:  A reader writes:

Neither Brooks nor French seems to have taken onboard the current institutional or legitimacy crisis. They still think the courts/civil society/civic norms will roll back and prevent the worst excesses. This reminds me of Spock’s inability to comprehend anything outside pure logic and drives home the challenges that we face in the actual here and now, not some idealized vision running on Reagan-era nostalgia.
You see this all the time in the “people won’t stand for this” comments when what actually happens is they go from the “respectable right” to the less respectable types. This phenomenon is currently occurring throughout the West largely because the establishment parties are unable or unwilling to stem the tide.
Sure. I know plenty of people who couldn’t stand Trump, but voted for him not because they thought he was the solution to anything, but because they figured at least he would put off their own destruction for a few years.




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