Much has been written recently about what passes for American “conservatism” and its relationship to the events of the past presidential campaign and the presidency of Donald Trump. The Spring 2017 issue of the “conservative review,” Modern Age, arrived in my mail box recently, and the issue is titled, “Conservatism in the Year of Trump.” The writers examine the present state of movement conservatism and the prospects for the movement during the Trump presidency.
A word of information for those who don’t know that quarterly: it was founded back in the late 1950s by Dr. Russell Kirk, who was one of the intellectual founders of the so-called “Conservative Movement” that developed in the 1950s. I knew Dr. Kirk as a friend from 1967 until his death in 1994; and I served as his assistant during 1970-1971, in between grad schools. I consider him a mentor.
Kirk was, by general estimation, a “traditionalist,” and his conservatism, most clearly summarized at the beginning of his seminal volume, The Conservative Mind (1953), and then in more detail in A Program for Conservatives (1954), offered a largely philosophical, even literary, vision of Anglo-American conservatism. It was a vision that incorporated the ideas of the Founders like John Adams, of Southerners like John Randolph and John C. Calhoun, of antebellum Northern Democrats (and Catholics), like Orestes Brownson, and, in the twentieth century, of figures like Senator Robert Taft and the Southern Agrarians. The conservatism that Kirk described was anti-globalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-egalitarian; it was rooted in families and in historic and regional communities where hierarchy, religious faith, and tradition were deeply embedded and respected.
In early issues of Modern Age (I began my subscription while in high school in the 1960s!), the journal featured a whole number dedicated to and in defense of the traditional South, and it did not shy away from critiques of “imperial America,” dissenting from the mania for “civil rights,” and skewering the demonstrably false premise that the United States (in particular, using the Declaration of Independence) was founded on the idea of across-the-board equality. Indeed, University of Dallas Professor Mel Bradford authored a seminal study, “The Heresy of Equality,” in the Winter 1976 issue of Modern Age, which formed part of a long-running debate with Leo Strauss advocate Dr. Harry Jaffa (Claremont College) about the nature of the American Founding.
That “older Conservatism” or “traditional Conservatism”—the conservatism that intellects like Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Bradford, and others exposited and wrote about, and, in many ways, exemplified—that older conservatism has now been displaced and, essentially, exiled by “Neoconservatives.”
This process of displacement and sometimes brutal expulsion of the older traditional Right from the “movement” has witnessed, concomitantly, the almost total triumph of Neocon ideas that are antithetical to the vision of a Kirk or even of a William F. Buckley of the older 1960s National Review. Positions that were once considered mainstream on the Right back then, are now excommunicated and condemned by so-called “conservative” spokesmen and pundits in their pulpits on Fox News, at The Weekly Standard, National Review, Wall Street Journal, and at various “conservative” think tanks as “racist,” “bigoted,” “homophobic,” “anti-semitic,” and “reactionary.” Neocon views on such issues as “open border” immigration, same sex marriage, the homosexual lifestyle, across-the-board equality (and thus approval of “moderate” feminism), the almost frenzied imposition of “liberal democracy” on every God-forsaken desert oasis in the world, universal free trade (despite its effects on native industry and American workers), and the expansion of “civil rights,” differ only in degree from those of their supposed opponents on the far left.
As I leafed through the current issue of Modern Age, this newer template was in evidence. “Conservatism in the Year of Trump” offers essays on how “Conservatism, Inc.” might approach and deal with President Trump, who is caricatured by some of the writers as a populist demagogue and an uncouth barbarian. The most notable example of this comes in the essay on fusionism by Samuel Goldman who accuses President Trump of a kind of “cesarism.” (p.74) Yet, even among these academic writers, there is an admission that something very dramatic and serious has taken place, not only affecting the “movement,” but also in the nation at large among millions of American citizens who have been “alienated” by the fierce attacks and social dislocations of modern mass culture (Yuval Levin).
The most interesting contribution comes from author Patrick Deneen, whose essay, “The Ghost of Conservatism” (pp. 23-32), is a requiem for a movement that he pronounces to be dead, and that, in fact, he maintains was more or less stillborn from the beginning…even though its authors did not recognize that fact. Deneen traces the permutations of the “movement,” rightfully documenting the “three legged” strategy of William F. Buckley, originally attempting to mold together Kirkian social conservatism/traditionalism (Southern conservatives, traditional Catholics and Evangelicals, Old Rightists), libertarianism (those concentrating on economic question), and fierce anticommunism, into something coherent. He also recounts the various purges—expelling John Birchers, eventually showing the door to Southerners, and exiling traditionalist Catholics, including Buckley’s brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, who charged that the conservatism Buckley helped cobble together basically only served to conserve American liberalism.
The latest example of this was the virulent excommunication by National Review [NR] of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign and the various NeverTrump attacks by “movement” voices at The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal.
Although not specifically mentioned by Deneen, two events altered forever the fragile, older conservative movement: the fall of Communism and the Soviet Union, and the sometimes brutal take-over of conservatism’s power structures by those Neocon emigrants from the Marxist Left. As the Neocons gained near complete dominance in the 1990s and the permutations continued, the “movement” lost the connections it had to “middle America,” to those old “Reagan Democrats” that had initially been attracted to Ronald Reagan, and to those that Samuel Francis called “Middle American Radicals.” The “movement” became mostly part of the Inside-the-Beltway Establishment, a kind of “conservative wing” of the Deep State. NR writer, Kevin Williamson, even heaped scorn on Trump-voting Middle Americans, the conservative heartland traditionalists, who were still God-fearing and who struggled to make ends meet in the face of the decomposing effects of anti-human mass culture. If they wanted “real opportunity,” he crowed, then “they need a U-Haul” and to leave that wretched fly-over country between the sophisticates in New York and San Francisco! (p. 31)
Deneen is correct that it was Donald Trump who (re)connected with those folks, the “deplorables,” and in so doing he handily demolished sixteen establishment conservative candidates.
It is increasingly apparent that a “new dogmatism” rules our language, circumscribes what we are permitted to say, and defines what is politically-correct (and incorrect). Both in our politics and in our culture there are mostly unwritten but still iron clad rules that regulate speech and, eventually, thought. Unlike the traditional conservative Russell Kirk, or the “neo-Confederate” Southerner Mel Bradford, or the brilliant Rightist Paul Gottfried—men who have understood that there could be no real conservatism, no real preservation of our constitutional republic, no real moral culture, without challenging and reversing the Progressivist narrative and its very mode of presentation—the Inside-the-Beltway “conservative movement,” ruled by Neocon elites and their journals and think tanks, fully accept the linguistic straight jacket of the Left and in many ways solemnize and confirm it in their everyday expositions and actions. That praxis is directly related to their philosophical origin on the Marxist and Trotskyite Left, and their carry-over of not just a Leftist vocabulary on such subjects as “rights” and “isms,” but in how they end up in far too many cases, paralleling the thought of those further on the Left.
The results are, to put it mildly, disastrous for anyone desirous of a real restoration, to “make America great again.” What does my house painter neighbor who only works part-time now due to undercutting by illegal labor, who is under water with his mortgage, who attends church every Sunday, who tries desperately to keep his family together against the onslaught of mass decadent culture—what does he think of a “movement” with spokesmen like Kevin Williamson?
That is why President Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamps” in Washington and to reverse the policies not only of an Obama, but also, in many areas, of a George Bush and the Establishment Republicans in Congress, was interpreted by millions of frustrated Americans as a fresh breath of air, a sign of hope in what appeared an intractable and nearly hopeless national situation.
And that is why various writers on the traditional Right (e.g., Pat Buchanan, Paul Gottfried, Jack Kerwick, and others) have become justifiably concerned about some of the advisors and appointees who now surround the president, and, indeed, some of the actions—most notably in foreign policy—the administration has taken.
Certainly, there are executive orders President Trump has issued that could be applauded. Bluster, warnings, and cancellations on trade issues, on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and on NAFTA, may have their place in international politics and hard-nosed negotiation—but only as long as the original and essential positions are not abandoned.
And, thus, it is entirely proper to remind the administration of its enunciated agenda, for, as the late Phyllis Schlafly pointed out in her last book (published the day after she passed away),The Conservative Case For Trump, the issues that candidate Trump addressed in 2016 and the positions he advocated as his agenda—despite the howls of outrage from the “movement” and the “Never Trumpism” from the Neocons—were much closer to an older, original conservatism of Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Samuel Francis, and even of a Barry Goldwater back in 1964, than to the globalist egalitarianism and liberal democracy hawked by the Neocon Beltway “Conservatism Inc.” elites now clambering to get back into the White House.
Despite his background and his manner, candidate Donald Trump represented, at times in spite of himself, a rejection of the Neocon narrative and an admittedly rough-hewn retrieval of an older, America First, conservatism, which on a different level, Russell Kirk also advanced. (Recall that Kirk was chairman of Pat Buchanan’s 1992 campaign in Michigan.)
That was the hope of millions in 2016, even if probably most, down deep, knew that it was a roll of the dice whether much of that agenda could be implemented in the Washington DC “swamp.” But it was a chance that had to be taken, that was required if there was to be any hope of reversing the continuing plunge of this nation, like the Gadarene Swine, into the defecated abyss of decline and decay, and the total triumph of the globalist Deep State.
But after the miracle of November 8, the harder task—and it was always going to be harder—was “winning the victory.” It was there, in that post-November glow, that the real battle for the agenda has been waged. And thus far, the results are a mixed bag, but with serious warning signs that, to quote Wellington at Waterloo, “the same old formations engage in the same old tactics.”
And that is not what most Trump voters voted for. The Deep State Establishment with its many enticements remains dominant, and only expelling it will suffice. And that is a monumental task.