Conservatism Inc.’s mouthpieces (“conservative intellectuals”—Rich Lowry?!!!) have made a last-ditch effort in National Review to frame the battle against Trump as a conflict between unprincipled “populism” and principled “conservatism” [Donald Trump or Ted Cruz? Republicans Argue Over Who Is Greater Threat, by Jonathan Martin, New York Times, January 21, 2016]. You won’t hear this from us often, but Salon has a pretty good demolition job. The bottom line: the late Samuel T. Francis has been redeemed.
It was nothing less than historic when talk radio titan Rush Limbaugh respectfully quoted Sam Francis on January 20, saying he was “undeservedly smeared” as a white supremacist. Limbaugh claimed “populism” and “nationalism” have overcome “conservatism” in terms of popularity and that Donald Trump is building a new kind of coalition on the American Right [Nationalism Trumps Conservatism Says Limbaugh, WND, January 20, 2016]
Significantly, rather than falling back on lame slogans about how “true conservatives” need to stamp out this rebellion, Limbaugh actually sought to understand why it is happening, turning to Sam Francis’s discussion of the Pat Buchanan insurgency in a 1996 Chronicles article, From Household To Nation. And Limbaugh used Francis’s analysis to attack a GOP Establishment that he charged does not understand its own voters.
Limbaugh argued ordinary conservative voters aren’t “wonks” who are “dyed-in-the-wool conservative theoreticians absorbed in such things as the free market and all these other bells and whistles.” Instead, they’re attracted to someone willing to actually confront and defeat the Left, after years of what voters see as continuous retreat in Washington DC.
Perhaps most importantly, Limbaugh specifically identified the refusal of the GOP to do anything about Open Borders as the catalyst for voters’ anger. [Understanding Trump’s appeal, Rush Limbaugh, January 20, 2016]
Limbaugh cited Michael Brendan Dougherty’s influential article How an obscure advisor to Pat Buchanan predicted the wild Trump campaign in 1996 [The Week,January 19, 2016]. Dougherty’s virtue-signaling about “race-obsessed ‘alt-right’ nationalists” is worth enduring for his accurate analysis that the late lamented Conservative Movement is now largely “worthless” when it comes to protecting the interests of its constituents and “what so frightens the conservative movement about Trump’s success is that he reveals just how thin the support for their ideas really is.”
Of course, it is dangerous to base large political theories around Trump because he is such a singular personality. A charismatic billionaire who has spent decades crafting a wildly popular brand is going to attract support no matter what.
But despite Trump’s sui generis nature, his success confirms a more general point: Republican voters don’t vote for the GOP because of goofy rhetoric about enterprise zones and Social Security reform, but despite it.
And, notwithstanding increasingly shrill predictions by the pundits, there’s no sign Trump is slowing down. A new poll shows Trump with an eleven point over Ted Cruz lead only days before the critical Iowa caucus [Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders hold solid leads in Iowa, CNN/ORC poll finds, by Tal Kopan, CNN, January 21, 2016]. More worrisome for the Beltway Right, Trump can survive a narrow defeat in Iowa, whereas it is unclear Cruz can.
The “populism” now denounced by National Review isn’t an ideology. It’s a tactic. And it’s a tactic Conservatism Inc. has been quite willing to use—and still is.
Ted Cruz, who is now calling Donald Trump a phony conservative, has spent the entire campaign up to this point praising Trump and copying his positions as he tried to win over his voters. Even the faux Flyover Country shtick of his #NewYorkValues campaign is a clumsy attempt to transform an East Coast corporate lawyer into some kind of corn-fed son of the soil. As Diana West acidly observed, Cruz also reversed his “internationalist” positions on trade, H1-B visas and refugees in order to position himself as a faux nationalist. [Cruz v. Trump I, Diana West, January 20, 2016]
More broadly, the entire Establishment Conservative Movement can be defined as the attempt to exploit cornpone revulsion from “New York Values” while accepting the money and serving the interests of New York City financiers. Who can forget Tea Party “leader” Dick Armey wearing a cowboy hat and claiming to speak for Middle America while he privately lobbied for more immigration and mocked the “Bubba vote?” [Armey `Bubba vote` to hurt Obama, by Richard Wolf and Martha T. Moore, USA Today, September 3, 2008]
There’s an unreality in people like Mark Levin screeching that Trump is some dire threat to “liberty” [Levin: Agrarian National Populism Not Conservative, by Jeff Poor, Breitbart, January 21, 2016]. Besides his implicit criticism of Trump’s supporters as “morons,” Levin has never actually done anything to limit the size of the state. Indeed, judging by the history of the postwar American Right, “liberty” is simply a more flowery term for “upper-class tax cuts.”
Besides, populism, if it means anything, refers to the creation of a mass movement of regular people directed against a hostile elite. Conservatism Inc. relies on such posturing. Conservative railing against the “liberal elite” is such a standard tactic it doesn’t even bear notice.
Trump is different, because he actually seems willing to defend the concrete interests of his supporters—not just offer the same slogans.
But though Limbaugh seems to understand Trump has created something new, even he doesn’t fully realize what’s happening. Besides Francis, he also credited Angelo Codevilla and his 2010 American Spectator article on the Rise of the Ruling Class as anticipating Trump. Codevilla’s thesis does resemble a dumbed-down version of Francis’s work, as he explains the machinations of a “ruling class” with a uniform ideology operating through the state. But Codevilla, who supports mass immigration, also refuses to identify international capitalism as one of the forces breaking down Middle American communities.
Ultimately, there’s a difference of substance as well as tone between Codevilla’s pro-forma opposition to a statist “ruling class” and Francis’s deeper analysis that international capitalism is sometimes the more dangerous enemy of tradition and authentic conservatism [Capitalism, The Enemy, by Sam Francis, Chronicles, August 2000, republished online at Radix Journal, July 3, 2015].
Something tells me this is the bridge Rush Limbaugh will never cross.
The truth is that Trump’s triumph is a victory of substance, not just style. For decades, the Conservative Movement has tried a kind of halfway populism, to convince struggling Middle Americans to support an internationalist agenda of mass immigration, foreign wars, cuts to programs like Medicare and Social Security, and economic globalization. Because the overt hatred of the Left is so strong, many white Americans felt they had no choice but to vote for Republicans—or simply stay home if offered candidates like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.
Ted Cruz’s strategy is premised upon being a “true conservative” as opposed to the “populist” Trump. Having moved to the right on immigration, Cruz and his apologists within the conservative movement are now pushing Cruz’s opposition to “crony capitalism” as a way to create space between him and Trump. [Trump’s support for Ethanol is bad for taxpayers and their cars, by Jillian Kay Melchior,National Review, January 21, 2016].
But just as with the Conservatism Inc. obsession with the Export-Import Bank, it’s impossible to take such concerns seriously.
- First: such issues simply are not important compared to existential questions such as immigration and sovereignty, where there are serious doubts about Cruz’s priorities. As Rush Limbaugh said, most Americans are not “wonks.”
- Second: as Francis explained in Household to Nation, many Americans benefit from government programs. Dogmatically opposing these programs in the name of “limited government” may appeal to nonprofit employees, in DC but normal Americans will not understand why their own livelihoods should be endangered on behalf of ideological abstractions promoted by eccentric billionaires.
- Third: even “true conservatives” like Cruz favor government intervention in the economy when it comes to their preferred programs. Witness Cruz’s enthusiastic support for the Keystone Pipeline, which requires extensive use of that other Movement Conservative bugaboo, Eminent Domain. And this has not gone unnoticed by the Left [Jon Stewart rips Republicans for hypocritical position on eminent domain, by Greg Gilman, The Wrap, November 21, 2015]
If “conservatism” is defined as the protection of the national community, Trump is more of a “conservative” than Cruz. Cruz is more “conservative” only if we define that ideology as a rhetorical obsession with wonkish economic issues and totemistic phrases such as “limited government.”
As such invocations never seem to amount to anything anyway, it may be “conservatism” which is the empty politics of style, not Trump’s sinewy nationalism.
But there is one legitimate point to Conservatism Inc.’s kvetching. With the Sarah Palin/Donald Trump alliance, implicit white identity politics is now a real force in American politics. But the intellectual backing for such a project can only be found in the Alternative (John Derbyshire prefers “Dissident”) Right. And more than any other figure, Sam Francis provided the vocabulary, analysis and strategy for dismantling the current order.
If Trump can achieve a political triumph, it will surely speed Francis’s postmortem intellectual one.
Somewhere in Valhalla, Samuel T. Francis is smiling. Because it’s not illegal immigrants who are going to be coming out of the shadows. It’s us.
James Kirkpatrick [Email him] is a Beltway veteran and a refugee from Conservatism Inc.