The Blindspots of Conservative Intellectuals


For anyone who thought there might be a conscientious brain trust able to conserve some intellectualist core of the Republican Party against the demagogic ravages of Trumpism, I recommend this panel from the latest edition of Democracy. In it, the journal's centrist–liberal editors confront four conservative hold-outs -- David Frum, Liz Mair, Jennifer Rubin, and Peter Wehner -- with a question that strikes right at the heart of that conceit:

Is Trump an aberration within the conservative movement, or is he a logical conclusion to what's happened to conservatism over the last 20 or 30 years?

What's striking about the entire discussion is the general unwillingness to really grapple with the implications of that question. Frum, for example, immediately resorts to a popular rhetorical strategy, both-sides-ism

David Frum: It is very possible that a Trump-like figure could have arisen on the American left because Trump-like figures have arisen in left-leaning parties in Europe.

The question wasn't whether authoritarian demagogues like Trump are unique to the right, but right off the bat, Frum deflects by arguing against that premise. And while there's some push back from his colleagues, collectively they return to that theme again and again. Mair's first response when the question is put to her?

Liz Mair: I think that it’s very dangerous for Democrats to get into a position of saying that it can’t happen in their party.

Sure; but no one at the panel said that. To his credit, Wehner is the only one of the group willing to consider the possibility mostly without qualification. He starts out with a middling "yes-and-no" response, but later returns with a clarification I find admirable as an honest expression of uncertainty.

Wehner: I guess my answer would be that it’s speculative. All I know is that the American right has Trump and the American left doesn’t. Could the American left have produced him? I don’t know. Trump could just as easily have run as a Democrat than as a Republican, but he may not have won, either. So I don’t know.

Part of that uncertainty, he elaborates, is a bewilderment over the way the GOP has floated free from truth under Trump's lead. To which he receives the response:

Rubin: But do you think, Pete, that in a way is the result of a trend on the right that goes from denying global warming to segregating themselves in a Fox News world where we’re being flooded by immigrants and are in the middle of a crime spree (neither of which is true)? The right’s proclivity to believe whatever they like, to be so convinced of the evils of the academy and the media that they’re willing to suspend disbelief, isn’t new. They’ve developed a sense of identity based on believing things that aren’t true. Don’t you think that this actually preceded Trump by a little bit?

That Rubin and Wehner recognize as much at all is some encouragement, I suppose, but it's ironic coming as it does in a discussion that otherwise elides significant portions of the history of American conservatism. Frum -- who seems, to me, both the most confident and the most blinkered -- has a particular vision of late 20th century conservatism:

Frum: Conservatism is an anthology of answers to the problems of the 1970s and ‘80s. Inflation: Do you use monetary methods or price controls? Crime: Do you use police methods or do you address the root causes of socioeconomic disparity? How do you cope with the social upheavals of the 1960s? How does America restore its standing in the world after Vietnam? Conservatism as a policy project was a set of answers to those questions.

That formulation is pretty unsatisfying way to define a political movement, denuding it of any cohesive ideology or political theory. It's also a view custom fit for the intellectual, informed by an awareness (however selective) of the history of conservatism. At one point, for example, Rubin fondly reminisces about one of the godfathers of late 20th century conservative intellectualism:

If you were a teenager, or young adult, and you had conservative leanings, you took pride in Bill Buckley, who was the wittiest and the funniest and the most erudite public intellectual of his time.

She clearly sees Trump as a break with the tradition of Buckley, but Buckley got his start with God and Man at Yale, the book that laid the groundwork for the right's generational struggle against purported liberal bias in the academy. Until recently, that's where the frontline battles over racial issues like affirmative action were fought. Those battles launched the careers of political operators like Dinesh D'Souza, whose recent pardon by Trump was inexplicable only if you ignored the obvious debt his campaign owed to D'Souza's rhetoric. The notions of political correctness and its more conspiracy-minded cousin, cultural Marxism, weren't invented by Trump and Bannon; they grew out of ground originally tilled by the sort of conservatism to which these panelists would like to return. Rubin marks the turning point thus:

In some ways the Bushes were, perhaps, a dying breed within the right. They were heirs to Reagan, and the heirs to Bill Buckley, and I think the heirs to a strain of gentility in conservatism.

But wasn't it George H. W. Bush who gave the term "political correctness" presidential sanction? If gentility died between W. and Trump, then the Bushes signed the death warrant.

Part of the problem with supposing that conservatism is a set of answers to 50 year-old issues is that it only explains the endurance of the movement if its followers are still motivated by those issues. Otherwise, it isn't particularly likely to move the rank-and-file whose politics are focused more on recent events than on the solutions proposed by mid-century dons like Buckley.

Nor need we start with Buckley. The panelists talk for the better part of an hour about demagoguery, Trumpism and "the passions of the people," but no one ever brings up Joseph McCarthy. That's a damned odd omission. McCarthy, like Trump, identified as a Democrat for much of his life, but switched parties before entering his most virulently demagogic phase. Like Trump, he rallied Republicans with talk of a vast infiltration within the federal government. Historians tend to downplay that party affiliation, and in much the same terms that Frum and company do -- Demagoguery is not an ideology but a rhetorical strategy! Demagogues can arise on the left or right! -- but maybe it's time to reconsider. The historical evidence is mounting to suggest a through-line to this particular brand of demagoguery. Anti-communism for McCarthy. Post-modernism and the liberal academy for Buckley and his heirs. D'Souza wrote that, with the end of the Cold War, Marxists were shifting focus to equal opportunity and identity politics. Segments of the Religious Right turned that into paranoid fantasies about cultural Marxists infiltrating society. Now its "fake news" as a rallying cry against inconvenient facts and a "deep state" undermining the Trump administration under the leadership Obama and the Clintons.

More so than Frum's "anthology of answers," the enduring theme for many conservatives, stretching from before McCarthy in the 50s, right down to Trump in the here and now, has been an often pathological fear of infiltration by the left. That's a fear which has, many times now, lured American conservatives into vast overreactions that erode the ideals they espouse and abandon whatever "policy project" they may be pursuing at the time. I don't want to oversell it, but the failure of these panelists to connect those dots makes me skeptical of the premise that there's anyone really capable of putting the Republican Party on a less destructive course after Trump. These, clearly, are not ignorant people, but they're riddled with historical blindspots that prevent them from seeing the ways in which the Party they'd like to restore gave rise to the one they consider its antithesis.

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