American Greatness at Five: No Satisfaction

American Greatness began, as so many creative and political endeavors do, out of a deep sense of dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction with the Republican Party, obviously. Dissatisfaction with the conservative movement, certainly. Definitely dissatisfaction with legacy conservative media, which seemed entirely too satisfied with publishing “conservative” justifications for the downward trajectory of the country.

Above all, American Greatness was born out of a dissatisfaction with a status quo that required conservatives and Republicans to rationalize serial political defeat in the name of preserving their “principles.” (In reality, the “principles” in question had to do with preserving a small group of gatekeepers’ sinecures, status, comforts, and conveniences more than anything else.) After all, what else had they succeeded in conserving? 

Was the country better off in 2016, when American Greatness was founded than it was in 1955 when the modern conservative movement was begun?

Five years later, we are still dissatisfied with the American political scene but are gratified, at least, to see the crisis come into sharp relief. Our institutions are thoroughly corrupted by a bipartisan ruling class, an unaccountable administrative state, oligarchic tendencies, and pernicious utopian ideologies. We are dissatisfied—to say the least—with the largely unchecked monopoly power of Big Tech to suppress disfavored political speech. We are alarmed by the efforts on the part of the current administration to treat political dissenters as extremists and would-be terrorists.

Dissatisfaction is what drives this enterprise. Yet it wouldn’t work if all we ever did was complain. We remain resolute in our work to revitalize the American Right with fresh thinking—thinking that aims to change minds, reinvigorate the American spirit of liberty, and ultimately to set the country back on the right course.  

Five years on, we believe the country faces the same serious challenges, but that at least there are more people today who understand what they are and are prepared to solve them. We have not been alone these past five years, but we are pleased to have played a significant part in the revitalization of the American Right and we are thankful for the friends and allies with whom we have locked arms. 

American Greatness launched on July 14, 2016 in the heat of the presidential election. In one way or another, the three founders—Julie Ponzi, Chris Buskirk, and Ben Boychuk—had been casting about for something new and interesting to do. Something with purpose. We were not satisfied with the political and cultural landscape as we saw it. We understood, maybe no more than instinctively at first, that the ground was shifting, that something important was happening in American politics, something that many self-styled conservative publications either failed or refused to see. We saw an opportunity to rethink old, Reagan-era Republican pieties and to play a role in charting a new course.

In early 2016, a blog called The Journal of American Greatness appeared. Two of that site’s major contributors went on to found American Affairs Journal. A third, Michael Anton, wrote “The Flight 93 Election” and several pseudonymous pieces for us before joining the Trump Administration. When that blog shuttered abruptly, the three of us in consultation with Anton saw the opportunity we had been seeking all along.  

Shortly after we launched, we published an editorial statement titled, “Our Declaration of Independence from the Conservative Movement.” We laid out the point of a new publication. We would abandon ’80s and ’90s-vintage shibboleths and tear up the checklist that often mistook mere policy preferences for matters of high principle.   

The very first line of the editorial stated our ambition: “American Greatness aims to be the leading voice of the next generation of American Conservatism.” Is that still true? 

Insofar as the American Right is broadly “conservative,” that is correct, yes. And insofar as “conservatism” opposes unbridled progressivism, an ideology without limiting principle and antithetical to American constitutional government, count us in.  

But to the extent that the American political and cultural scene requires not conservation but disruption, we’re not conservative at all. We started this publication not to vindicate the status quo, but to obliterate it and build something better.

As we went on to say, “the soil of the conservative movement is exhausted. It needs fertilization, re-sowing, and diligent cultivation if it is to thrive again.” The trouble with “conservatism” today—perhaps more so now than five years ago—is that it finds itself defending (or really hedging on) institutions and ideas that are not worth conserving. Hence the admonition from Anton, writing as Publius Decius Mus, in an early essay for us: 

Whenever you find an article that begins with the title, ‘The Conservative Case’ for or against something, lock your door, check your wallet, and grab your gun. You know what’s coming is an unadulterated sell-out of everything ‘conservatism’ purports to hold dear.

As our friend and colleague Glenn Ellmers has argued more recently, “conservatism is no longer enough.” Truth is, it hasn’t been enough for a long time. What is the point, after all, of fighting to conserve institutions that are hostile to republican government and American liberty?

Our republic is threadbare, assuming it remains a republic at all. The country is deeply divided, yes. Social media and Big Tech exercise near-monopoly control over what Americans see, hear, read, and think—with the complicity and acquiescence of state and federal governments and the legacy press.

But it’s worse than that. Joe Biden’s administration last month released the broad outline of its plans to combat “domestic extremism”—a document that puts on notice anyone who supports a nationalist or populist political platform as “white supremacists” and would-be terrorists.

That happens to be roughly half the country.

Is this dystopia really “who we are” now? Are 74 million voters (give or take) to be proscribed from civil society?

If ever there were a time to reject an oligarchy as it tightens its grip on the country and all of our major institutions—government, media, academia, the military—it is now. (Our nation, let’s not forget, was founded in a revolution.)

We should state loudly and clearly that we reject the premises of the Left and collectivism generally, which would destroy liberty and equality under the law in favor of a leveling and dehumanizing “equity.”

At the same time, we reject the premises of the 21st-century Democratic Party and liberalism itself (or neoliberalism, if you like) perhaps best summed up in a speech Hillary Clinton was willing to give to a group of investment bankers for a hefty six-figure sum but was unwilling to repeat on the campaign trail in 2016: 

My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.

Similarly, we reject the premises of the establishment Republican Party, which often gives lip service to its middle- and working-class base while voting in favor of trade, immigration, and tax policies that undermine Middle America while strengthening multinational corporations.

We wanted, and still need, a proper reinvigoration of American politics. We believed Donald Trump was a means to that end, but not the only means. This part of the original statement is worth repeating and amplifying, because it is so easily misunderstood: 

We are not political partisans. We hold no brief for any particular candidate or policy prescription. On electoral matters, the editors are agnostic. We do not exist to tell anyone else how to vote. We can be neither vindicated nor embarrassed by the personal successes or failures of any candidate or collection of them in this or any other election year.

That remains true today. We spent much—maybe too much—of the past four years debunking media lies about Trump. But we had little choice. Who else was going to do it? National Review? The Washington Examiner? They were too preoccupied dogpiling on Catholic high school kids and other hobgoblins conjured by the New York-Beltway media.

But know this: if Trump had lost the 2016 election—as many legacy conservative publications predicted and ardently hoped he would—that would not have obviated the need for the refounding we laid out five years ago. As we saw so clearly during Trump’s tenure, American conservatism—and America herself—must have statesmen who will faithfully represent the American people, rather than sell out to a rapacious oligarchy of special interests.  

In those early days, we presented what we called the “Greatness Agenda.” It dovetailed with many of the themes Trump announced in his campaign: rethinking “free trade” at a time of outsourcing and deindustrialization; strict enforcement of our immigration laws to allow for assimilation and to secure the lives and properties of Americans; and an “America First” foreign policy that rejects the folly of nation building and waging “forever wars” in the Middle East and around the globe.  

These are not simply policy preferences. They’re tied to vital questions at the heart of a free republic: What does a country owe its people? Is the idea of the “American Dream” still possible? And above all, who rules? Who is, and who should be, sovereign?

The agenda remains sound—and we know it is far from fulfilled. American exceptionalism has been the standard but we believe it is not enough; America still needs a Greatness Agenda. We need politicians to articulate the agenda and everyday citizens to understand it and back candidates who do—perhaps even somebody reading this right now. 

The good news is the ferment of the past five years has seen the founding of several new publications and institutions that are challenging many of the old pieties and advancing new arguments befitting the era. We’ve seen the emergence of new voices who would not necessarily have fit in the old conservative media landscape. We’re proud of our role in that. 

So we reiterate what we professed in our inaugural editorial, and what we have been saying on these pages for five years: This is exactly the kind of forum we strive to provide. We will defend the principles of limited, constitutional government based on the consent of the governed and of the American constitutional order as the best means for securing the rights inherent to all mankind.  

And we won’t be satisfied until it’s done.

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