Peter Bradley, American Renaissance, July 25, 2018
“Why are you writing about George Will?” asked a 30-something friend when I told him I was working on this article. That is a perfectly natural question. Many people his age do not know there was a time when George Will may have been the most prominent conservative in the United States. In the pre-internet days of the early 1990s—when I was looking for alternatives to the dominant leftism that seemed to infest every institution—Mr. Will may have been challenged only by William F. Buckley as the nation’s best-known conservative.
With columns in the Washington Post and Newsweek, and weekly appearances on ABC’s Sunday news show This Week with David Brinkley, Mr. Will was everywhere. The Pulitzer Prize winner was sharp, well spoken and, to his credit, often unafraid to take on (however tepidly) leftist issues such as affirmative action and campus political correctness. Today, Mr. Will still has a column in the Washington Post and is a commentator on MSNBC, but he is hardly ever quoted or mentioned unless he is criticizing President Trump or conservatives. Even then, his opinions are basically a footnote. Rush Limbaugh spent less than a minute brushing aside Mr. Will’s recent comment that he hopes Democrats win the 2018 mid-term elections.
How did one of America’s leading conservative pundits fall so far and so fast? The answer can be found in a 1986 article in Modern Age. Written by a then little-known Samuel Francis, this was a review of Mr. Will’s first book, Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does, but Francis also critiqued “conservatism properly understood,” to use one of Mr. Will’s favorite phrases.
Francis didn’t quibble with Mr. Will’s central thesis, that “modern political thought since the time of Machiavelli forward has ignored or denied the ethical potentialities of human nature and has concentrated on passion and self-interest as the constituent forces of society and government.” But Francis noted that many conservative thinkers (Russell Kirk, Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss—whom Mr. Will simply ignored) have decried this same abandonment of the ethical. He also questioned Mr. Will’s own application of this critique:
Although Mr. Will is consistent in his strong support for the illegalization of pornography and abortion, he also tries to use pre-modern or classical conservatism to endorse the welfare state and to justify the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, both of which are the principal creations of modern liberalism and constitute revolutionary engines by which the radicalizing dynamic of liberalism is built into contemporary American government.
In his defense of civil rights legislation, Will had written:
The most admirable achievements of modern liberalism—desegregation and the civil rights acts—were explicit and successful attempts to change (among other things) individuals’ moral beliefs by compelling them to change their behavior. The theory was that if government compelled people to eat and work and study and play together, government would improve the inner lives of those people.
What the conservative wants to know, however, is by what authority a state undertakes such massive transformations and whether what is gained compensates adequately for the damage that is inevitably done. . . . It is not clear they [civil rights acts] have led or will lead to more justice and tolerance and greater racial harmony. They certainly did damage to the Constitution by allowing the national judicial and legislative branches to override state and local laws. They also damaged the political culture by popularizing and legitimizing the idea that every conceivable “minority” (women, sexual deviants, the handicapped, and all racial and ethnic groups) may use the federal government to satisfy its ambitions at the expense of local jurisdictions, the public treasury, and the social order. . . .
Indeed, for all of his expostulations in favor of the high minded and aristocratic enforcement of virtue, Mr. Will repeatedly expresses his deference to the conventional and the popular. The rights of proprietors [who wanted to keep the right to choose whom they would serve] in 1964 ‘had become intolerably divisive,’ so ‘conservatism properly understood’ accepts the demands of those who initiated the division. ‘An American majority was unusually aroused.’ So, authority must follow the majority. The welfare state is an idea whose time ‘has now come,’ so conservatives must accept the idea and must not resist the times. ‘If conservatism is to engage itself with the way we live now,’ it must adapt itself to current circumstances . . . .
Francis makes the useful observation that George Will is not a neoconservative, because that ideology tries to derive conservative policy positions from liberal premises. Mr. Will did the opposite: try to defend liberal initiatives from conservative principles. So, if not neoconservative, libertarian or classic conservative, what is Will’s ideology?
Mr. Will’s ideology is consistent . . . with the agenda of liberalism and the structures that carry out its agenda, and his self-professed aim ‘to recast conservatism in a form compatible with the broad popular initiatives of the day’ is in fact an admission of his acceptance of and deference to the liberal idols that modern statecraft adores. . . . It is therefore not surprising that his commentary is welcomed in and rewarded by liberal power centers. They have little to fear from him and his ideas and much to gain if his version of ‘conservatism’ should gain currency. He enjoys every prospect of a bright future . . . .
Will has indeed enjoyed the last 32 years as a spokesman for the establishment. His views are exactly as Sam Francis described over 30 years ago. He left the Republican Party in 2016 over the nomination of Trump and called for conservatives to “help him lose 50 states.” Last month, the man who lectured us on “conservatism properly understood” wrote that he hopes the Democrats win the mid-term elections so as to stop Mr. Trump. Just this week, he called the president “a sad, embarrassing wreck of a man,” for having met Vladimir Putin. It is fitting that the 77-year old pundit will end his career opining for MSNBC, the home of the leftist “resistance” against the first political leader in my lifetime to fight back against the liberal establishment.
It is also fitting that as Mr. Will heads toward irrelevance, Francis is more popular and influential than ever, 13 years after his untimely death at the age of 57. Three books on Francis’ work have been published and more may follow. The website Counter-Currents regularly publishes his old Chronicles columns, which are as insightful now as they were 25 years ago. He is widely given credit for setting the stage for the rise of Donald Trump. His work was profiled in an article in National Journal in 2015. The piece was read on air by Rush Limbaugh to his 20 million followers. Even New York Times columnist David Brooks, one of Mr. Will’s Never Trump colleagues, wrote the following in September 2017:
The only time I saw Sam Francis face-to-face—in the Washington Times cafeteria sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s—I thought he was a crank, but it’s clear now that he was at that moment becoming one of the most prescient writers of the past 50 years. There’s very little Donald Trump has done or said that Francis didn’t champion a quarter century ago.
Will anyone ever write anything like that about George Will?
Sam Francis labored in relative obscurity during his lifetime, even as George Will won awards and was paid handsomely for his defense of “liberal power centers.” It is too bad that Sam did not live to see the demise of “Conservative Inc.” lapdogs like Mr. Will and the rise of Donald Trump, fueled mostly by the Middle American Radicalism he advocated. But his work lives on and he is continually being proven correct to a wider and more appreciative audience. Unlike George Will, Sam’s legacy has a bright future.