For years I’ve been listening to the hot air produced by Conservative Inc. about the political conservatism of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was dedicated to “self-government based on absolute truth and moral law.” Supposedly King was also a proud member of the GOP. This last claim is not even remotely true, as Alveda King, MLK’s niece and a fan of Donald Trump, revealed to Newsmax in 2013. The closest to a show of bipartisanship from King came when he condemned both parties for being too reactionary, the Democrats for harboring segregationists and “Northern Republicans” for promoting grasping capitalists.
The only reason one might attribute to King other ideas is that conservative foundations have played dishonestly with the facts of his life. Although it would be unfair to deny that King was heroic, often fought unjust situations, and held more conservative views on homosexuality than most of the present leadership of the conservative movement, he was an easily recognizable member of the Left.
King’s transmogrification into a hero of the Right is driven by an obvious strategy, which is trying to claim the “moderate” or early civil rights movement for what today characterizes itself as “conservatism.” According to this narrative, the civil rights movement was a noble enterprise that was led by principled conservatives, but then derailed by bad actors like today’s congressional “Squad” led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These conservatives seem to think that if the civil rights cause had declared victory before its current-day advocates called for tearing down statues (that is, those of Lincoln but not those of Lee), trying to get universities to remove investments from Israel, or demanding reparations for blacks, everything would have been nicer.
This, of course, is all wishful thinking, because as historian of the Spanish Civil War Stanley G. Payne observes, revolutions in modern democracies “take place by degrees.” They are a “process,” not a single event, and they require “enablers” to march forward. One may sympathize with a particular grievance that played a prominent role in launching a continuing revolution. But that does not exhaust a revolution’s energy or keep it from becoming more radical. Forcing French peasants to perform labor services for their lord or keeping non-aristocratic clergy from becoming bishops were unfair restrictions in 18th-century France, to whatever extent they were enforced before the Revolution. But the French upheaval went well beyond addressing those grievances and resulted in turmoil and strife across the European continent.
When the Heritage Foundation or Townhall extols King as conservative, what they are saying is that King was one of them: a pro-capitalist advocate of a colorblind society. That kind of person was supposedly at the core of the good, moderate civil rights movement, as opposed to what that movement later became. Although King later fought with more radical civil rights activists, he and they agreed on lots of things e.g., a socialist economy, special set-asides and possibly reparations for blacks, and the evil racist character of America’s past. Like Stacey Abrams, these civil rights organizers were especially interested in increasing the black vote because they recognized this would have a transformative effect on American politics.
They were not wrong. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 tripled the black vote at a time when black voters were moving decidedly to the Left. It changed the character of the American electorate and resulted in an enlarged managerial state that would have as its raison d’être fighting discrimination and inequality. These developments might have occurred without the civil rights revolution, but undoubtedly this upheaval accelerated the process.
There is another compelling reason that the conservative movement misrepresents King and his intentions. This movement is really another name for the “late-coming Left.” Among German historians a debate has raged about why their countrymen succumbed to Nazi rule, when other European countries avoided such a grim fate. One theory concerns Germany as a spätkommende Nation (“late-arrived nation”) that was never comfortable with its identity and therefore prone to overcompensating, e.g., by yielding to a crazy nationalist demagogue.
Presumably, a nation that developed over centuries, rather than one that went through all the stages of national evolution in the late 19th century, would have been less likely to strut around, playing up its importance. Whether this theory has value for the study of Germany, it does explain the catch-up game engaged in by the conservative movement. Its spokespersons are always claiming positions that the Left used to hold before it became more radical.
Thus, Con Inc. is now for gay marriage as an expression of “family values,” but not yet for transgendered restrooms. It’s for second-wave feminism, but not yet for feminism in its more radical third-wave form. This practice of pouncing on onetime leftist positions and declaring them to be conservative ones has a negative side. It makes those engaged in this exercise both self-conscious and arrogant. They counterfactually insist that they are affirming eternal truths and that any deviation from them, particularly in the direction of what used to be the Right, deserves to be severely punished. That way one establishes one’s own brand of the Right as the only permissible one. On Fox News, much effort has been made to stage debates between paid leftist debating partners and exponents of approved Con Inc. positions. In this way, one can convey to millions of viewers what are the only acceptable views on the Right and defend those views against the Left—and presumably against a more “extreme” Right.
These would-be conservatives have also taken over a onetime leftist view of American history and turned it into their own conservative one. Although we used to be racist, sexist, and homophobic, America was supposedly founded on noble egalitarian ideals that are now being put into practice. The conservative establishment also praises earlier generations for having fought just wars to save the world from less democratic powers. Although we were politically flawed at the time that we waged these struggles, we were, as Allan Bloom insists in his bestselling The Closing of the American Mind (1987), working to convert our adversaries to our democratic ideals and aspirations through a bloody “educational experience.”
The conservative movement not only instantiates where the Left was yesterday or the day before, it also depends on the Left to recognize its status as the established opposition. That is why Fox News is filled with paid leftist opposition and why media conservatives are invariably reaching out to the center-Left. The Left validates its token opposition, whether or not the two sides are engaged in staged or real quarrels.
Leftists in any case have no interest in dealing with a harder Right. Neither does the conservative movement, other than to demonstrate as to what it has no intention of becoming. This movement thus becomes a series of late and obsolete incarnations of a Left that has moved on to other, more socially devastating, causes.
Never has the observation of Robert Lewis Dabney, the 19th-century Southern conservative and Presbyterian divine, seemed so relevant: “American conservatism is the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward toward perdition. It remains behind it but never retards it and always advances it.”
We are now observing a form of American conservatism that is “more than a shadow of Radicalism.” It is a movement that assigns a “conservative” label to itself while excluding those who have a more justifiable claim to that appellation.
Since the occupation of the Capitol building by overly emotional Trump-supporters on Jan. 6, widely featured media conservatives have joined the Left in treating this incident as a horrifying “desecration.” Although it was a clumsy action, that event pales in comparison with the rioting and destruction unleashed by the Left last summer, which Democrats ran to excuse. Con Inc. celebrities immediately began calling upon Congress to impeach the outgoing president for supposedly inciting a mob to invade the Capitol. One of their spokesmen, Erick Erickson, went so far as to urge the Capitol Police on Jan. 6 to “shoot the protestors.”
Fox News anchors have also urged their followers to work toward “bipartisanship” with the incoming Biden administration, even while that administration is already working to cancel and even criminalize its opposition. In an interview with Martha McCallum on Jan. 8, Republican Congressman Steve Scalise complained that Trump was not clear enough in his denunciation of the Capitol rioters. Scalise cannot offer a similar complaint about the victorious Democrats regarding how they treated the riots they financed and excused. Joe and Kamala are still drooling over Black Lives Matter and won’t even recognize Antifa as more than an “idea.”
As the Left moves toward ever-more arbitrary behavior in consolidating its power, Con Inc. has moved from being a “shadow” or a late-arrived version of the Left to becoming what it pretends to be opposing. This is especially true of those parts of the movement that have declared war on the populist Right. John Zmirak, senior editor of the Christian commentary site The Stream refers to this group, which joined the Left in savaging Trump and which champions bipartisanship, as “the Vichy conservatives.” This is an apt comparison of these defectors to those Frenchmen who supported the Vichy Government’s collaboration with Nazi Germany after the Fall of France in 1940.
In the face of these defections, a younger generation of independent voices that can more legitimately identify as the Right is arising. This new generation represents a more serious opposition to the Left and, in coming years, it may have the wind at its back.
President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the White House Cabinet Room, March 18, 1966 (Wikimedia Commons)