For more than a decade the air has been filled with assertions that American conservatism is in terminal disarray—exhausted, fractured, and no longer capable of governing. The spectacular populist insurgency of 2015–16 appears to many observers to mark the demise of an intellectual and political establishment that has outlived its time.
Is this true? Before we can properly assess conservatism’s present predicament, we first need to understand how the present came to be. I propose to do this through the lens of the intellectual history of American conservatism after the Second World War, when the conservative community as we know it took form.
Perhaps the most important fact to assimilate about modern American conservatism is that it is not, and has never been, monolithic. It is a coalition—a coalition built on ideas—with many points of origin and diverse tendencies that are not always easy to reconcile.
In 1945, at the close of World War II, no articulate, coordinated conservative intellectual force existed in the United States. There were, at most, scattered voices of protest, some of them profoundly pessimistic about the future of their country and convinced that they were an isolated Nockian Remnant on the wrong side of history. History, in fact, seemed to be what the Left was making. The Left—liberals, socialists, even Communists—appeared to be in complete control of the twentieth century.
Modern American conservatism is not, and has never been, monolithic.
In the beginning, in the aftermath of the war, there was not one right-wing renaissance but three, each reacting in different ways to challenge from the Left. The first of these groupings consisted of classical liberals and libertarians, resisting the threat of the ever-expanding, collectivist State to individual liberty. Convinced in the 1940s that post–New Deal America was rapidly drifting toward central planning and socialism—along what the economist Friedrich Hayek famously called “the road to serfdom”—these intellectuals offered a powerful defense of free-market economics. From scholars like Hayek and Ludwig von Mises in the 1940s and 1950s, to Milton Friedman and the Chicago School economists in the 1960s and 1970s, to Arthur Laffer, George Gilder, Robert Bartley, and the supply-side economists and publicists of the 1980s, and to thinkers like Thomas Sowell and Richard Epstein today, the classical liberal and libertarian conservatives produced a sophisticated defense of free-market economics and exerted an enormous influence over the American Right. They helped to make the old verities defensible again after the long nightmare of the Great Depression, which many people had seen as a failure of capitalism.
In the 1980s the Reagan administration’s policies of tax-rate cutting, deregulation, and encouragement of private sector economic growth were the direct product of this rich intellectual legacy. More recently, the Republican Party’s agenda for tax-cutting can be traced intellectually to the supply-side orthodoxy that captured that party during the Reagan era and remained ascendant for the next thirty years.
Much of the classical liberal perspective was enunciated in powerful books, such as Hayek’s polemic The Road to Serfdom (1944), a book now recognized as one of the most influential works published in the twentieth century. On a more popular level, the libertarian novels of Ayn Rand shaped the minds of many, including the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.
Concurrently, and independently of the libertarians and classical liberals, a second school of anti-modern-liberal thought emerged in America shortly after World War II: the so-called “traditionalism” of such writers as Richard Weaver, Peter Viereck, Robert Nisbet, and Russell Kirk. Appalled by totalitarianism, total war, and the development of secular, rootless, mass society during the 1930s and 1940s, the traditionalists (as they came to be called) urged a return to traditional religious and ethical absolutes and a rejection of the moral relativism that in their view had corroded Western civilization and produced an intolerable vacuum filled by demonic ideologies on the march. More European-oriented and historically minded, on the whole, than the classical liberals, and less interested in economics, the traditionalist conservatives extolled the wisdom of such thinkers as Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and T. S. Eliot, and called for a revival of religious orthodoxy, of classical natural law teaching, and of mediating, communitarian institutions between the solitary citizen and the omnipotent State. Why did they advocate this? In order, they said, to reclaim and civilize the spiritual wasteland created by secular liberalism and by the false gods it had permitted to enter the gates.
In provocative books like Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948), the traditionalists expounded a vision of a healthy and virtuous society antithetical to the tenets of contemporary liberalism. From Russell Kirk’s monumental tome The Conservative Mind (1953), the traditionalists acquired something more: an intellectual genealogy and intellectual respectability. After Kirk’s book appeared, no longer could contemporary conservatives be dismissed, as John Stuart Mill had dismissed British conservatives a century before, as “the stupid party.” In books like The Conservative Mind the highbrow academics of the 1950s struck a blow at the liberals’ superiority complex and breached the wall of liberal condescension.
More than any other single book, The Conservative Mind stimulated the emergence of a self-consciously conservative intellectual movement in the early years of the Cold War. Without Kirk’s fortifying book the conservative intellectual community of the past three generations might never have acquired its distinctive identity or its name.
The Conservative Mind stimulated the emergence of a self-consciously conservative intellectual movement.
Third, there appeared in the 1940s and 1950s, at the onset of the Cold War, a militant, evangelistic anticommunism, shaped by a number of ex-Communists and other ex-radicals of the 1930s, including the iconic Whittaker Chambers. It was also reinforced by exiled anticommunist scholars from eastern and central Europe. These former men and women of the far Left and their allies brought to the postwar American Right a profound conviction that America and the West were engaged in a titanic struggle with an implacable adversary—Communism—which sought nothing less than the conquest of the world.
Each of these emerging components of the conservative revival shared a deep antipathy to twentieth-century liberalism. To the libertarians, modern liberalism—the liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt and his successors—was the ideology of the ever-aggrandizing, bureaucratic, welfare state, which would, if unchecked, become a collectivist, totalitarian state, destroying individual liberty and the private sphere of life. To the traditionalists, modern liberalism was inherently a corrosive philosophy, which was eating away like an acid not only at our liberties but also at the moral and religious foundations of a healthy, traditional society, thereby creating a vast spiritual vacuum into which totalitarianism could enter. To the Cold War anticommunists, modern liberalism—rationalistic, relativistic, secular, anti-traditional, and quasi-socialist—was by its very nature incapable of vigorously resisting an enemy on its left. Liberalism to them was part of the Left and could not, therefore, effectively repulse a foe with which it shared so many underlying assumptions. As the conservative Cold War strategist James Burnham eventually and trenchantly put it, liberalism was essentially a means for reconciling the West to its own destruction. Liberalism, he said, was the ideology of Western suicide.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s the three independent wings of the conservative revolt against the Left began to coalesce around National Review, founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955. Apart from his extraordinary talents as a writer, debater, and public intellectual, Buckley personified each impulse in the developing coalition. He was at once a traditional Christian, a defender of the free market, and a staunch anticommunist (a source of his ecumenical appeal to conservatives).
As this consolidation began to occur, a serious challenge arose to the fragile conservative identity: a growing and permanent tension between the libertarians and the traditionalists. To the libertarians the highest good in society was individual liberty, the emancipation of the autonomous self from external (especially governmental) restraint. To the traditionalists (who tended to be more religiously oriented than most libertarians) the highest social good was not unqualified freedom but ordered freedom grounded in community and resting on the cultivation of virtue in the individual soul. Such cultivation, argued the traditionalists, did not arise spontaneously. It needed the reinforcement of mediating institutions (such as schools, churches, and synagogues) and at times of the government itself. To put it another way, libertarians tended to believe in the beneficence of an uncoerced social order, both in markets and morals. The traditionalists often agreed, more or less, about the market order (as opposed to statism), but they were far less sanguine about an unregulated moral order.
The argument became known as the freedom-versus-virtue debate.
Not surprisingly, this conflict of visions generated a tremendous controversy on the American Right in the early 1960s, as conservative intellectuals attempted to sort out their first principles. The argument became known as the freedom-versus-virtue debate. It fell to a former Communist and chief ideologist at National Review, a man named Frank Meyer, to formulate a middle way that became known as fusionism—that is, a fusing or merging of the competing paradigms of the libertarians and the traditionalists. In brief, Meyer argued that the overriding purpose of government was to protect and promote individual liberty, but that the supreme purpose of the free individual should be to pursue a life of virtue, unfettered by and unaided by the State.
As a purely theoretical construct, Meyer’s fusionism did not convince all his critics, then or later. But as a formula for political action and as an insight into the actual character of American conservatism, his project was a considerable success. He taught libertarian and traditionalist purists that they needed one another and that American conservatism must not become doctrinaire. To be relevant and influential, it must stand neither for dogmatic antistatism at one extreme nor for moral authoritarianism at the other, but for a society in which people are simultaneously free to choose and desirous of choosing the path of virtue.
In arriving at this modus vivendi, the architects of fusionism were aided immensely by the third element in the developing coalition: anticommunism, an ideology that nearly everyone could share. The presence in the world of a dangerous external enemy—the Soviet Union, the mortal foe of liberty and virtue, of freedom and faith—was a crucial, unifying cement for the nascent conservative movement. The life-and-death stakes of the Cold War helped to curb the temptation of right-wing ideologues to absolutize their competing insights and thereby commit heresy.
Politically, the postwar, Buckleyite Right found its first national expression in the campaign of Senator Barry Goldwater for the presidency of the United States in 1964. It was not long after that election that a new impulse appeared on the intellectual scene, one destined to become the fourth component of the conservative coalition: the phenomenon known as neoconservatism. Irving Kristol’s definition conveys its original essence: “A neoconservative,” he said, “is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” One of the salient developments of the late 1960s and 1970s was the intellectual journey of various liberals and social democrats toward conservative positions and affiliations. Their migration was manifested in such journals as The Public Interest, co-edited by Kristol, and the magazine Commentary, edited by Norman Podhoretz. By the early 1980s many of these neoconservatives (as they came to be labeled) were participating in the “Reagan Revolution.”
The stresses that produced this transition were many. In part, neoconservatism may be interpreted as the recognition by former liberals that good intentions alone do not guarantee good governmental policy and that the actual consequences of liberal social activism in the Sixties and Seventies, like the so-called War on Poverty, were often devastating. In considerable measure neoconservatism was also a reaction by moderate liberals to the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, particularly on college campuses, and to the eruption of the so-called New Left, with its tendency to blame America first for world tensions and its neoisolationist opposition to a vigorous prosecution of the Cold War.
To the already existing conservative community, the entry of chastened liberals and disillusioned socialists into its precincts was to have many consequences. One of these was already discernible in the 1970s. Since the days of the New Deal, American liberals had held a near monopoly on the manufacture and distribution of prestige among the intellectual classes. From a liberal perspective the libertarian, traditionalist, and Cold War conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s—the Buckleyites, if you will—were eccentric and marginal figures, no threat to liberalism’s cultural hegemony. The emerging neoconservatives, however, were an “enemy within” the liberal camp who had made their reputations while still on the Left and who could not therefore be so easily dismissed. By publicly defecting from the Left, and then by critiquing it so effectively, the neoconservatives helped to undermine a hitherto unshakable assumption in academic circles: the belief that only liberalism is an intellectually respectable point of view. By destroying the automatic equation of liberalism with intelligence, and of progressivism with progress, the neoconservative intellectuals brought new respectability to the Right and greatly altered the terms of public debate in the United States.
Meanwhile another development—one destined to have enormous political consequences—began to take shape in the late 1970s: the grassroots “great awakening” of what came to be known as the Religious Right or (more recently) social conservatives. Initially the Religious Right was not primarily a movement of intellectuals at all. It was, rather, a groundswell of protest at the grassroots of America by “ordinary” citizens, many of them Protestant evangelicals, fundamentalists, and pentecostals, with some Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews as well. While early Religious Right leaders generally shared the foreign policy and economic perspectives of other conservatives, their guiding preoccupations lay elsewhere, in what became known as the “social issues”: pornography, drug use, the vulgarization of mass entertainment, and more. Convinced that American society was in a state of vertiginous moral decline, and that what they called secular humanism—in other words, modern liberalism—was the fundamental cause and agent of this decay, the populistic Religious Right exhorted its hitherto politically quiescent followers to enter the public arena as a defense measure, in defense of their traditional moral code and way of life. Above all, the religious conservatives derived their fervor from an unremitting struggle against what most of them considered the supreme abomination of their time: legalized abortion on demand.
In time the Religious Right acquired intellectually influential voices, notably the journal First Things. It also gained strength from its organic ties to a growing, evangelical Protestant subculture and by forging an alliance with like-minded Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews—a conservative ecumenical movement without precedent in American religious history.
Reagan gave each faction a seat at the table and a sense of having arrived.
By the end of President Ronald Reagan’s second term in 1989, the American Right had grown to encompass five distinct impulses: libertarianism, traditionalism, anticommunism, neoconservatism, and the Religious Right. And just as Buckley had done for conservatives a generation before, so Reagan in the 1980s did the same: he performed an emblematic and ecumenical function—a fusionist function, giving each faction a seat at the table and a sense of having arrived.
Yet even as conservatives gradually escaped the wilderness for the promised land inside the Beltway, the world they wished to conquer was changing in ways that threatened their newfound power. Ask yourself this question: aside from conservatism, what have been the most important intellectual and social movements in America in the past forty years? As a historian I will give you my answer: feminism, environmentalism, and multiculturalism. Since the 1970s America has been moving Right and Left at the same time.
Next, ask yourself this: what has been the most historically significant date in our lifetime? September 11, 2001? Perhaps. But surely the other such date was November 9, 1989, the night that the Berlin Wall came down.
Since 1989, since the downfall of Communism in Europe and the end of what Ronald Reagan called the “evil empire,” one of the hallmarks of conservative history has been the reappearance of factional strains in the grand alliance. One source of rancor has been the ongoing dispute between the neoconservatives and their noninterventionist critics over post-Cold War foreign policy. Another fault line divides many libertarians and social conservatives over such issues as the legalization of drugs and same-sex marriage.
Aside from these built-in philosophical tensions, with some of which the conservative coalition has been living for a long time, two fundamental facts of political life explain the recrudescence of these intramural debates in recent years. The first is what we may call the perils of prosperity. In the 1950s and early 1960s the number of publicly active, self-identified conservative intellectuals in the United States was minuscule: perhaps a few dozen at most. Today how can we even begin to count? Since 1980 prosperity has come to conservatism, and with it a multitude of niche markets and specialization on a thousand fronts. But with prosperity have also come sibling rivalry, tribalism, and a weakening of “movement consciousness,” as various elements in the coalition pursue their separate agendas. The “vast right-wing conspiracy” (as Hillary Clinton has called it) has grown too large for any single institution or magazine, like National Review in its early days, to serve as the movement’s gatekeeper and general staff. No longer does American conservatism have a commanding, ecumenical figure like Buckley or Reagan.
Underlying these centrifugal impulses is a phenomenon that did not exist twenty-five years ago: what Charles Krauthammer recently called the “hyperdemocracy” of social media. In the ever-expanding universe of cyberspace, no one can be an effective gatekeeper because there are no gates.
The second fundamental fact of political life that explains the renewal of friction on the Right was the stunning end of the Cold War in the 1990s. Inevitably, the question then arose: could a movement so identified with anticommunism survive the disappearance of the Communist adversary in the Kremlin? Without a common foe upon whom to concentrate their minds, it has become easier for former allies on the Right to succumb to the bane of all coalitions: the sectarian temptation. It is an indulgence made infinitely easier by the internet.
No longer does American conservatism have a commanding, ecumenical figure.
The conservative intellectual movement, of course, did not vanish in the 1990s. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that unyielding anticommunism supplied much of the glue in the post-1945 conservative coalition and that the demise of Communism in Europe weakened the fusionist imperative for American conservatives.
One of the earliest signs of this was the rise in the 1980s and early 1990s of a group of conservative traditionalists who took the label “paleoconservatives.” Initially, paleoconservatism was a response to the growing prominence within conservative ranks of the erstwhile liberals and social democrats known as neoconservatives. To angry paleocons, led by Patrick Buchanan among others, the neocons were “interlopers” who, despite their recent movement to the Right, remained at heart secular, crusading Wilsonians and believers in the welfare state. In other words, the paleos argued, not true conservatives at all.
As the Cold War faded, paleoconservatism introduced a discordant note into the conservative conversation. Fiercely and defiantly “nationalist” (rather than “internationalist”), skeptical of “global democracy” and post–Cold War entanglements overseas, fearful of the impact of Third World immigration on America’s historically Europe-centered culture, and openly critical of the doctrine of global free trade, Buchananite paleoconservatism increasingly resembled much of the American Right before 1945—before, that is, the onset of the Cold War. When Buchanan himself campaigned for president in 1992 under the pre–World War II, isolationist banner of “America First,” the symbolism seemed deliberate and complete.
Despite the initial furor surrounding the paleoconservatives, they have remained a relatively small faction within the conservative community of discourse. Still, as the post–Cold War epoch settled in during the Nineties and beyond, they were not alone among conservatives in searching for new sources of unity—a new fusionism, as it were, for a new era. Thus the first term of President William Clinton saw the rise of the “Leave us Alone” coalition, united in its detestation of intrusive government in the form of higher taxes, Hillary Clinton’s health care plan, and gun control. Not long thereafter a number of “second generation” neoconservatives associated with The Weekly Standard issued a plea for a new conservatism of “national greatness,” an adumbration of the muscular foreign policy of George W. Bush. Bush himself, before he became president, championed what he called “compassionate conservatism,” in part a deliberate rebuke of the antistatist thrust of the Leave Us Alone movement. For a time after the trauma of 9/11, the global war on terrorism became for most conservatives the functional equivalent of the late Cold War against Communism.
Meanwhile social conservatives have waged a long and increasingly frustrating “culture war” against a postmodern, post-Christian, even anti-Christian secular elite whom they perceive to be aggressively hostile to their deepest convictions. More recently there has been much discussion of “constitutional conservatism,” “reform conservatism,” “crunchy” conservatism, and “American Exceptionalism,” among other formulations of what conservatives should stand for in a new age.
American conservatism, then, remains at heart a coalition. Like all coalitions, it contains within itself the potential for splintering—and never more so than right now.
For as the Cold War and its familiar polarities continue to recede from public memory, new challenges and conflicts have been filling the vacuum. Consider this datum: more people are now on the move in the world than at any time in the history of the human race, and more and more of them are making America their destination. The number of international students, for instance, attending American colleges and universities now exceeds one million per year—more than triple what it was in 1980. More than 800,000 of these students are from China. In addition, the United States is now admitting a million immigrants into permanent, legal residence every year—more than any other nation in the world. And the number of illegal immigrants currently within America’s borders is estimated as at least eleven million.
As the Cold War faded, paleoconservatism introduced a discordant note into the conservative conversation.
This unprecedented, worldwide intermingling, not just of goods and services but of peoples and cultures, is accelerating, with consequences (and concomitant trends) that we have barely begun to fathom. Among them: the rise in the past twenty years of a post-national, even anti-national, sensibility among our cosmopolitan, progressive elites and young people. Closely linked to these denationalizing tendencies is the now entrenched ideology of multiculturalism, with its relativistic celebration not of America’s achievements and singularity but of its “diversity” defined in racial and ethnic terms. In precincts where “transnational progressivism” (as it has been called) holds sway, the very idea of a permanent and praiseworthy American identity seems increasingly passé if not slightly sinister.
Compounding conservative unease is another trend: a rising tide of amnesia about America’s past and animating principles. According to a report by the Bradley Project on America’s National Identity in 2008, “America is facing an identity crisis,” brought on in part by the failure of the country’s education system to impart an adequate knowledge of “our history and founding ideals” to the next generation. As a result, the Bradley study concluded, “America’s memory appears to be slipping away.” It seems no accident that Americans under thirty—the demographic most steeped in multiculturalism from grade school to graduate school---adhere less strongly as a group to the tenets of American Exceptionalism than do any other segments of the population. For conservatives of a patriotic/nationalist inclination, it is a disconcerting development indeed.
This brings us to the phenomenon of the hour: insurgent populism on the Left and the Right. In its simplest terms, populism—defined as the revolt of ordinary people against overbearing and self-serving elites—has long existed in American politics. In its most familiar form, populism has been leftwing in its ideology, targeting bankers, wealthy capitalists, and corporations as villains—the “millionaires and billionaires” in Bernie Sanders’s parlance. From Andrew Jackson’s feud with the Second Bank of the United States to William Jennings Bryan’s crusade against the gold standard, from Franklin Roosevelt’s appeal to the “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” in 1932 to the demagogic theatrics of Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin (in his early days) during the Great Depression, populism has quite often been a leftwing phenomenon, vocalizing the anger of those at the bottom of the economic ladder toward those sitting pretty at the top.
But populism in America has sometimes taken a conservative form as well, particularly since 1945. In the early 1950s Senator Joseph McCarthy and his conservative allies denounced liberal Democratic politicians and pro–New Deal elites as dupes and even enablers of Communist espionage and subversion at home and of Communist aggrandizement abroad. In the 1960s William F. Buckley Jr. famously declared that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the entire Harvard University faculty. In 1969 President Richard Nixon, under fire from a militant, leftwing antiwar movement during the Vietnam conflict, appealed on national television to the “great silent majority” of the American people to support him. Nixon’s first vice president, Spiro Agnew, was more colorful. Taking aim at the antiwar Left—much of it based in and around the universities—he thundered: “A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” Criticism of an allegedly smug and decadent Liberal Establishment became a staple of conservative discourse in the 1960s and persisted long thereafter.
Populism, conservative-style, achieved its greatest success in the 1970s and 1980s under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, who brilliantly articulated a populistic, libertarian aversion to meddlesome and unaccountable government—an aversion long ingrained in the American psyche. Consider these words from Reagan’s Farewell Address in 1989: “Ours is the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: We the people. ‘We the people’ tell the government what to do, it doesn’t tell us. ‘We the people’ are the driver, the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast.” No conservative has ever said it better.
Criticism of an allegedly smug and decadent Liberal Establishment became a staple of conservative discourse.
But notice the crucial distinction between these two manifestations of anti-elitism so long imbedded in our politics. Leftwing populism has traditionally aimed its fire at Big Money—the private-sector elite entrenched on Wall Street. Rightwing populism of the Reaganite variety has focused its wrath on Big Government—the public-sector elite ensconced in Washington (and its votaries in Academe). Leftwing populism was most popular in America when powerful financiers and captains of industry appeared to control the nation’s destiny. Rightwing populism gained traction when the capitalist establishment was displaced by a competing establishment centered in the ever more bureaucratic and intrusive administrative state.
A few years ago, American conservatives experienced a revival of Reaganite, populistic fervor in the form of the Tea Party movement, with its slogan “Don’t tread on me!” In some circles there has been a tendency to dismiss this phenomenon as either the artificial creation of rightwing billionaires or as the ugly expression of the racial anxieties of white people. The truth is more complicated. Rightly or wrongly, a powerful conviction has arisen among virtually all conservatives that public policy in the United States has in some profound sense gone off the rails since the Great Recession of 2008. Rightly or wrongly, conservatives of all persuasions increasingly believe that ours has become a government not of and by the people but only for the people: government by edict from above. The much criticized “inflexibility” of the political Right during the two terms of President Obama was a direct response to its perception of inflexibility and autocratic hubris on the political Left.
The great symbol of this for conservatives is the Affordable Care Act of 2010 and the manner in which it was enacted and implemented. At the time the bill was enacted, a cnn poll revealed that 59 percent of the American people opposed it, and only 39 percent supported it. It passed anyway, by a convoluted parliamentary procedure, on a bitterly divided, virtually party-line vote. No other comparably ambitious, federal economic or social legislation in the past one hundred years was enacted in this way, and the consequences for America’s social fabric have been severe. If the polls in 2010 were accurate, the Affordable Care Act was passed in willful defiance of the majority sentiment of the American people. To understand the fury and ferment on the Right since Obama took office, historians must take into account this sobering fact.
The leftward lurch of the Obama administration—it soon transpired—was not the only source of Tea Party discontent. The populist-conservative revolt of 2009–10 quickly morphed into a bitter struggle, not only against the perceived external threat from the Left, but also against a perceived internal threat from the conservative movement’s imperfect vehicle, the Republican Party. Despite massive Republican victories in the Congressional elections of 2010 and 2014, many Tea Party populists felt frustrated and betrayed by what they saw as the inability and, even worse, the unwillingness, of elected Republican officials in Washington to fight effectively for the conservative agenda. Many at the grassroots—encouraged by populist sympathizers on talk radio—began to suspect that some of their elected leaders were not merely craven or inept but essentially on the other side, particularly on the question of dealing with illegal immigration. The mounting anger of “grassroots” conservatives—often derided by their critics as rubes and nativists—became part of the tinder for the firestorm that was about to occur.
By late 2015 the perception that America’s governing elites were no longer heeding the will of the people extended far beyond the Tea Party Right. It helped to propel the improbable presidential candidacy of an outright socialist, Bernie Sanders. Early in 2016 a national polling organization asked Americans the following question: “The Declaration of Independence says that governments receive their authority from the consent of the people. Does the federal government today have the consent of the people?” An astonishing 70 percent of the respondents said no.
Until a few months ago, it seemed to this writer that the election of 2016 might become a showdown between these two competing brands of populism: the progressive, anticapitalist form and the conservative, antistatist one. Victory, I thought, would go to whichever political party better explained the causes of the Great Recession of 2008 and the years of malaise that have followed. Capitalism or statist progressivism: which is the problem? Which is the solution? On this perennial point of issue the election would be decided. What I did not foresee before the summer of 2015 was the volcanic eruption of a new and even angrier brand of populism, a hybrid that we now call Trumpism.
The mounting anger of “grassroots” conservatives became part of the tinder for the firestorm that was about to occur.
Politically, Trumpism’s antecedents may be found in the presidential campaigns of Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan for president in 1992 and 1996. Stylistically, the Trump campaign of early 2016 recalled the turbulence and rough rhetoric of George Wallace’s campaign rallies in 1968. Ideologically, Trumpism bears a striking resemblance to the anti-interventionist, anti-globalist, immigration-restrictionist, and “America First” worldview propounded by various paleoconservatives during the 1990s and ever since. It is no accident that Buchanan, for example, is thrilled by Trump’s candidacy.
But instead of focusing its anger exclusively on leftwing elites, as conservative populism in its Reaganite variant has done, the Trumpist brand of populism is simultaneously assailing rightwing elites, including the Buckley–Reagan conservative intellectual movement described earlier. In particular, Trumpism is deliberately and dramatically breaking with the proactive, conservative internationalism of the Cold War era and with the pro–free trade, supply-side economics ideology that Reagan embraced and that has dominated Republican Party policymaking since 1980. It thus poses not just a factional challenge to the Republican political establishment but an ideological challenge to the separate and distinct conservative establishment, long headquartered at Buckley’s National Review.
So what manner of “rough beast” is this, “its hour come round at last”? I believe we are witnessing in an inchoate form a phenomenon never before seen in this country: an ideologically muddled, “nationalist–populist” major party combining both leftwing and rightwing elements. In its fundamental outlook and public policy concerns it seems akin to the National Front in France, the United Kingdom Independence Party in Great Britain, the Alternative for Germany party, and similar protest movements in Europe. Most of these insurgent parties are conventionally labeled rightwing, but some of them are noticeably statist and welfare–statist in their economics—as is Trumpism in certain respects. Nearly all of them are responding to persistent economic stagnation, massively disruptive global migration patterns, and terrorist fanatics with global designs and lethal capabilities. In pro-Brexit Britain and continental Europe as well as America, the natives are restless—and for much the same reasons.
Trumpism and its European analogues are also being driven by something else: a deepening conviction that the governing elites have neither the competence nor the will to make things better. When Donald Trump burst onto the political scene in 2015, many observers noticed that one source of his instant appeal was his brash transgression of the boundaries of acceptable political discourse. The more he did so, the more his popularity seemed to grow, particularly among those who lack a college education.
What was happening here? The rise of Trumpism in the past year has laid bare a potentially dangerous chasm in American politics: not so much between the traditional Left and Right but rather (as someone has put it) between those above and those below on the socio-economic scale. In Donald Trump many of those “below” have found a voice for their despair and outrage at what they consider to be the cluelessness and condescension of their “betters.”
Facilitating the Trumpist “revolt of the masses” is a revolutionary transformation of the structure and velocity of mass communication, another facet of the phenomenon called globalization. In the past, upsurges of populist sentiment have often coincided with innovations in communication technology that rendered the voices of the “little people” more discernible and easier to mobilize. The era of Jacksonian Democracy (1828–1860) saw the proliferation of inexpensive urban newspapers that both catered to, and shaped, the tastes and political sympathies of their non-elite readership. The “populistic” 1890s witnessed the dawn of sensationalized, yellow journalism. One of its pioneers was the flamboyant business mogul William Randolph Hearst—a millionaire and Democrat who attempted to become President in 1904. In the 1930s the careers of Franklin Roosevelt, Huey Long, and Father Coughlin (the “radio priest”) benefited from the immense popularity of the new medium of radio and from the growing distribution of newsreels that millions of Americans saw every week in movie theaters. In the early 1950s the mass marketing of millions of television sets and the rise of political interview shows on television networks enhanced the visibility and popularity of Joseph McCarthy (though ultimately the new medium helped do him in).
The rise of Trumpism in the past year has laid bare a potentially dangerous chasm in American politics.
Similarly, in our own time, the spectacular efflorescence of talk radio, cable news networks, the internet, smart phones, and social media have radically enhanced “the power in the people” and diminished the ability of elites to control and manipulate public opinion. In 2015 and 2016 the success of Donald Trump owed much to his masterful exploitation of these relatively new media, including two—Facebook and Twitter—that did not exist a mere fifteen years ago. It is noteworthy that the three most prominent (and comparatively highbrow) conservative organs rooted in the print journalism era—National Review, Commentary, and The Weekly Standard—have been centers of outspoken resistance to Trump, while some of the most popular conservative talk radio hosts and websites have supported him with zeal.
As globalization accelerates—in cyberspace and elsewhere—it has become plain that the United States is experiencing a potentially profound political and cultural realignment, pitting (in the words of social scientists) “globalist” and “transnational progressive” elites against those who style themselves “nationalists” and “populists.” In the past year the tensions on these fault lines have flared into what can only be described as an ideological civil war on the American Right: a struggle for the mind and soul of American conservatism.
As the debate has proceeded, many conservative intellectuals have attempted to accommodate what they see as the valid grievances expressed by Trump’s supporters. According to the libertarian social scientist Charles Murray, “the central truth of Trumpism” is that “the entire American working class has legitimate reasons to be angry at the ruling class.” Conservative intellectuals in general now seem inclined to agree.
But the problem for conservatives goes much deeper than expressing sympathy for the grievances of the aggrieved. If Trumpism were simply a cri de coeur of a sector of the population that feels left behind economically, it would seem possible for conservative power brokers in Congress and the think tanks to hammer out legislation that would begin to address the sources of anxiety. If the Republicans should capture the White House in 2016, one can envisage “deals” on Capitol Hill to strengthen border controls, reduce current levels of immigration, and reform the tax code in ways that benefit the middle and lower sections of the income ladder. One can also imagine legislation designed to stimulate economic growth and thereby assuage the pain of the Trumpist working class.
Two obstacles, however, stand in the path of such an accommodation. The first is that the contest between Trumpism and its conservative critics has become not just a dispute over details of public policy but an all-out war of ideas, one not easily papered over by pragmatic compromise. To many of its conservative critics, Trumpism is little more than a mishmash of protectionist, nativist, and (in foreign policy) neo-isolationist impulses. To the Trumpists, conservative internationalism is a rusty relic of a bygone era, and supply-side economics (with its corollaries of free trade, open border, and uncapped immigration) is an ossified dogma whose real-world consequences have been catastrophic for globalization’s “losers.”
For many years, during the Reagan era and beyond, the leading exponent of supply-side economics in Washington was the late Representative Jack Kemp. Today Kemp’s chief political disciple (who in fact worked for him as a speechwriter) is the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, a man who shows no sign of moderating his Kempian worldview. Nor does the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal—the ideological citadel of supply-side economics—appear to be yielding to the Trumpian barrage. It is not easy to see how—at the level of high principle and rhetorical advocacy—Kempism and Trumpism can be reconciled, either before or after the 2016 election.
In short, Trumpist populism is defiantly challenging the fundamental tenets and perspectives of every component of the post–1945 conservative coalition described in this essay. In its perspective on free trade, Trumpism deviates sharply from the limited-government, pro–free market philosophy of the libertarians and classical liberals. Despite some ritualistic support for the right to life and religious freedom, Trumpism has shown relatively little interest in the religious, moral, and cultural concerns of the traditionalist and social conservatives. In foreign policy it has harshly criticized the conservative internationalism grounded in the Cold War, as well as the post–Cold War “hard Wilsonianism” and distrust of Putinist Russia espoused by many national security hawks and neoconservatives. What Trumpism has addressed, loudly and insistently, is the insecurity and disorientation that large numbers of conservatives now feel about conditions at home and abroad. Whether this will be enough to unite the coalition at the polls (and beyond) remains to be seen.
It is not easy to see how Kempism and Trumpism can be reconciled.
The second hurdle that Trumpism faces may be even more difficult to overcome: the character, temperament, and qualifications of the man who has become its vessel and champion. To conservatives in the “Never Trump” movement who have vowed never to vote for him under any circumstances, Trump is an ignoramus and carnival barker at best, and a bullying protofascist at worst. To many on the other side of the Great Divide, it is not Trump but an allegedly corrupt and intransigent conservative establishment that is the threat, and they are attacking it savagely. The ideological tug of war has become personal, and arguments that turn personal are rarely easy to resolve.
Joining the Trumpist effort to reconfigure the Republican Party on nationalist–populist lines is an array of aggressive dissenters called the “alternative right” or “alt-right,” many of whom openly espouse white nationalism and white identity politics and denounce their conservative opponents in the most vituperative terms. For many conservatives of the Buckley/Reagan persuasion who have prized their movement as an intellectual edifice built on ideas and enduring truths, the strident ethno-nationalism emanating from the “alt-right” represents a “return of the repressed” with which there can be no rapprochement.
In these stormy circumstances, it would be foolish to prophesy the outcome. Suffice it to say that in all my years as a historian of conservatism I have never observed as much dissension on the Right as there is at present. It is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Now some may see in this cacophony a sign of vitality, and perhaps it will turn out to be. But conservatives, more than ever, need minds as well as voices, arguments as well as sound bites, and civility as well as indignation. In this season of discontent, it might be useful for conservatives of all persuasions to step back from the fray for a moment and ask themselves a simple question: What do conservatives want? What should they want? Perhaps by getting back, very deliberately, to basics, conservative intellectuals can begin to restore some clarity and direction to the debate.
What do conservatives want? To put it in elementary terms, I believe they want what nearly all conservatives since 1945 have wanted: they want to be free; they want to live virtuous and meaningful lives; and they want to be secure from threats both beyond and within our borders. They want to live in a society whose government respects and encourages these aspirations while otherwise leaving people alone. Freedom, virtue, and safety: goals reflected in the libertarian, traditionalist, and national security dimensions of the conservative movement as it has developed over the past seventy years. In other words, there is at least a little fusionism in nearly all of us. It is something to build on. But it will take time.
Conservatives, more than ever, need minds as well as voices.
For three generations now, American conservatives have committed themselves to defending the intellectual and spiritual foundations of Western civilization: the resources needed for a free and humane existence. Conservatives know that we all start out in life as “rough beasts” who need to be educated for liberty and virtue if we are to secure their blessings. Elections come and go, but this larger work is unending.
It is quite possible that in the turbulent months (and possibly years) just ahead, “the beating down of the wise” will intensify, and some conservatives will choose to withdraw from the political arena—recalling, perhaps, these lines from the eighteenth-century play Cato:
When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway,
The post of honour is a private station.
But however events unfold politically, conservative intellectuals must remain true to their heritage and rededicate themselves to their fundamental mission of cultural renewal.