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The #NeverTrumpumpkins define themselves by their visceral distaste for the president. He offends their fastidious sensibilities, outrages them with his unfiltered Twitter musings, and violates their sense of propriety with his secular hedonism and sheer joy in his own vulgarity. That he’s also delivering the most conservative administration in history is, to them, beside the point—because Trump neither represents nor embodies “movement” conservatism. And therein, for them, lies the problem.
Movements are, almost by definition, attractive to the young and the emotionally immature. Followers love to follow; even more, they love to memorize catechisms and rote talking points, which they parrot on the air and in column inches, as if by simply asserting their “principles” they are proving them as well.
Eventually, though, both content and context are lost and only the talking points remain. The argument from authority becomes as circular and self-referential as any obscure religious contretemps, and of interest only to the anointed. Which is why they fall upon each other with the glee of zealots who have been given orders to purge the heretics by any means necessary.
I have coined a portmanteau term for this state of affairs: “preenciples.” You know what they are: smaller government, less regulation, free trade, federalism, etc. It’s a creed, constantly professed, acolytes of (fill in the blank: Mises, Hayek, Strauss, Buckley) reassuring each other that by consulting the sacred texts they will always have the correct views on the issues, and thus ensure their place among the elect.
Political creeds, however, are generally the provinces of the Left, which believes in history’s “arc” and “iron laws”—“scientific” dialectical materialism, socialism, communism, and the rest of the intellectual charlatanism (including psychiatry and sociology) that has followed in the wake of Rousseau, Marx, Lenin, and Mao. “Little Red Books” and Five-Year Plans are the staples of this form of political worship.
I’ve addressed the programmatic Left in my two most recent books, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace—a study of the eternal battle between good and evil, centered on the moral nihilism of the Frankfurt School of 20th-century Communist philosophers—and The Fiery Angel, a series of interlocking essays regarding some of the touchstones of Western art and culture, from the Greeks through the 20th century, and how they provide the antidote to the spiritual poison injected into Western veins by the Frankfurters and their fellow travelers in academe and now journalism.
Now, does everything from the Oresteia to Wagner’s Ring cycle form a coherent, intellectually and emotionally consistent “conservative” program, by which we can live our lives? Clearly not. The great works of art are and must always be non-didactic. Politicized art is worthless; but art that has political resonance generally stands the test of time.
To my ears, then, the constant harping in some quarters on “movement” conservatism is reminiscent of everything I’ve ever heard from the Left, or experienced in East Germany and the old Soviet Union. I’m not suggesting that “true” conservatism involves replacing one (transient) set of “preenciples” with another one, albeit far older. Rather, my argument is that conservatism isn’t a movement at all. Nor should it be. Rather, it’s a simple acknowledgement of timeless verities and a willingness to defend them against malevolent faddishness masquerading as “progress,” whose object is the destruction of our culture and its replacement with… well, nothing.
In short, it’s a recognition of great cultural peril, and the willingness to do something about it.
Think of the struggle between Right and Left in military terms. We are the defenders of the citadels of Western culture, which are our hard-won patrimony. Leftists are the attackers, always seeking to undermine, to sap, to breach, to assault; for them, as for Hillary Clinton in her Wellesley senior thesis, “there is only the fight.” They stay awake nights trying to figure out new ways to bring the walls down; as I like to say, they never stop, they never sleep, they never quit.
But attackers have a problem: they generally need three times the manpower of the defenders in order to win. A well-defended, confident citadel, with plenty of provisions, doughty defenders, and at least one supply line, can hold out forever. Constantinople eventually fell to the Muslims after 700 years of battering, and then only because the Western Roman Empire had collapsed a thousand years prior, and Byzantium’s relationship with the emerging nation-states of Europe was often fraught; the Crusaders, after all, sacked the city even before the Turks did.
On the other hand, in 1565, the 6,000 or so Knights Hospitallers and other fighters on the island of Malta held out against Turkish force numbering nearly 40,000. And, of course, in World War II both Leningrad and Stalingrad repelled the might of the Wehrmacht after prolonged and deadly sieges.
The “conservative” advantage, then, lies not in a set of policy prescriptions but in its bedrock beliefs, which center on the necessity of preserving, protecting, and defending the Western civilization that eventually codified those principles in the U.S. Constitution, and which itself is now under attack. By articulating a set of policy principles, “movement” conservatism puts those principles on the negotiating table, and over the course of the past 75 years or so, has gradually bargained them away for a mess of pottage.
Real conservatism, however, conserves. It understands what’s a stake, whom to fight, and how to win; after all, it has more than 3,000 years of experience, much of which was recorded and remains accessible today. The Left tries to combat this disadvantage (via its control of the educational system) by delegitimizing and eradicating the past. By cutting us off from our cultural wellsprings, they hope to disarm and demoralize us. Don’t let them.
For in the end, the only truly “conservative” principle is to conserve. It may not be pretty, it may not be couth, but it’s all that really matters. We win, they lose, as a great man once said.
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