The Principled Fight

A Burkean model for statesmanship in our troubled times

A needless split on the American right is diverting attention and energy from the serious work of defeating the corrupt forces controlling our most important institutions. The split, seemingly rooted in philosophy and disposition, actually stems from a misunderstanding on both sides of the history and foundations of modern conservatism.

An enemy of our traditions might say that this conflict pits weak-kneed (or “responsible”) conservatives—more eager to assuage the mainstream press than defend their society—against angry (or “populist”) conservatives peddling a thoughtless, pugnacious ideology of America First. To get beyond the caricatures, we need to rethink what it means to be a thoughtful, active defender of our way of life. The key is statesmanship of a kind that recognizes the basic decency of our society but also the fact that we sometimes must fight, and fight hard, to defend it.

American history provides many examples of great men who fought to preserve our society of order, justice, and freedom. George Washington immediately comes to mind. But I want to focus on a different figure precisely because he is the subject of disagreement and misunderstanding among many on the right. Edmund Burke was an Anglo-Irish philosopher, statesman, and the founder of modern conservatism. He was a defender of the late-18th-century British Constitution. He was also an opponent of both the murderous French Revolutionary regime and British imperial misconduct, including in America, the conduct for which he blamed the American Revolution. Even a brief look at Burke’s career should help traditional and more populist conservatives—think students of Russell Kirk or Harry Jaffa—to better understand one another and the requirements for success in saving our civilization from elitist predators and ideological fanatics.

Much of the blame for the split on the right rests with traditional conservatives (among whom I count myself) who give aid and comfort to Never-Trump grifters and the left by overemphasizing decorum and prudence. Too many traditional conservatives seem convinced that mean tweets, harsh rhetoric, and a willingness to fight hard undermine considered, cultural reform. Yet too many pro-Trump conservatives (among whom I also count myself) err by ruling out-of-bounds the kind of historical understandings that root the need for reform in American traditions or, if you prefer, in our “unwritten constitution” and its place in the civilization of the West.

We cannot allow old debates over the Declaration and theories of natural rights—important as they are to a full understanding of our traditions—to prevent a solid alliance for restoration of our constitutional republic. Sadly, these disputes often do undermine unity on the right. One of the main reasons for this needless angst rests in both sides’ misunderstanding of Burke’s thought and disposition. In fact, Burke’s career points toward a muscular conservatism capable of defending and restoring the American social and political order.

Burke is too often dismissed by people on the right, if they even know of his existence, as a mere supporter of the European Old Regime, a dead hand of the past, irrelevant to active, forward-looking Americans. Burke’s way, they say, would take from us our will to fight, even undermine our understanding of why we fight. It doesn’t help that Never-Trumpers often invoke Burke’s name in extolling the virtues of weak prevarication and acceptance of the seeming flow of history.

But this was not Burke, nor does it point to a Burkean politics. Around the turn of the 19th century, Burke faced the French Revolutionary regime, then slaughtering much of its own population in preparation for launching a war that would engulf Europe for decades. In response, and at the cost of friendships and his own social position, Burke demanded a “moral war” against a Godless regime that claimed to love mankind while tyrannizing actual human beings.

The French regime was militantly atheist, setting up idols of an imagined “goddess of reason” while tearing down churches and murdering priests. It celebrated “free love” and sexual perversion while attacking the natural family. It preached “equality” as a means of taking power for itself. It seized property from rich and poor alike to finance rulers’ corruption and lust for power. In the process, it was turning the French people into mere creatures of the state, incapable of ordering their own lives. Sound familiar?

Leftist regimes, like the one currently solidifying its power in Washington, intentionally make the people intemperate, resentful, and impetuous so that they will no longer strive to be free.

The problem of radical ideologues—whether they talk in terms of race, sex, class, or religion—is always with us. The corruption they bring is also of a piece. As Burke noted, “men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” Leftist regimes, like the one currently solidifying its power in Washington, intentionally make the people intemperate, resentful, and impetuous so that they will no longer strive to be free. Following Burke, we can see the need to wage a kind of moral war aimed at breaking the stranglehold of the radicals over political, civic, and especially educational institutions, which do so much to shape moral and cultural norms. We must fight for wise judicial appointments. We also must engage in popular actions—recalls, lawsuits, peaceful but vigorous demonstrations—to restore community control over state and local institutions.

Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was no mere defense of a stolid status quo in Britain. He early and often spoke out against the slave trade, even penning the sketch of a code that would have recognized the natural rights of Africans in the Caribbean, leading the way to manumission. And he spent much of his career fighting the kind of corruption that now infests our ruling classes, threatening to drown our nation in debt while selling our secrets to our enemies. Burke strove with some success to reduce the number of offices (bribes, really) the king could give out to members of Parliament to buy their support. These and other corrupt practices were undermining the separation of powers that, at that time, protected liberty and self-government in Britain, just as corruption in the White House and in the House Speaker’s office undermine it in the
United States today.

Finally, Burke—who risked much by arguing forcefully for the American cause during the early years of the Revolutionary War—consistently fought imperial corruption as well when the British Empire was entering its most powerful phase. He spent years pursuing Warren Hastings, governor general of the East India Company, for his murderous practices, which enriched the ruling classes in Britain while despoiling an entire subcontinent. Worst of all, Burke averred, was that this imperial destruction was further corrupting British institutions at home, much as the foreign wars and globalist bureaucracies President Trump worked against have undermined self-government in America.

A full-throated, traditional conservatism could and should look like Trump’s program to Make America Great Again. Not everyone will enjoy the rhetoric, but that rhetoric is a call to arms in a time of great trouble. Reining in our budding police state will not be easy, as has been shown by the Stalinesque “January 6 Committee” show trial, by the politically motivated FBI raids and public arrests, and by the targeted actions coming from the Justice Department and various other agencies. Policies aimed at subjecting administrators and powerful political figures to the same rule of law under which the rest of us live will not be accepted without a dangerous, dirty fight. But it is worth the struggle to re-establish our borders, to refocus our economy on the needs of American workers and consumers, and to maintain a foreign policy that puts America first without striding the globe in search of enemies—real, imagined, or merely useful.

Our tradition deserves our defense both because it is ours and because it is good. So we must fight to restore the constitutional republic that settled the West. Whatever their historical differences, those on the right would do well to look to the real Burke as a common example in discerning the principles at stake in this struggle as well as the character and conduct needed to win.

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