Conservatism isn’t dead

It is reborn.

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At the turn of this century a young left-wing professor named Corey Robin, now best known for his book The Reactionary Mind, interviewed William F. Buckley Jr., the then 75-year-old founder of National Review. “I ask Buckley to imagine a younger version of himself, an aspiring political enfant terrible graduating from college in 2000, bringing to today’s political world the same insurgent spirit that Buckley brought to his,” Robin wrote in Lingua Franca.  “What kind of politics would this youthful Buckley embrace?”
“I’d be a socialist,” Buckley answered.“A Mike Harrington socialist.” After a moment’s thought: “I’d even say a…

At the turn of this century a young left-wing professor named Corey Robin, now best known for his book The Reactionary Mind, interviewed William F. Buckley Jr., the then 75-year-old founder of National Review. “I ask Buckley to imagine a younger version of himself, an aspiring political enfant terrible graduating from college in 2000, bringing to today’s political world the same insurgent spirit that Buckley brought to his,” Robin wrote in Lingua Franca.  “What kind of politics would this youthful Buckley embrace?”

“I’d be a socialist,” Buckley answered.“A Mike Harrington socialist.” After a moment’s thought: “I’d even say a communist.”

Eighteen years ago, American conservatism was in trouble. A decade ago—the year Buckley died—conservatives were on the verge of annihilation. Republicans had lost both houses of Congress and John McCain was leading the GOP to a rout in the contest with Barack Obama. For many conservatives, the fact that McCain was at the top of the ticket was already a defeat.

It was the last year of the Bush administration, whose fruits for conservatives, and the nation at large, were expanded entitlements, ballooning deficits, greater federal meddling in education, two interminable wars, big-bank bailouts, and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. If Bush was conservative, conservatism had failed comprehensively.

The deficits are still ballooning, and Bush’s first war—the one in Afghanistan—is still going. But now Republicans control both houses of Congress, and with Donald Trump in the White House, the American right has regained its fighting spirit. The economy is roaring, with unemployment at or near record lows. The bread-and-butter conservative priorities that Bush did deliver—tax cuts and regulatory restraint—Trump has delivered in spades. And on issues where the last Republican president retreated, most notably immigration, this one fights tenaciously.

Trump has repudiated the post-Reagan neoconservative foreign policy of military extension and intervention here, there, and everywhere, a fact that troubles the foreign-policy elite but reflects the priorities of today’s conservative base. Preferring diplomacy to wars for regime change, so far at least, Trump is in fact closer to the tradition the GOP’s successful Cold War presidents than to the neo-Wilsonian foreign policy of America’s last two leaders.

Perhaps most dramatic of all, Trump could be the president who ends Roe v. Wade through his appointments to the Supreme Court. It’s not just Anthony Kennedy’s seat that’s in play—the actuarial tables give Trump excellent odds of replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg (currently 85) and Stephen Breyer (79) if he gets a second term in 2020. Conservatives will have a majority on the court for a decade or more if that happens.

This is a conservatism reborn—a conservatism that aims to win. Its electoral and policy victories are only a beginning, however, and an uncertain one at that. Republicans face a drubbing, and perhaps loss of control, in the U.S. House of Representatives this fall. The president’s economic nationalism confronts overwhelming opposition among the powerful in both parties, and with little intellectual capital on his side, there is a risk that Trump will find himself outgunned in his trade battles. The risks in negotiations with Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin are at least as great.

But the possibility of setbacks does not change the fact that something profound has happened within American conservatism, and what we see in politics are only the ripples of something greater under the surface. After thirty years, a conservatism that is true to its name is returning, with a powerful commitment to American nationalism in place of the liberal ideology that has dominated both parties for a generation.

Republicans of a certain age still look back to the Reagan era with misty eyes; it was the era of conservatism’s triumph, ushering in lower taxes and less regulation at home and lighting the way for the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War abroad. But history served up an irony—no sooner was Reagan out of office than conservatism was taken over by liberals. Some of these liberals were libertarians, who redefined conservatism’s economic outlook in terms of a global market in which citizenship and national interest had no place. Others were Cold War liberals who had fled the Democratic Party as its activist base turned soft on the Soviet Union and sharply critical of Israel. Rebranded as neoconservatives, these former Cold War Democrats and their epigones redefined conservative foreign policy to mean exporting liberal democracy.

Social conservatives, opposed to abortion and gay marriage, supplied the votes on which libertarians and neoconservatives depended. But in the elite realm of policy making, libertarians and neoconservatives valued liberal allies—their ideological kin—more than their strange bedfellows on the cultural right. Trade agreements, after all, depended not on social conservatives but on Democrats like Bill Clinton. The Iraq War did not need John Paul II’s blessing, but it did require the support of Democratic senators like Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman. Libertarians and neoconservatives did not represent the American right, and they never really claimed to: they styled themselves as universalists whose views should mold the entire world, with the wealth and power of the United States, along with the lives of its citizens, as merely the means to that end.

Donald Trump has changed all of this. He has, however inadvertently, restored clarity and accuracy to American politics and sparked the beginnings of a renaissance for American conservatism. That Trump himself is not an ideologue or philosopher is significant, but not in the way his detractors think: Trump may not have read anything of the literature of conservatism, but what is more important is that he hasn’t imbibed the intellectual bromides of liberalism, which leaves his right-leaning instincts uncorrupted. Trump is more conservative for not calling himself a conservative, with all the liberalism that term has come over the last 30 years to entail.

It’s not that liberalism in any form—left, libertarian, or neoconservative—does not have useful things to say or lessons to impart. But liberalism never knows when to quit. The left liberal expands government and attacks traditional social institutions to the point of undermining liberalism’s own pre-liberal foundations in common citizenship and Western values. The libertarian would not only put everything on the market—from sex to human organs, everything commoditised—but he would put it on the world market at that, dissolving the economic ties that bind every social institution from the household to the nation. Their ideal is one of perfect individual freedom; the reality is a world in which only the most illiberal forms of social organisation survive. Islamism and Chinese communism welcome global markets because they are rooted in systems strong enough to resist the tides of commerce. The Western way of life, by contrast, precisely because it is free and liberal, is not so capable of enduring the fissiparous forces its ideology unleashes.

The variety of liberal internationalism known as neoconservatism, for its part, should not be mistaken for a muscular American nationalism, despite neocons’ appropriation of the rhetoric of the right. The attempt to “immanentize the eschaton,” as the philosopher Eric Voegelin termed it, or to bring about the end of history, in Francis Fukuyama’s words, is the farthest thing from conservative nationalism. It means bringing about a utopia, one order to prevail over every culture and land by force, if reason won’t suffice. Like other liberals, neoconservatives misunderstand the Declaration of Independence, taking it not as the assertion of a particular people’s right to self-government but as a manifesto for world revolution—as if the American Revolution were the same as the French or Soviet ones.

Most conservative pundits and policy wonks of the post-Reagan, pre-Trump era were not pure specimens of libertarianism or neoconservatism. They were mixtures of those liberalisms plus certain conservative attitudes toward religion and some residues of the non-liberal conservatism that had awoken in the 1950s. No one who reads Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, the 1953 book that more than any other popularised “conservatism” as a label in American political thought, could mistake the philosophy in its pages for a liberalism, whether libertarian, neo, or any other. No one who reads James Burnham’s books or Willmoore Kendall’s essays will find those most impressive minds of the early National Review confused about whether “classical liberalism” is American conservatism. Even the reader of the more libertarian-inclined Bill Buckley or Frank Meyer will find something far less formulaic than the “three-legged stool” of post-Reagan conservatism. Buckley, unlike a modern libertarian, made exceptions to his ideology for the national interest, though he firmly favoured free markets and personal freedom, including the legalisation of marijuana. Meyer, who outlined the idea of “fusionism” between the libertarian and the traditionalist tendencies in conservatism—he saw the union not a fusion but an organic, if differentiated, whole—was also conservative in a way that the post-Reaganites were not, in that he understood the tension and potential for tragedy in the Western heritage. He was no purveyor of utopian formulae.

President Trump has restored conservatism by paring away the liberal dogmas it had acquired over the last 30 years. The conservative now, like the conservative of the Cold War, is for market freedom and growth, but not at the expense of the nation’s integrity or broader interests. The conservative of the Trump era, like the conservative of the Reagan era, believes in both sides of the formula “peace through strength”: military strength, yes, but not adventurous wars to remake the world in the image of liberalism. Before the two Bush presidencies, Republican foreign policy was characterised not by Mideast wars but by diplomatic gambles that paid the greatest dividends of the Cold War: Nixon’s opening to China and Reagan’s negotiations with Gorbachev. Trump in his own way is returning to that tradition. Whether or not he succeeds, conservatives have been given all the incentive they need to reject the liberal interventionism that marked the Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations. Grassroots conservatives now know there is an alternative, and elite conservatives now have some freedom to speak up and articulate it. Before, it was career suicide in the conservative movement to challenge the liberal consensus about trade or war or the international order. It still isn’t easy—but Trump has made it possible.

Internationalism was often an effective instrument of the American national interest during the Cold War. We had good reason to emphasise human rights and to seek extensive strategic and economic agreements with any nation that might be brought over to the side of the Free World in the struggle with the universal system of Communism. Even so, conservatives were cautious: Robert Taft, the leading conservative in postwar American politics before his death in 1953, was skeptical of NATO, and the United Nations and international financial organisations of all sorts have never been popular with the grassroots right. (Before anyone knew the name Alex Jones, conspiracy-minded types fixated on the Trilateral Commission, a group that brought together North American, European, and Japanese leaders.)

But because internationalism was a tool that even conservatives could find useful in the struggle with the Soviet Union, conservatism’s essential connection with nationalism weakened, and when the Cold War ended, liberals of the libertarian and neoconservative varieties were in a position to continue the internationalist—now globalist—program. Short-term conveniences for the sake of the Cold War caused long-term confusion in conservative institutions. And because libertarians and neoconservatives could always draw on elite support from fellow liberals—who, then as now, treated their cousins with respect, in contrast to the social and nationalist conservatives they disdain as bigots or “deplorables”—writers and policy thinkers on the nationalist right were erased from American political discourse. Debates, like the editorial pages of most leading newspapers even today, would be divided between neoconservative or libertarian liberals and left liberals. Conservatives were shut out.

Three things have changed that. First were the failures of Bush-style conservatism: the collapse of the ersatz right cleared the way for the return of the real thing. Second was the long-term decline of faith in the liberal heaven: the utopia promised at the end of history never arrived; instead, without the ideological clarity of the Cold War, the hot wars of the 1990s and 2000s became aimless and demoralising, while cheap electronics and Internet commerce were no substitute for job security, pride in one’s work, and the ability to afford a home, a family, and healthcare without incurring a lifetime of debt servitude. Spiritually, multiculturalism brought only fragmentation and a constant carping about the sins of whites and Christians, as if other civilisations had not committed more than their own share of historical atrocities. This was what liberalism meant, and Americans rejected it. That opened the way to the third and final catalyst of change, Donald Trump himself.

The force of change may be coming from the political realm, but the intellectual realm will respond: new conservative thought that attaches the right to the political community—the nation—and not to liberalism, whether economic or strategic, is already beginning to emerge. Yoram Hazony’s forthcoming volume The Virtue of Nationalism is one sign. Another is F.H. Buckley’s The Republican Workers Party. The pages of National Review and First Things have become livelier than at any time in recent memory with essays both defending and criticising liberal conceptions of conservatism. Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed has also helped to widen the discourse, as have several important volumes from Encounter Books, including Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy. What must come of all this for the good of American political life is a non-liberal conservatism that is not simply an anti-liberalism, a reactionary photographic negative of libertarianism, neoconservatism, and progressivism.

“The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market,” Bill Buckley told Core Robin eighteen years ago, “is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.”

After the Cold War, the market seemed to be the only thing left, supplemented after 9/11 by an outraged patriotism that was channeled away from national interests in immigration control and military retaliation into exporting democracy to Mesopotamia instead. But conservatism, as Buckley knew, was bankrupt. It had lost its moorings after Reagan. And now it has found them again, thanks to necessary disruption Donald Trump has introduced to decrepit liberal order.