Salvo 11.20.2023 20 minutes

Everything Is—Still—Fine


Official conservatism would rather harumph about dissidence than address core issues.

A consistent theme of my writing over the past seven years—that is to say, since the publication of “The Flight 93 Election”—is that a non-trivial number of the leaders of America’s legacy “conservative” institutions are either liars or fools. Since I can’t think of a better way to restate the point, I will just repeat what I wrote then:

One of the paradoxes—there are so many—of conservative thought over the last decade at least is the unwillingness even to entertain the possibility that America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad. On the one hand, conservatives routinely present a litany of ills plaguing the body politic. Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can’t (or won’t) discipline disruptive punks, and at the higher levels saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege. And so on and drearily on. Like that portion of the mass where the priest asks for your private intentions, fill in any dismal fact about American decline that you want and I’ll stipulate it.

Conservatives spend at least several hundred million dollars a year on think-tanks, magazines, conferences, fellowships, and such, complaining about this, that, the other, and everything. And yet these same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo. Oh, sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted—tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?

If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.

But it’s quite obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff.

I won’t apologize for the length of that quote; every word of it is truer and more relevant now than it was when first published (September 5, 2016).

Indeed, by most measures, things today are worse. To the above list of catastrophes, we may add two categories of problems. The first encompasses trends that were already obvious then but which I didn’t enumerate for reasons of space; e.g., opioid addiction, drug cartels operating on American soil with impunity, and falling life expectancies. Add to those the many others that have emerged since or deteriorated considerably: a nationwide crime wave, rampant anti-white racism, the worst inflation since the 1970s, increasingly unaffordable housing, crashing birthrates, anti-constitutional biomedical tyranny imposed by fiat, state-enforced anti-family transgenderism, pornography deliberately stocked in grade school libraries, a wide-open border, the federal government spending taxpayer dollars to transport and dump illegal immigrants throughout Middle America, years of pretrial detention for walking into the Capitol and staying within the velvet ropes, and so on and on.

Also much worse—dumber, more in denial, more out of touch, more treacherous to its ostensible allies and more obsequious toward the ruling class—is the “conservative” intelligentsia, whose responses to all this range from “None of that is happening” to “You’re grossly exaggerating” to “Actually, all this is fine; good even” to (especially) “How dare you say that!”

As I also wrote eight days later, responding to that essay’s many, many critics:

I would be overjoyed to read a convincing account of why things are not that bad, why—despite appearances—the republic is healthy, constitutional norms are respected, the working class and hinterland communities are in good shape, social pathologies are low or at least declining, our elites prioritize the common good, our intellectuals and the media are honest and fair. Or if that’s too big a lift, how about one that acknowledges all the problems and outlines some reasonable prospect for renewal? But only if it’s believable. No skipped steps and no magical thinking. Dr. Conservatism needs to do better than his habitual “Sorry about the cancer, here’s a bottle of aspirin.”

I renewed this challenge last year, with an updated litany of contemporary woes. Seven years on, I still await even the attempt to explain why “everything is fine.”

Instead, what I consistently get is outrage—OUTRAGE!—that I dare notice that things are not going well. In response, I here repeat my appeal: explain to me why what I see happening is not in fact happening, why it’s all a mirage, a figment of my fevered imagination. Or, to the extent that you feel compelled to concede that some of it might be real, explain why it’s not as bad as it looks. Or why it’s actually a “positive good.”

But above all, explain to me why a “conservatism” that claims to stand four-square for constitutionalism, the Founding, the rule of law, law and order, impartial justice, “freedom,” limited government, virtue, morality, religion, free speech, the right of self-defense, etc. is so incandescently angry at those of us who point out that all these things (and more) are under mortal threat while those same “conservatives” assiduously bow and scrape to those causing the threat.

Instead, all we get are blurts of astonished indignation that anyone might believe things are going sideways. Two recent entrants stand out.

Matthew Continetti objects to Up from Conservatism, a recent anthology published by the Claremont Institute, in which (among other things) some of the contributors encourage young men to get fit. This Continetti finds “weird” and mocks simply by repeating the advice as if it were self-evidently absurd.

What’s more important is the intellectual dishonesty and bad faith on display here. What Continetti above all finds “weird” is that the ranks of what he calls the “New Right” are “composed almost entirely of men.” That’s no doubt true. But what about Continetti’s “Old Right”? No, not the bad old paleo Right (Continetti has no time or sympathy for them), but Continetti’s own established conventional neocon Right. It might be slightly more distaff than his despised “New Right,” but by how much? A look at the website of Continetti’s home base, the American Enterprise Institute, reveals 153 “scholars,” of whom 28 are women (plus one, let us say, ambiguous case). I leave to the reader to decide for himself whether 81.6 percent constitutes “almost entirely” or merely “mostly,” but either way, Continetti’s own milieu appears, from its sex ratio, scarcely less “weird” than the “New Right” whose alleged weirdness he ridicules. (This is to say nothing of the aforementioned ambiguous case; at a minimum, Continetti would seem to live in too glass a house to risk casting stones about “weirdness.”)

Similarly, I haven’t read (nor will I) Continetti’s 552-page tome on American conservatism. But a friend who has helpfully informs me that the figures Continetti there discusses are “almost entirely men.” That’s to be expected, for any number of reasons. Still, by Continetti’s own “logic,” mustn’t that make mainstream American conservatism—especially the neoconservatism which, I am told, Continetti’s text elevates to the summit of the American Right—“weird”?

Carson Holloway, the target of more of Continetti’s fire than any other contributor, has already ably responded to Continetti’s attacks on himself. As for Continetti’s complaints about my “Pessimistic Case for the Future,” which leads the volume, leaving aside the fact that Continetti studiously avoids mention of all the qualifiers with which my chapter begins, he nowhere says why he disagrees with any point in my analysis. He just takes for granted that his readers will appreciate the accusation that any talk of an America in crisis is false and disloyal. Continetti is no doubt right about readers’ reaction. But are he, and they, correct that “everything is fine”? Obviously I think they aren’t. But Continetti, again, doesn’t bother to make a case. Nor does he challenge his readers’ entrenched opinions; he merely flatters them.

Continetti even goes so far as to accuse me of hating America because I lament its present state. Really? It’s now unpatriotic to be against fentanyl addiction? To worry about the incompetence that led to the Navy’s spate of recent crashes and fires? To oppose genital mutilation for prepubescents? Continetti charges that my writing “recalls the ‘Amerika’ literature of the Vietnam-era left,” but that charge in fact applies to him. If I’m wrong to be against these things, then Continetti must be for them; which means it is he, not I, who is the real spiritual successor of the New Left. This reasoning, I fully admit, is facile; but it’s facile in exactly the same way as Continetti’s shoot-the-messenger brand of “patriotism,” which holds ostrich-like denial to be the epitome of love of country.

I could go on at great length about Continetti’s concern-troll misunderstanding (whether deliberate or genuine, I could not say) of the teachings of the late Harry Jaffa and the mission of the Claremont Institute. But I’ve covered all that ground elsewhere (e.g., here). I will instead note two relevant facts that may help put Continetti’s attacks into context.

First, in the aforementioned “Flight 93 Election,” I took Continetti to task for what seemed to me then (and still seems) to be faulty logic. Picking up the above excerpt where it left off, that piece continued:

A recent article by Matthew Continetti may be taken as representative—indeed, almost written for the purpose of illustrating the point. Continetti inquires into the “condition of America” and finds it wanting. What does Continetti propose to do about it? The usual litany of “conservative” “solutions,” with the obligatory references to decentralization, federalization, “civic renewal,” and—of course!—Burke. Which is to say, conservatism’s typical combination of the useless and inapt with the utopian and unrealizable. Decentralization and federalism are all well and good, and as a conservative, I endorse them both without reservation. But how are they going to save, or even meaningfully improve, the America that Continetti describes? What can they do against a tidal wave of dysfunction, immorality, and corruption? “Civic renewal” would do a lot of course, but that’s like saying health will save a cancer patient. A step has been skipped in there somewhere. How are we going to achieve “civic renewal”? Wishing for a tautology to enact itself is not a strategy.

It is not unreasonable to suspect that this bothered him and that his repeated attacks on me, and on the Claremont Institute generally, arise from more than a merely intellectual impetus.

Another perhaps-not-irrelevant detail is that Continetti once participated in a Claremont Institute summer fellowship program and has contributed to its flagship publication, the Claremont Review of Books. He has since scrubbed all this out of his bio as too embarrassing to mention, but also (I suspect) because of the different shade these details cast on his motives. In particular, despite never having had any formal role at the Institute nor place on the CRB’s masthead, Continetti two years ago took the initiative to inform us that he would no longer write for that journal because of the continued presence in its pages of John Eastman, the late Angelo Codevilla, and me.

The hair-splitting, hall-monitor-esque peccadillos of “journalistic ethics” have never been a matter of especial study or interest for me. But I believe it is considered, at a minimum, bad form not to disclose one’s acrimonious personal history with persons or institutions one attacks. No doubt Continetti doesn’t care about that. Do his editors? They let him get away with it, so one must assume they don’t either.

Speaking of intellectual dishonesty, bad faith, and undisclosed personal history, we turn now to Damon Linker. I had hoped to have said all I had to say about Linker here. But he keeps coming back with more potshots. While Linker admittedly hasn’t said anything new in a long time, the fact that his latest attack appears in the New York Times—the world’s most powerful media outlet, and arguably most important pillar of the ruling regime—demands a response.

Linker (and the Times, for that matter) are not engaged in honest debate, much less a disinterested search for truth, but rather in a scorched-earth propaganda war against their perceived enemies. This is par for the course for Linker who, scarcely a few weeks ago, allied himself with Jason Wilson, an Antifa-flak and “journalistic” hitman whose specialty, when he isn’t whitewashing and glorifying leftist street violence, is defamation meant to ruin reputations and destroy lives.

If it weren’t all but impossible to win a libel suit in the United States (thank you New York Times Co. v. Sullivan), “reporter” Wilson and his employer, the Guardian, might be in a lot of trouble. As it happens, threats of litigation have in the past worried them enough to issue extraordinary “corrections,” such as this 203-word doozy in which the paper was forced to amend or retract no fewer than eight claims, assertions, or implications. There is much that could be said about Wilson, and perhaps should and will be said later. But for now, the important thing to note is that this is the company Linker—believe it or not, a lecturer at an Ivy League university—keeps: paid liars who moonlight as left-wing brownshirts. Or should that be vice versa?

But the Guardian is a far-Left foreign rag of dubious reputation and limited reach. In trading up to the Times, Linker can now leverage its massive prestige (however undeserved), 9.7 million subscribers and 55 million X/Twitter followers to amplify his libels. Against all that might, I can offer only the truth, on a much-less-trafficked site, and no social media presence at all. Hence the war being waged on my friends and me can only be described as asymmetric. Given these asymmetries, one wonders if it’s even worth responding. And yet: despite—or because of—the immense power imbalance, is it really prudent always to let calumny slide?

Linker’s longtime schtick, or con, is to present himself as a “true” or perhaps “reformed” but definitely “sensible” and not “radical” or “extremist” (i.e., bad) conservative. In truth, Linker turned to the Left at least 25 years ago, if he didn’t begin there in the first place.

I’ve told this story before, but in brief, in the late 1990s Linker misrepresented himself to friends of mine, and then to me, to use them (and me) to get him a job that would help him establish himself in New York conservative circles. He jumped ship from that perch amazingly early, leaving me in the lurch after I had spent considerable capital to help him, so that he could infiltrate another conservative institution in order to write a “tell-all” and emerge, “courageous” and suddenly respectable, as a former rightist who saw the light. In other words, the first few years of Linker’s career were the “sleeper agent” stage, during which he pretended to be something he wasn’t so as to gain entry to precincts that otherwise never would have welcomed him, which he could then betray to his own profit.

It was dishonest, it was low—and it was extremely effective. For two decades now, Linker has been dining out on his status as a righteous apostate, a virtuous convert. This is the only trick he knows, the only card in his deck, the basis of his entire career.

Linker’s character may be rotten, but he is not stupid, nor is he uneducated. Like me, Linker studied political philosophy. He must then know that all sorts of political outcomes, all sorts of regimes—and regime failures—are possible, and that no regime can possibly last forever. He must understand the many qualitative differences between the classical “best regime” and modern liberal democracy, even at its best. He must also see at least some of the ways and extent to which our present regime has departed from, even baldly contravenes, the letter and spirit of the American Constitution.

Yet Linker not only denies all this; he takes me to task for my speculations on the prospect of post-constitutional government. Does he deny that such is possible? Or does he merely deny that it could ever happen in the United States? In my book The Stakes, I describe those “conservative Hegelians” who scoff at the idea of the “end of history” while implicitly, sometimes explicitly, endorsing it. For to foreswear as dangerous and immoral any discussion of what might come after American constitutionalism is to assume, even to insist, that said constitutionalism must last forever. This assumption flies in the face of theory (nearly all political philosophers know that no regime can last forever), history (all hitherto existing regimes have eventually been fundamentally transformed and/or have fallen), and common sense (every pie-baking grandmother knows that nothing human is permanent).

Similarly, Linker must know that my analysis of “Caesarism” is all but identical to that of Leo Strauss, from whom I got the idea. Linker claims to be a Straussian. Was Strauss wrong? Was he an “extremist”? Or can Linker somehow show that my account distorts Strauss? At any rate, he doesn’t even try. Furthermore, Linker must also know, because I plainly said, that I offered my speculations about a post-constitutional America in a spirit of lament. But he presents them as if I am licking my chops in anticipation of a dictator.

In Linker’s previous collaboration with Antifa smear-monger Jason Wilson, they both completely distorted my discussion of Caesarism, and of post-constitutionalism generally. First, and most fundamental, they presented my discussion of “Red [i.e., right] Caesar” as a proposal or wish when in reality the plain text (Chapter 7 of The Stakes) makes clear that I was merely assessing a probability—which I also made clear I believe to be less likely than a “Blue [or left] Caesar.” In fact, neither Linker nor Wilson bothered to mention my treatment of “Blue Caesar” at all, leaving their readers—intentionally—with the impression that the whole book is an exhortation to right-wing tyranny. In the same vein, neither does either one of them mention that my discussion of Caesarism was but one of nine possible futures I sketched. Furthermore, I judge the likeliest by far to be the continuation of present ruling arrangements, i.e., the continued rule of people like Linker: the gaudily-credentialed, self-important, overcompensated, leftist coastal “knowledge” class.

Since this point is carefully and consistently ignored by my attackers, let me repeat it to Linker (and Continetti) as bluntly as I can: if a post-constitutional America arrives—whether managerial, Caesarist, tyrannical, tribal, or whatever—it will be, in very large degree, your fault. That is to say, the fault not just of the Left, which since around 1875 has sought to overturn the American constitutional order, but of the Left’s allies and lickspittles on the “Right” who failed to stop the assault—of the conservative Hegelians who assured us all it never would or could come to this, or worse, who welcomed each anti-constitutional change as the new status quo for “conservatism” to “conserve.” I.e., you. It will not be the fault of those of us who believe deeply in American constitutionalism and have pledged our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to defend it.

Let me be even blunter: either Linker sees all this, or he learned nothing from his education and all those books. Either he knows full well what I’ve said and written, or his reading comprehension is below a third-grader’s. I’m already on record as conceding that Linker is not an idiot. The truth is worse: he knows better, but says the opposite anyway. In other words, he’s lying.

Why Linker does so is between him and the God in Whom, based on our long-ago philosophic debates, I must assume he does not believe. If I had to speculate on his motives, I would say that Linker perceives that his facility at mispresenting the views of his enemies and of the teachings of the books he studied is central to his value to his masters, to the regime. They need as many “intellectuals” as possible whom they can plausibly, if dishonestly, pass off as “conservatives” to tell other conservatives, moderates, and apolitical types that things are just fine, that their eyes are lying, that the Constitution and all the rest are as robust as ever—except to the extent that they’re threatened by the real radicals, those who claim to see threats. They want you as calm as possible for as long as possible so that their power, and the despoliation on which it depends, can continue as long possible.

That, it seems to me, is the primary purpose of this miasma of distortions, omissions, innuendo, and outright lies that characterize Linker’s, and Wilson’s (and even, to a lesser extent, Continetti’s) “work.” I discern at least two others. The second is, absurdly, to strike fear in the hearts of the leftist coalition that they are weak and they are losing—that they’re one election, or even scarier, one coup away from being herded off into camps.

Leave aside the obvious fact that fears of a right-wing coup are preposterous: hardly a single person in the national security apparatus would follow such an order, even if one were given, which neither Trump nor any other Republican would ever dare. More important, given the enormous power and wealth imbalances between Left and Right in this country, between the coasts and the interior, the information versus physical economies, between the military and the three-letter agencies versus the lack of comparable power in conservative hands, between sophisticated versus down-home “culture”—how anyone can believe MAGA or whatever is on the cusp of total, permanent victory is utterly mystifying. To harken back to a pop-culture phenomenon from my youth, I look at the array of forces on each side and see “Bambi Meets Godzilla.”

It’s not just that the ruling class would easily win such a confrontation. They’ve already won. They’ve captured everything, run everything, and get their way on everything. The New York Times’s 9.7 million subscribers are, in aggregate, the richest, most highly-credentialed, most powerful, and most influential people in the world. Yet they really do see themselves as a besieged underdog. Or, at any rate, most of them do. A few at the tippy-top must be self-aware enough to know it’s all bunk (though, like actors playing Disney characters in the theme parks, they never break character). But they also know that it’s useful bunk: keeping their followers scared keeps them angry, motivated, and obedient. Linker’s (and Continetti’s) Jane-Goodall-among-the-conservative-chimps act is a means to that end.

The third is more Wilson’s bailiwick than Linker’s, though the latter is an eager participant. And that is to stoke hysteria among left-wing activists, Twitter warriors, street militias, and rank-and-file latte-libs. This is more about stoking hatred than fear (though the line is admittedly thin). The information op works something like this. Find some person or institution or writing that you can easily distort. Don’t make it all up out of whole cloth, exactly; just cherry-pick, omit, misquote, and add your own spin. Your readers will never check the original and so will never know.

Hence a 79-page, 32-section analysis of possibilities and probabilities, in a 407-page book, is falsely reduced to a recommendation for right-wing tyranny. Send that out into cyberspace and watch your hysterical audience shriek. I’ve lost count of the—thousands? more?—tweets and retweets, substacks, and other bleats that simply recount the Wilson-Linker libel. But from their point of view, the op was a success. Quantity, not quality, is the whole point. Are they lying? Sure, but who cares? From their point of view, their cause is just and their enemies are evil. Might they be malforming the souls of their audience? Whatever. Since their purpose is propaganda war, whipping their side into a frenzy is a feature, not a bug. If it raises the sheeps’ blood pressure a little, well, war is hell.

No doubt Linker, Wilson, and Continetti alike would accuse me of projection, of doing exactly the same thing to my audience. I deny that, while also noting that a counter-accusation does not constitute a denial on their part.

But more to the point, everything hinges on the most basic question of all: Is it true? Hence, to return to the beginning: Are things really as bad as I say, or aren’t they? Linker (and Continetti) never even pretend to try to answer this question. The only bad thing they see are those of us who think we see bad things. In lieu of refutation, they offer finger-pointing and character assassination. They excoriate noticing problems as “extremism.” By this “logic,” burying one’s head in the sand must be the height of prudence and moderation.

Let me leave you with my own vision of moderation: the Linkers and the Continettis and the Wilsons and the New York Timeses and the AEIs and the Guardians and all the other big winners in the modern regime should themselves show a little moderation. Stop calumniating your political and intellectual critics as Nazis. Recognize the just concerns of flyover America. Seek policies that spread prosperity broadly rather than concentrating it in coastal megalopolises and Ivy League endowments. Cool it with the anti-white hate. Make your “news” organizations tell the truth. Enforce the law—equally. Cease putting moralistic hectoring at the center of American foreign policy. Above all, if you want the American constitutional order to survive for as long as possible, stop doing and/or defending or denying things that undermine and even destroy that order.

But we all know none of that will happen. There is no moderation in any of these people or institutions. They are hellbent on total, final victory. The more they win and control, the more they fear they’re losing and so just press harder. They can’t be persuaded to back off even when backing off is transparently in their own interest.

So present trends will continue—until they don’t, or can no longer. I for one believe that if prevailing arrangements are allowed to run their logical course, those trends will destroy not only me and mine, but also Linker, Continetti, Wilson, and everyone and everything they care about. When that happens—and it will if the “conservatives” who work every day to preserve and accelerate the status quo keep getting their way—I will try to keep the schadenfreude to a minimum.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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The Struggle Ahead

Remarks accepting the Claremont Institute’s Henry Salvatori Prize in the American Founding, Washington, D.C., October 27, 2018.

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