The Mournful Nostalgia of the Conservative Intellectual Elite

Writing think pieces filled with a mournful nostalgia for the conservatism of yesteryear seems to be one of the core requirements of being a member of the conservative intellectual elite.

Though Yuval Levin has argued that a suffocating nostalgia was the foundation of Trump’s campaign, conservatives like Levin and others eager to write off Trump’s rise in this way have been less than willing to discuss their own, actually blinding, nostalgia. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye,” the Apostle Matthew once wrote, “but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”

Commentators pining for the years following William F. Buckley’s founding of National Review (without his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, of course) are now such a ubiquitous phenomenon that it hardly seems necessary to point out that what they really long for is a time when a few scions of the movement could purge certain groups deemed to be deplorable (even as Buckley kept back channels open with Robert Welch, the head of the John Birch Society) and a chance to deem themselves among today’s gatekeepers. They desire a simpler time when different coalitions on the Right were united against the Soviets abroad and attempted to counter the New Deal at home.

A recent column by Matthew Continetti, editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon, is yet another in a long line of pieces that traffic in such nostalgia.

In his sweeping review of the history of modern conservatism, Continetti discusses Buckley and James Burnham, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol. Barry Goldwater got crushed in 1964, which somehow led to Ronald Reagan’s victory in the 1980 election. After Reagan’s exit from the national scene, there were some swells, but no sustained successes.

In 2016, movement conservatism was smashed by the speeding freight train known as Donald Trump and currently finds itself in utter disarray.

Continetti’s revisionist historiography, however, serves as a set of past triumphalist myths conservatives rehearse in order to cheer each other up. This narrative has the same function as the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave: to make the observer mistake illusion for truth. They would prefer to look at the shadows that whisper Trump is the source of their political troubles because turning their heads toward the light that exposes conservatism’s inherent and long-standing political troubles is too painful to bear.

Asking whether movement conservatism might be getting something wrong, even in the face of so many on-going losses for the movement seems, somehow, preposterous?

The Real Reagan
Thankfully, not all observers of the political scene on the right have their eyes fixed on these shadows. For example in his new book, Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, Henry Olsen shows that Ronald Reagan won in 1980 largely by rejecting the kind of conservatism that Barry Goldwater and National Review had been trying to advance for decades.

To be sure, Reagan had much in common with and admired men like Goldwater and Buckley. He and Buckley were very good friends, despite their occasional public disagreements. And until Reagan ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1976, he and Goldwater were on friendly terms and frequently exchanged letters. (Goldwater castigated Reagan for splitting the Republican Party in his run against Gerald Ford in the primaries.)

But their ways were not his ways; their ideas were not Reagan’s. Neither, as it happens, were they the ideas of the American people who elected him twice, even as they overwhelmingly rejected Goldwater.

Rather than being a rigid ideologue who was concerned with “maximizing individual liberty” above all else, Reagan ran as a conservative who was comfortable using government to help achieve the common good—particularly on behalf of the average working people that he rightly considered to be the backbone of the country. As Olsen argues,

Reagan was against returning to the America before the New Deal. He was for interpreting Roosevelt’s legacy in a way that maximized freedom and minimized bureaucratic control and the direction of Americans’ lives. Reagan could be for these things because he was for addressing “the realities of everyday life,” not simply implementing an abstract theory.

Contra George Will’s famous quip that Goldwater actually won in 1964 and “it just took 16 years to count the votes,” Reagan spurned Goldwater’s libertarian conservatism and won two landslide elections.

Conservatives Need to Look in the Mirror
The Conservative Triumphalist Narrative™ also too easily serves as a way for current elites tacitly to absolve themselves of any blame for the current state of conservatism.

Continetti deplores the “[i]nfighting, dogmatism, cliché, conspiracy theories, animosity, confusion, and the absence of authority” that “characterize the present moment.” Unlike most conservatives, however, he is well aware that these various problems plagued conservatism a long time before Trump’s most recent presidential aspirations were made apparent.

In a piece late last year, Continetti contrasted Trump’s “Street corner conservatism” with the theoretical, Ivory Tower conservatism imbibed by conservative elites who inhabit the D.C. Beltway. These conservatives have too often forgotten about the concerns of the living, breathing people of this particular nation that their project was instituted to help secure. Continetti rightly points out that regarding immigration policy, “They prefer not to recognize—or, in some cases, they celebrate outright—the erosion of nationhood by lax enforcement of border controls and immigration policy.”

In contrast to Continetti, the bulk of elite movement conservatives haven’t demonstrated the slightest bit of introspection on what caused Trump’s rise, preferring instead to blame Fox News, A.M. talk radio, or anything else that does not implicate themselves. They prefer to keep blasting away at Trump for his defects, real or imagined, without any seeming consideration of what would happen to the country at large were he to fail.

With their disastrous record and inability to form a constituency outside of Conservatism, Inc., they continue to exhibit the kind of wishful thinking divorced from reality the British novelist Kingsley Amis hilariously skewered in his book, Lucky Jim.

In the words of another Brit, Theodore Dalrymple, conservatives have “considered the purity of their ideas to be more important than the actual consequences of their ideas. I know of no egotism more profound.”

A Return to Our Roots
As Donald Trump has shown, the only way to begin doing the hard work of returning the government to the people was to reject modern movement conservatism in toto. Any power conservatism now possesses is due to Trump, which is likely the chief reason he is the target of so much animosity from the Right.

Because of Trump’s habit of smashing through conventions of the both the Left and Right, there is quite an opportunity at the present moment for thinking anew about the conservative project. As the editors of American Greatness stated in their founding charter:

The soil of the conservative movement is exhausted. It needs fertilization, re-sowing, and diligent cultivation if it is to thrive again. And while we will always owe a debt to the giants of the movement who have gone before us, we cannot slavishly attempt to relive the politics of 40 years ago. 

Although understandable, paeans to the past are not going to get the job done. Instead, in order to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, we must do the hard work of re-focusing conservatism on the things it once knew but has largely forgotten.

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About Mike Sabo

Mike Sabo is a writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio and a graduate of the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College.

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36 responses to “The Mournful Nostalgia of the Conservative Intellectual Elite”

  1. You gotta admit though, George F. Will pretending he’s John Randolph is amusing.

  2. I agree with Theodore Dalrymple’s comment about the profound egotism of the members of Conservatism Inc. And I may be offering to prove myself every bit as narcissistic in asking if I dare reprint here what I submitted to American Greatness at the beginning of February. The reason why I take this audacious step is because I really do believe there is little more to that part of the historical ‘conservative’ commentariat which has failed conservatism than is contained in the following denunciation.

    February 4, 2017:

    It is possible for a human being to be rhetorically skillful, ruthlessly efficient in self-promotion, highly educated (in formal terms of college graduations &c); and at the same time fundamentally mediocre. Such persons exist in abundance.

    A lengthy while ago quite a lot of them got on board the Conservatism bus and became Conservatism Inc.

    A genuine conservative truly desires to see conservative values obtain and prevail in society. The Conservatism Inc. group had and have no such priority. Their aims were to

    1) have a well-paid career as pundits in think-tanks, foundations, journals,
    2) appear on TV and radio as sages,
    3) get to dine and generally consort with legislators, and
    4) fancifully suppose themselves king-makers.

    To this end they have sold the pass continually for years and years.

    – They have cringed and bowed the knee to left-wing interviewers, accepting their terms of reference in public debate, not truly challenging the whole ‘liberal’ (actually totalitarian nihilist) world-view and agenda. Any Republican politician and any conservative commentator, confronted by a question from the news anchors &c of the ‘liberal’ mainstream media ought to begin nearly every reply with the words ‘The fundamental assumptions behind your question are wrong. I shall
    answer your enquiry fully by showing how wrong they are….’

    – They have not denounced vigorously the Republican Party’s ownership by Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce.

    – They have not called on the nation’s conservatives to fight the war which matters, the cultural war; for instance, by organising and funding collectively an alternative movie and tv industry.

    – They have not gone all guns blazing against Mass Immigration.

    They got away with selling the pass for a long time because no serious challenge to their humbug emerged. The Tea Party was stamped on by the Republican Establishment; and it looked as if everything for ever was going to be as desired by the political Left.

    What has wrong-footed them drastically is the emergence of a real challenger. Just by announcing his candidacy and making mass immigration and jobs his chief themes, Donald Trump exposed them all as invertebrate fifth-columnists. After all, he was offering actually to do at last key conservative things: rescue the republic from utter corruption (the DOJ, the FBI, the State Dept under Hillary, the Internal Revenue Service, all shamelessly politicized), the historic American identity from being overwhelmed by Third-World immigration and regular acts of Islamic Imperialist terror, the Constitution and the rule of law from being trampled underfoot as they have been in the Obama years.

    This caused everyone consciously or subliminally to ask themselves why had the doyens of Conservatism Inc. not been making his points all these years gone by? Why had they not fought his fight?

    From then on they were like roaches in a cellar where the light has been switched on; and essentially discredited (in the view of all genuine conservatives).

    Their kicking and screaming against Donald Trump was, like everything else in their performance to date, a desperate attempt to maintain their careers; in this case by derailing him and securing, as Ann Coulter has put it, ‘bragging rights for the next 50 years’.

    Even Ben Shapiro failed to see the obvious: that a Hillary victory would mean the end of the Constitution as a force in American life, the end of the USA’s best traditions, and the end of any chance of conservatism proper making any comeback. It would be as decisive as the Muslim takeover of North Africa and South-West Asia in the 7th century and
    the Middle Ages.

    That these pundits still appear on mainstream media outlets is wholly unsurprising. They are a gift and treat for ‘liberals’ because they are labelled ‘conservative’ but can be counted on as ‘useful idiots’ (Lenin’s term) to deprecate and deplore what President Trump does. They are the sort of godsend that people running a fiercely atheist TV channel would consider a panel of bishops who regularly appeared in order to dispute the doctrine of the Resurrection and most of the rest of

    What is sad, rather contemptible, is the fact that Charles Krauthammer – one of their number – still gets airtime on Fox TV. He, like the others, insisted roundly that, character being destiny, Trump could not win. He concentrated throughout the 17 months up to November 8th last on Donald Trump’s personality flaws, not feeling in the country, priorities in the Rust Belt, long-term issues of national survival. Why is he still on air with Tucker Carlson (2/2/2017)?

    It is people like Ann Coulter and Mark Steyn, who were so inward with the big issues these past many years and called so much right in this presidential election, who should be occupying Krauthammer’s seat.

    [Joyful correction to the above last sentence.- Since February Mark Steyn and Ann Coulter – till she had an all-out row with Sean Hannity about his not broadcasting her criticisms of the President’s Goldman Sachs choice of economic advisers – have been frequently on Fox TV.]

  3. It was not the Apostle Matthew who *wrote* “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” Rather, it was the Teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, who SAID those words, which Matthew then recorded for posterity. A small but important difference.

  4. Conservatism, Inc’s goal is Conservatism, Inc. Trump’s goal is rescuing America from an extra-Constitutional oligarchy of ideologues from the Left and Right.

    • You are projecting your wishes onto Trump. Mr. New York City Values has never claimed to have such a goal.

  5. Wait, the Center for American Greatness is a real thing? I thought it was a joke, like President Trump.

    • You’re in for a very painful 8 years but glad to see you can laugh at it all. It truly is the best medicine. Whoever your psychiatrist is, I must say they really know their stuff. Take care and remember not to eat your glue! Besides being bad for you, you’ll run out and then you won’t be able to make any more therapeutic collages of Hillary sitting in the oval office with Bill rubbing her feet.

      • Because it’s fun to remember that she lost and revel in how the defeated proggies were so shocked and dismayed. Now those proggies are acting out and it’s funnier and funnier.
        I keep running out of popcorn ????.

      • I keep watching re runs of the tears which greeted Clintons defeat, it still has me in stitches! Trump really is the Wests last hope and I hope the MSM quickly realize this and get behind him, think what is good for your country!!

  6. Unless you can write it in the language of Star Trek half of Conservativism, Inc. isn’t going to understand it. Or, I should say, at least have a chance at understanding it.

  7. Shallow twaddle. There is no such think as “Conservative Intellectual Elite”. Conservatives are NOT intellectual; they are visceral, primal, and feral. If they were ineffectual they would not be conservatives. Second, they are not “elite”. The elite in America, as measured by position and wealth, are overwhelmingly liberal. Conservative Intellectual??? never met one.

    • Thomas Sowell. Conflict of Visions. Spend some time. Read.

      • Read him. Tired old trickle down voodoo economics long repudiated and a bunch of race theories no one agrees with. If thats a conservative intellectual then keep trying.

      • That’s an ignorant response. Conflict of Visions will enable you to see things in people you disagree with you currently can’t see. Give it a try.

      • Conservatives love to refer to Sowell. But then conservatives love Reagan. Enough said.

      • Wow, you don’t pull any punches do you. That really was “enough said.” I for one am crushed and I’m not sure I could have kept my composure in the face of any more of your cutting observations. I’ve burned my copy of “Witness” and taken out a subscription to “The Nation.” Thanks for setting me straight.

      • By jove, shallow twaddle, indeed, sir! Thanks for the laugh, Jeeves.

        1. Someone who thinks that writing the way an English butler on an American sitcom speaks is a way to sound intelligent oughtn’t to be accusing anyone else of shallowness.

        2. Nor should someone who dismisses something by focusing entirely on three words from its title, the semantic structure of which he doesn’t even grasp. (Despite “elite” occurring last, it modifies the other terms as in, for example, “the Boston elite.”) Moreover, the three word description is being used referentially, to pick out a certain class of individuals that the author criticizes in the piece, not attributively. So, even if you weren’t making a complete fool of yourself here, you still wouldn’t be saying anything even remotely relevant.

        3. Someone who regurgitates worn out cliches like “trickle down voodoo economics” in place of substantive criticism shouldn’t accuse anyone else of shallowness or anyone else’s work of being tired.

        4. No marginally well-read person uses “intellectual” as an adjective to mean intelligent or erudite. No respectable TV English butler would even do so.

        I’ll stop there. I was laughing at the beginning but now I’m starting to feel sorry for you. You must have a sad and lonely life.

      • Outstanding riposte! One thinks of Bingo Little and The Great Sermon Handicap! Were is Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps when you need him?

      • Andrey, my pedantic little fellow. An English butler? You are an easily distracted obfuscator. Your focus on syntax, grammar, and word meaning is lame and I guess “shallow” is applicable to you as well. So, piss off, and waste someone else’s time. The substance of my comments stands, but substance is an alien concept for you.

      • As I articulated, your comments had no substance, my good man. But in your marked state of confusion concerning the dashed difficult subjects of “syntax, grammar, and word meaning” (grammar includes syntax, btw, you moron) you probably missed my observations in that regard. Ergo, I fear I must report that you are decidedly not “intellectual,” my dear fellow.

        But I’m sure there must be some some delightful programming on the Telly that you simply must get back to, so I shan’t keep you old man. The telly is a veritable inexhaustible source of information about how intellectual fellows talk, and you’re perfectly right not to be go reading books and learning things. All a dreadful bore if you ask me. All that bloody bother about grammar and what words mean. Shallow twaddle and a jolly waste of time at that, by Jove!

      • Sorry windbag; I have a policy, I only waste three posts on idiots and you are at your quota. So, save your foul breath and apply it to someone you have a slim chance of besting. And to reiterate; conservative intellectualism is a fiction. American conservatives in the Trump era are really just 55+, verbose, bigoted, low-functioning, angry, white slobs. With some exceptions. In time, the American conservative will be revealed as a grunting, misogynist Neanderthal. See ya; no reply please.

      • You mean I won’t get to read you piling on cliched adjectives without making a single remark of substance again? Man I’m disappointed. How will I ever learn to do it myself? I’m gong to try you stupid, dumbhead, big stupid, dumb, stupid, big, dumhead, dummy.

        Wow, that wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be and I can totally see why you do it this way. Can’t believe I wasted all those years reading big, stupid, dumb, old, stupid, big, dumb books and and becoming literate and learning to respond substantively to comments. Total waste of time. Oh how I wish I could get all of it back and spend it watching reruns of Three’s Company like you obviously have.

        Sucks that you aren’t going to respond anymore. I’m sure you could teach me so much. Like how to get stuff out of a toaster with a fork. Always wanted to try that one. Oh well, take care simple friend and keep that finger out of your nose, it might get stuck!

      • “are NOT intellectual; they are visceral, primal, and feral.”

        I think we can chalk this up to classical leftist projection. Deprived of that elegant name, let me explain in terms you might be able to get:

        you are poopy heads and you know it;
        therefore, you rush to call the other guys poopy heads, so that when they say “What? No, you,”
        you can say “Ha ha! Tu quoque! How unoriginal! You’re calling me what I called you! Nanny-nanny-boo-boo!” and maybe mix in a few me:you::rubber:glue analogies, so that you never have to say, “You’re right, I, too am a poopy head,” which would break you, or “No, I am not a poopy head, here are the reasons why,” which would be impossible/untrue.

        “See ya; no reply please.”

        Only a bitch would say this. A NON intellectual, visceral, primal, feral bitch.

  8. Whatever Reagan’s actual views – and they were complex and informed by his earlier life as a New Deal Democrat, the fact remains that without rejecting the entirety of the progressive agenda, which includes the New Deal, then there is no actual change to be had. Our founding principles are incompatible with a social democratic, progressive welfare state. Acknowledge those principles and you’re going to be completely ineffective against the left. That is the real lesson of the last 30 years (and more). Me-tooism will not work, nor will some softer, rationalized version. Moreover, NO ONE on the right has really run on actual small government principles arguably since Goldwater. When Goldwater ran, the New Deal was seen as a success, the Great Society had not yet been born, and our arguments were seen as abstract. To say that we have learned nothing from the years since and that our time may be now is absurd and self-defeating.

  9. Truth tends to temper nostalgia, so both aren’t possible.

    Conservatism, Inc., including its purported intellectuals, wanted absolutely nothing to do with rolling back the power and scope of the dangerous, discredited Administrative State. While this was on full display with the failure to repeal and replace the ACA, more significant instances were the unwillingness to counter the lawlessness and many crimes of the Obama Administration; to a degree the disinterest in forcing the Left to abide by the Rule of Law continues.

    As the federal government becomes more and more illegitimate, Trump and the philosophy he expounds will grow exponentially. Conservatism, Inc. grows smaller each day. It is now a true time for choosing, and it chose poorly.

    • “Conservatism, Inc.”? What happened to “the GOPe”? Are you Trumpheads behaving like the enviro-nuts who ran from “global warming” to “climate change”* because the evidence keeps discrediting the claims? Why yes indeed, you are.

      By the way, Trump expounds no “philosophy”. Airing a grab-bag of pop culture grievances and making populist appeals to rubes is not a philosophy.

      • “Conservatism, Inc.” has been around for many years, long before Trump announced his candidacy. It’s used among “dissident” or “alt” rightists, such as you find at VDare or Takmag.

      • Another commentator below pointed out your ignorance, now, on to your stupidity.

        “Global warming” is a stronger description than “climate change” — the first implies the climate is warming while the other merely implies that it’s changing. As such, it’s plausible that the change was made because “evidence keeps discrediting the [environmentalist’s] claims.” But “Conservatism, Inc.” and “GOP-E” don’t come apart in meaning in anyway that evidence might discredit the former and not the latter.

        The only way in which the first is weaker than the second is that it doesn’t mention political parties. But, surely even you aren’t so mentally incapable as to think that the point of the non-existent change you impute could be to include democrats. Moreover, the first is actually stronger than the second insofar as it brings in the idea that the establishment GOP is in it for the bucks.

        You saw what you wrongly took to be a new label and that barely functioning and all but worthless thing inside your skull immediately jumps to some other change in labels that has no relevance to this one because its too weak to do even the most basic thinking.

  10. The Conservative Movement turned into a racket about 20 years ago.

  11. Great article. I would argue that a large portion of CI is bought and paid for by Bill Kristol and his Insidious Minions. The level of vitriol and hatred at Trump and his supporters by National Review turbo-charged after Trump won the nomination. The Corner was so bad, that they now (having lost so many followers) turned off Comments. I will remain convinced this was due to monetary consideration paid to NR’s contributors by Kristol et. al.