During the impeachment charade against President Trump last year, Yoram Hazony wrote in the Wall Street Journal that even if he did leave office prematurely the “conservative unity which NeverTrumpers seek won’t be coming back.” The chasm separating both camps is “unbridgeable,” he wrote. And Trump wasn’t the cause.
Like then, the president appears again to be leaving prematurely, and Hazony’s observation still stands. Although Hazony categorized the chasm in his Journal op-ed as “ideological,” it’s more than that. While he’s no doubt correct that lumpen-Republicans are far less enamored with liberalized trade and immigration than the largely cosmopolitan GOP establishment, the rift is just as much about hard strategy and end-goals than anything else. What rank-and-file conservatives really want—what they need—is to make some solid gains in the culture war with the Left. Clearly, the conservative elite have not done and are not capable of doing this.
As the Sun-Tzu maxim goes, in order to fight your enemy, you must know your enemy. And the GOP elite does not know its enemy. Douglas Murray, Matthew Schmitz of First Things, Paul Gottfried, and Hazony each have made this observation since the George Floyd riots; an event that clarified the Right’s complete failure in shaping the public consciousness.
What the conservative elite has long failed to understand is that the Left views itself more than just a pusher of human progress. It’s actually more grandiose than this. To them, they’re locked in a Manichean battle between good and evil. As German philosopher Carl Schmidt once wrote: “Only when man appeared to be the embodiment of absolute humanity did the other side of this concept appear in the form of a new enemy: the inhuman.” This is indeed how the Left, especially its Marxist manifestations, sees itself and its enemies.
But instead of approaching the Left as the strident moral crusaders they are, the Republican elite traditionally has written them off as amoral, nihilistic, and godless relativists. This is dangerously naïve. Conservative scholar Paul Gottfried recently skewered this tendency when he reminded conservatives that it’s the Left which is the “more fervent and more activist side in our culture wars”; the side that routinely “expresses itself in rage.” It would be “unimaginable,” he wrote, if the Left “was not driven by its own morality.”
For the “more fervent” side then, engagement with them on non-moral terms will be futile. That is, demands for fairness, charges of inconsistency, or practical arguments on issues of public policy won’t bring a single one onside. On illegal immigration, for instance, appeals to the rule of law will generally fall flat every time. For the Left, laws against allowing the free movement of “impoverished victims of historic U.S. imperialism” are heartless, unjust, and illegitimate.
Such arguments won’t fire up centrists or independents, either. This is perhaps just as important. There are swaths of low-information voters throughout the country with a healthy disposition towards anti-Marxism, but much more will be needed to get them up and out.
Moral arguments have to be met with competing moral arguments. In a recent essay, Hazony writes that liberals and neoconservatives alike suffer a fundamental weakness in challenging Marxism because they treat inherited traditions as unjust and instead try to appeal to abstract principles like freedom and democracy. But Marxists, he says, will always be able to find instances of unfreedom and inequality in liberal, free societies—i.e. group differences in income, restrictions against refugees, etc. And always will they be claimed as evidence of social injustice.
Traditional conservatives or the Old Right, which Hazony rightly differentiates from the neoconservative Right, come from a different, more rooted place. In contrast to classical liberals (which neocons essentially are), they treat traditions and customs as not only just, but sacrosanct. This, the elite must understand, is a source of serious moral weaponry for conservatives; both in fighting the crusading Left and in bringing on board centrists with good instincts.
For the Marxist Left, all particularity is invidious discrimination and makes a utopia-based egalitarian absolutism impossible. For conservatives, that’s a good thing. They take pride and find guidance in long-cherished traditions, ancestral ties, and historical distinctions. It’s what makes people special. For the Left, however, these links must be broken. This is exactly what they do when they topple statues, “decolonize” history and the arts, and deplatform those who defend their in-group interests. Same with accusing America-Firsters of “hate speech” or calling for open borders and “refugee justice.” It’s all a way to destroy peoples’ unique value and cut their ties to ancestry and posterity, and it must be called out in precisely these terms.
On illegal immigration then, the GOP shouldn’t lead with a law-and-order argument, but instead forcefully say that it hurts communities which the American people love and cherish. By killing labor standards and disrupting local cultures and customs, illegal aliens uproot communities which people have built up for years and have a moral right to keep as they are. Illegal immigration isn’t just wrong because it’s illegal; it’s wrong because it dispossesses people and destroys a way of life.
To the extent equality absolutism—the essence of Marxism, essentially—flattens cultural differences and crushes meaning and value for people, it’s amoral. Most people agree. For instance, when political scientist Eric Kaufmann commissioned a survey across 18 countries (including Mexico, Korea, and South Africa) asking whether it’s racist or merely “racially self-interested” for people to “want less immigration to help maintain their group’s share of the population,” the majority of respondents stated the latter.
Normal people, it turns out, love their communities and don’t feel the need to permanently change them. But to the egalitarian extremist, no one is special and nothing has meaning. For this, they can and should be made to feel embarrassed and ashamed.
In his book Defending Identity, Soviet dissident and Israeli statesman Natan Sharansky castigated liberalism’s elevation of the individual above the collective. “Liberal democracy,” he wrote, “is fundamentally about the individual… [but] identity, in contrast, is fundamentally about the links to others.” The latter is a kind of “communal self,” he wrote. It provides a “sense of a common world which stretches before and beyond the self, of belonging to something greater than the self, that gives strength not only to community but to the individuals as well.”
Any kind of “post-identity world,” therefore, is one which “denies people their deepest attachments to history and to future, to memory and to inheritance. It denies them the things that give life its most profound meaning.” In other words, defending tradition, heritage, posterity, and group customs and values is absolutely a moral good. To seek its erasure is evil.
This is the position the Right must take to counter the ascendant hard-Left, Gottfried argues. As he writes in a recent anthology (and what Hazony implies in his recent essay), to “invoke a historical community and/or organic national ties against the advocates of globalization [and] human rights rhetoric” is “a Right that can push back with power against the Left . . .” Anything outside of that, at least on its own, and we’ll continue on the same slow, whimpering course we’ve been on for decades.