The election of Donald Trump has upended the expectations of what paleoconservatives and others have long called Conservatism, Inc. The influence of establishment conservatism all but evaporated during the primaries, as its chosen champions—Bush, Rubio, Cruz, Jindal, and the rest—fell one by one. As President-Elect, Trump moved away from an unthinking reliance on Republican lobbyists and cronies. And while his administration appointments have not reflected a uniform rejection of conventional Republicans, they have been better by a long shot than any Hillary Clinton (or any of Trump’s Republican challengers) would have made. More importantly, he has changed the way the establishment must think about issues and about the voters whom they have treated with disdain for so long.
This election may have been the first one clearly to show that we no longer live in a free society: We are only choosing one style of authoritarian over another. Had Clinton been elected, the country would have had yet another president starting undeclared wars, authorizing drone strikes, continuing a policy of essentially unrestricted immigration, and forcing religious believers to violate their faith through the imposition of oppressive regulations. Trump, though he has broken the progressive hold on discourse, may prove to be an authoritarian of another kind, one who will make deals to keep companies in the United States and in this and other ways be more appealing to voters. Indeed, a case can be made that the erratic Trump might inadvertently convince Americans that perhaps the imperial presidency is no great idea, especially in the hands of people temperamentally unsuited to the power it confers on them. The conservative establishment’s hold on voters may actually offer the country a chance to return to something like the republic the United States was formed to be.
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It is notable, however, that Republican critics of Trump seem unaware that it is their own ideas which voters are rejecting. Conservatism, as distinct from the Republican Party, may thus be weaker than its political boosters have allowed. For example, the GOP-controlled Congress was unable to act to close down the corrupt Export-Import bank, defund Planned Parenthood, take a firm stand against U.S. military adventures abroad, or even to protect women from having to register for the draft. At the state level, several Republican governors have surrendered their position on transgender-rights bills after pressures were exerted on them by various interests including big business, a constituency establishment conservatives largely, though falsely, continue to believe is with them.
The old formulas don’t work with an electorate that has seen economic opportunities disappear under financial capitalism, their culture and traditions ridiculed, and their children encouraged by state-funded schools to resent their own history. Ritual invocation of the Reaganite diptych of limited government and a strong national defense is increasingly anachronistic. After 15 years of war, most conservatives perceive that there is nothing limited about a government that wages those wars. The Republican establishment, still enthralled by obsolete Cold War tropes, recognized a great advantage to be gained in furthering a militarized state, which allowed them at once to assert their patriotism and to increase their power. Culturally and intellectually, conservatives have proved a dismal failure. While the country may not be as progressive today as it might have been absent resistance from the conservative establishment, it is surely not more conservative than it was a single generation ago.
Therefore, the age of Trump may be one of opportunity for a resurgence in true conservative thought. Indeed, the most interesting conservative commentary is coming from areas outside the mainstream Republican or conservative structure. Some, such as this magazine, The American Conservative, and upstart websites like the (now defunct) Journal of American Greatness have considered “Trumpism” more seriously than his opponents, or even Trump himself, has. Those ideas—insofar as Trump can be said to have ideas—echo those of Pat Buchanan, the last major challenger to establishment-conservative dogma. Economic nationalism, restrictions on immigration, and an America First foreign policy were all brought into prominence by Buchanan in the early 1990’s, though once they were pretty much a staple of American self-understanding. That they have been reanimated now by Donald Trump perhaps says more about how conservatives treat ideas than it does about Trump.
Thus, this book by George Hawley comes at an opportune time, and indeed Hawley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama, gained some prominence after the election as one of only a few academics who had considered even the possibility of a Trump victory. Since February of last year, he predicted that the Upper Midwest would be the key to a Republican presidential victory, and so it was.
Nonetheless, in light of this election, Hawley’s main thesis needs to be reworked.
The difficulty with his thesis is that Hawley treats the “conservatism” that has been the object of “right-wing” critiques as essentially the typical Republican nostrums crushed by Trump. Hawley begins with Paul Gottfried’s definition of conservatism as whatever at any given moment opposes the left, which seeks above all else the imposition of an absolutist conception of equality. Like Sauron and his Ring, equality is the one principle to rule all others. Yet this raises a conceptual problem for Hawley, since he recognizes (as does Gottfried) that even the mainstream conservative movement embraces equality, just less stridently. Therefore, Hawley settles for a definition in which “the right will be defined as encompassing all those ideologies that, while not necessarily rejecting equality as a social good, do not rank it at the top of the hierarchy of values.” But “mainstream conservatism” for Hawley is basically a constellation of think tanks, political columnists, and lobbying firms in Washington, D.C.—that is, the same groups that supported almost anyone other than Trump.
Purchase your copy of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism here.
Of course, adjusting the definition turns this analysis upside down. Politics is downstream of culture, as most serious conservative thinkers have recognized. Russell Kirk, for his part, identified several elements that make up the conservative worldview, including the defense of variety and multiplicity, a respect for the moral order, a recognition of the need for hierarchy and order in society, localism, and a disdain for abstraction, including abstract economic man. If that is conservatism, who are the “right-wing” critics?
After two chapters that provide a serviceable introduction to some of the major themes of conservative history in the 1950’s and 60’s, Hawley devotes seven chapters to considering various critiques of conservatism, as he has defined it. Hawley is not an unsympathetic observer of conservative movements, and he tries to be straightforward even as he warns of the dangers some of these movements present. Yet the problem his thesis sets up is evident when one investigates these movements, especially in light of the election. Hawley gives libertarians two chapters (one for “mainstream” libertarians, another for “radical” ones), but he affords “localists” and paleoconservatives a chapter each, the same as he does “white nationalism.” Yet this last chapter is not really an explanation of whether or how white nationalism makes a legitimate critique of mainstream conservatism. It seems to have been included because, in the progressive academic world Hawley inhabits, Bill Kauffman and his American localism, and Pat Buchanan and his economic nationalism, are on the same spectrum as racists, as all forms of conservatism are presumed to be tainted by racism and race hatred. This of course is nonsense, and indeed every other group in Hawley’s book would rightly condemn anyone who tried to align white nationalists with conservatives.
This perspective makes the book less valuable than it might have been. Hawley does demonstrate a familiarity with conservative scholarly and primary sources, and he can see nuance among various positions. He notes accurately that “one could fairly argue that American conservatism has become calcified and lacks intellectual energy. Conservative talking points remain virtually unchanged since the 1980s.” Many critics of conservatism would agree with that. But to get the fuller picture one must acknowledge that liberal talking points have also “calcified.” Given Hawley’s political focus, he could have noted in passing the collapse of the number of Democratic elected officials in Congress and state offices since 2008. Why is this happening? Is it because something new has been brewing in the Republican electorate—since 2008 surely, but also perhaps since Buchanan’s run for the Republican nomination in 1996? Hawley doesn’t ask this question, because his view appears to be that these other movements are no more than appendages to mainstream conservatism.
Hawley cautions conservatives against adopting “an anti-intellectual tone”:
Although a populism that pits ordinary Americans against out-of-touch intellectuals is politically useful, it will make it more difficult to advance a conservative political theory capable of solving twenty-first century problems.
It is true that a knee jerk anti-intellectualism is a weakness of the American right, but Hawley does not really consider that the program advocated obscurely by Trump but more clearly by men like Buchanan is in fact grounded in a political theory meant to address contemporary problems. Hawley is content instead to note that currently no “major think tanks or high-profile political figures advocat[e] substantive policies that would reverse” the trends toward greater globalization and centralization of economic and political power.
[Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, by George Hawley (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas) 376 pages, $34.95]
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