There was a time — not long ago, in fact — when Republicans could claim to be the party of ideas. This was not altogether untrue. It describes my college experience in the early aughts, for example, where I learned that talking about texts and ideas with many of my liberal professors and fellow students often amounted to navigating the conceptual spaces among pieties — questions could be raised, but not all answers could be given. Intellectual pursuits were in some sense bracketed by larger moral and political commitments to things like tolerance and consent, and these commitments had a way of reasserting themselves throughout a conversation. My conservative interlocutors, however, negotiated pieties, weighed them against each other, measured them up by the light of the great minds of the past.[1]

This was exciting. Without making any broad pronouncements about conservatism as an ideology or a movement, I can report that, from the perspective of a student, the whole thing was pretty glamorous. Its trappings were many: long nights in the library with musty old books; conversations across the ages with minds enigmatic and slow to reveal themselves; big, fat truths about beauty and love and politics — truths that would only disclose themselves to those curious and clever enough to unlock them. More than this, conservatism offered an aesthetic: it was Buckley’s affected charm; it was righteous war against communism; it was speaking French, having some Latin, reciting snatches of Shakespeare and Donne over drinks. Conservatism offered wisdom, refinement, and culture, in other words, and the chance to take pride in being as smart as one could be. I never called myself a conservative, but I subscribed to the newsletter.

But then came Fox News, and then came the war; soon after, Obama, and, finally, Trump. American conservatism moved on. Those time-worn clips of Buckley on Firing Line might as well be painted on the side of Grecian urns.

The Turn Towards Trump

Post-Trump American conservatism is unrecognizable from its previous self; it is no longer an intellectual movement; and those whose views would’ve been categorized as “conservative” as recently as twenty years ought to denounce and actively oppose the contemporary American right. This is far too much to demonstrate in the limited space I have here, so I’ll try to be economical. I’ll confine my comments to Michael Anton’s pre-election Trumpist manifesto, “The Flight 93 Election,” published in The Claremont Review of Books under the nom de plume Publius Decius Mus.

Unfair, you say. Anton’s hardly mainstream, and the piece was widely denounced by prominent conservative voices. Indeed, it takes aim at precisely those “establishment” voices. Yet there are several good reasons to take Anton’s piece as representative of a new — and still coalescing — conservative orthodoxy.[2] The first is that the “Flight 93” essay catapulted Anton from his academic home at the Claremont Institute into the Trump White House (as Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications); if the relationship between American conservative intellectuals and the Republican Party has always been essentially symbiotic, and Anton is the first notable conservative intellectual to achieve symbiosis with the party of Trump, then we should expect more to follow.[3] More importantly, however, I see no reason to think that the positions held by Anton in the “Flight 93” piece aren’t held by most conservative intellectuals of influence. Many of those who responded — some quite vociferously — disputed Anton’s views of this election, rather than his views of the political landscape more broadly. When the piece emerged, a Trump victory seemed unlikely; better to pass on Trump, Anton’s detractors wagered, and regroup for 2020 after the populist fever subsides. But few if any rejected categorically the basic ideas that animate Anton’s Trumpist appeal; indeed, while Anton’s positions in “Flight 93” are extreme, they’re pretty familiar considering.

No one would accuse “Flight 93” of subtlety. Election 2016 was, in Anton’s telling, a “Flight 93” scenario — to sit idly as Hillary Clinton assumes the presidency is to remain in your seat as terrorists crash this thing into the Capitol.  Rush the cockpit and vote for Trump, on the other hand, and there’s at least a chance you’ll steer this thing safely to Pittsburgh. Or, to “compound the metaphor,” a vote for Clinton “is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto…with Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”[5] One might object to the inelegance of these opening lines, but one can forgive a certain coarseness if the situation calls for it — Buckley, after all, famously threatened to “sock” Gore Vidal “in the goddamn face” (on live national television, no less).[6] And if the idea here is to spur the dormant right to action, well — who was it that said philosophers too often seek to interpret the world, when the point is to change it?

But the essay that follows only confirms the initial impression: there are painfully few arguments here, no subtle workings that undergird the histrionic facade. Indeed, for an essay that purportedly blazed the Trumpist trail for wallflower conservatives to follow, it’s awfully familiar. There’s the tendency to list, in a sort of chatty way free from the spiritually taxing presence of facts, good things that are getting worse — typically some combination of communities, sexual mores, and schools; the tendency to pin this worsening on a seedy mob of lowlifes headed, in this case, by Hillary; and some catty sniping at “beltway” conservatives — Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, for example — who are, in that timeless formulation, only conservative enough to get invited to the right cocktail parties. Throw in some paint-by-numbers Straussianism (observe: virtù, mystic chords, thymos, and that ridiculous pseudonym)  for those clinging to their dignity, and add some working-class colloquialisms to match the key of conservatism’s new folksy tune (“A Hillary presidency will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire Progressive-left agenda”!!), and what you’re left with is a hot mess. It might be read, verbatim, on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show — with pauses only long enough for Rush to insist that this, dear listener, is what he’s been saying all along.[7]

A Quagmire of Cliché and Gestures

Lionel Trilling’s famous barb — that American conservatism expressed itself “in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” — was altogether incorrect when he made it in 1950; but, if “Flight 93” is any indication, we’re getting there. “Irritable gesturing” is an almost comically accurate description of what Anton performs in these pages. The piece has no ideas; it has what might charitably be called “themes.”

In the first place, Anton wants conservatives to wake up to the fact that they are, sadly, losers — that they’ve been “losing consistently since 1988.” Conservatives — especially the “fearful, beaten dogs” who leave the beltway only long enough to attend Davos mixers — are the “Washington Generals” of the political leagues, so used to losing they don’t even remember how to win. It’s hard to overstate just how bad things have gotten within “Conservatism, Inc.” — an enterprise that “reeks of failure.” Little wonder, then, that Anton sees such promise in Trump, who promises to “win,” to “win big,” to win so relentlessly, so vastly , that we shall all be near-collapse, so very “tired of winning.”[8]

You’d be forgiven if, after reading Anton’s tale of woe, you momentarily forgot that the Republican Party is currently faring pretty well. They hold the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress, as well as a majority on the Supreme Court; they hold a 32-12 state legislature advantage over Democrats, as well as a 33-16 advantage in governorships.[9] Where I live in South Carolina, there is not currently, at any level of government, a jurisdiction I fall under that isn’t held by Republicans. Partisan self-identification among Republicans remains a little lower than the Democratic side, but it’s stable and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. The dynamics of the American electoral system will keep them rich in seats no matter how badly they screw it up. In other words, it simply isn’t the case that conservatives aren’t “winning” — in fact, it’s the opposite: they’re winning, winning disproportionately, winning seemingly in spite of themselves.

Ah, but, see, Anton doesn’t count all that as winning. Anton, it seems, falls into that category of anti-establishment conservative — the kind of anti-establishment, swamp-draining conservative that spent the last few decades writing speeches for Rudy Giuliani and the Bush National Security Council, managing the Wall Street investment firm BlackRock, teaching at a tiny elite college in San Bernardino County, and writing books on men’s fashion ; you know, a real country mouse. But conservatives (but not only conservatives) never exhaust the outsider gambit. If you were going to write a movie featuring a disgraced former Speaker of the House leveraging anti-establishment fervor to get back into the game, and you gave him the slogan “Drain the Swamp!”, you wouldn’t have the cheek to name him “Newt.”

But that’s somewhat beside the point. Anton has moved beyond conventional politics. He recites some typical grievances, but his heart isn’t in it: “Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system…” Many of these are just straightforwardly false — average effective tax rates haven’t changed much in thirty years; crime rates are way down; our education system is arguably stagnant but hardly “disastrously awful” — and the others can’t be put in their proper context without remembering that Americans are, as a matter of fact, wealthier, smarter, and safer than they ever have been; that church attendance rates have been pretty sticky over the past eighty years; that divorce rates have begun to decline after the no-fault explosion; that teen pregnancy is at historic lows; that abortion rates are nearing 1973 levels. Some things are getting worse, yes, but other things are getting better.

But, to be crystal clear about this, Anton is not interested in diagnosing the causes of rising opioid abuse or developing policies to address startlingly high levels of out-of-wedlock births. That is the Lilliputian world of the Douthats and Salams, where victory hinges on “another policy journal, another article about welfare reform, another half-day seminar on limited government, another tax credit proposal.” Wonks worry about issues; wonks  labor over reforms. These things aren’t “fundamental”; they don’t get “to the heart of our problems.”[10] That problem can’t be articulated through regressions and white papers; that problem is basic in nature and civilizational in scope.  Conservatives must be willing “to entertain the possibility that America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad,” that we are “headed off a cliff.” To paraphrase Strauss: Anton’s conservatives aren’t even Neronian, since they do not know that they fiddle, and they do not know that Rome burns.

Conservative Repudiation

Crisis isn’t new to conservative thought. Burke penned his Reflections under the threat of revolutionary fervor making its way across the channel; Tocqueville, too, wrote “under the impulse of a kind of religious dread” of the advancing democratic age: the “effort to halt democracy appears as a fight against God Himself, and nations have no alternative but to acquiesce in the social state imposed by Providence.” This “acquiescence” has always been the proper mission of conservatism: if change is coming (and it is), how can we change well? The conservatism of e.g. Burke, Tocqueville, and Oakeshott is largely a how rather than a why — its orientation towards the modern world is, in a phrase Roger Scruton uses in describing T. S. Eliot’s thought, “one not of repudiation but of reconciliation.”

But that’s just what a cuck would say. Anton’s not going gentle into the good night; he knows his enemy and he’s steeling himself to charge the cockpit. What, then, is the nature of our crisis? Well, that’s easy — so easy that it hardly needs to be articulated. What plagues us isn’t something so irresistible or foreboding as democracy or capitalism or the age of equality. Oh no, it’s just “the Left.”  Anton rages against “our left-liberal present reality and future direction [which] is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society”; he pronounces “the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism”; the Left is that against which “we’ve been losing ground for at least a century,” a veritable “tsunami of leftism that…engulfs our every—literal and figurative—shore…[that has] receded not a bit but indeed has grown.”

But who exactly is responsible for this tsunami? Again, Anton has little time here for details or distinctions. We’ve got references to globalists like Clinton and Merkel, but mostly it’s the usual gang of cultural subversives — those who “dream up inanities like 32 ‘genders,’ elective bathrooms, single-payer, Iran sycophancy, ‘Islamophobia,’ and Black Lives Matter,” those who wage “wars on ‘cis-genderism’…and on the supposed ‘white privilege’ of broke hillbillies.” In the holy culture wars, the “deck is stacked overwhelmingly against us” — conservatives are besieged by an “overwhelmingly partisan and biased” intelligentsia, by the university system and the media, “wholly corrupt and wholly opposed to everything we want, and increasingly even to our existence.”

Again, this is fairly conventional cultural politics—the kind of thing you’d hear on conservative talk radio any day of the week. What’s remarkable, however, is the extent to which cultural politics have utterly crowded out the actual politics of conservatism. When Anton warns that a Clinton presidency would bring about things “few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments” — “a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent hitherto seen in the supposedly liberal West only in the most ‘advanced’ Scandinavian countries and the most leftist corners of Germany and England” — a reasonable person would expect this persecution to be carried out by someone other than “the mainstream media,” the “Davoisie’s social media enablers,” and “Social Justice Warriors.” This is a rare and fortunate species of persecution — the kind you can escape by logging off Twitter for the afternoon.

But Anton’s cultural politics are completely in step with what currently passes for American conservatism. They are, in the first place, the cultural politics of ressentiment. Absent is any positive doctrine, any specific body of institutions or principles, any of Matthew Arnold’s “sweetness and light.”[11] In place of such things, the Antonites sound their barbaric nope — nope to the universities filled with po-mo academese; nope to the mainstream media and its fake narratives; nope to the coastal elites, with their multi-culti palettes and their gay weddings: nope, nope, nope.

The nope is not without its appeal. The nope has always served those conservatives that respond to Buckley’s famous urging to “stand athwart history and yell Stop,” and it proved politically useful in courting the Christian right, who often understand themselves as a people and a culture apart from and resistant to the slow pull of secular society. The nope has also proven politically useful in courting those who are often described as being “left behind” — for those left behind by globalization, by the rapid cultural shifts of the internet age, by automation and the incredible surge in higher education enrollments, the nope is a lifeline. So powerful and gratifying is the nope that we now conjure new and ever-more-outlandish revolutions to turn away: how about if we adopt Sharia law? Nope. What if we go ahead and ban the American flag? Nope. How about we get rid of Christmas? How about nope.

At some point, the cultural politics of nope stopped being the appetizer and became the main course. Republican politicians run, not on doing, but on undoing; they promise to “repeal,” “rein in,” “scale back,” “overturn,” and otherwise unmake whatever unpleasant things you think have been happening. It is a politics of reaction, and the Antons of the world provide the reactionary cultural framework to fill out the canvas. The Decline of American Greatness is a kind of post-lapsarian narrative with incredible explanatory power: we are locked in a Manichean struggle with our progressive Enemy who seeks to deceive us at every turn, to corrupt our way of life, and who gains ground with every passing day. This enemy deploys what Anton refers to here as “The Megaphone” — the ubiquitous drone of progressive cultural politics, which, despite your best efforts, seeps into your news, into your television programming, into your children’s schools.

It is in railing against The Megaphone that Anton and our conservatives come well and truly unhinged. The Megaphone drowns out everything; against it, the “conservative media is…barely a whisper.” The Megaphone — wielded, of course, by a sentient entity called The Left — is the force that binds together the New York Times, Beyoncé, and Starbucks; it’s Meryl Streep reading Betty Friedan to Brian Williams in a Nordstrom’s non-gender bathroom. Anton talking about the Megaphone always reminds one of Marcuse talking about “the Establishment” — it is the insensible ideological thread that stitches together a tyrannical reality, a reality that can be unmade by, in Marcuse’s words, “The Great Refusal.”  That’s not bad, but “The Great Nope” is punchier.

Contemporary Conservatism’s One Idea

 Perhaps I’m being unfair. To say Anton and those like him have no ideas is not entirely true — they have, at this moment in time, approximately one idea, and it is arguably a pretty big one. That idea, of course, is nativism. If Trump is a mix of Claremont conservatives, suburban soccer moms, and the Rust-Belt working class, then anti-immigration is the straw that stirs the drink.

Of course, even here Anton wants to cast his big idea as a reaction to the Megaphone. “The sacredness of mass immigration,” he claims, inexplicably, “is the mystic chord that unites America’s ruling and intellectual classes.” To call this notion anything but delusional would belabor the point. To jar these mystic chords, he offers “Trumpism”: “secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy.” More nope: “no more importing poverty, crime, and alien cultures”; no more “institutions, by leftist design, not merely abysmal at assimilation but abhorrent of the concept”; no more “invade the world, invite the world.” To point out that Clinton, Bush II, and Obama were enthusiastic deporters; to point out that net Mexican immigration is currently negative; to point out that openness to “mass immigration” is one of the few stories Americans can still proudly tell about themselves; to mention any of these things is useless and, one must realize, quite beside the point.

Anton’s rhetoric here shares much with the sort of talk that now emerges, with alarming frequency, from those currently in favor on the American right. To seize nativist attention, “immigration” is good, but “mass immigration” is better. It’s why Trump peppered his ads with images of dark-looking people pouring over the border.[12] It’s why he consistently pretended that Clinton supported “open borders” and the destruction of national boundaries. It’s why Trump chose to brand his campaign with a simple, powerful image: a giant wall.

It’s because, before you can cash in politically on nativism, you’ve got to prime and stoke nativist fears. You have to redescribe immigration as — well, as “invasion,” to quote Steve Bannon. How else to explain the sudden outbreak of fandom for a little-known 1973 novel, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints? What used to swim only in the fever swamps of Breitbart has now slithered out in order to be glowingly featured in The Federalist, slowly and deliberately recommended by a sitting member of the House,[13] and cited repeatedly by the White House Chief Strategist as a book capable of explaining the current state of the world.

To be crystal clear: The Camp of the Saints is one of the most disgusting things you will ever read. It is not just racist; it is unbelievably, jaw-droppingly racist. It is morally repugnant in ways you’ve never imagined. It is The Turner Diaries for nativists, and it’s being bandied about by mainstream conservatives as a reasonable and even profound way of looking at non-Western populations.[14]

Now, to be clear, Anton makes no mention whatsoever of Raspail. But he captures some of the stench of this swamp when he, for example, describes America’s moderate immigration record as — direct quotation here — “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty”; or when he recasts traditionally lukewarm conservative support for immigration as a full-throated call for “more, more, more!” — “no matter how many elections they lose, how many districts tip forever blue, how rarely (if ever) their immigrant vote cracks 40%, the answer is always the same. Just like Angela Merkel after yet another rape, shooting, bombing, or machete attack. More, more, more!” Well, once again, nope: Anton implores us to “stop digging…no more importing poverty, crime, and alien cultures.”

Few ideas capture the decline of American conservatism quite so vividly: from “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” to “I will build a great wall!” in thirty short years. Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate was perhaps his finest moment as a statesman, and it condemns our Antons now as powerfully as it did the Soviets then: “The wall cannot withstand freedom.”

But can conservatism withstand Michael Anton? “Flight 93” is hardly the cause, here; it’s the effect of a myriad of slow changes in the political and cultural forces that constitute the American right. American conservatism has always been, if not married to, then at least in a committed relationship with the Republican Party. If Trump represents a permanent split and realignment within the Republican Party, then Anton and those like him are currently engaged in a similar move within the intellectual world.

Furthermore, those committed to an open and free society should recognize the decline of intellectual conservatism as a real and, I think, tragic loss.  This is true in at least two ways.  First, to whatever extent the Antonites have lent weight to the Trumpist project, they have provided intellectual cover for those on the right who, frankly, ought to know better.  The intellectual Trumpists have sold out: they’ve sold out to the fraudulent right-wing entertainment industry and to the new, ascendant GOP, but they’ve also sold out to their own worst vice—their reflexive, spittle-flecked hatred of “the Left.”  If Trump is our first Breitbart president, then Anton is our first Breitbart intellectual, and we’re all the worse for it.

Secondly, it should be pointed out that the open society requires conservative voices.  Conservatism, properly understood, is not an ideology apart from the liberal tradition—it is an attitude woven into the very fabric of the liberal canvas. It is Hume, Smith, and Burke, reminding us that the free society must be, in the first place, a society, a world of shared meanings and habits generated by creatures of a particular, peculiar, and often quite limited nature.  As liberalism orients us towards individual liberty and greater equality—towards liberation—conservatism works to channel our efforts through established forms and conventions; conservatism reminds us that, even if the arc of history bends towards justice, it’s an awfully long arc.  In an age where populist sentiment thrives on both the right and the left, the need for conservative and moderate voices will only grow; friends of a free society would do well to listen.

 

Featured image is San Francisco Fire, 1906, by William Coulter.

 

[1] I should add that those on the “old Left” made equally lively conversation.

[2] I should point out, too, that I’m not the only one taking the piece seriously.

[3] It probably won’t take long.  The Heritage Foundation actually tweeted this out in December.

[5] Yes, you’re right, this is not a compound metaphor. I’m only a vessel, pal.

[6] Watch those clips from the ’68 election on YouTube and you’ll get where Buckley was coming from.

[7] This actually happened.

[8] Actually, here’s what he said in South Carolina in December: “…we don’t win anymore…We don’t win anymore. We’re going to win a lot — if I get elected, we’re going to win a lot. (Applause) We’re going to win so much — we’re going to win a lot. We’re going to win a lot. We’re going to win so much you’re all going to get sick and tired of winning. You’re going to say oh no, not again. I’m only kidding. You never get tired of winning, right? Never.”  Transcripts like these go a long way in explaining why Alec Baldwin’s turn as Trump on Saturday Night Live falls so flat — Trump is simply too absurd to satire. I remember reading an interview with Tina Fey where she explained, in satirizing Sarah Palin, how often she elected merely to repeat verbatim what Palin had actually said. If to satire is to make ridiculous, how much more ridiculous can you get away with?

[9] All of this, it should be noted, while receiving millions fewer votes in the popular election for President, and only 49.1% (against 48%) of the total ballots cast for Congress.

[10] I’m not even going to bore you with how bizarrely unconservative this entire approach is.  If conservatism means anything, it must refer to the wisdom to refrain from the delusional hope that there exist fundamental problems susceptible to fundamental solutions.

[11] Anton somewhat hilariously offers the following statement of his positive doctrine: “virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on.”

[12] Sure, it wasn’t the U.S.-Mexico border, but it was a border.

[13] “Slowly and deliberately,” as in, he took the time on a radio show to spell out Raspail’s name because it’s French.

[14] I haven’t begun to describe how nasty this book is. Shikha Dalmia does a better job here.

 


Brandon Turner

Brandon Turner is associate professor of Political Science at Clemson University, where he is jointly appointed in the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. He earned his B.A. from Miami University of Ohio (2004), and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison (2008). His work has appeared recently in the journals Political Theory and Polity, and he's currently revising a manuscript titled Antagonism in the Liberal Tradition. His research interests are in the history of modern political thought, broadly construed.