Movement Conservatism Was Dying Before Trump

By | 2018-02-25T13:36:08+00:00 February 24th, 2018|
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The annual Conservative Political Action Conference is upon us, and its speakers list has caused some longtime conservatives to bemoan the state of the movement. Noting the invitation of French National Front leader Marion LePen, former UKIP head Nigel Farage, and others whose provenance lay soundly in what Steve Bannon called the “economic nationalist movement,” these disaffected conservatives wonder what has happened to their movement. National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser goes so far to saythe conservative movement is no more. Its destroyers are Donald Trump and his admirers.”

Well. Far be it from me to question someone whose first piece for the movement’s intellectual flagship appeared 48 years ago, when I was a mere lad and the author was only 15. But I have been active in the movement since the mid-1970s and it seems to me that if the movement is dead, it was destroyed from within, not by Trump and certainly not by his admirers.

That’s not to say there are not serious questions about Trump as a man and as a president. I share many of the qualms Brookhiser and others have about him, although I suspect I see him more positively now than do they. Rather, where we differ is on what the movement’s health was before his arrival. The sad truth is that movement conservatism has been dying from sclerosis for years.

Movement conservatism in its heyday was a confederation of political tribes united by common enemies. It sought to project something more than that, contending that the philosophy of “fusionism” originated by NR editor Frank Meyer gave the union intellectual gravitas. But in fact libertarians had little in common with Kirkians, neocons, social cons, and all of the other elements that went under the nomenclature of the “conservative movement.” What they shared was an implacable opposition to Soviet Communism and a strong desire to halt the growth of a unified, nearly omnipresent and omnipotent national government.

By 1996 they appeared to have won both battles. The USSR was no more and the former Soviet satellites were moving towards market capitalism faster than a mouse moves towards cheese. Bill Clinton’s effort to adopt a national health care system had been defeated and the first modern GOP electoral wave had given Republicans control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954, leading the triangulator par excellence to declare “the era of Big Government is over.”

Once victory had been achieved, however, the constituent parts of the movement started fighting with each other over what to do next. Was it time for the original libertarian impulse of the movement to lead, shrinking government dramatically? Was it time for America to use her world domination to fight other foes who might become the next USSR, such as China or radical Islam? Was it time to prioritize healing the culture now that the economy was strong and the nation secure? Each position had adherents in the movement, but none could command the movement’s unified assent.

A strong movement would have engaged in intellectual inquiry as deep as that which marked its founding. Rather than build a confederation whose strength came from the fear of a strong enemy, the movement could and should have moved towards a more perfect union, focusing more on what it was for than on what it was against. But it did not take that course.

Instead, the movement fell back on what unified it, opposition to the enemy. Liberalism, always the foe, became the only source of unity for the movement. Increasingly what marked movement conservatism was its implacable opposition to whatever could be characterized as “the Left.” The era of “the shouters” of movement conservatism had begun.

I don’t mean to denigrate those on the right who were able to irrigate the arid desert of center-left media dominance with new voices. But too often, these new megaphones were used merely to drive home a drumbeat of opposition to liberalism. So long as the Left, and especially its political incarnation, the Democratic Party, was opposed, all else could be forgiven. Examining the underlying premises of the American center-right was not a particular pre-occupation of the entertainment and ratings-driven right.

Victory uber alles meant that George W. Bush’s attempt fundamentally to reinvent conservatism went virtually undiscussed during the president’s eight-year tenure. Not only did the president fail to make a consistent and coherent case why, for example, it was conservative to expand Medicare without paying for it; other elements of conservatism largely failed to offer a coherent alternative. Here and there one would find opposition to one or another measure, but nowhere in the intellectual conservative right (as distinct from the libertarian movement) did one see the sort of coherent exposition of ideas that were commonplace in the National Review of the 1950s, 60s, and even the 1970s.

Thus by the early part of this decade, CPAC had already become little beyond an annual showcase for virulent anti-liberalism. Sarah Palin could get rapturous applause for a 2013 speech that offered nothing beyond anti-Obama one liners and jokes about her breasts ( remarking about her husband, she said “he’s got the rifle, I’ve got the rack”). Birtherism, the modern equivalent of John Birch Society Founder Robert Welch’s hyper-conspiratorial theories about Communist influence in America, was tolerated in speech after speech during the Obama era. Either Ron or Rand Paul won five of six CPAC straw polls, showing that the “conservative” movement was increasingly becoming the preserve of the sort of unelectable and dogmatic libertarian that Bill Buckley had opposed decades earlier.

Today Trump stands triumphant and many of the same attendees who cheered Ron Paul will cheer Farage, LePen, and Trump himself. This seems incongruent until one recognizes that each person possesses the one virtue that unites today’s movement: they all drive liberals crazy. Trump worship thus understood stands not as the rejection of the movement but rather as its apparent fulfillment.

Brookhiser calls for rebuilding the conservative movement, and I stand with him in that desire. But that cannot be done unless the movement decides not just whom it is against, but what it is for. That in turn requires going back to first principles and arguing with each other about justice, the good, and the role of the state in achieving such things, all conducted against the backdrop of current challenges and current opinions. Doing this requires real courage and a real and a practical commitment to ideas. Above all, it means acknowledging our failings and resolving to overcome them. And that requires a clear-eyed examination of why Donald Trump swept through the Republican Party like Sherman marching through Georgia.

It turns out that the plurality of Republicans didn’t think movement conservatism addressed the challenges they wanted addressed. It turns out that most Republicans aren’t movement conservatives at all (see the book I co-wrote with professor Dante Scala, The Four Faces of the Republican Party, for the full argument and proof: the article that spawned the book is here) and those voters liked the call to vigorous government action Trump’s platform implied.

Further, it turns out that most movement conservative voters care more about religious liberty and social issues than they do about the size of government, and that Trump has formed a covenant with them that allows them to overlook his many sins. It turns out that many presumed neoconservatives are quite happy with a president who occasionally questions NATO so long as he is rock solid in the defense of Israel. And it turns out that “fiscal conservatives” care more about tax cuts than controlling spending, as the House Freedom Caucus’ actions demonstrate. (Indeed, this has been clear since Steve Forbes beat Phil Gramm for the favor of these voters in the 1996 Republican nomination race).

Trump has given every element of the conservative movement what they want, save one. He has never given the movement intellectuals what they want, a coherent argument for his vision that meets their approval and a demonstration that he is a serious man. But it turns out that conservative intellectuals, like Stalin’s Pope, don’t command many divisions.

A reformed or renewed “conservatism” would take these challenges head on. Renewed conservatism would seek to define itself more by what it is for than by whom it is against, even if this means that some people who call themselves conservatives today would leave the renewed movement. Renewed conservatism would reject what I call “click your heels conservatism,” the tendency of many, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, to hope to go back to Kansas by clicking their ruby slippers. These conservatives believe that by repeating old platforms and old mantras we can return to the glory days of 1976 and 1980. It’s not happening.

Renewed conservatism would place the individual, not faith in ideology or creed, at its center. Most importantly, such a renewal would take Trump and Trump supporters seriously as an authentic expression of the modern American right. It would thus look much more like what the editors here at American Greatness are attempting than what most NeverTrump laments ever contemplate.

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About the Author:

Henry Olsen
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).