The Editors, American Greatness, September 17, 2016
The pseudonymous Publius Decius Mus has angered and mystified his critics with his bracing assessment of our political moment in his essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” which–along with the follow-up essay–quickly went viral and generated commentary from left and right. With so many questions and so much controversy swirling around his ideas, American Greatness spoke with Decius this week about the pursuit of greater clarity in thinking through the politics of our time.
American Greatness: Hillary Clinton has described at least half of Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables,” including racists, sexists and the usual litany of leftist epithets. What do you think is the proper response to this charge and what do you have to say to conservative critics who suggest that she has a point?
I’m not much of a campaign guru, so I should leave the response to others. Actually, I think the Trump campaign is doing a good job with it. It could be a gift that keeps on giving for them. Though I would caution Trump supporters against thinking this is a silver bullet. The rules are different for us than for them. The media hung “47 percent” around Mitt Romney’s neck like a millstone. Not that he would have won otherwise. The point is simply that the propaganda value of the Megaphone only really works to damage us and not them. Obama was not sunk by “bitter clingers” and Hillary won’t be sunk by this. She may lose and this may contribute, but it’s a mistake to put too much hope in it.
The conservative critics who think she has a point are liberals. Or useless. Or not conservative. Or maybe all three.
Of course there is ugliness in the hearts of some Trump supporters. Is it any uglier than the ugliness of fringe Democrats and leftists? We just lived through a summer in which police were targeted simply for being police officers–risking death to protect low income, primarily non-white lives. It wasn’t Trump supporters who were doing that or egging it on. But the Left and its propaganda arm instantaneously disavow any connection between that kind of fringe violence and official leftism or Democratic politics and that norm is enforced. Whereas our side is always Hitler and David Duke no matter what. Wolf Blitzer lambasted Mike Pence about Duke recently, but Hillary can have radical BLM activists on stage at the Democratic National Convention and it’s just fine.
The reason is “the narrative.” The media, intelligentsia, and the opinion-making organs of our society have become overwhelmingly biased, partisan, shameless, dishonest and corrupt. They still wield enormous power, which is a problem, but it’s become virtually impossible not to see them for what they are, which might mean that a turning point is coming.
The “conservatives” have at least two motives for band-wagoning with this nonsense. One is that they simply don’t understand higher principle anymore, because their whole mindset is unconsciously leftist, so they believe that everything the Left calls “racist” is in fact racist. Oppose more immigration? Racist! Don’t believe the police systematically try to kill blacks? Racist!
The other is simple cowardice. Conservatives are terrified of being called racist. I don’t know if this is bad conscience or what–maybe at heart they really believe it? Maybe living in all-white neighborhoods perhaps makes them feel guilty. But being called out for it scares them above all so they are always desperate to make public declarations of their purity as non-racists. They think they will get credit from the Left, which of course they never do, but that never stops them from trying.
AG: Michael Walsh, the PJMedia columnist and author of The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, notes that the most vociferous in the conservative NeverTrump camp tend to be those under 50. Do you think there is a generation gap among conservatives and, if so, what accounts for it?
It does seem that, the younger a (nominal) conservative is, the more likely he is to be against Trump. I think this is owing to two things, at least. This will sound like an old man being cranky, so take it with due allowances.
The first is that the young are not educated. Not that I got the greatest education, but it was pretty good. Still the people who taught me were far more educated than I am now, and the oldest ones were the best educated of the bunch. And my sense is that their teachers–most of whom I never met, or were even dead before I was born–were better educated than even they were. So in terms of education and knowledge, we’re on a downward trend and have been for a while.
What that means is that young conservatives learn conservatism as a checklist. They don’t really read books, except recent “conservative” bestsellers. They read excerpts from the Federalist at a summer fellowship and think that’s an education. Not to knock summer fellowships, but they are supposed to be gateways, not complete educations. And they don’t really read anything harder or deeper than theFederalist (not to knock it, either, but the Founders read Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, Montesquieu and more).
So on the basis of a rather flimsy education, they think they know what conservatism is, but it’s just a catechism for them, a hymnal. And they compare Trump’s policy positions to their hymnal and they see discrepancies and they just default to “Heretic! Not conservative!”
Which points to the second, which is that older conservative intellectuals tend to have better educations and read more widely so they have a broader perspective. They also have the benefit of hard-won experience and an understanding that compromise, course changes, tactical adjustments and so on are sometimes necessary. They’re less “idealistic” in the sense of uncompromisingly foolish. And–speculating here–they have seen America at its best, or when it was much better, so they know we’ve fallen and they don’t want to see us fall further.
The kidlets, as I call them, were raised on a diet of racism-this and equality-that and that’s-not-who-we-are, so they can’t process anything that seems to contradict the narrative. To them “conservatism” is the 1980 campaign’s economic platform spot-welded to Millennial identity politics and sexual libertarianism. Freedom!
AG: When did Conservatism, Inc. go off the rails and why?
This is a huge question better posed to a true intellectual historian of the American right, which I am not. Then again, most–if not all–of them are so anti-Trump that their answer might not be so useful.
Modern conservatism is a creation of the 1950s, to replace the so-called “Old Right” which was routed by FDR, the New Deal, World War II and the like. William F. Buckley and the crew he assembled had to build something new to respond to the challenges of their time. Which, as they perceived it, was a totally dominant liberalism in academia, the intelligentsia and the bureaucracy plus an accommodationist Republican party. Sound familiar?
The Old Right didn’t want the New Deal. It lost. It didn’t want World War II. It lost. It didn’t want desegregation and Civil Rights. It lost. Buckley’s “New Right” at first thought Ike and the post-war Republicans were too soft on the New Deal, but they eventually gave up that fight. They fought the Great Society and also lost, but at least scored a partial victory with the Reagan Revolution. They thought the Republicans were too soft on Communism, and they eventually won that argument almost totally. And they began by supporting the old South on Civil Rights but eventually turned.
The point is, the New Right was a departure from the Old Right. It was trying to respond to what it perceived to be the challenges of its time. In a way, every bow-tied “conservative” kidlet who invokes Buckley today is just saying, “The solutions of 1955–stand athwart history yelling stop!–are all still apt!”
Conservatism has not adapted in half a century or more. It “adapts” in that it takes up new policy prescriptions, on broadband and the like, but otherwise it still thinks that the fundamental challenges are always the same. Now, the great issue of 1860 was the possible expansion of slavery into the territories. Is that an issue now? There is an underlying matter of high principle, to be sure, but is that issue theissue? Any fool can see that answer is “no.” Why would the great issues of 2016 be the same as those of 1955? Or even 1980?
“Fusionism” is a case in point. This is the so-called three-legged stool: economic freedom, strong defense, “moral values.” These are great things, so it seems. Are they always the priority? For instance, in Puritan times, what’s more needful? A greater emphasis on moral purity? Or maybe a little recognition of human weakness? In dissolute times, of course the former is more needful.
Economic freedom is a human right. But with finance having seized the economy by the … whatevers … and income inequality skyrocketing, should lower taxes really be top priority? Carried interest, 2 and 20? Or is fostering economic solidarity more important? Conservatives have conniptions at the very question. But Aristotle says that the greatest wealth gap in a good regime should be 5 to 1. I’m not saying we want that, but in what way does making hedge fund managers the ultimate winners in our society make any sense? It made sense to challenge the Soviet Union, as it still makes sense to maintain a strong defense. But “strong defense” has morphed into endless, pointless, winless war.
In 1980, we had to unshackle the economy, rebuild the military and alliance structure, and recover from the ’60s-’70s orgy. Today our priorities are different–or should be. But conservatives only know the formula they learned from the crib sheet.
On a higher level, the success of people like Harry Jaffa and other Claremont scholars had a very negative consequence, one they did not intend. They properly interpreted the Founding and Lincoln, in my view, but in so doing they made it very easy for lazy people to say “America is an idea” full stop, and “equality means open borders” and so on. These people abandoned prudence for abstractions. The Founders are very clear about the particularity of Americans as a distinct people. They warn against indiscriminate immigration. They insist on vigorous assimilation and Americanization. We’ve abandoned almost all of that. The Left says that to do anything else is “racist.” The conservatives, as noted, are terrified of that charge. But more than that, they believe the abstraction. Rootedness is bad. Particularity is bad.
The Old Right was, in my view, too particular in that it tried to base everything on tradition, on kith and kin, blood and soil and so on. It rejected any transcendence (beyond the religious) as “universalist” and liberal. This is my ultimate problem with Kirk, Bradford and the like. They want to say that certain things are good while rejecting any fundamental, permanent ground for the good. The New Right swung way to the other direction and insists on universals and sees all particulars–at least when asserted by Americans and Europeans–as insular and racist. The truth is that both are true in their sphere and both are necessary. Restoring a proper relationship between the universal and the particular is in my view the paramount theoretical challenge for whatever it is that follows conservatism. I made the beginnings of an attempt in an essay called “Paleo-Straussianism,” but there is much more to do.
AG: Finally, what do you say to people who claim that Trump is just a false prophet, whipping up the masses with promises of things he cannot deliver?
What difference, at this point, does it make? What have you got to lose? Can’t you see that Hillary is certain death for constitutionalism and conservatism?