In the wake of the Weekly Standard’s unceremonious demise, William Kristol and a few of his NeverTrump comrades have transformed a formerly news-aggregating site, The Bulwark, into “a forum for rational, principled, fact-based conservative commentary.” This description is buried in the slam poetry of editor-in-chief Charlie Sykes’ note to readers, which opens with the oh-so-rational—to say nothing of original—complaint that “the president of the United States is a serial liar, a narcissist and a bully, a con man who mocks the disabled and women, a man with no fixed principles who has the vocabulary of an emotionally insecure 9-year-old.”
Hysteria aside, the site’s motto, “Conservatism Conserved,” comes off as a surprisingly honest self-appraisal for its showrunners. Their project primarily is to conserve a political enterprise and nothing else. The purpose of Conservatism, Inc. is to conserve Conservatism, Inc. So kudos for at least that much honesty.
The Bulwark’s mission statement, however, goes on to dedicate the organization to the preservation of “democratic norms, values, and institutions, and educating the public on conservative principles like rule of law, free trade, and expanding legal immigration.” The first part incorporates the right kind of hokey Americanist buzzwords to appeal to anyone, and in doing so distracts from the lies embedded in the second. The idea that “free trade and expanding legal immigration” are inherently or necessarily conservative positions is, as Sykes so eloquently put to phrase, an “intellectual corruption.”
There is an important distinction to be made between traditional American conservatism and the brand that Conservatism, Inc. has propagandized as “conservatism.” In large part, it is a question of means and ends. Conservatism, Inc. prioritizes prosperity (defined exclusively as a prosperous economy) as an end in itself and sees America (its people and its principles) as a means to that end. Simply ask Bill Kristol what he thinks of the American working class, which has lost its livelihood to automation, offshoring, and migratory labor. Not only are they “lazy, decadent,” and “spoiled,” they deserve to be replaced by “New Americans,” who are “less about family” and “more about work ethic.”
Conservatism, Inc.’s lib-owning facts-and-logic connoisseur Ben Shapiro sees virtue as a necessary precondition for sustained prosperity. This might be true, but it reveals the same attitude about means, ends, and priorities than Kristol demonstrated. They are devout ideological capitalists. As is the case with sanctimonious ideologues, their ideology’s perversions, in reality, are never authentic representations of the thing itself. Market forces are divine intervention.
Rather than prosperity narrowly defined, traditional conservatives prioritize posterity. They recognize that prosperity is measured in more than just dollars and cents. Predictably, Tucker Carlson’s recent refocusing on the tribulations of the American family has generated intense criticism from Conservative, Inc., which responded unanimously: “you sound like a socialist!” For questioning the divinity of market forces, Tucker Carlson the apostate is a socialist peddling in “victimhood populism.” Someone alert the Antifa members who terrorized his home last year: Carlson is their guy!
Despite their toothless criticisms, Conservatism, Inc. does not have a good answer for any of the social ills Carlson brings to our attention. They eschewed social issues as a political responsibility long ago and exist now with no social policy suggestions to speak of. To illustrate this point, The Bulwark’s subcategories under which their various articles are classified are dedicated exclusively to Trump, the Wall, “Foreign Policy Shambles,” Immigration, and the Trade War. They offer nothing on the opioid crisis, nothing on the fracturing of American life.
Conservatism, Inc. draws an impermeable line between culture and politics. Culture is reserved for the private realm only. The government can never interfere, as no “gap in the soul” can be filled by a policy-based solution. Government can only destroy culture; it simply cannot contribute in any way to its regeneration. Politics for Conservatism, Inc. is mostly about finance and foreign wars. Cynically, this stance absolves Conservatism, Inc. from having to take responsibility for its own epic failure to conserve any positive social realities that made America great at some point. “Those were never for us in power to defend anyway. It’s up to the individual!”
For these types, prosperity has an exclusive and specific kind of dollars-and-cents value. The distribution of those dollars and cents is never part of the conversation because conversations about fairness or even a general, Tocquevillian equality of condition reek of socialism. Their moral and political philosophy amounts to the idea that capitalism is an absolute good, socialism is an absolute evil, and anything that is not capitalism is socialism.
Shapiro dismisses Carlson out of hand for agreeing in some part with the Left that “voluntary decisions amount to exploitation.” Can’t they? Can’t one voluntarily enter an exploitative situation? What about a voluntarily entered situation absolves it of exploitation? When one chooses the lesser of two evils, is the evil of their choice impervious to criticisms of exploitation just because it was chosen?
In David French’s January 4 podcast dedicated to strawmanning Tucker Carlson the heretic, his female assistant Alexandra DeSanctis sarcastically characterizes Carlson’s argument as such: “If we could just keep the GM plant in Lordstown open, suddenly no one would be addicted to opioids.” The solution she suggests instead lies mysteriously in the free market, while blame for personal suffering is cast entirely on a lack of personal virtue. Maybe if those workers would have exhibited more virtue in the first place, their employer wouldn’t have offshored.
Ah, well. Those who haven’t fallen prey to Chinese fentanyl should learn to code and commit themselves to rootless wage-chasing in order to achieve “the American dream,” whatever that is. The relationship between dignity, work, and community eludes this journalist completely.
Various markers of a healthy civil society have reached dangerous levels of degradation in the United States in the 20th century. The U.S. birthrate rests at less than replacement levels. Moreover, real wages have stagnated since the mid-20th century. Various recent studies have documented a breakdown in social cohesion and participation in civil society. Interpersonal trust attitudes, as well as U.S. citizens’ trust in the government, are both at all-time lows. Loneliness, measured as “perceived social isolation” is reaching levels of epidemic proportion, especially among young people. Americans increasingly live as atomized economic units and die alone, in despair.
To dismiss all of these as mere externalities will not only lead to the demise of Conservatism, Inc., it will lead to a loss of faith in the thing they value above all: capitalism.
The Bulwark is just the latest project for those public intellectuals trying to remold America as an “economy with a country rather than a country with an economy.” Conservatism, Inc. continues to reveal itself as an entity that conserves nothing but itself. The American spirit, however, deeply infused by our Founding with a healthy aversion toward the present variety of economic exploitation, will continue to push back. No amount of slinging mud at Tucker Carlson will prevent this.