“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