Outrageous hyperbole is often essential in stimulating the brain.
Such is the case with an anonymous piece posted on the Claremont Review of Books website under the nom de plume Publius Decius Mus. The essay ricocheted around the conservative internet so quickly that it overwhelmed the site on its first day.
In many ways the piece is outrageous, even somewhat offensive, but it asks conservatives the right question. Sure, Donald Trump is difficult and is not a conservative in the old Bill Buckley/Frank Meyer fusionist sense. I myself made that case back in 2015. But that almost does not matter now.
The Claremont author’s thesis is simple. The 2016 election is like United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11, where the passengers decided to attack the hijackers because there was no other choice. The traditional right is in a similar position today. If American society is still headed in the wrong direction despite all our efforts over this past half century, and if the election of Hillary Clinton is guaranteed make things even worse—perhaps irreversibly—what choice is there?
Forgive me for quoting at length, but it is necessary to give the sense of Decius’s passion:
If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff. But it’s quite obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff.
He concedes that conservative solutions like decentralization, federalization, and civic renewal are great—but they are “utopian and unrealizable” today, especially under a Clinton. Something more fundamental is required, since the “whole trend of the West is ever-leftward.”
Also: “The Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes. And how does one deal with a Nazi—that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.” That is the future for conservatives on the current path to a President Clinton.
Publius Decius identifies “the fundamental issues of our time” as trade, war, and immigration. “Trump-the-alleged-buffoon,” he writes, “not merely saw all three and their essential connectivity, but was able to win on them.” Our anonymous author concedes, “Yes, Trump is worse than imperfect,” but adds, “So what?”
He recognizes that at least a few never-Trumpers, such as the impeccable David Frum, are correct to be concerned by Trump’s character—but, he argues, it is not as if all presidential candidates have been sound. This is true: I even heard a BBC commentator on NPR the other day admitting Jack Kennedy could not have been elected president if the public knew of his sexual adventures and true health status. How about Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon?
But not all concerns about Trump can be dismissed with “So what?” As George Washington University professor and American Conservative contributor Samuel Goldman worries, with traditional conservatism so weak, Trump could redefine the right according to “ethno-class solidarity,” which “is a form of identity politics that emphasizes the culture and interests of downscale whites.” And yet Trump seems to have no real program to help downscale whites: future immigration restrictions will not change the demographic balance and less trade will not save blue-collar jobs. In that context, “Mainstreaming of white identity politics would almost certainly come at the expense of civil peace,” which no one should favor.
This isn’t to say the status quo on the right is acceptable; all of the critics today agree that conservatism has become rigid and passé. To take just one illustrative example, Heritage Action made some sound points against the labor and environmental aspects of the Pacific trade agreement as foisting terrible U.S. policies on the rest of the world, but the Wall Street Journal editorial board dismissed them in an editorial without even stating any substantive objections. The label of “free trade” put to rest any concerns about the actual substance of the treaty. As Goldman notes, such defensive “boundary-policing” creates a “conservatism of striking narrowness and rigidity.”
Goldman quotes George Hawley’s Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism as saying that Buckley/Meyer conservatism involved a “process of exclusion, as unsuitable ideas and characters were driven out.” Paradoxically, in Goldman’s paraphrase of Hawley, this ideological policing left behind three ideas that “have no necessary connection”: “limited government, an assertively anti-communist foreign policy, and quasi-Christian moralism.”
But our problem today likely comes from stretching the meaning of conservatism too far, rather than contracting it. Frank Meyer himself—whose philosophy of fusionism largely defined conservatism from Goldwater to Reagan—thought neoconservatism could not be connected logically to conservatism’s core principles because it was too narrow. But political minimization of differences to win elections, rather than philosophical compatibility, became the goal after Meyer and William F. Buckley stepped back from leading the movement. The result then became a conservatism so bland and formulaic that Trump could overwhelm those carrying its pale modern political banner.
And actually, contra Hawley, Meyer did make a philosophically “necessary connection” in a very broad synthesis between the “historic pillars” in his writings: the traditionalist and libertarian dimensions of conservatism do fit together. But Meyer’s politics was more successful than his philosophy. As historian George Nash put it (reversing his order of emphasis), “as a formula for political action and as an insight into the actual character of American conservatism, his [Meyer’s] project was a considerable success”; but “as a purely theoretical construct, Meyer’s fusionism did not convince all his critics, then or later.” Reinvigorating that broad construct should become today’s conservative challenge.
In considering the 2016 election, as Publius Decius asks so dramatically, what other choice is there? Of course, conservatives must be willing to stand up to Trump too. But as TAC editor Daniel McCarthy put it, “the only way that some entrenched policies may change is with a change of the class in power.”
Trump potentially represents such change, but he will need philosophically moored conservatives willing to rush the cockpit to build a decent alternative.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.