Dear Conservative, Inc.: Follow or Get Out of the Way
The New Right is the captain now.
When the old guard goes out of its way to crush a new endeavor, you have to wonder what’s at stake. Nick Solheim and Saurabh Sharma of American Moment are young, devoted, and driven to “forge a cadre of aligned and dedicated young people to serve in government and public-policy organizations to support strong families, a sovereign nation, and prosperity for all.” Why should an editor of National Review—a publication whose very reason for being is ostensibly to energize and guide the conservative movement—want to undermine and discredit this exciting new endeavor in the eyes of his movement conservative audience?
“If you believe the people behind the new organization American Moment,” writes Butler, “the main problem with the Swamp is simply that the wrong people have been in charge. In case you were wondering, they think they are the right people.” How dare they.
I know it’s hard but imagine an organization on the right actually trying to “identify, educate, and credential young Americans who will implement public policy that supports strong families, a sovereign nation, and prosperity for all.”
Imagine if that organization is “not adherent to the morally bankrupt system that is American higher education, so college degrees, as well as prior political experience, are not requirements for admission.”
Imagine if it practices what it preaches, reaching out to find real talent outside of fancy schools or wealthy families: “generous funding is designed to make the fellowship livable with no external income, so young people of all economic means are encouraged to apply.”
It’s—it’s exactly what we need.
The implicit conceit here is that National Review, by contrast, has hardly any aspirations to influence public policy or install conservatives in positions of political power. Judging by the waning influence and failure of establishment conservatism over the last decade or two, we will not fault anyone for believing this to be true. But the clear implication of the snipe is that in the purity of their small-government piety, National Review simply wants to eliminate as many of those positions as possible. This is an impossibility, as well as a lie.
Buckley’s main claim to fame was not to stand athwart other conservatives yelling stop, but to shape the Reagan coalition’s acquisition and use of political power. Indeed, the National Review Institute’s Burke to Buckley program was, in its own words, created to “build a network of talented, like-minded individuals who can assist one another professionally and personally for years to come.” The William F. Buckley Jr. Fellowship in Political Journalism was designed to exert the same sort of influence over the press. Like the Claremont Institute—like any movement organization that hopes to be remotely effectual—National Review’s organizations share an explicit interest in training up young conservatives and getting them into positions where they cannot just gatekeep but lead.
The movement Buckley led was dynamic—intellectually nimble and responsive to the urgent concerns of its day. But some inheritors of that movement have gradually frozen conservatism in time, and frozen out conservatives painfully conscious of just what time it is. Faced with unprecedented threats to first-amendment rights on the part of digital conglomerates, the time has long passed for Cold War-era slogans about private enterprise. Faced with the staggering financial, strategic, and psychological cost of generations of interventionism, the time is past for scolding Americans about their “intolerance for the messy and unending business of preserving a general peace.” And faced with the rise of new generations unwilling to play the honorable loser, the time is past for snobs who can do little more than turn up their noses.
The real reason some in the old guard feel threatened by American Moment is not that Solheim and Sharma want to influence politics. It’s that they accuse Conservative, Inc.—that dependable stable of campaign consultants, op-ed writers, and think tank wonks who have dominated intellectual conservatism since the ’80s—of having institutionalized failure. Those accusations hit home.
In 2016, when Donald Trump stood poised to help sweep away the detritus of this “zombie Reaganism,” Conservative, Inc. took on its final boss form: hidebound, disdainful, and furiously resistant to change. Here’s Kevin Williamson in National Review’s March 2016 issue (a month after February’s Against Trump bonanza special) blaming Trump’s populist base for the problems they were desperate to get solved:
If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy—which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog—you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence—and the incomprehensible malice—of poor white America.
In defense of this outrageous attack, David French said the quiet part out loud: “millions of Americans aren’t doing their best. Indeed, they’re barely trying.” Leave aside for a moment the pure blinkered prejudice of these astonishing statements—their blithe disregard for global economic trends, the ease with which they wave away the constant verbal abuse that poor white Americans receive from well-heeled Democrats and Republicans alike, their unwillingness to entertain the notion that any of this meaningfully contributes to the suffering of middle America. Bracket the evidence crashing down around downwardly-mobile Americans’ heads that their bipartisan elite has spent over twenty years putting their country at odds with their interests and at war with their identities. Even tabling all that, the fact remains: Americans—lots of them—are hurting. Badly. What do establishment conservatives propose to do about that?
The answer is: nothing. No, really. They tell us that government and political leaders can do nothing. “Government Can’t Heal Us, Tucker Carlson,” Kyle Smith insisted in National Review in 2019—as if Carlson’s now-famous monologue suggesting maybe Republicans should craft policies that, you know, actually help their own voters was some form of sacrilege. Smith went on to say that leaders who actually care about us ackshually can’t help us. “Leaders may want” good things “for us, but we should have no illusion that they can provide those things for us,” chided Jim Geraghty. Shut up and lose, in other words. As we said a few years ago, “[t]his anti-politics of principled loserdom is a secular form of homiletics, preaching unheard to the unwashed.”
So perhaps there is one thing that they have elected themselves to do: preach scornfully to demoralize and disparage Republican voters, hurrying up the day that so many have died, retired, or sunk into oblivion that their whole icky demographic has disappeared and been replaced. In other words, exactly what the woke-led Left is doing. But look, our superiors in Conservative, Inc. know they are better Christians and citizens than millions of their fellows, as they like to remind us all daily. For them, tough love for your actual citizen neighbors means telling them how they are responsible for everything bad in America, from racism to the spread of COVID-19.
Oddly, among this set it often turns out that love of those who are not your actual citizen neighbors, from occupied Iraq to every impoverished immigrant group in the world, does require government intervention and leaders who “care.” For years, the Wall Street Journal has been gleefully calling for an onrush of low-wage immigrant labor: “The Recovery Needs Immigrants.” “To Grow the Economy, America Needs Immigrants.” “There’s no economic or health case for blocking all immigrants.” Reasonable minds can differ about how many new workers we should be letting onto our shores, but what about the ones who are already here? Are they completely incapable of “growing the economy” or driving its recovery? Are they unworthy of investment or training, devoid of potential to contribute to American life at all? The cumulative implication is that Americans should either abandon their cratering communities and head for the city, or else prepare to subsist on whatever meagre scraps of UBI we deign to give them until they die off.
This suicidal “messaging” hasn’t worked electorally in the past and it won’t work in the future. Unless the Republican party prioritizes the ruled classes—not the ruling ones—in its campaigning and policy proposals, we risk squandering the major inroads Trump made, ones that won the Republican Party an unearned second chance at survival. The result will be obsolescence and irrelevance, which are exactly what Conservative, Inc. seems to welcome in its heart. Republicans can keep gaslighting and abusing their core constituency—that “credulous boomer rube demo,” those “childless single men who masturbate to anime”—but it’s not going to end well for the party. Why not do something for the people you’re supposed to be championing, for a change? Why not fight to claw back their trust?
Perhaps because it’s just too late. Maybe Conservative, Inc. is simply too old, too tired, and too compromised to close its yawning credibility gap. In which case, the younger generation of conservative leaders like Sharma and Solheim are to be thanked, even celebrated, for stepping into the breach, and not a moment too soon. Here, on the front lines of restoring the Right to greatness in our time, we support their endeavor unreservedly. How tiresome that anyone who shows initiative of this kind is faced with vicious resistance from movement police lording shamelessly over decline. But if the old guard is really committed to its self-defeating obstructionism, so be it: we don’t need them anyway. In their hearts, conservatives know the new Right has already taken the lead.
There are still a lot of good people working at places like National Review, some of whom acknowledge some of these truths, and the publication still does good work at times. They ran Mark Krikorian’s short defense of American Moment recently. But let’s stop pretending that at an organizational level, Conservative, Inc. has a clue as to the political landscape it is now operating within or what to do about it moving forward. Let’s stop pretending that the old Right has demonstrated any coherent, consistent plan moving forward, or any coherent, consistent response to Trump even now, well after he has left office.
Spare us the mumbling about William F. Buckley. That was a long time ago now. What Buckley accomplished was to bring a coalition together and lead it forward into battle. When National Review publishes dumb and vindictive attacks on American Moment, the Claremont Institute, and all those mendacious poor whites voting for The Donald, it reveals it is incapable of that task today. This is no longer about “having the debate” or hosting various viewpoints. This is a rudderless ship.
At first, we gave our detractors the benefit of the doubt—these are trying times, and people disagree about what is to be done. But it’s been five long years, and it is still not clear where they stand. It does not matter whose fault it is that NR doesn’t even seem to understand or be able to explain to its readers where the fault lines on the Right now are. We hope they eventually figure it out. But the upshot is this: Conservative, Inc. is no longer the gatekeeper or standard of anything, and everyone knows it. This American Moment has passed them by. If they remain alarmed and confused about the outlines of the consistent, coherent popular agenda the energetic young new Right is proposing and developing—if they continue to blindly oppose it—well, let the dead bury the dead.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
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