Thursday, August 11, 2016

From Burke to Trump

There is no politely ignoring it anymore. Donald Trump's campaign has proven what honest observers have said about conservatism for decades.

Yes, establishment Republicans indignantly insist that Donald Trump is "not a true conservative." But there are many stripes of conservatism and Trump is either a paleo-conservative or pretending to be one. Whichever it is, the conservative movement has become what it was becoming - if not what it always was. Trump's sincerity is irrelevant: What matters is that his message resonates with the base and thus defines it.

Take Trump's blatant racism for example. The Southern Strategy is hardly new: It started with Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign. Lyndon Johnson had signed the 1964 Civil Rights earlier that year but worried that it would cost Democrats the South for a generation. He was not wrong and Goldwater wasted no time in capitalizing on it. At the time, former president Dwight Eisenhower warned against race-baiting, but of course he was ignored. Later, Pat Buchanan helped craft Richard Nixon's rhetoric just as Lee Atwater subsequently crafted Ronald Reagan's and George Bush Sr.'s. Indeed, Lee Atwater had explained the Southern strategy quite plainly. Of course, that inconvenient little historical fact does not stop Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, or Dinesh D'Souza from insisting it does not exist.

But Trump's primary success means that nobody can deny it anymore - nobody sane, anyway. The dog whistles are now air raid sirens. All subtlety and plausible deniability has been spectacularly jettisoned. Today, no GOP hopeful would dare make a mildly racist comment. Such weak equivocation would get him called a RINO - a Republican In Name Only. As Clint Eastwood recently remarked, calling out racism makes us a "pussy generation." If pandering to white racists isn't conservative, then the GOP hasn't been conservative since the sixties.

Again, Donald Trump's personal sincerity is irrelevant. What matters is what brand of conservatism is in the Republican Party's saddle. The answer is Pat Buchanan's paleo-conservative one. Remember when people laughed at Buchanan's plan to build a wall along the Mexican border? Trump was not the only GOP hopeful to adopt it in this primary. Pundits said these candidates were following Trump, but they were following the base. Trump just did a better job of getting out in front of this nativist nonsense.

And Pat Buchanan's brand dates back to the racist, conspiracy theory-spinning John Birch Society of the 1950s. The Tea Party - which I called "warmed-over Goldwaterism" in my book - is also part of this conservative tradition. As Jane Mayer explained in her exposé on the Koch brothers in the New Yorker, their father waded deep in this stream of belief:
In 1958, Fred Koch became one of the original members of the John Birch Society, the arch-conservative group known, in part, for a highly skeptical view of governance and for spreading fears of a Communist takeover. Members considered President Dwight D. Eisenhower to be a Communist agent. In a self-published broadside, Koch claimed that “the Communists have infiltrated both the Democrat and Republican Parties.” He wrote admiringly of Benito Mussolini’s suppression of Communists in Italy, and disparagingly of the American civil-rights movement. “The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America,” he warned. Welfare was a secret plot to attract rural blacks to cities, where they would foment “a vicious race war.” In a 1963 speech that prefigures the Tea Party’s talk of a secret socialist plot, Koch predicted that Communists would “infiltrate the highest offices of government in the U.S. until the President is a Communist, unknown to the rest of us.”
When you consider this, you quickly realize that Glenn Beck's and Alex Jones' bat-shit insanity is hardly an unprecedented aberration. In fact, as Richard Hofstadter explained in his famous essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," this element has always been with us and frequently wreaked havoc in our country's politics. It waxes and wanes but it does not ever go away. He was writing about Goldwaterism in 1964, but he could be writing about the Tea Party or the Trump campaign today.

This element isn't really even fringe in conservative circles - it just has been hidden and spun. William F. Buckley was credited with "driving the antisemites out of the conservative movement," but as I wrote before, he really harbored and nurtured them as best he could. And, amazingly, these racists actually resent the dog whistles and code words as oppressive political correctness. They are tired of being told, "You can't put it that way." They feel stifled by subtlety and they are done with it - thus Trump's appeal.(1)

All of this is obvious now and none of what I have written above is particularly original. It is just that more people are finally accepting it. Even conservative establishment Republicans are now admitting their party is primarily driven by rabid white nationalism. They say it has usurped conservatism's traditional focus on sober reflection, prudent policy, and individual liberty. In this narrative, conservatism has always meant the patient preservation of free markets and the rule of law.

Well, not quite. Conservatives have often fostered a Trumpian contempt for civil liberties. As I wrote in my book, "Enlightenment ideas of government inconvenience their vigilante tendencies." They adore authority and therefore are hostile to liberty and equality. Our founders condemned arbitrary authority; but conservatives think any authority is a-okay. They are not so picky as long as there is a pecking order. Accordingly, their ideology will always accommodate anyone who wants to put others "in their place." Scolds enjoy policing morality because it is a form of petty power. None of these are novelties. They are familiar, durable characteristics of conservatism that we can recognize across time.

Conservatism finds meaning and purpose in sniffing out and putting down revolts, both real and imagined. Vigilance is identity and legitimacy. Since might makes right, whether you can take or hold something determines whether you really deserve it. Hence the taunt "COME AND TAKE IT" being emblazoned on the battle banners of those who had stolen the land they are "defending." Because your worth must be repeatedly tested, not getting soft is all important. Their muscular ideology has anxiety about atrophy. Or as Corey Robin had explained in The Reactionary Mind: From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, "To the conservative, power in repose is power in decline."
The “mere husbanding of already existing resources,” wrote Joseph Schumpeter about industrial dynasties, “no matter how painstaking, is always characteristic of a declining position.” If power is to achieve the distinction the conservative associates with it, it must be exercised. And there is no better way to exercise power than to defend it against an enemy from below. Counterrevolution, in other words, is one of the ways in which the conservative makes feudalism seem fresh and medievalism modern.(2)
Conservatism protects wealth because money is power, not because it honors abstract economic rights. It officially condemns "force or fraud," but it tolerates plenty of both provided it is not too vulgar or overt. That's Trump's problem with conservatism's officialdom: He is too vulgar and overt. But to the base, his swagger and arrogant, unapologetic bullshit isn't illegitimacy but authenticity. He's an honest crook.(3)

I wrote a book called Conservatism is Un-American. Like Corey Robin, I argue that conservatism doesn't change much. I recognize that there are different strains of conservatism that jockey for dominance, but that at the end of the day their differences are pretty trivial and they always ally. As I wrote in the intro:
[S]ocial and economic conservatives are not just an odd couple, they’re an old one. Politics makes strange bedfellows, but they sure are not strangers. They have been together forever and have seldom strayed. Griping aside, their wedding anniversaries have used up every metal on the Periodic Table of Elements. After all, plutocrats and moralists have always joined forces. We the People, their workforce, are a sinful, unruly lot. So social control is their common goal. In the pre-New Deal heyday they seek to return to, you could not buy a drink or go on strike. Then Franklin D. Roosevelt gets elected in 1932 and we get the Wagner Act, booze, and Social Security. Everyone then gets uppity for the next forty years.
This uppitiness has always horrified conservatives whether it concerned race, class, or sex. It is also what America is all about. Contrary to conservatives' zero-sum rhetoric, I argue that the three central ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy are interdependent. This also helps explain why social and economic conservatives are invariably driven together: The former opposes liberty and the later equality, but they know they are two sides of the same coin. Their mutual goal it to keep everyone else from noticing.

And they would rather we remain ignorant of all those socialist things some of our founders said too.


(1) We have not become a more racist nation. The two elections of President Barack Obama by landslides disprove that. But Facebook - or, as I like to call it, "Racist Litmus" - gave all your friends and relatives a platform for parading their previously-concealed bigotries. It's just like that episode of "Gilligan's Island" where everyone temporarily got telepathy. And Trump is certainly the perfect Internet age candidate because he personifies all the narcissism, bullying, and kooky conspiracy theories the Internet offers. Indeed, it has already become a widely-circulated/stolen cliché that he is a walking comments section. Like the Internet, Trump just makes this ignorant demographic impossible to ignore anymore.

(2) Before reading his book, I wrote something similar in mine: "Much of the business establishment saw fascism as a solution to communism. But to those with anti-democratic, aristocratic attitudes, fascism was already attractive even without any communist threat. If you equated liberty and equality with chaos and longed for a strongman to defend tradition, your latent monarchism was already aroused. Simply put, fascism was monarchism modernized for the 20th Century – aristocracy made sleek, streamlined, and posh like an art deco Tamara de Lempicka painting. And the fact that workers were actually in revolt only added urgency, making political reaction seem hip, edgy, and relevant."

(3) For example, even when Trumpkins admit Trump twists the truth, they insist that he "tells it like it is." It has been said this means they identify with his racism, which is undoubtedly likely. But I think, more broadly, they also admire his bluntness about power. Enlightenment liberals like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine theorized about how a just society should run. They said society creates wealth by pooling our efforts and is therefore entitled to getting something back to benefit others. Both Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren have echoed those arguments. But men like Trump crassly brag about strong-arming or out-smarting others - about having some poor, dumb schmuck over a barrel and driving a hard bargain. To his supporters, Trump embodies truth even if he doesn't speak it. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there and Trump doesn't sugar-coat it. Indeed, he revels in it. And that twisted authenticity paradoxically translates into trust. There is a cognitive disconnect which rationalizes that if he has this terrible knowledge, he understands and thus must be for the little guy. That's my theory, anyway.

No comments:

Post a Comment