George Hawley, Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, University Press of Kansas, 2016, 366 pp., $34.95.
Conservatism, as we have known it since the 1950s, is collapsing. George Hawley, a political scientist at the University of Alabama, has written a well-informed, readable account of this collapse, together with an introduction to the now-marginalized movements that could replace conservatism. Although Prof. Hawley predicts that Cato Institute-style libertarianism has the best chance of profiting from the conservative train wreck, he also includes a balanced account of the prospects for what he calls “the radical right:” race realists, white advocates, and racial nationalists. Although he carefully distances himself from “racists,” Prof. Hawley has tried to understand the movement and to assess its prospects as an alternative to moribund conservatism.
The Cold War convergence
Prof. Hawley points out that what passes for conservatism today “can be traced back no further than the early 1950s,” and is an almost arbitrary alliance formed during the Cold War. Its three main tenets–a strong military, Christianity, free markets–were in direct opposition to aggressive, godless, command-economy Communism. Conservatism could have rethought its goals at the end of the Cold War, but it has essentially stuck to the same old script.
Conservatives from before the Second World War would have rejected two-thirds of today’s conservatism. They shared a libertarian dislike of government, but men such as H.L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock were suspicious of military power and adventures abroad. And many were irreligious; Mencken was an open scoffer. They were also much more openly elitist than today’s conservatives. They despised crowd culture and mass democracy, and liked the deliberately anti-democratic features of the original Constitution.
Today’s version of conservatism is, almost single-handedly, the creation of William F. Buckley and the stable of writers he promoted at National Review. For Buckley, however, the three strands of Cold War conservatism were not just a practical alliance. They seem to have reflected his true convictions, though he was willing to sacrifice small-government ideals to achieve the consolidated national power he thought America needed to fight Communism.
Prof. Hawley notes several reasons why today’s conservatism has a dim future. First, non-whites don’t like it, and the country is increasingly non-white; Prof. Hawley laughs at the idea that conservatives–or their political incarnation, the GOP–could improve their chances by getting sentimental over immigrants. Americans are also turning away from religion, and in the United States, religion is one of the most reliable markers of conservatism. Married people are more conservative than the unmarried, and marriage is declining. Crime rates have been dropping since the mid-1990s, so “law and order” does not have the political appeal it once did. Conservatives are also heavily implicated in the wreck our foreign policy has made of Iraq. Thus, Mr. Hawley writes, conservatism “faces the greatest challenge of its short history.”
Purging the right
However, another reason conservatism is flagging is that its ideas are old and cramped, and Prof. Hawley notes that “the narrow view of the American right can be partially attributed to the energetic policing that occurs within the conservative movement.” Prof. Hawley points out that although conservatives like to boast that they revere “permanent things,” the Buckley movement did a complete about face on race, expelling anyone who did not abandon the staunch, race-realist positions once defended in National Review.
By the 1980s, conservatives had joined the left: “The mainstream right in America appears to have determined that, at least publicly, it favors racial egalitarianism and disagrees with the left only on the means by which racial equality can be achieved.” There was a rearguard action against making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday, but Ronald Reagan–the conservative icon–signed the bill in 1983, and now National Review hails King as an American hero. Conservatives also began to claim that the United States is nothing but laws and propositions, so it makes no difference if the country fills up with Guatemalans and Bantus. Anyone who disagreed had to be bounced.
Prof. Hawley gives us balanced accounts of how Samuel Francis and Joe Sobran were bounced, and adds that the fates of Peter Brimelow, Robert Weissberg, John Derbyshire, Ann Coulter, and Jason Richwine show that conservatives now have to drive a “racist” from their midst “every few months, it seems.” Leftists, who are usually the ones who pester conservatives about banishing miscreants, complain that conservatives seem to have got along fine for years with these newly unmasked “racists,” and must have had more than an inkling of what they really thought.
Conservatives–or, rather, neo-conservatives whom Prof. Hawley nicely profiles–found other grounds for excommunication: opposition to the Iraq war. “Given the degree to which conservatives are skeptical of the federal government’s competence domestically,” Prof. Hawley notes, “there was a surprising faith among conservatives in the ability of Washington to fundamentally transform Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.” When Samuel Francis and Paul Gottfried pointed out the folly of the invasion, and how utterly at variance it was with true conservatism, they were, in Prof. Hawley’s words, “furiously denounced.” George F. Will and William Buckley later admitted they had been wrong about the war.
Prof. Hawley is right to point out that with William Buckley’s death in 2008, conservatism lost its pope and much of its power to excommunicate. At the same time, the rise of the internet has made it much harder to shut out dissident ideas; it is now possible to reach hundreds of thousands of people every month without the expense and bother of printing and delivering a publication.
Waiting in the wings
Prof. Hawley’s diagnosis of conservatism on the ropes is surely correct. What happens when it goes through the ropes?
It is possible that a slow decline in the power of organized conservatism in America will usher in a new era of progressive hegemony in American politics. However, it is also conceivable that organized conservatism’s weakness will open up new space for right-wing ideological movements that have long lived on the fringe.
Most of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism is an introduction to these fringe movements, though some are poor candidates for national stature. Agrarianism and localism, for example, are no-hopers. Many people hate the industrial economy and yearn for smaller-scale, more rooted living, but they are not going to change the country. Prof. Hawley profiles Richard Weaver, the Southern agrarians, Wendell Berry, and Richard Nisbet, as defenders of a tradition that goes all the way back to Jefferson. Maybe their ideas could give rise to a few farming communes but, as Prof. Hawley himself notes, rural areas are losing people, especially young people with talent and ambition.
Prof. Hawley suggests that non-Christian “secular conservatives” might pick up what’s left of conservatism. This idea is not persuasive but it is logical: There is nothing inherently Christian about small government or big armies. Moreover, Christianity has its own “the last shall be first” brand of egalitarianism that sits poorly with conservatism, so conservatives could conceivably pitch their message to non-believers.
However, the conservative position on abortion and homosexuals is firmly rooted in Christianity, and Prof. Hawley cites a 2012 survey, according to which only 5 percent of people who called themselves conservative said religion was “not important” to them. Moreover, another survey the same year found that 70 percent of people who say they have no religion voted for President Obama. Conservatives don’t have the brains or imagination to make an effective appeal to the non- or anti-religious.
Prof. Hawley is sympathetic to the so-called paleo-conservatives, who gained some prominence in the 1990s. Paleos saw themselves as heirs to the pre-war right of Mencken, Nock, and Garet Garett, who opposed the New Deal and the war against the Axis. Unlike current conservatives, paleos would love to roll back most of what the left has achieved since the 1950s: the welfare state, “civil rights,” empire, and intrusive government. They were also against trade agreements such as NAFTA. Samuel Francis, Paul Gottfried, and Lew Rockwell were some of their most trenchant spokesmen, and Patrick Buchanan carried the paleo flag at the national level.
However, as Prof. Hawley notes, the paleos were perhaps the best evidence yet of the empty promise of the conservative mantra, “Ideas have consequences.” He recognizes the intellectual power of the paleo critique of conservatism, but with no money or media savvy, their ideas never went anywhere.
Prof. Hawley includes a chapter on the European New Right, even though he realizes it is practically invisible in the United States. To the extent that they even know about it, conservatives hate the New Right almost as much as they hate “racists.” It is anti-Christian, anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, and anti-American. Also, the European New Right has traditionally disdained conventional politics in the belief that meta-politics–taking over the culture–is the best way to stop the rot, whereas American conservatives love politics. Nevertheless, the New Right’s appreciation of rootedness, identity, order, and tradition make it conservative in ways that harken back even to pre-Enlightenment thinking.
Prof. Hawley notes that it is mostly the racialist right that admires the Europeans. Guillaume Faye and Alain de Benoist have spoken at conferences put on by American Renaissance and National Policy Institute, and Arktos Media has introduced the movement’s major thinkers to English-speaking readers. Of all “conservatives,” racial dissidents are least sentimental about the United States, and most open to thinkers for whom America is in no respect a model.
Prof. Hawley includes a lively account of American libertarianism, with good profiles of Lysander Spooner, Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, and Hans Herman Hoppe. He also makes a strong case for libertarians as the most likely successors to conservatism. They like the increasing trend towards tolerating deviants, and Prof. Hawley claims–on unspecified evidence–that young people are increasingly skeptical of government. Libertarians are often irreligious, and therefore could benefit from the decline of Christianity. At the same time, neo-con foreign policy disasters bolster the credibility of non-interventionist libertarians. Prof. Hawley is probably right to say that many of the most energetic young people in the College Republicans and at CPAC are libertarian. Finally, he notes that “of all the dissident right-wing ideologies in the United States, none can compare to libertarians when it comes to funding, access to lawmakers, or platforms in prominent publications, and television shows.”
On the other hand, libertarians are probably some of America’s most vicious infighters and schismatics, and the anarchist fringe so hates government that it could probably never cooperate in any political effort. Likewise, true libertarians want to abolish social security and repeal anti-discrimination laws, so the ones who want to influence policy will have to keep their purist comrades at a distance. Prof. Hawley even concedes that some of the more colorful aspects of libertarianism–legal heroin and prostitution, open borders, no zoning, etc.–leave some doubt as to whether libertarianism can even be properly called “conservative,” but he believes that disciples of Bastiat, Hayek, and von Mises will have an impact on policy only as part of some kind of conservative coalition.
And then there is the racialist right. Prof. Hawley says he hesitated to cover the movement because, as he notes correctly, “racism is now generally treated as nothing more than a reactionary opposition to the loss of privilege, or even as a psychiatric disorder, rather than the source of a logical and coherent ideology.” And although Prof. Hawley takes the Carol Swain view that white advocacy must be understood if only the better to refute it, he recognizes its power: “If the mainstream conservative movement loses its status as the gatekeeper of the right, white nationalism may be among the greatest beneficiaries.”
American Renaissance has long argued that sensible views on race are not inherently liberal or conservative, and that their current association with the right is a historical aberration. Prof. Hawley defines the left as movements for which equality is the main goal, and the right as movements that have different goals. In this context, race realism became part of the right only when the white champions of equality lost their racial bearings and started trying to make the whole world equal. That will change. Any white homeland, for example, will have its own left-right divide, but for now, Prof. Hawley is generally correct to say that “many of the leading racists in twentieth-century America will appear to be fairly typical conservatives if their views on race are ignored.”
Prof. Hawley is also right to note that “when racists are portrayed in the media, they are usually treated as ignorant, regressive, and violent” and that “the most polite and erudite white racist is no more welcome than the most vulgar and ignorant.” He has himself, however, taken the trouble to distinguish between “white supremacy” and “white nationalism,” and to puzzle over the double standard that approves of racial nationalism in Israel and in all non-white countries but denies it to whites. He even wryly cites a laughably circular argument as to why this should be so: “We can identify white nationalists as being especially dangerous precisely because white nationalism is so unpopular; the fact they embrace these political views in spite of their unpopularity tells us something about their character.”
Prof. Hawley offers a reasonably good potted history of white advocacy that starts with Madison Grant and works its way through William Pierce, Harold Covington, Jared Taylor, Richard Spencer, Don Black, Robert Whitaker, and Kevin MacDonald. He also points out that scientists can legitimately arrive at unfashionable views about race and IQ without being “racist,” and that the number of websites devoted to human biodiversity (HBD) “has exploded.”
Nevertheless, he notes that even if more and more whites are becoming race realists, the perils of open advocacy are still so great that most have to hide behind screen names. Still, he concludes with an important insight: “Given the degree to which tribal and exclusionist thinking has been a common attribute throughout most of human history, one cannot assume that racial nationalism has been permanently defeated, in the United States or anywhere else.” No, one cannot. In fact, to do so would be foolish.
Today’s stripe of American conservatives could eventually become an insignificant fringe group. One reason is that they made a huge strategic error by putting all their effort into politics–specifically, the Republican Party. In doing so, they let almost the entire culture slip through their fingers. Hollywood, the media, the universities, and even elementary schools are firmly in enemy hands. The new, non-white America will certainly scorn Republicans, and if the party is crippled as a national force, conservatives could end up with scarcely any influence on American life.
Right-Wing Critics was written before Donald Trump became a candidate, but his rise fits perfectly into Prof. Hawley’s analysis. Ordinary whites don’t care about the theoretical advantages of free trade, nor do they hate government; they hate it only when it coddles foreigners, illegal immigrants, Muslim “refugees,” sexual indeterminates, and the vast array of lefty and non-white misfits with a chip on their shoulder about white America.
The entire conservative movement, from the girly-boys at National Review to dinosaurs like John McCain, thundered with one voice against Mr. Trump–and it had no effect. Nothing could so eloquently demonstrate the movement’s impending oblivion than its high priests shrieking that Mr. Trump is “not a conservative” while Republicans go on voting for him anyway.
Except for the Cold War, conservatism has lost every battle it tried to fight. Some it lost without even a fight, and it is now firmly on the wrong side on race. Conservatives do not speak for us, and if we don’t speak for us no one will. Guillaume Faye believes that if the generation now in its 20s does not act, whites and their culture face oblivion. Even former Arizona governor Jan Brewer says that Donald Trump may be our last chance to save America. Because today’s conservatives have lost the will to conserve what most deserves to be conserved–the founding stock that built this nation–they are almost as dangerous as the left. Let us hope that many will join us as their movement collapses.
Whatever happens, it is remarkable that an American college professor has published a book with a mainstream academic press, in which he predicts not only the collapse of conservatism as we know it but suggests that “the radical right” could replace it. The sleeping giant is beginning to stir.