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Why Conservative Fusionism Was Destined to Disintegrate

We shouldn’t confuse soldiers sharing a foxhole for Siamese twins.
Politicon 2018 - Day 2

In his recent monologue about mob rule and cancel culture, Tucker Carlson made what seems like an uncontroversial claim: “No child is born evil.” Beyond setting Calvinists aflutter on Theology Twitter, however, Tucker’s assertion exposes why conservative fusionism was predestined to disintegrate.

Market-lovers, churchgoers, and commie-haters had plenty uniting them back in 1979. The Soviets threatened world annihilation, Jimmy Carter had us mired in stagflation, and the recently legalized abortion industry was cranking out record numbers of corpses. Leaders calling themselves fusionists, combining all three strains of conservatism, promised solutions.

But with success came divisions. In the 1990’s, having dispensed with the Soviet Union, neocons turned to Middle East nation-building. Christians became increasingly intolerable in a liberalizing and globalizing world. Multinational panjandrums shifted manufacturing overseas. The partners Frank Meyer once described as interdependent pillars began to realize they might have irreconcilable differences.

How could this be, when they’d been so good together? The traditionalists kept the individualists mindful of virtue, and the individualists kept the traditionalists alert for infringements on liberty. They needed each other, didn’t they?

Maybe not as much as we thought, because they weren’t so different after all. This was Jonah Goldberg’s claim a couple of years ago: “The libertarian individualists of the 1960s were more virtue-oriented than they appreciated. The traditionalists of the period were more concerned with freedom than they often let on. And many of the arguments about fusionism amounted to the sorts of squabbles we associate with the faculty lounge; they were so vicious because the stakes were so low.”

The real problem, in Goldberg’s view, is that the ignorant rabble displaced the intellectuals. Whereas before we had Brent Bozell intelligently disputing Frank Meyer, now we get Diamond & Silk starring at CPAC, while the leader of the GOP tweets murder rumors about one of his critics.

But whereas Goldberg roots conservatism’s demise in changes to technology and political party structure, in the spirit of originalism we might consider what American conservatism’s founders believed. It’s hard to find two early conservative thinkers more antagonistic toward one another than Harry Jaffa and Willmoore Kendall, yet they agreed political philosophy—and thereby political strategy—is fundamentally driven by beliefs about the nature of man.

“All societies,” wrote Kendall in Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, “think of themselves, once they begin to think of themselves at all, as representing a truth, a meaning, about the nature and destiny of man, and thus about that which, in the constitution of being, is above and beyond man.”

Jaffa, who otherwise sought to eviscerate Kendall in his extensive rebuttal of the aforementioned book, concurred on this point: “what men are by nature, that is, prior to civil society, determines what purposes civil society may rightfully serve.”

Writing before either of them, Richard Weaver made the same claim in the opening pages of Ideas Have Consequences, asserting that rejection of the transcendental had placed man at the center of things, thus leading to “the abandonment of the doctrine of original sin.” This in turn opened the door to all manner of progressive nonsense rooted in the fundamental belief that any flaws in man’s behavior are due to correctible social forces—a conviction Stalin embraced wholeheartedly. 

We can see how factions in today’s disintegrating conservative coalition differ on Tucker Carlson’s assertion, and how that disagreement drives them apart. For the individualists, be they libertarians, free-market globalization advocates, or just Creaster Republicans with business degrees, man is essentially pretty good, and will add all kinds of value to the GDP if government will only get out of his way. Cut taxes and regulation, keep oil prices low, and maybe even consider reducing our debt, and the country will do just fine.

To the neocons and their establishment DC heirs, man is as good or bad as his ideas. The Russkies got Marx, we got Madison, and therein lies all the difference. Use diplomacy or a smart bomb or a few thousand expendable young Marines to depose a guy clutching The Communist Manifesto, replace him with a guy who has The Federalist Papers stuffed into his back pocket, and that’s how you illuminate a darkened world one freedom beacon at a time.

To the traditionalists, meanwhile, if man is not born evil then he certainly comes out of the womb bent in that direction. His worst impulses must therefore be restrained, his virtue cultivated. What’s more, because original sin implies the existence of God, the aims society ought pursue, as Eric Voegelin argued, extend before the cradle and past the grave.

Historical conditions drove these disparate tribes together for a time, but we shouldn’t confuse soldiers sharing a foxhole for Siamese twins. Past policy divisions aside, just look at how their worldviews shape each tribe’s response to the coronavirus pandemic: To the market-lover, the economy’s health trumps the health of the vulnerable elderly. To the neocon, it’s time to go toe-to-toe with China. The traditionalists, meanwhile, are concerned less about the financial survival of Tysons and Smithfield Foods than with keeping local institutions open, because optimizing lifespan or the national GDP is less important than giving people regular work, community engagement, and communion with God.

Rumbling beneath the break-up on the American right is the echo of the question Tucker hinted at: What is man? Friends and allies can certainly disagree about the answer, but sooner or later they’re going to want different foxholes. And eventually they’re going to train their guns on each other.

Tony Woodlief is a writer who lives in North Carolina.



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