The Empire Strikes Back

Conservative establishment journalists are hardly making a secret of their revulsion for the populist Right. In fact they are wearing that contempt proudly, as a badge of honor. The New York Post has just offered selections from American Breakdown, a book-length social commentary by Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker. This impressionistic study of why “America doesn’t trust itself,” begins its litany of complaints with what should be a predictable gripe: “And yes, let’s acknowledge it: Trump and his friends have surely played a part in undermining trust in recent years with their stream of falsehoods about stolen elections and other bogus claims.” Since Baker in the next several paragraphs tells us about the dishonesty of the media and the Deep State, how can he be sure the outcry of the populist Right against a rigged election in 2020 are uniformly false?

An even less subtle attack on the populist Right has come from neoconservative columnist Douglas Murray who last week wrote a commentary with the title “Pence Can’t Turn the Clock Back on the Republican Party.”” According to Murray, “the problem was not in the program” pushed by the Trump administration.  The “problem” was that neither Trump nor his followers would accept the hard work of selective, delicate reform. Because Trump failed in this task, “a new generation of GOPers believe it isn’t worth performing the careful surgery.” Moreover, “There is a type of conservative who has become a type of revolutionary. They want to blow up half the country’s institutions and tear down the other half. Not unlike their opponents on the left. The FBI isn’t working as well as we’d like? Let’s burn it down and salt over the earth. The Department of Education is inefficient and too controlled by the teachers’ unions? Destroy the Department of Education.”

Obviously, populism is as much of a problem for Murray as it is for the explicitly anti-populist Pence, whom Murray hypocritically scolds for his negative remarks on the subject. For Murray and our former vice-president, favoring the dissolution of the Department of Education (which Reagan promised to shutter), is an “unconservative” outrage. But why exactly is the call to abolish a department created by the Carter administration, as a favor to teachers’ unions, and which now vigorously pushes LGBT instruction in public schools a reckless, “revolutionary” act. And why is it equally revolutionary (perhaps I should say “insurrectionary’) to call for the abolition of the FBI, which has been so weaponized by the Left that it may be beyond “delicate” tinkering with. The FBI is not a constitutionally established branch of our government, like the judiciary, which the Left has also weaponized. The FBI is a federal agency that was placed under the Department of Justice. Why is the proposal from some on the right to abolish this dangerously politicized surveillance agency tantamount to calling for scorched-earth war against the Left?

There is a settled view among establishment conservatives and a fortiori among neoconservatives that political institutions created or occupied by the Left should be treated as sacred by virtue of having been around for a while. These institutions, if kept, may even yield jobs for one’s friends or relatives. In any case, defending pillars of government overreach bespeaks “moderateness” and an indication that the defender can be invited to gatherings with liberal celebrities without causing social embarrassment.

Recently while reading in Tablet an otherwise engrossing article “The Bronze Age Pervert’s Dissertation on Leo Strauss,” I was struck by this gratuitous dig at the Claremont Institute for taking the populist side in the current struggle for the soul of the Right:

“In recent years, a set of wholly immoderate West Coast Straussians have convinced themselves that America needs a Trumpist revolution to reclaim ‘the republic’ from the progressive-bureaucratic ‘regime,’ election results notwithstanding. Divided between hapless moderates and unhinged reactionaries, the American Straussian project seems to be unraveling.”

While East Coast Straussians, according to the author, are prone to “soporific lectures,” the more riotous West Coast Straussians have become menacing reactionaries. The attack by the author, Blake Smith, does nothing to advance our understanding of the Bronze Age Pervert’s dissertation, but it may be designed to show that the writer seeks establishment conservative respectability and pursues that while writing for an unabashedly neoconservative site. But why is someone an “unhinged reactionary” for resisting a “progressive-bureaucratic regime” which is subverting our constitutional freedoms and harassing and persecuting its political opposition? Perhaps establishmentarians don’t regard what the Biden administration has done to weaponize entire departments of the government and turn surveillance agencies against critics of the Left as something that calls for serious pushback.

This may be the key difference between what is now referred to as the populist Right and the conservative establishment. Those who grouse too loudly about our current political condition may distress our “moderates” even more than the only mildly objectionable Left.

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About Paul Gottfried

Paul Edward Gottfried is the editor of Chronicles. An American paleoconservative philosopher, historian, and columnist, Gottfried is a former Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, as well as a Guggenheim recipient.

Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Notable Replies

  1. Defenders of the status quo–regardless how they view themselves, or those with whom they may ‘agreeably’ disagree–are as big of a problem as the left with whom we should ALL be allied against.

    Although engaging in absolutes is often a lazy substitute for engaged thought and logic, unfortunately, the ambitions of the rich and powerful often force binary choices. In other words, there are times in the history of civilizations where tempered thought and moderate choice are the greatest of evils.

    “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” ~ Barry Goldwater

  2. The biggest problem with establishment types can be found in Jonathan Haidt’s moral matrices of political movements. In this case, basic model conservative GOPe types like Murray worship institutions because they crave stability. So for a guy like that it goes without saying he’s aghast at the idea of wiping out a 115+ year old org like the FBI because it’s over a century old. I find myself leaning toward this attitude in general but the notion tweaking a irredeemably corrupt agency with such a sordid track record is about as stupid as Travis Coats putting a muzzle on now rabid Old Yeller and expecting things will be just fine.

  3. An good analogy might be the quality of craftsmanship one puts onto repairing a hole in ones boat if you are in it and in the middle of the sea and it is sinking vs having it in drydock … Plus these same type of conservatives have been tellin gus " wev’e got this " for how long now and how far has the political spectrum shifted to the left ?

  4. Avatar for task task says:

    After 115 years of mostly corruption don’t you think its time to let go and start over?

  5. Avatar for task task says:

    Same story, same reply means we know it just will not work.

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