In Search of Populism: The ruling class ignored the people; the people struck back.
The Era of Conservative Torpor is Over
American Greatness and the Claremont Institute are leading a renaissance on the Right.
Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign is remembered for several things—none of them good. The highlights include failing to campaign in the “Blue Wall” states of the upper Midwest, commissioning fictional opposition research from FusionGPS that failed to move the needle with voters but forms the basis of Robert Mueller’s anti-Trump crusade, and describing Trump supporters as deplorable and irredeemable. It’s part of what Charles Kesler calls “the Left’s growing alienation from middle America.” But that self-alienation isn’t the exclusive province of the political and cultural Left.
Elite opinion makers on the Right are often no better, and sometimes worse. Witness the descent into Lear-like madness of Bill Kristol, founder and former editor of the recently deceased neoconservative journal The Weekly Standard. His peculiar obsession with the person of Donald Trump destroyed the magazine he founded and possibly the careers of the people led astray by his siren song. It also exposed the fact that while Kristol has occasionally had policy goals in common with conservatives, he never shared our devotion to the principles and institutions of the American founding that made possible more than two centuries of peace and prosperity. And to add insult to injury, it was discovered in 2018 that he’s taking money from Left wing billionaires to finance his jihad. He’s not alone. He, along with other neocons, openly pine for impeachment of the president, Democrat electoral victories, and replacement of the existing American people with imported foreign labor they are convinced are morally superior, or at least easier to fool, than the Americans who have seen through their act.
Since Reagan left office, many of the most prominent conservative institutions have been captured by a combination of careerists, opportunists, and temporizers. They hollowed out what had been the beating heart of a vibrant intellectual movement that reinvigorated American politics in the late 20th century. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that this took place alongside the Bush domination of national Republican politics. For Bush era conservatives, self-serving, imprudent, treacly moralizing overcame devotion to historic American principles and thoughtful policy. The contrast between Burnham, Buckley, Chambers, Kendall, and the founding generation of neoconservatives with the generation that took over in the ’90s and 2000s is so stark that drawing attention to it must appear unkind. Out with the intellectuals and policy experts, in with the pundits and talking heads. It didn’t—and doesn’t—serve the country well. Had they been allowed to complete their takeover, they would have succeeded in truly reducing American conservatism to an irritable mental gesture.
Today however, there is a renaissance on the Right even as the legacy conservative media fights an often embarrassing rearguard action lurching from one eructation to the next. When Emerald Robinson offered a pungent critique of the legacy conservative media in a much discussed article, Jonah Goldberg condescended to respond thus: “as much as I enjoy reading the musings of someone I’ve never heard of at cable-news network I’ve never watched explain—in the pages of The American Spectator—the declining relevance of people at Fox, Bloomberg, National Review, and The Weekly Standard….” Don’t bother reading on, you should get the point: Ms. Robinson is one of those people: the mouth-breathing bitter-clingers who’ve probably never even been invited to speak on a fundraising cruise! But for an editor’s intervention, one can easily imagine Goldberg describing her as deplorable.
So what is the set of principles legacy conservative media is advancing? Is there one? Who knows. What we do know is that they don’t like it when townies crash the party at their club. At this point it is hard to discern a substantial, coherent conservative argument against Trump or the set of ideas and polices he is implementing. It turns out that the legacy conservative elite isn’t conservative at all. The only thing they seem consistently interested in conserving is their own cartel. They learned the conservative catechism—but faith without works is dead. In 2015 and 2016 the claim was that Trump couldn’t win. Once it became clear that he would be the Republican nominee they added the claim that he was a con man who couldn’t be trusted, that he mouthed conservative pieties but would renounce them in the unlikely (in their estimation) event that he became president.
As Kesler points out, “Their favorite medium for getting these [criticisms of Trump & his supporters] off their chest—Twitter—suggests that painstakingness is not the point.” There was a con going on, but it didn’t come from the Trump campaign, it came from Conservatism Inc.
Kesler goes on to explain that the people who gathered to support Trump did so to “oppose the existing Republican establishment, the torpor of the conservative movement, and the politically correct, and increasingly anti-American Left.” This is all quite correct, but it lets the anti-Trump dead-enders who claim the name “conservative” off too easily. They’ve become increasingly anti-American too. How else to explain their eagerness to replace uncooperative Red State Americans who ignored them and voted for Trump anyway with a new, and presumably more cooperative people—and their disdain for working class communities that “deserve to die?”
The good news is that the creative destruction Conservatism, Inc. is always recommending for flyover America is finally its hitting members of that atrophied guild. Witness The Weekly Standard’s very public slow motion suicide. The 2016 election was a clarifying moment. The age of big government “conservatism,” of a thousand points of light, Bush, McCain, and Romney, of National Review and The Weekly Standard has come to a close. Perhaps many of yesterday’s crop of conservative pundits realized that they weren’t conservatives at all. Non-cons like George Will, Max Boot, and Steve Schmidt all advocated for Democrat victory ahead of the midterms. And they have regularly flip-flopped long held positions when they find that Trump holds them too and have consistently worked to undermine his presidency, stooping even to use the Left’s rhetoric of identity politics and racial division.
Most objectionable, perhaps, is their increasingly broad, outspoken antipathy to the middle class.
These are the people who elected Donald Trump. These are the people who backed the Tea Party and were sold out. This time, though, we’re creating new journals, new think tanks, and putting forward new candidates to replace the moribund legacy institutions whose time has passed. There are many good people there, but they will slowly leave and go where the energy is.
The institutions that formed the backbone of the conservative movement of Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan are fading. But the ideas that animated them are not. They served their purpose, but like so many old generals are stuck fighting the last war. But new institutions like American Greatness and a reinvigorated Claremont Institute are focused on building a better American future rather than just yelling stop. Negation is not enough.
The issues of both principle and prudence that unite the Right and that can unite all kinds of Americans of good faith are:
- Citizenship – This means solidarity and mutual trust supported by a pro-citizen immigration policy
- Pro-worker economic policies that promote innovation and technological supremacy as the only path to prosperity and social mobility
- America First foreign policy that protects the American homeland, our unique interests in our hemisphere, and eschews optional wars and moral imperialism
- Returning power to the people by dismantling the Deep State and returning to the federal system that empowers state and local governments that are closer and more responsive to the citizenry.
If you want to know where the country is going, ignore the moribund incumbents and watch the innovators who are building new institutions dedicated to a restoration of American constitutionalism built upon a broad consensus supporting historic American principles.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.