Neoconservatives have garnered a fair amount of media coverage in recent weeks for their determination to keep on with the #nevertrump fight. Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and son of neoconservative founder Irving Kristol, has been especially vocal in his determination to launch a third party challenge to Donald Trump and the eventual Democratic nominee. A number of Republican figures have made similar noises, including other neoconservatives like Linda Chavez and Robert Zoellick, as well as the seemingly more conservative Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and the more openly-liberal former Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.There are genuine reasons behind the ill feelings toward the presumptive Republican nominee. Mr. Trump’s rude comments have garnered well-deserved hostility across the political spectrum. Perhaps most understandable, if least noted, is Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s avoidance of a Trump endorsement in the aftermath of Mr. Trump’s improper comments about his wife and his calculated broadcasting of scandalous rumors published only in The National Enquirer—a supermarket rag that gets its stories straight about as often as The New York Times highlights conservative achievements. More curious is the #nevertrump movement leadership’s claim that it is opposing Trump in the name of conservative principles.
Ted Cruz opposed Donald Trump in the name and service of traditional conservative principles. There are genuine conservatives who are extremely unhappy with Mr. Trump. After all, Mr. Trump quite recently supported many leftist policies and candidates, and continues to eschew any serious discussion regarding issues of Presidential overreach or the size and intrusiveness of the federal government. Conservatives are not pining for Romney redux. It seems likely, in fact, that most traditional conservatives will end up supporting Mr. Trump as the lesser of two evils. Traditional conservatives quite rightly fear the possibility of a Clinton Presidency that would carry on the Obama Administration’s bathroom wars, its aggression against free speech and religious self-government, its use of the Education Department to brand all young men as presumptive rapists, and its continuation of a policy of de-facto open borders and never-ending war. Compared to these policies, a Trump presidency looks positively benign in its ignorance of cultural issues and its insistence on the reality of borders.
There remain, of course, very real questions regarding Mr. Trump’s commitment to constitutional restraint, as well as the ability of our other institutions to check and balance an overreaching President. This is especially worrying given the abject failure of the courts in particular to keep President Obama within even the vaguest limits of even the broadest laws. Then again, Americans know Hillary Clinton’s contempt for the law and seem, sadly, to have decided that their interests are more likely to be served by the person who most vocally rejects the current ruling class than by anyone committed to historical institutions, beliefs, and practices of limited constitutional government.
I have my own doubts about how a Trump presidency will work out for America. I have no doubts, however, about Mr. Kristol’s goals in continuing his #nevertrump machinations. Those machinations are rooted in the same ideology that undermined the conservative movement for more than thirty years and led to the rise of Mr. Trump. They are riddled with self-interest and hostility toward a genuine conservatism that is sadly out of favor in Washington since the second Reagan Administration. They bespeak a movement that is not dying, but dead. Traditional conservatism is a political philosophy that will endure, if only in the minds of a minority of thinking persons and in the lives of those able to scrape out a meaningful existence in the interstices of a re-paganized culture. But the conservative movement was a coalition of convenience destroyed by political operatives more concerned with their own positions than with the preservation of the American way of life. These operatives brought us Mitt Romney, John McCain, and a host of establishment conservatives willing to tolerate the “hawks” of neoconservatism but not a genuine conservatism tied to a renewal of culture and return to constitutional government. These operatives tolerated and even sponsored neoconservatives because they saw them as convenient allies in preserving an ever-expanding national state that would protect the interests of large businesses while opposing only the most extreme forms of progressivism that are rotting our cultural core.
From its inception in the early 1950s, the conservative movement was a coalition of convenience. Russell Kirk helped forge a traditional conservative self-awareness through his book, The Conservative Mind. That book, and the people who identified with its message, saw America as part of a continuing tradition. That tradition went back through American history past the framing of our Constitution; it also had roots in the thought of Anglo-Irish philosopher Edmund Burke and in the English common law, thence to the medieval and even ancient adherents of an objective and permanent natural law. Under attack as never before by an intrusive federal bureaucracy, they sought allies in their fight against the state FDR built and for traditional self-government. They found allies (as has been pointed out before, most thoroughly by George Nash in his magisterial The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945) in libertarians and (often ex-communist) cold warriors. Libertarians were individualists often hostile to the churches and even the families and communities to which conservatives look for the inculcation of virtues necessary for liberty as well as any decent life. Cold warriors often held views hostile to religion and cared little about economic issues. But all were joined in their desire to rein in the leviathan state, or at least redirect its efforts outside, toward a defense of America against the very real menace of Soviet communism.
The coalition was never a comfortable one, especially for traditional conservatives. Over time, a series of ideological purges (overseen by National Review founder, William F. Buckley) brought banishment for a number of persons and groups holding genuinely abhorrent views on issues of race and ethnicity, but also numerous persons whose views on such issues were misconstrued (whether intentionally or not) and/or should have been subjected to fraternal correction rather than violent suppression. (Those shocked by this statement may wish to consider the persistent “rehabilitation” of people on the left who hold truly reprehensible views going to the heart of human dignity.) Moreover, whether and how deeply one’s past was investigated sometimes seemed to vary according to whether one had ticked off a prominent cold warrior or found oneself competing with one for a plumb position.
Over time, cold warriors in particular came to dominate the conservative movement, especially in the persons of various neoconservatives who had put aside much of their communist path in favor of a combination of welfare-state liberalism, opposition to the worst excesses of student radicalism, and a determination to project American power in an aggressive, global fashion. As a result, by the time the cold war had been concluded successfully, traditional conservatives found themselves a relatively weak minority within the movement that bore their name. The big-spending, interventionist years of George W. Bush left only some evangelical groups with significant influence within the executive branch and only a small minority of members of Congress open to conservative ideas and policies.
Sadly, if not unexpectedly, the George W. Bush administration ended up serving as a reprise of the administration of Lyndon Johnson, characterized by massive spending to purchase “guns and butter” and leaving the economy, the Republican party, and the world rather a shambles. What has followed under President Obama has been an utter disaster for America, for peoples around the globe, and for both conservatism and the Republican Party. Feckless copies of George W. Bush—the faux-outsider John McCain and the ultimate caricature of the expensive, empty suit, Mitt Romney went down in defeat as a new radicalism gripped Washington and, from it, the nation. As for traditional conservatism, it had been all but expelled from electoral politics as Republican congressional leaders promised the moon on social issues but contented themselves with siphoning off tax breaks and jobs for their friends.
More comfortable with life as a minority within a stable ruling class than with the possibility of a disruptive return to power, the Republican establishment opposed the rise of Donald Trump from the start. After decades of playing bait-and-switch with their electoral base, the Establishment finally had lost all credibility. They utterly failed this nominating season—except that they managed to destroy the one force they feared more than Mr. Trump’s unpredictable bombast—namely principled conservatism of the kind espoused most consistently by Ted Cruz. Now Republican establishmentarians face the prospect of a Trump Administration that would refuse to hire them or their friends, that might actually stem the flow of cheap, disempowered labor, and that might disrupt the particular form of crony capitalism institutionalized in various “free” trade deals. They must choose between making friends with Mr. Trump or continuing the fight. It appears the majority of Republican establishment figures will choose to make their peace, hoping Mr. Trump’s lack of policy knowledge and his reputation as a deal-maker without any deep ideological commitments will leave him open to their blandishments.
Some, however, are refusing to go along with the new program. These figures seem chiefly to be neoconservatives who themselves or in the form of their elders helped engineer the triumph of the Republican establishment. Perhaps not surprisingly, these figures appear unwilling to cede their leadership roles, especially in foreign policy, to the newcomer.
None of this is to say that everyone flirting with the #nevertrump idea is unprincipled or has a personal stake in defeating Mr. Trump. There are valid reasons for people like Senator Sasse and Jay Nordlinger to worry about what a Trump presidency may bring. Those reasons are rooted in concern for our Constitution, in our tradition of limited self-government, and in the primacy of family, church, and local association to our way of life. Others are simply shocked at Mr. Trump’s manner and do not want to support a candidate who stoops to the rhetorical level of a barroom brawler (or, perhaps, a campus Social Justice Warrior). But the leadership and motivations of the #nevertrump movement make at least two things clear. The first is that some, neoconservatives especially, would rather wait through another Clinton presidency than see a distasteful Republican win. Mr. Kristol and his allies have floated theories about how their third party candidate might actually become President. But it is important to note the far-fetched nature of these scenarios. Mr. Kristol is not so foolish as to think it likely that Mr. Romney would win this time around, but that is no impediment to his plan. Such a victory would be nice, but hardly necessary. What seems necessary for Mr. Kristol is maintenance of the Republican party establishment in something like its current form and, especially, maintenance of a highly interventionist foreign policy. Some may have a genuine fear that a Trump anti-interventionist foreign policy would be anti-Israeli, but it need not be. What a Trump administration clearly would be is an enemy of the current class of consultants joined at the hip with the Bush clan.
Unfortunately for Mr. Kristol and the current crop of Republican consultants, the other thing that has become clear from #nevertrump and its seemingly desperate search for a standard-bearer is that, as the saying goes, “the party’s over.” Whether the name remains or not, the Republican Party will never be the same after the election of 2016. Mr. Trump’s candidacy has exposed and made clear the vast gulf that exists between the establishment and the rank-and-file of this party. After decades of promises broken with increasing ease and smugness, Republican voters no longer trust, not just insiders, but anyone who seems like, well, a Republican. Those who talk about responsibility, about duty and discipline for decades have meant the duties and discipline which must be followed by the rank and file, not by the public servants who work in government.
Sadly, a combination of learned cynicism and cultural decay also has undermined basic, conservative elements of former Republican platforms. Limited government and even social issues have been set aside in favor of an attitude that asks merely “who will fight for us” meaning middle and lower-middle class Americans, many of whom are no longer members of stable, church-going families. Much of this situation, too, is the establishment’s doing. Many relatively conservative voters have simply given up on the notion that they ever will see action from their own party on social issues, or that economic conservatism will ever mean anything other than support for big business.
Intentionally or not, Mr. Trump brings with him a fundamental realignment of the American party system. (This is an argument my colleague, Robert Waters, has been making since last October.) Whatever the party’s name, it will have a new establishment—indeed, the same almost certainly will occur among the Democrats. However the primaries turn out, a more radical, racially splintered party seems destined to result on the left.
None of this is to say that a new conservative party will appear. That seems sadly unlikely. Mr. Trump himself hardly would be the standard bearer of such a party. For one thing, his fortune is testament to his willingness to manipulate and foster a form of crony capitalism. But we are seeing the development of a new form of party politics. The conservative movement’s attempt to reshape the political landscape and so make it less hostile to Americans’ underlying culture crashed on the rocks of Republican crony capitalism, identity politics, and vicious hostility from media and academic elites. More than any of these, it was sunk by internal dissensions arising from the rejection of conservative principles by a significant number of highly-skilled political operatives in its own ranks.
The new American politics, like the old, will be substantially more populist than its western European counterparts have been up until recent Muslim invasions upset the longstanding grip of elites on power there. In some ways, it will be much more populist than has been the case over the last sixty years, but probably not in a good way. The bulk of the American population has now accepted the fundamental principles of progressive politics—principally that the federal government is responsible for the economic well-being of the people and for establishing some kind of “fairness” in social as well as economic relationships. This means elites will gain more power, over time, over the lives of most Americans. Whether on the left or the right, the new party structures will no longer give even lip service to the idea of eliminating or even systemically transforming the welfare and administrative state at the core of our cultural illness.
As these observations should make clear, I am not endorsing this new politics. Nor do I see it enjoying a long lifespan. The internal and especially the economic contradictions of late-modernity make the kind of social democracy currently settling over our country unsustainable. Whether slowly or quickly, the central state eventually will have to admit that it cannot carry out the responsibilities it has taken to itself. The center will atrophy or collapse and the peripheries regain their independence. Sadly, it may well be an impoverished independence in the face of significant troubles, but it will come.
In the meantime, our politics will be more extreme, sadly more ethnically divided, and even more centered on executive power. The one good point to all of this is that, as our capacity to carry on foreign wars decreases, so will the desires of most in power to do so—though miscalculation and tragedy remain constants in public life. The question for traditional conservatives is how to face this new politics. It cannot be as part of a coalition termed “the conservative movement,” at least as formerly constituted. That coalition has long been dead, at least in the sense of offering to traditional conservatives any viable opportunity for advancement of their principles and way of life.
What remains is the need to recover the ideas and practices of the western tradition so long out of favor with elites of both parties. As America becomes less free, less prosperous, and less rooted in family, faith, and freedom, times will become harder for traditional conservatives—especially those of us who are openly Christian. But this is no call for a retreat to the monasteries. For one thing, the new politics, even under a Trump presidency, will not be friendly toward religious communities in particular. The question now is how actively other groups will pursue those whom Harvard Law Professor Mark Tushnet recently said should be treated like the defeated Nazis and Japanese after World War II in a “shoot the wounded on the battlefield” call to radical reformation.*
The advantage to our position is not that we will be able to retreat and regroup—we will not. The advantage is that we now know the true, violent radicalism of the left as well as the inevitable results of alliance with neoconservatives. The counsel of despair would be to accept that traditional conservatives are a tiny minority in our contemporary state and withdraw. But intellectuals of any stripe always are a minority. And traditional conservatism is different from the various forms of leftism for the very reason that it is not primarily ideological, but cultural. What this means is that, where the left’s politics are at war with nature—where their “march of history” leads to inevitable ruin—ours is merely the attempt to support nature. Ours being a world of sin and inconstancy, the next form of politics will recede like the last. All we can do is keep right with our families, neighbors, and God. This means acting, mostly at the local level, to defend family, faith, and freedom.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
* Dr. Mark Tushnet’s full remarks may be found here.