by Mike Lofgren Washington Monthly
A typical analysis is to name the supposed essential characteristics of conservatism and then judge how current practitioners fulfill them, or fall short. This method risks committing a fallacy of definition, because there is no Platonic ideal of conservatism (or any other abstract idea) existing disembodied the ether. Doctrines are notoriously mutable: the early church fathers might have trouble recognizing the various tenets of the modern Catholic Church.
A more productive inquiry is determining what the majority of people who now call themselves conservatives profess to believe (for who knows what they really believe, and why they believe it). What they profess is very much like what President Donald Trump espouses: even in the wake of the Charlottesville incident, support for him among Republicans, who overwhelmingly describe themselves as conservative, never fell below 73 percent.
American conservatism effectively is Trumpism, regardless of whether George Will or David Brooks deceive themselves by playing the “no true Scotsman” theme, claiming no true conservative would act like the president, or tolerate him. We also cast a jaundiced eye on a politician like Jeff Flake, who immolated his Senate career in rhetorical opposition to Trump, yet consistently votes for the latter’s agenda.
A few impotent malcontents to the contrary, Trumpism and modern American conservatism are identical. Admittedly, however, it is difficult to pin down just what, doctrinally, this means. All political movements display a degree of ideological inconsistency if they are to persuade different groups with varying interests to support them, but the conservative movement embodies so many seemingly impossible contradictions that it would appear unlikely to survive, let alone control three branches of the federal government and nearly two-thirds of state governorships and legislatures. Let’s unpack some of the contradictions.
The GOP, the mass vehicle of conservatism, is often called God’s Own Party. Virtually every crackpot idea espoused decades ago by theocratic extremists like Francis Schaeffer or Jerry Falwell Sr., has been absorbed into the party platform. It is a process with no end in sight, as the saga of Roy Moore has made obvious.
At the same time, a significant component of the Republican coalition is Ayn Rand libertarians, less for their numbers than the fact that many well-heeled donors, like Peter Thiel and Robert Mercer, keep the party flush with cash. As anyone knows who has read enough of her to grasp her beliefs without dissolving into laughter at the first paragraph, she was as implacably anti-Christian as the most dogmatic Soviet commissar; Christianity, in her words, was “monstrous“ and “evil.”
Yet, such is the attraction of her recipe for plutocracy that the opposed traits of theocratic politics and Randian social philosophy can even be melded into the same person. Paul Ryan, the third-highest elected official in the country, wears his traditional-values Catholicism on his sleeve, yet is also such a Rand enthusiast that he assigned his office interns the near-impossible task of reading Atlas Shrugged.
More contradictions pile up. How can the same movement attract both a Nazi like Richard Spencer, who has led his followers in a lusty “Hail Trump!,” and a political-activist rabbi named Schmuely Boteach, who, according toHaaretz, is angling to become Trump’s “kosher stamp of approval?” These schizoid symptoms are resolved in Steve Bannon, a friend of the Spencerian alt-right who also proclaims himself a proud Christian Zionist.
Since at least the New Deal, the GOP has characterized itself as the über-patriotic party, and a bedrock tenet of the movement was a strong national defense against world communism, which in those days was basically Russian imperialism with an ideological gloss. This Republican reflex was so strong it often degenerated into demagoguery and accusations of disloyalty against anyone insufficiently enthusiastic towards rolling back the Evil Empire.
Yet at some point during Barack Obama’s second term, a significant swathe of the GOP gained a strange new respect for Russia, an ironic development given that Vladimir Putin had just at that point resolved to reverse NATO’s and the EU’s advances into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, and to separate Europe from the United States to the extent feasible. For the present-day GOP, a belligerent America First is somehow compatible with deferential regard for Putin’s Eurasia project.
This foreign policy evolution is neatly encapsulated in California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. As a young Capitol Hill staffer in the 1980s, I was a fairly conventional Republican, but I was bemused at the spectacle of Rohrabacher donning Afghan Mujahedeen garb and wearing a full Taliban-style beard as a sign of solidarity with fighters against Godless communism. In 2016, Kevin McCarthy, the second-ranking House Republican, described Rohrabacher as one of two people Putin pays (of course, the other being Trump). It was a long, strange journey for the Orange County surfer.
I have written elsewhere how the GOP now predominantly views itself as a populist movement—a fake populism that directs the wrath of its followers downward against the marginal, and outwards against foreigners, rather than upward against the powerful. In reality, it pursues an economic policy entirely dedicated to the further enrichment of our American plutocracy on the backs of everyone else.
Some have given up on this welter of contradictions, saying that there really is no such thing as a Republican Party platform. But all these programmatic inconsistencies can be reconciled at a more fundamental level than political programs. It lies at the level of personal psychology and barely expressible belief.
The Cradle of Reaction
Political science usually traces conservatism in the modern Western world to the reaction of traditionalists against the French Revolution. Edmund Burke is typically held up as the spokesman for the enduring conservative sensibility, and postwar American conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, and George Will have made much of Burke’s supposed moderation and good sense.
Among Burke’s epigrams are such unexceptionable copybook maxims as “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter,” and “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Uplifting stuff. But political theorist Corey Robin, in The Reactionary Mind, thinks that these quotes from the younger Burke do not represent what he was to become. Robin believes he sees deeper currents in a Burke who brooded over Jacobin violence as implicit in every attempt at political reform. Towards the end of his life, according to Robin, Burke harped on “subordination” of the masses to the classes as an imperative.
On the other side of the English Channel, the reaction against the French Revolution packed a lot more blood and thunder. Joseph de Maistre, a diplomat from the Duchy of Savoy, did not trim his sails. He considered the executioner to be the indispensible backstop of civilization, the better way to save wayward souls: “Man cannot be wicked without being evil, nor evil without being degraded, nor degraded without being punished, nor punished without being guilty. In short…there is nothing so intrinsically plausible as the theory of original sin.”
His outbursts alarmed the more progressive voices in the 19th century. Émile Faguet, a French author and critic, called Maistre “a fierce absolutist, a furious theocrat, an intransigent legitimist, apostle of a monstrous trinity composed of pope, king and hangman, always and everywhere the champion of the hardest, narrowest and most inflexible dogmatism, a dark figure out of the Middle Ages, part learned doctor, part inquisitor, part executioner.”
But Maistre, though lesser known than Burke, embodied the essential points of the conservative mind at a deeper level than taxes, spending, and other mundane issues. Liberals who decry the culture wars and scratch their heads about people who supposedly “vote against their own interests” rather than for better material conditions do not grasp the emotional appeal of the Maistre’s faith.
Hierarchy and Inequality
Because the revolutionaries in France preached equality, democracy, and freedom, and because their project turned out badly, Maistre strongly disbelieved in them: “Man in general, if reduced to himself, is too wicked to be free.” While the present-day conservative tactically adopts the man-of-the-people pose, one sees Maistre’s sentiment pop up consistently in the writings of American conservative theorists, from William F. Buckley’s “Unless you have freedom to be unequal, there is no such thing as freedom,” to David Brooks’ hankering for rule by a wise elite.
Freedom, according to this belief, can only be obtained for oneself through the subordination of others. In There Goes My Everything, Jason Sokol writes that white Southerners opposing integration felt themselves not to be upholding oppression, but fighting it: they were the victims; blacks, the federal government, and the news media were the oppressors.
Conservatives manage to see themselves as appointed by divine will to be the ones on top, but they simultaneously view it as a burden of natural leadership which they carry out with same noblesse with which Maistre’s hangman went about his God-appointed task. This attitude also explains the need for a despised underclass on a permanent basis; otherwise working-class Republicans would have no one to look down upon, and might cast envious eyes upward.
A powerful tool for making a society into a commonwealth of reasonably equal opportunity for all is progressive income and inheritance taxation. It is conservatives’ tropism towards “natural” hierarchy and away from equality that makes them rabid on the subject of taxation, making their pronouncements about economic growth and anecdotes about hard-working little people slaving under an intolerable tax burden into political window dressing. Their championing the flat income tax has nothing to do with simplification (computer programs make filing personal forms relatively straightforward), but rather with protecting the classes against the masses.
Republican behavior regarding the recently enacted tax bill has many observers wondering why they did it. Why rush headlong into a measure that, unlike virtually every tax cut in history, is unpopular with voters because it helps the rich at everyone else’s expense, and in an unprecedentedly egregious fashion? Republicans are not too blinkered to see the evidence; increasing inequality for them is a feature, not a flaw. The fact that the GOP’s plutocratic benefactors demand such a bill is an additional inducement.
The Education of a Conservative
Last year I encountered a libertarian conservative who held forth on how things were better before compulsory school attendance.
Conservatism is a house of many jerry-built mansions, but the differing stances towards education running through the separate strands of its ideology all arrive at the same solution. For the libertarian, public education means coercion and taxation. For the Religious Right, it means weakening parental authority and exposure to atheism, libertinism, and free-thinking. The populist conservative sees education as a factory for elitist snobs. The corporatist conservative sees public education as a diversion of funds from what might be a profit-making exercise without state bureaucrats looking over the corporation’s shoulder.
Despite these differing motivations, they all have a similar attitude towards the ideal curriculum should be. They all want to get down to brass tacks (or whatever the prevailing cliché might be) and instill “practical” education in the young. This means a workforce-oriented education with emphasis on STEM, time-management skills, and technical training. They also highlight memorization, drills, and teaching to the test. The ideal is Taylorism: the stop-watch measurement of productivity on the assembly line. Consistent with Maistre, the desired result is obedient workers (or students) who do not question the social order.
What is not wanted is the legacy of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and what the Western university system is supposed to represent: education of the whole person in humanism, culture, and critical thinking. These are considered threats to religious and ideological dogma, and to the stability of a hierarchical society. Of course, it is not represented that way; instead, these curricula are criticized for not being “practical,” for being irrelevant to the globalized and digitized economy.
As an offspring of the Enlightenment, popular education has had a special role in the United States. Some colonies, like Massachusetts, had compulsory school attendance laws long predating independence from Britain. Land grant universities, the GI Bill, and the immense post-World War II expansion of public higher education are the landmarks of a peculiarly American creed.
Conservative opposition to education has always couched itself as something else: an effort to improve teaching by eliminating bad curricula, opposing ideological proselytization by professors, or restraining hide-bound teachers’ unions.
But the anti-intellectualism of conservatism has reached a point where the mask slipped. Now a majority of Republicans say that higher education is bad for America. A museum-grade example of this attitude can be found in a recent Washington Post feature about such a Republican. In the article, all the tough guy, “common sense,” Horatio Alger affectations of the conservative are on gaudy display. It is no wonder that Donald Trump, who said he loved the “poorly educated,” is the standard-bearer of American conservatism.
Fascination with Violence, War, and Militarism
If Burke sometimes brooded on the “sublime terror” of violence, Maistre positively wallowed in it in pornographic fashion: “The whole earth, continually steeped in blood, is nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without respite until the consummation of the world, the extinction of evil, the death of death.”
This orgasmic vision is pretty strong meat from a tradition that pretends to be defending ordered liberty. But running through conservatism like a red thread is a continuing fascination with violence, war, and militarism.
One need only look at how the overwhelmingly conservative European upper classes greeted the coming of war in 1914 as a kind of spiritual transcendence of the flabby decadence of peace. From the perspective of history, Woodrow Wilson’s policy then seems bombastic and childish (“a war to end war,” etc.), but even he comes off as a pacifist compared to Theodore Roosevelt’s neurotic bellowing about the manliness of mortal combat.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, that sort of tough talk became a cottage industry for conservatives who until then hardly knew which end of a rifle the bullet exits: Andrew Sullivan, Bill Kristol, Max Boot, Robert Kaplan, and others. (The fact that some them now denounce Trump does not excuse their exacerbating a strain of brutality in American society.) It also infected Thomas Friedman, The New York Times’s aging wunderkind, who justified invading Iraq in this fashion:
What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: ‘Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.’ That, Charlie, is what this war is about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia; it was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.
While Friedman fancies himself an intellectual, his rant was basically on the same level of maturity as every right-wing talk show impresario of the last thirty years, from Rush Limbaugh to whichever obscure lunatic fills three hours on a 50-watt AM station in Kansas. The pose of the belligerent tough guy has a tremendous allure for the conservative mindset: “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out,” “Go ahead, make my day,” and “Insured by Smith & Wesson” are among the catch phrases that pass for Biblical parables.
The military is a problematic institution in a republic that means to be self-governing; it can be an instrument of protection, but also a fearful master, as the founders recognized. But the American conservative fetishizes the military just as all reactionaries do. The whole arcane rigmarole of the correct presentation of flags, medals, nomenclature of weapons, and so forth is a matter of pedantic obsession to many of them, and if a president (invariably a Democrat) does not return a Marine escort’s salute with his arm at the approved angle, he is instantly decried as disrespecting the military and doubtless plotting to destroy the country.
Conservatives reconcile their hatred of the federal government with their adoration of the military by means of interesting logic. A Hill colleague told me that many years before, he was a presidential management intern detailed to the Pentagon. His supervisor insisted that DoD was “not the government,” but altogether more sacred calling—even for the civilian federal employees working in the department.
Where does this fascination with violence and militarism lead? José Millán-Astray y Terreros, founder and commander of the Spanish Foreign Legion and fervent supporter of fascism, said this at the outset of the Spanish Civil War: “¡Muera la inteligencia! ¡Viva la Muerte!” (“Death to intelligence! Long live death!”). It became a catch phrase among Spanish fascists.
Extinguishing rational thinking and welcoming death are preferable to the nagging fear of being sidelined, made irrelevant and impotent, by what others call progress.
A Fortress Besieged
If enthrallment with violence equates to a death wish, what is worse than death? It is the creeping rot of the modern age. Being swamped by an ocean of mediocre egalitarianism, the altar of true religion toppled by atheism, abiding faith replaced by remorseless rationality—these give the conservative his visceral sense of being at war with a tragic fate. It motivates his extreme measures to hold onto what he thinks he is about to lose.
This feeling (separate but psychologically related to the Religious Right’s belief in an immanent Armageddon) accounts for the apocalyptic mentality of modern conservatism and its paranoid conviction that it is beleaguered by vast and dark forces. More than half a century ago, political scientist Richard Hofstadter described the outlook this way:
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse.
The turning point that Hofstadter mentions is a key to the conservative. He was born little too late to have enjoyed the heyday of traditional values, ordered liberty, laissez-faire economics, or whatever his fancy is. He now lives amid a crumbling social order, and it is almost too late to stop the rot. Periodic conservative panics over communist infiltration, homosexuality, immigration, or feminism stem from the fear that he is about to be swamped by the barbaric forces that will smash the established hierarchy.
James Burnham, who was a regular at National Review during most of Buckley’s tenure, made a profession of writing in this vein about the struggle against communism. In 1964 he wrote The Suicide of the West, proclaiming that the Soviets will roll over us because Western liberalism, which he called a “syndrome,” was too weak and decadent to resist. The urgency of his warning may have been spoiled by the fact that 15 years earlier, Burnham wrote The Coming Defeat of Communism.
Peter Thiel is a Silicon Valley tycoon noted for his love of Ayn Rand, his desire to build offshore “seasteading” habitations outside the reach of law, and his belief that freedom and democracy are incompatible. This billionaire, who sounds as antisocial as a blood tick, unburdened himself in 2009 about his fear of being taken down by the engulfing tide of the less worthy:
The higher one’s IQ, the more pessimistic one becomes about free-market politics—capitalism simply is not that popular with the crowd. . . . The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women—two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians—have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.
The belief that it is almost too late, that the nation will soon be lost, causes the conservative to react in characteristic ways. The right-wing media are full of ads prophesying imminent economic or social collapse, a fascinating contrast to the miracle cancer cures they also hawk. Since the 1970s oil shocks (and coincident with the rise of the New Right) an abiding feature on the American scene has been the survivalist, hoping for the national Götterdämmerung that will vindicate his having stockpiled 10,000 rounds of ammunition and a horde of Krugerrands.
Some conservatives believe it already is too late, that the country they loved is irretrievably lost. After the Senate acquitted Bill Clinton in 1999, New Right pioneer Paul Weyrich, as fierce a theocrat as Maistre, wrote a piece so histrionically doom-laden and “woe-is-us-Christians” that one is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quip: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
Apart from greed, his belief that there is no country to defend anymore makes the self-described conservative patriot surprisingly susceptible to transferring his loyalty to another country. A glance at Robert Mueller’s likely targets for investigation reveals the usual cast of characters in the conservative menagerie. We have seen this before: the conservative bloc within the French Third Republic was so steeped in cultural pessimism and hatred of its political opponents that many of its followers betrayed their native land to Nazi invaders.
Let’s Go Living in the Past
The sense that he is holding back the floodgates against barbarism often causes the conservative to seek solace in a better past. If the progressive believes in building a better tomorrow, the conservative is out to construct a better yesterday. For what is nostalgia but backwards-looking utopianism?
The conservative is often accused of fetishizing the 1950s (key phrase: “Leave it to Beaver”), although he is more creative than that. If you remind him that the top marginal income tax rate in those days was 91.5 percent, he is likely to observe that Eisenhower probably was a closet communist, just as Robert Welch always claimed. He will then locate his backwards utopia further in the past—say, before FDR created Social Security.
But there are always termites in the woodwork of the utopian past. Given that progressive tendencies can be found in most of American history, the past no longer appears as the unsullied arcadia of rugged individualism. The imagined utopia must be pushed even further back, or attached to questionable historical causes.
It does not require a depth psychologist to figure out why many conservatives raise such a fuss about their precious “heritage” with respect to the antebellum South, or their motivations for being Confederate re-enactors. Faulkner said that for every Southern boy, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out.” Somehow, if you believe fervently enough in the past, anything is possible.
A religious conservative on Capitol Hill once told me, and I don’t know whether he was joking or not, that everything went to hell with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. I thought, why not the battle of Manzikert in 1071? Or the fall of Rome in 476? The process can go on indefinitely till we reach the Garden of Eden.
The expulsion from the Garden is perpetually replayed in conservative mythology. It is the mirror image of the Left’s fading 19th century belief in inevitable progress. They are both fallacies, for that is not the way history works: we have penicillin, but we also have nuclear weapons. Any age shows symptoms of advancement and retrogression.
Conservative nostalgia manages not only to be the greater philosophical error, but to be the stronger and more tenacious vision, particularly in times of social crisis. The Left’s promise of advancement is retail politics with programmatic details, and the electorate will be able to judge through time whether this vision of progress has panned out in material terms.
Nostalgia for a better age, on the other hand, is by definition an impossible political program. But its emotional strength lies precisely in being so intensely personal that it is not susceptible to refutation: probably every single Trump voter had a slightly different vision of what it was that was great about their America that the candidate using that slogan was going to recreate.
Many of these voters told reporters that they knew Trump wasn’t going to bring back coal jobs, or steel jobs, or give them cheaper healthcare with improved coverage, or fulfill any of the criteria for bringing back greatness. It just made them feel better that someone was articulating the comforting illusions of nostalgia for the better time when they were young. In keeping with the infusion of religious fundamentalism into American conservatism, its backwards utopianism is faith-based.
But whatever the consolations of this faith, the Austrian writer Robert Musil warned, “a man cannot be angry at his own time without suffering some damage.”
Five years ago, I wrote about the growing authoritarianism of the Republican Party, a mindset that explains the base’s leader-worship, militancy, intolerance of out-groups, and neuroses regarding private issues of a consensual nature. But I had underestimated the speed with which this behavior was spiraling into an almost North Korea-like cult of personality under Trump. I had also erred in differentiating “conservative” from “right-wing” when the two concepts were rapidly becoming synonyms.
It was Wilhelm Reich, a German psychologist who observed the Nazi seizure of power and came to know a good deal about the authoritarian mentality, who hit upon the paradoxical nature of the authoritarian personality in politics. The authoritarian follower makes a show of rebelling against authority while also hungering for it—as long as his own tribal witch doctors are casting the runes and brandishing the whip.
Ever since Bill Buckley was a bad boy at Yale, postwar conservatives have fancied themselves as rebels against oppressive big government, political correctness, and overbearing elites. This has ended in the Tea Party antics that periodically threaten the country with sovereign default. Yet these same rebels also call for intrusive social legislation, economic policies to further entrench the powerful, and cling like limpets to an authoritarian charlatan like Trump.
In 2006, in the middle of George W. Bush’s second term, psychologist Robert Altemeyer wrote The Authoritarians as a layman’s guide to the trends he saw. His description of religious fundamentalists, the core of the Republican base, is even more relevant in light of Trump and Roy Moore:
They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use a lot of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times and are often hypocrites.
Authoritarian rebellion is the key to the transgressive, frat-boy trickery of conservatives against their perceived enemies that we see with Breitbart and James O’Keefe. I suspect the Right’s knee-jerk anti-environmentalism, even when there is no financial interest involved, has a similar origin in the adolescent need to thumb one’s nose at propriety. But these same rebels demand rigid ideological conformity and cult-like obedience within their own tribe.
This rebellious streak in conservatism appeals to the obnoxious attention-seeker who is pleased to find an ideological justification for his behavior. It is why even such a joyous social greeting as “Merry Christmas” can, when spoken by an authoritarian rebel, become a belligerent challenge in these politicized times.
Trump’s Revolution of Nihilism
In 1933, Nazi Party member Hermann Rauschning was president of the Danzig Senate and a proponent of conquering Poland. But by 1936 he had fled Germany into permanent exile, and in 1938 he wrote The Revolution of Nihilism. Sounding oddly like a conservative NeverTrumper, this arch-reactionary argued passionately that Hitler was something altogether new, and that his revolution went far beyond the German national revival and reckoning with Poland that Rauschning and other reactionaries were looking for.
Rauschning’s desire to draw a distinction between militaristic conservatism and Nazism smacks of ex post facto excuse-making: right-wingers in Weimar Germany, while lacking the Nazi’s dreadful single-minded focus, still laid the foundation for Hitler’s seizure of power through their constant denigration of parliamentary institutions. Nevertheless, his prediction that the Nazi revolution would spiral into a nihilistic destruction of all values and eventually into a whirlwind of physical destruction without precedent, was far more insightful than the appraisals of leading politicians in the liberal democracies right up to the outbreak of the war.
Donald Trump did not hijack American conservatism; in him it reached its logical culmination. The defining characteristics of post-1980 conservatism—its authoritarianism; denigration of reason and education; obsession with power at all costs; Manichean, black and white thinking; apocalyptic, religious fundamentalist mentality; paranoia and sense of being besieged even when in power; and gangsterish deceit, bad faith, and lack of principle, whether practiced by a transparent swindler like Trump or a supposed intellectual like Newt Gingrich—must lead to nihilism and mindless destruction.
Some destruction has been institutional. The State Department, the oldest and most senior cabinet department of the American republic, is being systematically dismantled, as are several other agencies, like the EPA. Others, such as the Treasury or the Federal Communications Commission, are being assiduously corrupted. Congress, under Republican majorities, has reduced itself to an impotent sham parliament, like the Cortes under Francisco Franco.
Possibly more dangerous is the relentless erosion of civility owing to the insidious normalization of the uncivilized. When the president of the United States uses profanity while addressing Boy Scouts; and when evangelical Pecksniffs, terrified of sex, endorse and defend a credibly accused child molester, we are undergoing a revolution of manners and mores, and a junking of all principles.
We have seen senseless acts of symbolic vandalism, such as sabotaging the Affordable Care Act to raise millions of people’s health insurance premiums, or rescinding a policy on building standards in flood-prone areas, a sensible measure that any fiscal conservative ought to support. Why? Trump had to take revenge on Barack Obama, the man who had poked fun at him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Trump’s simian rage becomes deadly serious in foreign policy. His threat of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against North Korea sounds eerily like Josef Goebbels’s hysterical rhapsodizing over the awesome destructive powers of Germany’s V-weapons. Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, has this to sayabout Trump’s potential to pull down the temple, like Samson:
What Trump does have the ability to do is break things… Trump will lash out more as he becomes more embattled and more people turn on him… The more chaos, unpopularity and abandonment, the more he accelerates the actions and direction which led to them in the first place. It’s a self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating cycle. Since Trump’s rage is his singular trait, he’ll likely seek to destroy those around him even if he goes down too. And you’re one of those people around him.
But Trump did not fall from the sky upon an innocent American people. Public suspicion and cynicism toward government, other groups in society, and democracy itself, have been steadily growing since the 1960s. While this would have happened in any case (and a little cynicism about what any government is up to can be healthy), the intensity of the suspicion and cynicism has been stoked at every turn by conservative propagandists, to the point where these feelings have congealed into paranoia and nihilism.
In the 2016 election, it was obvious that many voters had such a visceral feeling they had nothing to lose, that they were willing to roll the dice on a mentally unstable candidate for a position with virtual carte blanche powers to use nuclear weapons. As one voter told a pollster, he voted with his middle finger. A more succinct expression of nihilism is hard to find. A plurality of Republicans, 46 percent, favors a pre-emptive war with North Korea, an illegal act of aggression that would likely degenerate into a nuclear conflict.
The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters
The pattern I have described is playing out in many of what have until recently been known as the Western democracies. Hungary is borderline fascist; Poland is headed in that direction. Germany, for decades a pillar of stability in Europe, has 94 members of a nativist, right-wing party in the Bundestag. Britain has exited Europe and xenophobia is growing. Trump is not alone, and someday, here or elsewhere, we may encounter a new leader with Trump’s unscrupulousness and demagoguery, combined with the competence he lacks.
The political parties that are supposed to stand for democracy, tolerance, and popular enlightenment have for too long rotted away from their infatuation with a laissez-faire economic and social doctrine that offers little to average citizens. These parties may be able to perform holding actions or gain temporary victories, but they offer no vision as compelling as that of the new breed on the Right, with their dark mythology of the motherland besieged by enemies and the true faith profaned by heretics.
But don’t people want old-age pensions, affordable healthcare, and a tolerably clean environment? Conservatives won’t give them those things. But people also want other things, at least intermittently, and particularly in times of social stress: fluttering flags, torch-lit rallies, Lee Greenwood, and a good, wholesome two minutes hate. What Isaiah Berlin called the crooked timber of humanity is not always the ideal material with which to fashion a progressive vision.
If the Left, if all people opposed to Trumpism, were to take a critical look at their own beliefs, they could benefit. A central principal of liberal belief since the Enlightenment, that progress occurs by a kind of mechanical ratchet effect, is not true. Nor does the arc of history bend towards justice. Liberals say, in school-marmish fashion, that their opponents are “on the wrong side of history.” History is on nobody’s side.
Only a little more than seven decades ago, Western civilization nearly collapsed in an inferno of violence that wrecked Europe from the coast of France to the Volga. The forces of civilization prevailed, but barely, and ambiguously. Fascism was defeated, but the nuclear weapons the winners had built constituted a Faustian bargain, and the gulags of one of those victors still bulged with prisoners. Some who survey our post-war foreign policy might say that America learned the wrong lessons from fighting the war.
If our institutions, flawed and wounded as they are, cannot check the present conservative assault on ethical principles, humanitarian ideals, and objective reality itself, we may be doomed all too soon to live—or die—in the second great nihilistic revolution of the past hundred years. Recently there have been encouraging electoral signs that some Americans are overcoming their indifference and resisting the instigators of this revolution. But the fact that nearly three-quarters of white male Alabama voters (and a solid majority of white women voters) opted for a visibly insane champion of the movement I have outlined shows that the defense of liberal democracy and human decency against Joseph de Maistre’s dark vision is an unrelenting task.