But Robin’s book begins with Edmund Burke and conservative philosophy. Reaction, Robin argues, is typically high theory as much as demotic practice. The signal reactionaries are writers and intellectuals, but in Trump’s case the conservative intelligentsia strayed from the script. Yes, conservative pundits were eager to claim the Tea Party as their own, despite the statist heresies of its members and the populist urges it expressed, but most of those pundits opposed Trump, sometimes bitterly, even after he won the Republican nomination.
It’s important to note how remarkable this is: conservative pundits publicly declining to support the Presidential nominee of the Republican Party. They are a notably partisan bunch, partly by the nature of their political enterprise, and partly because the American electoral system does a decent job of meeting their ideological wants—as it doesn’t for progressive intellectuals, who can often be seen at election time casting wistful glances to the left horizon. But it’s even more remarkable still, because this Republican was running against a Clinton. Though some conservatives still define themselves as Reaganite, the conservative movement as it functions today was formed not in the eighties of Ronald Reagan but in the nineties of Bill Clinton—the nineties, that is, of Whitewater, the Gingrich revolution, the Fox News Channel (founded in 1996), the Starr Report, and the Clinton impeachment.
If you understand conservatism in Robin’s terms—that is, as fundamentally reactionary—this makes sense. The right enjoys its years in power, but conservatism is much closer to its essence when it finds itself out of power, in opposition. Today’s conservatism was forged in Clinton hatred, and, as much as conservatives hated President Bill, they hated his ambitious but unelected wife, the Wellesley feminist Hillary, even more.
And yet with Hillary Clinton running for President as the Democratic nominee, the brain trust of the conservative movement could not bring itself to support her opponent. Progressives are currently insisting that we not normalize a Trump Presidency, because Trump is not normal. But, if anything testifies to the not-normality of Trump, it’s the opposition that he faced from conservative pundits as he ran for President against Bill Clinton’s striving feminist wife.
So how would these pundits react when Trump won the election? Their opposition, like everyone else’s, was formed on the firm assumption that he’d lose. But the stakes were different for them, since American conservatism is as much a communal network of institutions and personal relationships as an ideology—and this network, this community, normally comprises the White House when a Republican has won it. And now a Republican had won it, but a distasteful one whom they had disavowed and denounced. It was like a bunch of kids airing their honest feelings about a bully who was supposed to move out of town over the weekend, but then he shows up in homeroom on Monday morning. His pop kept his job after all.
The days and weeks after Trump’s victory were bound to be a little awkward for them, in other words. But these were writers, not politicians, and, anyway, they’d already marked out their distance from the politicians, who, with few exceptions, had caved well before Election Day. Even if you hadn’t expected quite the level of despondency and anger vented by liberals and progressives, you might have expected one of the many conservatives who had declared candidate Trump a demagogue, simply unfit to be President, to write some straightforwardly gloomy post-election piece saying, “Welp, I guess we have an unfit demagogue for a President now. That sucks.” I actually expected this, because these conservatives had expressed such umbrage, such high-toned disapproval, in such impressive numbers, ahead of the election. But I have been disappointed.
During the Republican primaries, the Weekly Standard editor William Kristol described Trumpism as “two-bit Caesarism” and called Trump “the very epitome of vulgarity.” The Commentary editor and New York Post columnist John Podhoretz derided Trump as “the politicized American id” and went on to declare, “Should his election results match his polls, he would be, unquestionably, the worst thing to happen to the American common culture in my lifetime.” The editors of National Review wrote, “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.”
Since the election, though, few, if any, blog posts or articles have appeared in the main conservative outlets straightforwardly arguing, conceding, or lamenting that the election of this unfit demagogue is a bad thing. This man they’d execrated and denounced had shocked the world—not just by being his shocking self but by winning; nobody expected him to win!—and yet from them this evoked no reaction. No articles about the Caesarist threat. No articles about a Trump-defiled common culture. No articles about how our ship of state will soon have at its helm the notorious Captain Id. With everyone else flung into various states of surprise and alarm, the conservative magazines went meta. They reacted to other people’s reactions, mainly those of “the left.” If you read National Review in the days after the election, you’d have thought that the big news of the week wasn’t the world-jolting victory of a candidate whom the magazine had itself denounced as “a menace,” a man so foul that it would not endorse him against Hillary freakin’ Clinton, but that liberals were upset enough about this outcome to do some post-election protesting.
But we know they have their misgivings, or did. We know the folks at The Weekly Standard think Trump’s current business entanglements pose troubling conflicts, because in April the magazine ran an article arguing, convincingly, that such conflicts—contrary to Trump’s recent claims—would put his Presidency in legal as well as ethical and political jeopardy. Since the election, though, with these conflicts becoming a bigger and sleazier story every week, The Weekly Standard (like Commentary and National Review) has had nothing to say on the topic. And we know that the folks at Commentary don’t like General Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice for national-security adviser, because, in a post-election podcast (18:40), Noah Rothman offhandedly said, “Oh, he’s awful,” and the other podcasters, Podhoretz and Abe Greenwald, agreed. But what you won’t find on the Web site of The Weekly Standard or National Review is an article or blog post saying “Michael Flynn is awful.” (Rothman, writing for Commentary, called his selection “deeply unsettling.”)
National Review did run a piece by Tom Rogan admitting that Flynn is the “wrong pick” for national-security adviser, but its gentle, equivocal, occasionally laudatory language cut weirdly against the evidence it contained—which added up to a portrait of, well, someone awful. It read like a damning, incontrovertible takedown of Flynn given a vigorous line edit by Flynn’s best friend. Rogan outlines a record of lying and résumé-padding as well as terrible management and scary judgment, and then summarizes it as “a complex picture” of someone who “evidently served the nation with honor.” The title of the article, by the way, is “Why Mike Flynn is the Wrong Pick for National-Security Adviser.” Mike. Buddy.
This is how things are done in the Gemeinschaft of the American right. The communal solidarity of conservatives is felt as essential in a world where all the great cultural forces (the media, the universities, Hollywood, history itself) are arrayed against them, and so intracommunal conflict, when it happens, is elaborately ritualized. The more serious the dissent, the more it comes out as a sort of esoteric chumminess, with, when possible, reassuring gestures to the permanent terms of membership— which is to say the defining enemies, which is to say the left. This is why, after a populist demagogue whom they were on record as hating won the Presidency under their own partisan banner, the most important thing for conservatives to talk about was leftist protests in coastal cities. “We are presently a little confused about what it means to be a Republican,” they were saying, “but one thing we know for sure, about all of us over on this side, is that we are not those freaks protesting in San Francisco and Manhattan.”
You’d think they could at least let loose on Steve Bannon, Trump’s selection as chief White House strategist and senior counselor (i.e., his Karl Rove), without resorting to the ritual grooming they do to reinforce the communal bonds. After all, Bannon, along with being a cynical populist and odious snake charmer of white nationalism, is a self-described “Leninist” who, as head of Breitbart, discharged a burning hatred of establishment conservatives like them. Now here was a true enemy on the right.
After Trump announced Bannon’s appointment, Podhoretz, in Commentary, wrote a five point-assessment of Bannon in which he described him, in point two, as “an aider and abetter of foul extremist views” and, in point four, as a “tawdry, destructive, and repulsively uncivilized goon.” Finally, I thought as I read along, point by point, someone is skipping the ritual gestures and just calling a goon a goon, without the extraneous compliments or the references to the more meaningful enemies on the left. We’re going to need this kind of straight talk from respected conservative thinkers and writers, to shame Republican congressman into principled resistance if or when Trump turns into Caesar.
But then I reached point five, where Podhoretz writes, “With Bannon in a senior role in the White House and the possible appointment of the radical congressman Keith Ellison as head of the Democratic National Committee . . .”
Ah, I thought. Almost.
Author: Matt Feeney