The Coming Conservative Dark Age

Matthew Continetti, Commentary, April 12, 2016

When William F. Buckley Jr. died in 2008 at age 82, conservatives were deprived of his wit, his intelligence, his charisma, and his panache. But they also lost something more important than their leader’s charms. They lost his authority. And they need it now more than ever.

It was Buckley who for decades determined the boundaries of American conservatism. {snip}

The American Mercury, for which Buckley worked briefly, was a nest of anti-Semites. The libertarian Freeman was beset with infighting, more interested in criticizing the New Deal than in coalition-building. Cranky, conspiratorial, bigoted, frustrated, powerless–this was the conservatism of William F. Buckley’s young adulthood.

Buckley changed things when he founded National Review in 1955. He introduced the philosophers to the populists. He published the traditionalists, the libertarians, the Cold Warriors in the same pages. Not only did he aspire to fuse free markets with traditional values, he wanted to be taken seriously by the New York media and cultural elite. Dismissed in embarrassing fashion by Dwight Macdonald in the pages of COMMENTARY in 1956, National Review was unquestionably the tribune of an engaged, informed, and rising American conservatism by the time Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California a decade later.

Why the transformation? Part of the reason is that Buckley and his editors spent an enormous amount of time and energy during the early years of the magazine disassociating their conservatism from its atavistic and gnostic forebears. National Review is a great example of media gatekeeping theory: By exiling anti-Semites, Birchers, and anti-American reactionaries from its pages, the magazine and its editor determined which conservative arguments were legitimate and which were not. By denying a platform to quacks and haters, they broadened their potential audience.


Lately, though, it’s seemed as if the process by which William F. Buckley legitimized American conservatism has gone into reverse. The gatekeeper theory of media, it turns out, works only when the barriers to entry in the media are high. {snip}

But anyone with the Internet can write a blog or tweet or Facebook post or can Skype or record a podcast. The castle no longer has walls. The gatekeepers are mostly useless. {snip}


The nasty mouth-breathers Buckley expelled from conservatism have returned. The proximate cause of this efflorescence of the pre-Buckley right is Donald Trump’s campaign for president. Trump has dog-whistled at racists so much for so long that they feel resurgent. They call themselves the “alt-right,” a grab-bag category that includes nativists, eugenicists, bigots, anti-Semites, misogynists, reactionaries, aristocrats, monarchists, isolationists–basically anyone who hates today’s America and the modern world and the men and women, of any race or religion, who flourish in it.

For a while the alt-right was confined to the comment sections on websites, then it moved to Twitter, then it created websites of its own, and now, most disturbingly, its ideas, such as they are, are being published and defended and celebrated on sites associated with the conservative movement and Republican politics.


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