The Once and Future Right

The Once and Future Right

The beneficiaries of existing social and economic hierarchies will always fight to maintain them against egalitarian movements for change.

Introducing our Spring 2020 special section, “Know Your Enemy.”

Art by John Michael Snowden

In a widely read New Republic article published in the first days of Barack Obama’s presidency, Sam Tanenhaus, a journalist and biographer of Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley, Jr., declared that “Conservatism Is Dead.”

He argued that advocates of the postwar conservative orthodoxy—a “fusion” of libertarian economics, anti-communism, and Christian traditionalism—could provide no satisfactory answers for Americans struggling with precarious employment and the collapse of the housing bubble. For Tanenhaus, it was Obama who represented the politics of Burkean compromise best suited to a world in crisis and flux. Out of touch with its times, conservatism, he predicted, would be relegated to the wilderness, shadow-boxing with twentieth-century ghosts until tiring itself out and expiring.

Tanenhaus was wrong. He failed to anticipate the potent ideological adrenaline that the Obama presidency would provide to the movements and institutions of the right, which, despite their high-minded rhetoric, had always been propelled as much by disdain for (and fear of) the lower orders as by philosophical principle. Beneath a familiar veneer of constitutional originalism, the Tea Party catalyzed an amorphous fear of the first black president—and his plans to “take over” American medicine on behalf of undeserving racial others—into a genuine movement. It revitalized the Republican Party, infusing it with young legislative talent and cash from hardcore libertarian donors like the Koch Brothers. Conservatives dominated state legislative elections in the Obama years, enabling a spree of gerrymandering and structural reforms (like voter disenfranchisement and union busting) to ensure that, despite a dwindling white majority, conservatism would have a triumphant second life in American politics.

Whether you see Trump’s victory in 2016 as the culmination of decades of racial backlash, prefigured by the counter-revolutionary rage of the Obama years, or a radical break with the movement conservatism that preceded it depends on how you view the intellectual history of conservatism: through the rosy spectacles worn by the editors of National Review and the American Enterprise Institute, or as the product of a class that recognizes its duty to forget the violence of its foundation.

The thorough marginalization of those voices on the right who have refused to embrace Trump—and see him as out of step with conservative tradition—is indicative of the current orientation of the movement. Most of the writers who contributed to National Review’s February 2016 “Never Trump” issue have become defenders of the president. Those like William Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, Charlie Sykes, and Jennifer Rubin who remain opposed are relegated to the sidelines of conservatism, viewed with suspicion by their former comrades. They wield little if any influence over the direction of the GOP and are resigned to begging the Democrats to pick a sufficiently moderate nominee for them to support in 2020.

The contributors to this section seek instead to recover the connections between conservative history and Trump, along with the seemingly novel formations emerging on the right. In his essay, Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins offers an illuminating reappraisal of the “evangelical question”—how did a religious community self-defined by puritanical virtue embrace a figure, in Trump, of pure vice and evident godlessness?—by unearthing the white nationalism, Christian chauvinism, and American exceptionalism endemic to evangelicalism from its founding. Steinmetz-Jenkins confounds the recent effort by evangelical leaders to quarantine their doctrinal beliefs from the political adventurism of the rank-and-file; religious doctrine and “secular” politics are entangled, mutually constituting the political theology of evangelicalism.

This meld of faith and politics is evident in our forum of formerly conservative writers explaining why they left the right. Christian fundamentalisms of various flavors play a role in the upbringing and early politics of Matthew Sitman (co-editor of this section), Sarah Jones, Maximillian Alvarez, and Steinmetz-Jenkins. All found themselves mostly bypassing centrist liberalism as they moved from left to right, searching for a politics that repudiated the Iraq War and that took seriously the experience of economic precarity.

Other conservative intellectuals have sought to revive conservatism in order to appeal to the working class. In March 2019, a manifesto entitled “Against the Dead Consensus” was published by First Things, a redoubt of the Christian right that once provided the intellectual sustenance of George W. Bush’s evangelical extremism. While stopping short of endorsing the president himself, the authors of the manifesto wrote that “the Trump phenomenon has opened up space in which to pose these questions anew,” asserting that “any attempt to revive the failed conservative consensus that preceded Trump would be misguided and harmful to the right.” In its place, they support a muscular faith-based politics, support for an idealized American worker, and anti-immigrant nationalism. They reject a pernicious individualism that they associate with the market fundamentalism of the right, the left’s embrace of transgender and abortion rights, and the “pornographization of daily life” in popular culture.

This post-liberal battle cry has found an unlikely champion in Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule, a respected and influential scholar who has become the country’s foremost advocate of “integralism”—the idea that the political priorities of the state should be subordinated to the moral aims of the Catholic Church. In a bracing essay, James Chappel finds the roots of Vermeule’s theocratic illiberalism, counterintuitively, in the technocratic jurisprudence he has elaborated elsewhere with the moderately liberal Cass Sunstein. If the administrative state can be used to “nudge” (in Sunstein’s phrase) individuals toward optimal economic and public health outcomes, why couldn’t agencies staffed by integralists “nudge” the public toward appropriate moral behavior?

Ross Douthat is known for translating these internecine conservative debates into terms that liberal New York Times readers can understand. In an interview with Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell, we press Douthat to explain how his own conservatism fits within the currents of post-liberalism, populism, and nationalism roiling the right, and whether a Trumpism without Trump is possible. Douthat—long an advocate of pairing economic populism with social conservatism—offers perhaps too sanguine an account of how a post-fusionist GOP might rebuild itself after Trump, glossing over some real disagreements about the best way to imagine the national community. Our dialogue also draws out some of the overlap between left and right critiques of individualism, posing the question of whether a social democratic president like Bernie Sanders might offer a different answer to the crisis of liberalism than Trump has.

Kirsten Weld concludes the section by widening our historical and geographic aperture to examine the ascendant Latin American right and its origins in the continent’s postcolonial histories. Her essay reminds us to look well beyond the twentieth century for answers to our contemporary predicaments. The racial, religious, and gendered hierarchies that conservatives across the globe seek to reconstitute and fortify are, ultimately, the inheritance of empire. And the task for the international left, as ever, is to eradicate the vestiges of colonialism and slavery from the structures of our societies.

Conservatism is hardly dead, and it may never die. The beneficiaries of existing social and economic hierarchies will always fight to maintain them against egalitarian movements for change. So too will the conservative longing for a lost or threatened sense of security, certainty, and rootedness serve as a powerful framework for opposing the imaginative promises of the egalitarian left.

But the certainty of resistance only raises our obligation to fight—and to know our enemy.

Sam Adler-Bell is a freelance writer in New York City and co-host of Know Your Enemy, a podcast sponsored by Dissent.

Matthew Sitman is associate editor of Commonweal, a frequent contributor to Dissent, and co-host of Know Your Enemy.

Lauren Stokes is an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University, where she teaches German history and writes about the politics of migration and gender.