New book ponders the continuity (and conservatism) of today’s conservative movement

A Review of The Vanishing Tradition, edited by Paul Gottfried.

President Donald Trump addresses the first day of the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Aug. 24, 2020. (CNS photo/Leah Millis, Reuters)

“A society that accepts the killing of a third of its babies as women’s ’emancipation,’ that considers homosexual marriage to be social progress, that hands out contraceptives to 13-year- old girls at junior high school ought to be seeking out a confessional — better yet, an exorcist — rather than striding into a pulpit like Elmer Gantry to lecture mankind on the superiority of ‘American values.’” – Pat Buchanan

“Our values are the same,” Michelle Obama explained when asked about her surprising friendship with George W. Bush, and if the former president ever released a statement gently correcting her, I must have missed it. Then again, given that Bush’s own wife has gone on record to support gay “marriage” and a woman’s right to abortion, perhaps his openness toward Madame Obama’s perspective is not so surprising after all. To be sure, some Catholic readers are too young to remember the sound and fury which was the Bush II era, and so cannot appreciate just how surreal the Obama-Bush connection is. Others, I suspect, would feel more comfortable ignoring it. The remainder find it hard not to notice, especially given that the 2016 election saw Ronald Reagan’s heir George H.W. Bush go so far as to cast his ballot for Hilary Clinton.

In light of all this and other inconvenient revelations, the two key questions raised in Paul Gottfried’s “Introduction” to The Vanishing Tradition: Perspectives On American Conservatism seem entirely reasonable: “One, does the [conservative] movement’s present identity reveal ideological and programmatic continuity with what it was fifty or sixty years ago? Two, does the movement encourage open, honest discussion of political differences, including with those who may be thought to be on its right?” The contributors to this volume clearly answer these questions with “No, and no.” Regardless of whether or not the reader agrees, there is certainly some fruitful ground to be covered in pursuing the answers.

In “Big Conservatism and American Exceptionalism,” Jack Kerwick argues that the most iconic figures of the conservative tradition could not fit well – if at all – in the major organs of 21st-century American “conservatism.” “The present conservative movement is largely a creation of neoconservatism,” Kerwick writes, “which gained effective control of establishment conservative media in the 1980s. The Big Conservatism that emerged from this takeover is a recognizable form of the Rationalist, progressivist, imperialist Left, against which classical conservatives and later the interwar American Right were once furiously opposed.” Neoconservatism is, Kerwick elaborates, an expression of American Exceptionalism, which is to say

a political religion, a set of political beliefs to which universal moral and spiritual significance has been assigned. The noblest ideals – Equality, Natural Rights, Democracy – supposedly became incarnate in this geographical region of the world within a specific people and during a specific time. The Logos, as it were, assumed flesh in this situation, but until now the world of time and space has precluded Americans from fully actualizing the Idea everywhere […] In the end, if all goes well, we will see the full realization of the Idea that is America both here and everywhere else on the planet.

According to this view the neoconservative is akin to the jihadist insofar as he cannot rest until every last corner of the Earth has been converted to his religion, by force if necessary. For the true-blue neoconservative the egalitarian abstraction he calls “America” will always take precedence over the interests and concerns of actual, flesh-and-blood Americans.

To clarify, in this essay Kerwick is not especially interested in refuting the neoconservative understanding of America, but in demonstrating that neoconservativism is dishonest insofar as it purports to be a continuation of the conservative tradition. Noting that conservatism can be traced back to opposition to the French Revolution, Kerwick argues that the global democratic revolution advocated during the Bush II era “is every bit as Rationalist and planetary in its content as the alleged Rights of Man, against which conservatives in earlier times fought.”

So if William Bennett and Charles Krauthammer or any of the other neoconservatives cited by Kerwick are correct in asserting that the old-fashioned notion of patriotic loyalty to a particular place, people, and culture does not apply to America, then what the intellectually honest person must do is candidly choose between repudiating America or repudiating conservatism and patriotism. Playing shell-games with language rarely has wholesome results, suggests Kerwick, and neoconservative efforts to redefine what conservatism means and what a nation is seem to run parallel to the Democratic Party’s redefinition of marriage and family. Moreover, as a Catholic philosophy professor Kerwick is obviously sensitive to yet another problem: While down-to-earth, conventional attachments like patriotism can become idols, it is not just possible but inevitable that “a political religion” with absolute, universalist ambitions will become a rival to the Faith,

At least when he highlights the incompatibility of classical conservatism with neoconservatism, Kerwick stands on especially solid ground. Far from preaching Allan Bloom’s “regime of equality and liberty,” the oft-cited archconservative Edmund Burke exhorted his English countrymen to oppose just such a regime, as instantiated in Jacobin France, as if it were the Antichrist. For Burke, the French Revolution of equality and liberty was but an episode in Western civilization’s impending civil war, a war which would be fought “between the partisans of the ancient, civil, moral, and political order of Europe, against a sect of fanatical and ambitious atheists which means to change them all.”

Nor would the conservative establishment of today tolerate for long anyone echoing the late Russell Kirk’s unabashedly laudatory remarks about the American South: In Kirk’s estimation,

the rural life kept the South aware of the vanity of human wishes, the existence of Providential purpose, and the immortal contract of eternal society; the political and literary traditions of the Southern states endured little altered by the nineteenth- and twentieth-century passion for innovation. Military valor, courtesy toward women, and the pieties of community, home, and family persisted in the South despite defeat and poverty and the intellectual ascendancy of the North.

Can anyone imagine a Catholic intellectual making such remarks today?

What one makes of Kirk’s claim that “the South has something to teach the modern world” is beside the point. Rather, the decidedly persuasive thesis of The Vanishing Tradition is that what is and is not permissible in conservative circles has been inverted since Kirk’s day. For better or worse, CPAC would now bar from the podium anyone who dared express the Southern sympathies of American conservatism’s godfather, even as it does offer a platform to the Log Cabin Republicans, whose homosexual-activist “conservatism” would have received nothing more than a derisive snort from even the Marxist-Leninist of 1960. To make any sense of the world we inhabit, we must first acknowledge that it has been turned upside down.

Along those lines, in “Trump, Neoconservatives, and the American Founding,” Nicholas Drummond challenges those who see “America First” rhetoric as a betrayal of American ideals. While “there may be plenty of good reasons to criticize Trump,” concedes Drummond, and the president’s critics “may not be entirely wrong when they identify him with the populist demagogue whom Montesquieu and the Founders warned against,” there is a cold hard truth that no one in the conservative establishment wants to face:

Trump’s immigration policies would not have offended the Constitution’s authors, who were not really celebrants of diversity. Had the Founders known that America would become the diverse country it is today, they would have established a different form of government […] we can assume that if Madison were around, he would be warning us that cultural diversity has rendered America vulnerable to plutocratic elites ruling over a divided citizenry. He and other Founders might even recommend that we imitate their actions in 1787: scrap the Constitution and begin anew. By now, the United States is so fractured along moral, ideological, and cultural lines that the old federal framework may have been rendered obsolete.

Drummond supports his argument with the writings of the various Founders themselves, and while counterfactual speculation about how people would react were they still alive is shaky, it is certainly true that in outlining their theories of constitutional order the Framers of the Constitution often took for granted principles which lie quite beyond the pale of today’s political-correctness. While the Founders were no xenophobes and obviously accepted the idea of limited and selective immigration, Drummond’s survey of their writings establishes pretty clearly that their assumptions regarding multiculturalism were far more jarring than anything let slip by President Trump in a tweet.

To a sensible person this should come as no surprise, suggests Drummond, for the context of the Founding was a population 80% Anglo-European, with the majority of those being British. Thus in his contributions to The Federalist James Madison took for granted that “the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens” will “consecrate their union,” even as his coauthor John Jay rested his case for the new Constitution partly upon the fact that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country, to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” To say that this is not the way Megan McCain conceives of the Constitution is an understatement.

In “Imagination and Its Failures” Catholic journalist Marjorie Jeffries traces the forces and decisions that led to the event so bemoaned by the conservative establishment – the political rise of Donald J. Trump. By suppressing for years the issues raised by paleoconservative gadfly Patrick Buchanan, establishment conservatives only ensured that certain problems would fester until the anxieties generated by them were tapped into by a more demagogic and less intellectual figure. “Though the conservative intelligentsia remained troubled by Buchanan’s isolationism and protectionism,” Jeffries notes regarding Buchanan’s 1992 bid for the Republican nomination, “it is clear that his positions on immigration, racial quotas, and the plight of the working-class man and woman were genuinely appealing to many on the right.” Admittedly, George H.W. Bush did eventually receive the nomination, but Buchanan won the CPAC straw poll that cycle, along with 38% of the New Hampshire primary, making him a force to be reckoned with.

As Jeffries recalls, Buchanan was not shy about drawing the line between his brand of conservatism and the “New World Order” invoked by Bush Senior during Operation Desert Storm:

At his campaign announcement in Concord, New Hampshire, Buchanan compared the American situation to the bureaucratic takeover of European nations: ‘We Americans must not let that happen here. We must not trade in our sovereignty for a cushioned seat at the head table of anyone’s New World Order.” From foreign affairs he turned to economic problems, beginning with America’s outsized financial commitment to the protection of other countries and calling for the reform of international organizations. Finally, Buchanan spoke of the cultural crisis that had been placed on the back burner during the Cold War. The candidate closed with what later would become a Trumpian sentiment: ‘George H.W. Bush is yesterday and we are tomorrow. He is a globalist and we are nationalists. He believes in some Pax Universalis; we believe in the Old Republic. He would put American wealth and power at the service of some vague New World Order; we will put America first.’

All in all, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump’s program was lifted from that of Buchanan. It is also striking to contrast Buchanan’s role in popularizing the idea of “culture war” with William F. Buckley’s explicit decision to put said struggle “on the back burner during the Cold War,” during which increased defense spending and global hegemony became greater priorities than limited government and national culture.

Clearly neither Jeffries’s essay nor The Vanishing Tradition as a whole seems especially committed to the Trump brand. While at least some of the essayists are obviously sympathetic to or even aligned with populist conservatism, there is no straightforward connection between this movement and the Trump administration. As Jeffries notes, Trump’s own dedication to the “America First” agenda does not always seem coherent or principled.

On my part, however, it seems that Trump can at least be credited with one thing. He has driven home beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt the utterly dysfunctional nature of the conservative establishment, and demonstrates the need to rethink longstanding assumptions and political pieties. After all, given that Republican voters themselves chose a politically-unacceptable, even “deplorable” nominee by a landslide, what constituency can mainstream conservative leaders possibly be said to represent? While denizens of the Beltway, New York City, and the “Left Coast” might be forgiven for not realizing it, those of us in the thick of Red State America can attest that people who oppose both border control and Obamacare are relatively few and far between out here, as are pro-life, small-town constitutionalists who cannot tolerate General Lee.

The Vanishing Tradition: Perspectives On American Conservatism
Edited by Paul Gottfried
Northern Illinois University Press, 2020
Paperback, 246 pages


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About Jerry Salyer 42 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.

24 Comments

  1. I am a traditionalist conservative, a disciple of Edmund Burke (whose philosophical underpinnings rest on Thomas Aquinas) and a long time admirer of the great Russell Kirk. That said, I also understand, as an American, that there is in our founding a somewhat libertarian streak, and I work within that context.

    This book sounds as if it is well worth reading, but I think characterizing Bill Bennett as a neocon is misguided. Taken in the totality of his work, he is not a neocon. He may see America as the world’s “last, best hope” (which is may be true), but he is less than enthusiastic about imposing our values on others. He is, like many American thinkers, a little of both–traditionalist and individualist.

  2. Soooooo, are you surprised that the Bushs and Obammy are friends and “sisters”. The establishment is corrupt. Goes back to Prescott Bush his grandfather who caught hell for his investments in Nazi Germany.

  3. In his 1992 bid, Mr. Buchanan definitely stood out as a true conservative; especially since he was fairly able to articulate his stance on the world. I remember him saying he “would point Japan’s ships back to the homeland” or similar effect, until they took the extreme tariffs off our goods.

    A country that keeps ‘printing money’ is going to have problems when they no longer can afford to do so, and the problems keep arising.

    Money and previous public responsibility may be the common denominator between President Bush and Mrs. Obama.

  4. “… it is not just possible but inevitable that ‘a political religion’ with absolute, universalist ambitions will become a rival to the Faith.”

    Per the above, the author asserts that it is the univeralist aspirations of American neo-conservationism that puts it in conflict with the Faith. This implies that the definitively regional (vs. global) scope of traditional conservatism as rooted in American exceptionalism “immunizes” traditional conservatism from conflicting with the Faith.

    “Manifest destiny” was a definitively regional (vs. global) vision of American hegemony, and as such a doctrinal species of the genus of “American exceptionalism.” Yet this doctrine was promoted and pursued with an overtly religious zeal that tapped into, if not engendered, the Anglo-Israelism movement. Per this movement, the as-yet unsettled West was preached as a “promised land” comparable to biblical Canaan, whose aboriginal inhabitants were comparable to biblical Canaanites and thus legitimately expelled at least, and at worst exterminated, in order to enable settlement by the “new Israelites” (i.e., Americans of of Anglo descent).

    The author’s disgust with the conservative pretensions of neo-conservatism blinds him to the reality that any earthly political dogma as such – whether regional or global in scope – inevitably contends with the Faith precisely as pursued dogmatically.

    The truths of faith and morals (i.e., of revelation and of natural law) are the only valid sources of dogmatic certitude. All other dogmas of whatever ilk are “false gods,” be they “conservative” or “liberal.”

  5. In any discussion of demagogues you must identify and discuss the demagogues in the media, academia, and the many other organizations that constitute the establishment elites. The DNA of the left is that of Saul Alinsky and his “Rules for Radicals.” Trump’s public commentary is making the Alinskyite left live by their own rules. The people who voted for Trump voted for him because the establishment elites kept on selling them out for continuing access to their cushy establishment elite positions and perks. Too much rent seeking, too much accountability free establishment elite privilege.
    *
    As a citizen of the USA I know what my voting rights are in local, state, and federal elections. I have no known international, global voting rights. My political franchise ends at the national borders. Why would I want to support a globalism in which I am devoid of a voting franchise? It is the leftist globalists who are the ardent practitioners of unelected autocracy by bureaucracy. It is the rioters, looters, and the weak public officials who capitulate to them who are wielding the lawless, unconstrained use of force that I associate with dictatorship.

    • Greg B. makes a good point – we have no vote at the UN – we don’t even get to vote for our representative . Globalism has not benefitted the average citizen beyond the ability to buy cheap stuff and it has directly harmed middle class factory workers. And Marjorie Jeffrey does a good job reminding us of the patriotic, pro-American positions Pat Buchanan has taken over a lifetime in politics.

  6. Joe Biden’s 2012 Speech in China: ‘I Totally Understand’ One-Child Policy

    Let’s put analysis of conservatism and Trump aside for now and focus on the fact that the Democrat party is running a candidate who “totally understands” the Chinese Communist’s mandatory abortion policy. And focus on the fact that the Democrat party not only advocates “legal” baby murder right up to birth, but now celebrates it. See this Washington Examiner article:

    Disgusting: New York not only legalized late-term abortions, but also celebrated like it won the Super Bowl

    Let’s get the Democrat party advocacy of the “legal” murder of innocent humanity in perspective. The collapse of Western civilization began when Germany let those seize power who believed that the state has the authority to “legalize” the murder of innocent humanity as a matter of social policy, and did so by the millions.

    The Nazis were defeated in the war of weaponry, but ultimately won the ideological war. The Western world, and much of the rest of the world, now consists of nations that pretend that the state has such authority. So far, two-billion innocent human beings have been murdered via “legal” abortion. That is more people than the entire human population of planet Earth at the beginning of the twentieth century.

    The life of the child in the womb used to be protected by law. This was because civilization is better than savagery. The power of the state stands between the powerful and the less powerful. The powerful can’t do as they please to the less powerful. This notion is the bedrock upon which civilization rests. The Nazis abandoned it. Now it seems most of the nations of this world have abandoned it. Deliberately taking the life of the child in the womb used to be against the law precisely because murder is intrinsically illegal and can’t be reconciled with civilized society.

    The Democrat party assault on innocent human life, their advocacy of the perversion of human nature and the destruction of gender, their hatred of Christianity, their militant atheism and use of the very same tactics used by militantly atheistic, leftist regimes to seize power in the last century — regimes that ultimately murdered well over 100 million of their unarmed political opponents — should be raising alarm bells that make analysis of conservatism and Trump like that found here entirely inappropriate for the time being.

    The situation is simple: One party and candidate, the Democrat party and Joe Biden, are hostile to Christianity and fully support the perpetuation of the greatest holocaust of innocent human life in the history of the world. Trump and the Republican party doesn’t.

    • “While denizens of the Beltway, New York City, and the “Left Coast” might be forgiven for not realizing it, those of us in the thick of Red State America can attest that people who oppose both border control and Obamacare are relatively few and far between out here, as are pro-life, small-town constitutionalists who cannot tolerate General Lee.”

      He is claiming that most Middle or Red Americans support border control and yet are ok with big government/welfare programs (even if Obamacare can’t be called such). And that “pro-life, small-town constitutionalists” are generally ok with Southerners (and others) honoring their heritage and heroes.

  7. Trump, not a man for all seasons! Seems that this article, once again, mixes religion with politics. Why are we so duplicitous? Frequently displaying a soft picture of Trump as a savior of morality. I am 83 and have lived during presidencies from Truman to Trump, so far. Never can I recall any president prior to Trump who demonstrated a defiance of the constitution nor were accused of being above the law. My GOP has been morphed into a vile gang of separatists who genuflect to their “chosen one”, Caligula. There is no more conservative GOP party… the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, only the DJT party of narcissistic dividers. When he spoke at the RNC Convention Trump chose a fire and brimstone diatribe attacking Biden and Harris and ignoring his own weaknesses. I don’t particularly want Biden be in, but I really want Trump out. No more… fake mention of God and posing as the chosen one, reckless capitulation with arch enemies, philandering with whores while his wife is pregnant with her first child, caging of immigrant babies, deceptions, lies, misogyny, disparaging women with – grabbing them by the p###y, Charlottesville “white supremacists” – good people on both sides, trashing of perceived enemies), obsession with Obama and birtherism, childish name calling ( crazy Nancy, Adam S**t , sleepy Joe, etc), and just being so far from presidential. I would sooner restore some spirituality in the more retrievable Catholic Biden.
    Trump and his henchmen/women said if Biden were elected the US would descend into darkness. Perhaps If we are to hope his ratings continue to fall, that darkness would turn to the light for our future… that “shining city upon a hill”.

    • When your house is on fire you don’t worry about whether the fireman’s personality suits your tastes. You just want the fire put out.

      Trump is working on putting out the “fire” of civilization’s collapse. Biden is an arsonist.

      • Well, Mr. Biden is at least enabling the arsonists. So are pretty much every US corporation & financial institution who think they can placate through pandering.

      • Please, do not condemn as if you are not a sinner like the rest of us. Editor, do we have to read this in a Faith discussion? Is God not for us all? Remember there are 10 Commandments and not one. We cannot pick and choose. We should be like Christ in our discussion as this is a Catholic discussion. Or is that not the case ? Trump is no Saint, Biden is no Saint, but are you a Saint? Christ’s way is not only to pray for our enemies but to love them too. I am Pro-life and always will be. I think a critical approach of the arguments is always good to read, but please do not condemn others to hades. Remember the parable of the lost sheep or prodigal son? St Augustine believed that all humans have the potential to change and he would know better, as did St Paul.

    • Curious Morgan how do you justify voting for pro abortion candidate like Biden. Let me give you a brief history of some past President. JFK had sex with approx 50 women in the White House including an intern. Also he mismanaged foreign policy, including the start of the Vietnam War. LBJ lied about the Gulf of Token incident that got us deeply into Vietnam, he also was a massive womanizer. The Bushes got us into more wars on false pretenses. Clinton another lying womanizing president. Finally Obama, abused his power massively, big pro abortion guy, with the support of left wing media who covered up his scandals.

  8. A government cannot legislate to effect the state of a person’s heart so that he or she becomes acceptable to God and their behaviour conform to a higher moral standard. A complicated subject is this politicisation of Abortion and the support for Trump as a perceived ally of the righteous. So much foolishness, seemingly willful naivety or perhaps deliberate, narrow minded prejudice. morganB is one who speaks his mind, so it seems, and good on him for doing so. What if his opinion does not find agreement among many here? There should be no attempt to silence him.

    • Mr. Hallam,
      I don’t believe anyone wishes to silence free speech here. I’ve seen Morgan’s comments published for quite a long time & am not aware of any censorship. It’s not my publication nor my rules to moderate, but I think Morgan has every right to express his opinions. And perhaps benefit from our replies & prayers.

      You know I think it’s telling of our attitudes towards any particular offense against the innocent when we rationalize why that offense should not or can not be legislated against.
      While it’s true that no govt can legislate the condition of our hearts, it is the proper role of govt to legislate laws to protect the most vulnerable in its society.

      • Yes, i thought about the wording of my comment after posting and agree with respect to legislating to protect the most vulnerable and of course criminal acts like assault, murder etc, all behaviour with a moral consequence. I guess what i’m getting at is within a democracy, legislating against a moral code that is at odds with our faith and those who do not hold our faith are bound by this legislation. Obviously if those who hold to our faith are no longer in the majority in a democracy then legislation will reflect that reality. Another reality i struggle with is the inconsistencies in the moral stance taken by Catholics on a variety of issues. While support for legislation against Abortion is a stance maintaining the dignity and sacredness of human life from the point of conception, the writings on the subject of Just War Theory and the application of that theory in order to support the Invasion of Iraq by US armed forces with the support of what was called the coalition of the willing seems to me to smack of hypocrisy. The euphemism of collateral damage is in my mind an abomination yet this reality of what i see as a litany of war crimes committed by my and your Governments sanction who govern on our behalf is not an issue Catholics seem to be upset by in the slightest. Now to my thinking these issues go beyond politics. I’m from Australia but looking at the USA the Democrats are in many ways no better than the Republicans and vica versa with respect the moral high ground on a vast array of issues that one can take a stand on because of the faith we have in the Person of Jesus and in walking the path he has called us to individually and corporately. We all are at risk of accentuating some issues and negating others in the manner that reflects our social, economic, and other world view stances. To some extent our faith is shaped by our own prejudices rather than conforming to the image of Christ Jesus. our endeavour surely should be to be more wholistic in our application of the Way of Jesus in our world view. The danger of the pursuit of partisan politics is manifold. The way of Jesus is first and foremost, the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom we ascribe to. Some of the “Left” and some of the “Right” will fit, some won’t. We are a people called, we are a people set apart! Are we?

        • Mr.Hallam,
          Thank you for your comments.
          Occasionally wars are justified but I think most should have been avoided.
          Sadly these days the only Christians I know who are a people set apart are our local cloistered Carmelite community and my Mennonite friends. Everyone else seems to be caught up in politics or some ideology.

        • “I guess what i’m getting at is within a democracy, legislating against a moral code that is at odds with our faith and those who do not hold our faith are bound by this legislation. Obviously if those who hold to our faith are no longer in the majority in a democracy then legislation will reflect that reality.”

          This is why democracy as defined as – rule of laws made by the majority of democratically elected legislators – is unjust. There is no guarantee that the laws will be just because they are arbitrarily crafted. Nevertheless, it is not necessary for a Catholic (or others) to obey laws that are unjust.

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