What do American conservatives believe?
What do American conservatives believe? The answer used to be simple. You believed in the genius of capitalism, the importance of U.S. superpower, and the glories of the Judeo-Christian tradition. When in doubt, you invoked Ronald Reagan. A working knowledge of a few big names in the modern right’s canon—a little Russell Kirk here, some Irving Kristol there—was enough to qualify you for a position as a promising voice on the right. The CliffsNotes version was available in George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. If you didn’t have time for any of that, nobody worried much. There were enough disagreements to allow for debates that made you feel like an independent thinker, but not so much that it would ever be in doubt which team you belonged to—the Republicans, always the Republicans.
The answer isn’t so obvious anymore. Donald Trump’s victory demonstrated that a chasm had opened up between the movement’s cognoscenti and the people they claimed to represent. Flagship institutions like National Review still have not recovered from their early bet on anyone but Trump. What remains of the Republican old guard is divided among recently converted Trumpists; holdouts who believe that if they wait long enough the nightmare will eventually be over; and a subterranean faction who have accepted their impotence and are mostly in it for the paychecks and the lulz. Today, it’s clear that the base wants to trigger the libs and that donors want a return on their investments. One side gets Trump’s Twitter feed; the other gets Paul Ryan’s tax cuts. Pretty much everything else is up for negotiation.
For clues about where the right is heading next, I went to the source: products of the conservative establishment with books trying to point a way ahead for the right. These are snapshots of a movement wrestling with a crisis that has been decades in the making. The debates taking place now will shape American conservatism long after Trump exits the White House. That’s especially true for one of the most important, and most frustrating, arguments of the Trump era: the death-struggle over the relative significance of race and class, which, it turns out, is consuming just as much attention on the right as it is on the left. After spending time with this group, I couldn’t help thinking of the tagline from the justly forgotten 2004 cash-grab Alien vs. Predator: “Whoever wins . . . we lose.”
You might know Max Boot as the former conservative wunderkind who took over the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal in 1998 at the tender age of twenty-eight. In the decades since, he’s carved out a successful career at the nexus of the conservative movement and the mainstream media. He was one of the intellectual architects of the Bush administration’s approach to the war on terror, and he’s advised the presidential campaigns of John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Marco Rubio. Today, he’s a columnist for the Washington Post, contributor to CNN, and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He’s also one of the leading voices of the #NeverTrump movement, a cohort of onetime true believers in the conservative cause who have fallen into varying degrees of disillusionment with the GOP. Never Trumpers are rarely found outside their natural habitat, the op-ed sections of major newspapers.
But did you also know that Max Boot is a samurai? “I am a political ronin,” he writes in The Corrosion of Conservatism, a new memoir of his break from the right. “I will fight for my principles wherever they may lead me.” By his own account, after a youth spent reiterating conservative tropes without quite understanding what he was saying or why he was saying it, Boot has developed the ability to think for himself. He now sees himself as an ideological warrior traversing the countryside without a master to serve.
Max Boot, a leading voice of the #NeverTrump movement (Photo courtesy of the Miller Center)
In practice, this means telling liberals exactly what they want to hear. Boot describes the conservative movement as “morally and intellectually bankrupt,” and writes that the GOP must be “burned to the ground” so that a defensible Republican Party might rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes. He attributes his change of heart to a harsh reckoning with The Facts. “My ideology has come into conflict with reality,” he writes, “and reality is winning.” The financial crisis revealed the limits of laissez-faire, #MeToo has shown the prevalence of sexism, and Trump’s victory proved that racism has still not been overcome. This last point is crucial. Boot admits that voters in 2016 had reason to be angry with the status quo, dutifully citing the Iraq fiasco, the opioid crisis, and years of economic stagnation. But he thinks that only expert appeals to white racial anxiety can explain the “populist derangement” that made Trump president.
As usual, moral certainty and historical ignorance make for a powerful team.
Unfortunately, Boot has not yet figured out how Trump’s rise fits into the longer history of the American right. He asks Republicans to return to the principles they upheld in a hazily defined golden age but also insists “that the whole history of modern conservatism is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, ignorance, isolationism, and know-nothingism.” At times, it seems as if the decay started in the 1990s under Newt Gingrich; at other times, it reaches back all the way to Barry Goldwater. He cites Reagan as an exemplar of a sunny, welcoming brand of conservatism that stands in stark contrast with the Trumpist hysteria. But it was Reagan himself who warned in 1964 that “freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp, as it is at this moment.”
Boot’s disdain for his younger self and his uncertainty over the genealogy of Trumpism share the same source. He cannot imagine that he would ever have been part of a movement as heinous as the one he sees today, so in the past he must have been an ingénue sincerely defending free men and free markets while more nefarious actors did their nasty work in the shadows. As usual, moral certainty and historical ignorance make for a powerful team.
The book is more revealing about the motivations that drew him to the right. Born in the Soviet Union, he arrived in California in 1976 at the age of six with his mother, three years after his father had left the USSR (and his son) for a job with NASA in Houston. The elder Boot was a dissident with pretensions to being an intellectual and an understandable affinity for anti-communism. After young Max turned thirteen, his father bought him a subscription to National Review, and soon the teenager was dreaming of becoming the next great American pundit. William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will were his models, and Reagan his hero. As Boot embraced Republican orthodoxy, his father moved toward a reactionary politics that combined respect for blood-and-soil nationalism with deep-seated hostility toward modernity. “His brand of conservatism seemed to me, a kid who had grown up in America, alien and strange,” he writes. But that was before Trump.
Classical liberal is the term Boot now uses to describe himself. It’s not the only one: Eisenhower Republican is another, champion of the vital center is a third. He also styles himself a small-d democrat, but he’s really an advocate for norms and the elite institutions that have grown up in their shadow. Having lost his faith in the conservative movement, he now hopes that the press, the judiciary, and the civil service will save us. As for the demos: “I have concluded that Mencken’s skepticism about ‘the swinish multitude’ was well justified.” You will not be surprised to hear that his ideal candidate for the White House is “a younger, more charismatic Michael Bloomberg.” He doesn’t think enough conservatives have read his book. Maybe he knows they never will.
Four days before the 2016 Iowa caucus, Tucker Carlson predicted that Trump was the Republicans’ best bet to beat Hillary Clinton. Conservatives didn’t see this because Trump was running against them, and against the rest of the broken, corrupt Washington establishment. “He exists,” Carlson wrote, “because you failed.”
Carlson had spent his adult life in the world he was now indicting. He began his career at the lowest rung of the conservative establishment, as a fact-checker for the Heritage Foundation. In 1995, he became one of the first staffers hired for the newly founded Weekly Standard. He then moved to a string of TV-hosting gigs at all three of the major cable news networks. His current program, Tucker Carlson Tonight, airs on Fox News, where it regularly scores among the highest ratings in cable news. His audience of over 3 million viewers includes the president, who is said to consider it “a thinking man’s show.”
Tucker Carlson isn’t exactly a white supremacist, which is what makes him so useful to them. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)
Carlson’s favorite subject has long been the American elite. It’s a group he was born into—his father was the head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and his stepmother is Patricia Swanson, of Swanson frozen dinners—and he speaks its language with the fluency of a native. It’s also the subject of Carlson’s new book, Ship of Fools. Unlike so many of its companions on the New York Times bestseller list—the book debuted at number one—it’s emphatically not about Donald Trump. Instead, Carlson again turns his attention to the American elite, this time with a new question in mind: how did they screw up so badly that millions of people would come to see someone like Trump as the solution to the country’s problems?
His answer, basically, is neoliberalism. Sometime during the Clinton years, he argues, liberals just gave up. They renounced their longstanding concern with the working class in the hopes of winning over affluent suburbanites and the mega-donors of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. At the same time, they discovered the joys of military intervention, providing a bipartisan sheen to American empire.
The result? “Our public debates are mostly symbolic. They are sideshows designed to divert attention from the fact that those who make the essential decisions, about the economy and the government and war, have reached consensus on the fundamentals.” And the consequences have been disastrous: skyrocketing economic inequality, a catastrophic attempt to remake the Middle East, and the evisceration of American democracy. Oh yes, and the election of Donald Trump, “a throbbing middle finger in the face of America’s ruling class.”
Carlson doesn’t pretend to be a populist. He doesn’t believe the people can govern themselves, or that they should try. But he does ask for more from the American elite, a group he believes has grown stupider and more selfish in the last generation. By his telling, Carlson has become an egalitarian out of necessity. “If you tell people they’re in charge, but then act as if they’re not, you’ll infuriate them,” he writes. “Oligarchies posing as democracies will always be overthrown in the end.”
The rest of the book supplies a guided tour of the issues where Carlson believes the majority’s will has been ignored, from illegal immigration to free speech on campus. When combined with his indictment of a feckless ruling class, it offers a preview of what Trumpism would look like at its most intellectually coherent and politically effective. Identity politics is a recurring villain, a diversion invented by the ruling class to stop voters from asking awkward questions about the distribution of wealth. The rest of the topics will be familiar to viewers of Tucker Carlson Tonight, where segments routinely hyperventilate over immigrant crime, reverse racism, or whatever other manufactured outrage is oozing out of the right-wing fever swamp that day. In this world, it’s an outrage that African-American students at Harvard are allowed to have a special graduation ceremony, but nobody seems to care much about health insurance.
Carlson is a reminder that if explicit white nationalism once again becomes a major force in American life, it will arrive on a road paved with quotations from Martin Luther King.
Aside from its fringier moments—he thinks gun control is a ruling-class ploy to deprive the populace of the means of self-defense—most of this account reads like a snappier version of Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal. Carlson even shares Lilla’s habit of ventriloquizing his position through the voice of an imagined, old-timey leftist, as if he were conducting a séance with the ghost of Henry Wallace. That means ignoring the living leftists who are reshaping the Democratic Party, including Bernie Sanders, who receives only a few passing references in 256 pages.
Carlson is just as slippery when his attention turns to sexism, climate change, and, especially, racism. One of the longer sections of the book is given over to a discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates—“court theologian,” Carlson writes, “of the ruling class.” He’s best when he’s on his home turf, writing astutely of how Coates’s work has been embraced by performatively woke white elites from Martha’s Vineyard to Palo Alto. But he’s disastrously wrong about the substance of Coates’s arguments, dismissing out of hand the claim that slavery underpinned the early American economy, or that the New Deal was inseparable from Jim Crow, or that racist redlining practices contributed to today’s yawning racial wealth gap. None of this is controversial among historians. For Carlson, it’s evidence that Coates has lost his grip on reality. “There aren’t many open white supremacists left in America,” he writes. “None of these people have much power.”
Yet they all seem to be watching his show. David Duke raves about Carlson on Twitter; the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer has called the program “basically Daily Stormer: The Show”; and Richard Spencer has described Carlson as the most “interesting, and impactful mainstream conservative commentator,” praising him for having “raised the specter of nationalism, national disintegration, and anti-white hatred—often implicitly and increasingly explicitly.” They will also find much to like in Ship of Fools, where opposition to immigration is merely an understandable reaction to demographic change and talking about racial bias in credit scores or standardized testing is evidence of “clinical hysteria.”
The shrewdest white nationalists know that Carlson isn’t exactly on their team, which is what makes him so useful. He shrugs off accusations that he panders to prejudice, saying that he believes in judging people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. It’s a clever game. When critics say that he appeals to white racism, he charges them with playing the race card, giving his fans yet another sign that the forces of political correctness have run amok. The strategy gives Carlson a veneer of respectability that differentiates him from an outright bigot like Christopher Cantwell, who has said, “If I were going to try and hide my decidedly racist views, I would sound a lot like Tucker Carlson.” Cantwell is a well-known figure among white nationalists, but you’ve probably never heard of him, and that’s precisely the point.
What Carlson actually believes is unknowable and irrelevant. What matters are his actions. He can play footsie with the alt-right without worrying his bosses at Fox News because he knows how to stay on the safe side of the line between provocateur and white supremacist. But those lines can move, and he’s pushing them a little farther by dressing up white identity politics as post-racial egalitarianism. It’s a reminder that if explicit white nationalism once again becomes a major force in American life, it will arrive on a road paved with quotations from Martin Luther King.
For a movement that has controlled major branches of the American government on and off for almost forty years, conservatism has a surprising deficit of wonks. Thinkers on the right often prefer to lead with ideology. In The Corrosion of Conservatism, Max Boot writes that he was hired at the Wall Street Journal in part because he had no training in economics. But in the twilight of the George W. Bush administration, with a rising body count in Iraq and a collapsing economy at home, it looked as if disdain for reality had finally caught up with the GOP. That’s when Washington discovered a bright young conservative named Reihan Salam.
Salam, who was named executive editor of National Review in 2014, is not exactly a wonk. He’s more like a translator for the technocrats, reporting back with news of the latest exciting papers from the academy. It’s not the only way he breaks from stereotypes about conservative pundits. As a child of Bangladeshi immigrants, there’s little chance that he’ll become a hero with the alt-right. He’s still young enough to qualify as an upstart among gray-haired political commentators. And he typically defends his position not by referring to (potentially controversial) first principles but by depicting it as a pragmatic response to the way the world works.
Reihan Salam, translator for the technocrats (Photo courtesy of New America)
Salam’s breakthrough as a public intellectual took place in 2008 with the release of his first book, Grand New Party, a precocious effort to sketch the outlines of the next conservative majority that he co-authored with his former roommate Ross Douthat. The book has been retrospectively credited with foreseeing the rise of a Trumpish figure within the GOP, and it’s easy to see why. The core of their argument was that to build a durable winning coalition Republicans needed to give up their dogmatic adherence to a Reaganite vision of government and develop an agenda that responded to the material concerns of the working class. These voters had been the electoral foundation of the New Deal order, but they had shifted back and forth between parties since the 1960s, too economically liberal for the GOP and too culturally conservative for the Democrats. They were the “Party of Sam’s Club,” and they were the future of the right.
The manifesto was not quite as prescient as it might now appear. What it most resembled was an intellectually consistent version of the compassionate conservatism that George W. Bush had ridden into the White House, which was itself the product of debates stretching back decades. Racial politics were conspicuously absent from their analysis. True, the working-class voters who were perennially migrating between the parties were overwhelmingly white. But, the authors explained, race itself had “receded as a major national issue.” And Salam quickly pivoted away from his own thesis. By 2010, he had rebranded himself as a deficit hawk, issuing dire warnings about an impending fiscal crisis and hailing Paul Ryan as the Republicans’ great new hope.
Salam follows a different approach in his latest book, Melting Pot or Civil War? It’s less of a follow-up to Grand New Party than a spiritual sequel to Samuel Huntington’s controversial 2004 work Who Are We? Huntington predicted that a multicultural United States was becoming increasingly vulnerable to a nativist backlash from working-class and middle-class white men outraged at their declining status. Salam was a student of Huntington’s at Harvard, and the fears about assimilation and national identity that motivated his former teacher are at the center of his new book. Bridging the gap between Carlson’s focus on economic inequality and Boot’s concentration on race, he warns that Americans are careening toward a future where “Class politics will be color politics.”
It all comes down to numbers—specifically, income distribution and population growth. If economic inequality continues to rise in the years ahead, then it will become even more difficult to climb the socioeconomic ladder. If the demographers are right, this will take place at the same time that immigrants and their descendants are becoming an increasing portion of the country. By one estimate, they will constitute almost 90 percent of the children born in the United States between now and 2065.
Without changes in our immigration laws, most of the new arrivals will be poor; without changes in our economy, they (and their children) will stay that way. Racial and economic hierarchies will reinforce each other, turning a largely white and Asian elite against a black and Hispanic underclass. “The end result,” he warns, “could be a class war like we have never seen.”
According to Salam, Americans have been presented with a simple choice. They can open the country’s borders to the world, or they can create a more egalitarian society at home. It’s “crushingly naïve” to think we can have both, and he casts his lot with the egalitarian nationalists. “I want a country that does right by all of its citizens,” he writes. “We should admit immigrants only if we are fully committed to their integration and assimilation.”
Concretely, this means shifting away from an immigration policy that prioritizes family reunification toward one that puts greater value on bringing in skilled workers. Increasing the number of high-income taxpayers will defray the costs of Salam’s major proposal for reducing economic inequality: a universal child benefit that would give parents an annual payout of somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000 a child. Couple that with amnesty for existing immigrants and a crackdown on border enforcement in the future, and Salam believes that both Republicans and Democrats could leave the negotiating table satisfied.
It’s a surprisingly mild conclusion for a book whose title warns of a looming civil war. Even the most generous version of his child-care benefit would cover only a few months of daycare in Salam’s hometown of Brooklyn. That’s better than nothing, and it would go much farther almost anywhere else in the country, but it’s hardly enough to counter the real source of mounting economic inequality—namely, the exorbitant incomes of the one percent.
Then there’s the question of politics. In a Marco Rubio administration, a grand bargain along the lines of what Salam proposes would seem eminently plausible. Under Trump, the dealmaker-in-chief spends his time telling his supporters that MS-13 is an unofficial branch of the Democratic Party. It’s all but impossible to imagine a scenario where Trump’s base—which is to say, the Republican Party—accepts a new overclass drawn from all the corners of the world. And with support for immigration now higher than at any time in the history of modern polling, it’s just as hard to understand why Democrats would be ready to capitulate. Which puts Salam in the awkward position of being a pragmatist with an agenda that won’t be signed into law and still wouldn’t address the fundamental problem. Call it the Hillary Clinton paradox.
So why not give up? That’s the tantalizing prospect raised by Ben Sasse, the freshman Nebraska senator who was the first of his GOP colleagues to announce that he would not vote for Trump. “If the Republican Party becomes the party of David Duke, Donald Trump—I’m out,” he said in March 2016. Almost three years later, he’s still in, although rumors continue to circulate that he’s plotting a 2020 presidential run.
Before Trump, Sasse would have been an ideal candidate. The son of a high-school football coach, he describes himself as “a sports-loving Republican from a small town”—Fremont, Nebraska—whose biggest dream growing up was to throw a game-winning touchdown for the Cornhuskers. Football didn’t work out, so he had to settle for a BA from Harvard and a PhD in history from Yale, where he wrote a thoughtful dissertation on the origins of the religious right. He spent the next decade ping-ponging between academia and government, then won election to the Senate in 2014, just in time to try to save the party of Lincoln from a candidate he called a “megalomaniac strongman.”
That didn’t work out either, and now Sasse has settled for a combination of tweeting snarky comments about the president, voting with the administration almost 90 percent of the time, and writing books. (Fun fact: Sasse has the same literary agent as Tucker Carlson. Because, who cares?) His latest effort, Them, centers around the dangers of tribalism, that favorite cliché of the moment among the commentariat.
To Ben Sasse, the role of elected officials is essentially therapeutic. (Photo by Matt Johnson)
Here’s the short version of his story. Technological disruption has devastated the career prospects for Americans without a college degree (about two-thirds of the adult population) and given rise to a transient elite that flits about from one metropolis to the next. At the same time, more of us are living online rather than engaging with each other IRL. The institutions that bind communities together are dying, and they are taking civil society with them. Politics has filled this vacuum. Instead of meeting together at the VFW hall, we’re posting about Trump; instead of coming to appreciate the complexity of real human beings who might disagree with us over taxes, we only see the stereotypes. All this has left us adrift, hoping that our shouts into the void will get some likes.
You might think there would be ways to address the underlying economic issues that Sasse blames for this dysfunction—a job guarantee, for instance, which would allow people to set down roots without worrying about being forced to leave town in a few years for work. Sasse has a different set of recommendations, including but not limited to: buy a cemetery plot, cut back on screen time, ask old people if they need help, stay in touch with friends, get enough sleep, take breaks from social media, don’t buy a sex robot, and mow your neighbor’s lawn “on the sly.” It’s a recipe for reviving civil society that has one key ingredient: remember that there are more important things to life than politics.
Which is a strange thing to hear from a politician. “[B]y shifting our focus away from family and neighbors and local spheres of actual influence and toward faraway spheres where we’re far more likely to be passive,” he writes, political engagement encourages us “to conceive of ourselves as victims of distant, malevolent actors.” Politics is about power, and because most Americans don’t have much of it, thinking about those Republicans and Democrats off in Washington just makes us mad.
For a better model of interacting with the world, Sasse points to the experience of the civil rights movement. His argument is worth quoting at length, because it’s grounds for asking Yale’s history department to revoke his PhD. Under Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership, he writes, “Americans didn’t embrace civil rights as a legal matter first but rather as a right and proper way to respect the dignity of other individuals.” King understood that “Deep, enduring change does not come through legislation or elections.” He also “knew that the path to success could not be zero-sum—our side wins and your side loses.”
It’s hard to imagine a more blinkered view of either King or the civil rights movement. If African Americans had waited for white southerners to voluntarily grant them equal citizenship—which had been the preferred strategy of vaguely sympathetic white northerners for about a century—they would still be waiting today. And if protests on the ground hadn’t been translated into legislative victories, then whatever gains they made would have long ago been erased. Like Sasse, the leaders of the black freedom struggle understood that politics is about power. But instead of accepting their subordination, they built a power base and used it to tilt the scales a little more in their favor.
The role of elected officials, in Sasse’s view, is essentially therapeutic. Their job isn’t to help even out the distribution of power, let alone wealth. It’s to create the conditions that allow civil society to thrive. With so many bake sales to organize, there won’t be time to worry about nasty questions like whether a country where so few control so much even deserves to be called a democracy. “Those game nights were the best,” he remembers of his childhood. “There were no rich and poor there—there were only Fremont tigers.” After all, no amount of money is going to fill that hole in your soul, and isn’t that what really matters?
These curious notions would be easier to dismiss if they didn’t still command support from the upper echelons of the conservative establishment. One can imagine Paul Ryan nodding his head sagely as he flips through these pages. Ryan is going to be out of office soon, but rumors are flying that he will soon be taking over as president of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the right’s most influential think tanks. Even if he doesn’t stay in Washington, Ryan’s viewpoint will have well-funded advocates as long as there are donors who would rather have politicians worry over the cultural isolation of college graduates than do something about the economic divide between the one percent and the rest of us.
As for Sasse, there’s a good chance that he will be following Ryan out of elected office before too long. If Sasse cannot survive in a Trumpified GOP, then he will have plenty of time to put his suggestions about building community into practice back home in Nebraska. Politics aside, he seems like he’d be a lovely neighbor. The book jacket has a picture of him with his family, and they’re all just adorable. I hope he enjoys spending more time with them.
“America, fashionable observers say, is a non-ideological nation.” That was how William F. Buckley Jr. opened his third book, Up From Liberalism, whose sixtieth anniversary is coming this fall. Buckley saw the American aversion to explicitly ideological politics as a problem to be solved.
He thought liberals had triumphed by following the opposite path, casting themselves not as radicals out to remake the world but as realists who were simply updating the government for a new era. Liberals spoke in the name of science and necessity, not ideology and choice. The right would have to take a different route, offering “both a total critique of liberalism, and compelling proposals for the reorientation of our thought.” Only then would they accomplish their greatest goal: “bring down the thing called liberalism, which is powerful but decadent; and salvage a thing called conservatism, which is weak but viable.”
Six decades after setting out on this path, the only thing that Buckley’s intellectual descendants seem to agree on is that the age of ideological politics is over. According to Max Boot, “At a time of extreme crisis such as this one, the normal policy differences between the center-left and center-right fade into insignificance.” Writing from the other side of the divide between populists and the establishment, Tucker Carlson insists that “Left and right are no longer meaningful categories in America. The rift is between those who benefit from the status quo, and those who don’t.” Reihan Salam is so busy trying to strike a deal between left and right that he doesn’t bother to identify himself as a conservative. Ben Sasse still places himself on the right, but he says that most of the people claiming the label are hucksters looking to make a quick buck. Besides, he really has to get back to mowing his neighbor’s lawn.
And it’s not just these four. A decade ago, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg was writing books about fascism and the left; now what matters for him is the divide between supporters of individual rights and capitalism (the good guys) and their critics on the extremes (booh!). It’s a loftier version of Boot’s distinction between responsible centrists and reckless outsiders. Goldberg’s National Review colleague Ross Douthat sees the same division from a perspective more sympathetic to the populists. “[E]verything is more fluid,” he writes in his newest book, which hints at the possibility of a new type of politics “that would speak to the right’s fear that the West’s civilizational roots are crumbling and to the left’s disappointment with the rule of neoliberalism.” Trump-sympathetic intellectuals like the figures gathered around the Claremont Review of Books and the journal American Affairs have made similar arguments. Outside these narrow circles, the energy and the money these days are with Jordan Peterson and other members of the so-called intellectual dark web, who have built massive followings by ignoring conservative orthodoxy and speaking to the resentments of young, white, extremely online men. Then there’s the president. “This is called the Republican Party,” he reminded voters in 2016. “It’s not called the Conservative Party.”
The gap between those two parties—the conservative party Republican elites thought they were part of, and the vessel of racial animus and economic frustration they’ve become—defines the crisis of the American right. This tension has been there from the founding of modern conservatism, when Buckley was defending Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy. But political movements talk about the death of ideology when they’re in retreat; it was true when ex-Marxists sprinted toward liberalism in the fifties, and again when Third-Way Democrats made their peace with Reaganism in the nineties, and it’s happening on the right today.
American politics has entered a new phase, where the things called liberalism and conservatism are both powerful and weak, decadent and not altogether viable. There’s a complicated lesson here. From one perspective, the breakdown of conservatism is a parable in the pitfalls of ideological politics. Start believing in something too much, the argument goes, and pretty soon you’ll start lying to yourself, too. The best option is to focus on Trump’s worst decisions and pray that a recession hits before Election Day 2020.
If only it were that simple. More than ever, the left needs a total critique of its own that shows the way beyond a broken status quo. It’s a point brought into relief by watching the right’s funhouse mirror version of the left’s ongoing argument over race and class. Worried that emphasizing the importance of race will minimize the real failures of elites? There’s Max Boot living up to the caricature. Concerned that focusing on economic inequality will push every other issue to the margins? Here’s Tucker Carlson telling Democrats they’ll have an ally in the battle against the neoliberal elite if they’ll only shut up about identity politics. Doubt that any solution is politically viable? Welcome to Reihan Salam’s world. Think that establishment politicians have no idea what they’re talking about? Let me introduce you to Ben Sasse.
The only way out of this trap is to put forward a political vision that explains the systemic abuses that make victims out of Americans of all colors—and that shows how we can fix them. Having the best ideas, of course, does not guarantee victory. If it did, then Bernie really would have won in 2016. Ideology is just one part of what makes a movement. But it’s a start.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.