Friday, May 13, 2016

The Third Party

These people are not conservatives

Conservatism is dead.  If you don’t believe me, listen to the man who killed it.  Here’s Donald Trump at a recent Republican event in California:

I’m a conservative, but at this point, who cares?

Let that sink in.  Since at least the time of Ronald Reagan the GOP has been the furiously self-proclaimed party of conservatism.  And in the last few years Tea Party grassroots conservatives have crusaded against their own Republican establishment for being insufficiently fanatical in ideology and tactics.  But now, when given the opportunity, those same grassroots true believers have chosen for their nominee a man who not only diverges markedly from conservative doctrine, but who explicitly dismisses conservatism as irrelevant!  What gives?

Trump’s triumph has rudely revealed that there are really two Republican Parties, both of whom think of themselves as the true conservatives and the other as traitors to the cause.  What we think of as traditional conservatism, the conservatism that has dominated the party for decades, the conservatism of Goldwater and Reagan, is a program of free markets and free trade, scaling back the welfare-regulatory state, and maintaining American supremacy in the world.  Think of Reagan crushing the air-traffic controllers union or George W. Bush attempting to privatize Social Security.  The conservatives have a libertarian view of the federal government and a Social Darwinist view of capitalist success and failure.  Their core constituency is the investor class, and for decades these Reaganite conservatives have run the Republican Party, and they’ve run it for the benefit of that class, with the casual assurance that what benefits investors will eventually benefit everyone else.

But it turns out that much – perhaps even a majority – of the Republican constituency means something very different when they call themselves conservative.  For them conservatism means the blind conviction that America is the best country on Earth.  They see everyday, straight, white, Christian, American men, with their simple moral toughness, as the backbone of society and the best people in the world.  Some of those men regret the demise of the traditional American social structure, in which racial, sexual and religious minorities deferred to them, while some simply worry – not entirely without reason – that they’re now disdained and despised by American elites; and in practice the two perceptions readily blur together.  But either way, for decades the basic premise of this conservatism is that the social status of those men is unfairly under assault, and they’ve looked to the Reagan conservatives to protect and assert it. 

These white working class conservatives weren’t really interested in lowering capital gains tax rates or cutting Obamacare subsidies, though they made a good show of caring about such things.  Indeed, these conservatives actively support the welfare state; they’re all too anxious to receive the Social Security and Medicare benefits their Reaganite masters yearn to curtail.  And they particularly object to the free trade and lax immigration policies of the Reaganites, policies that send good jobs overseas and drive down wages at home.  But, for decades the conservative intelligentsia, in the think tanks and the magazines, on talk radio and Fox News, underwritten by big money, has worked to indoctrinate the grassroots in the intricacies of conservative dogma, while enforcing ideological rigidity among conservative politicians.  The populists may have been dissatisfied, but they couldn’t very well vote for liberals.

But Reaganite conservatism hasn’t kept its promises. Trump hasn’t really killed it, it was killed by its own abysmal failures, particularly the War in Iraq and the Great Recession.  It couldn’t survive its comprehensive inability to protect the interests and values of white working people.  It’s actually been dead since 2008, but tricked out to appear healthy with hefty doses of donor money, media bombast, and undying populist aversion to cultural liberalism and its racially and sexually suspicious beneficiaries.  What Trump has done is kill the illusion of conservatism.  As a man ignorant enough to overlook ideological considerations, rich enough to be indifferent to movement money, and self-assured enough (to put it mildly!) to dismiss received notions of propriety, he was perfectly constituted to override the conservative establishment and express and exploit the blunt instincts of those unhappy white populists, instincts he precisely shares.

And now that he’s exploited those instincts all the way to the nomination, they constitute the new conservatism.  The old conservatism, however, came to own the party through a very different strategy.  The Buckley-Goldwater-Reagan conservatives had to fight for years against the moderate Eisenhower establishment Republicans who controlled the party in the post-war years, and who had made their peace with the New Deal and Cold War stalemate.  Convinced that both the welfare state and international communism could be aggressively rolled back, they worked the grassroots, the media, the think tanks, the elections, etc., as they slowly took over the party from the inside.  Their first big triumph was the nomination of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964.  In 1968, segregationist and Democratic Alabama Governor George Wallace pulled white southern conservative populists out of the New Deal coalition when he ran for president as an independent, and they never went back (not at the presidential level).  Richard Nixon – who brilliantly straddled
Governor Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door t
prevent the enrollment of black students 
at the University of Alabama, 1963
the moderate vs. conservative divide – added them and their white northern collaborators to his own coalition four years later.  At the same time, northern moderate and liberal Republicans – i.e. Eisenhower, Rockefeller and Lindsay Republicans – left the GOP for the Democratic Party.  And though Goldwater badly lost his general election, Nixon’s and Reagan’s cynical and skillful campaigning brought the white populists securely into the conservative movement and the Republican Party, leaving the Reaganites in charge.

But conservatism has now split in two, or rather it has reverted to its two naturally antagonistic groupings, with each side considering itself the heirs of Reagan and seeing the other as the successors of the hated Eisenhower-ish moderate establishment.  Both groups are technically conservative, given their belief in innate natural hierarchy.  And that means that neither group is really libertarian, or classically liberal, though some conservatives perceive themselves to be; in practice they don’t defend individual freedom against social coercion.  And neither group is Burkean, or classically conservative in the aristocratic European sense, in that neither affirms pragmatism or conciliation; both groups are intensely idealistic, even utopian, consisting of righteous, low-church crusaders working to create the City of God on Earth.  And both groups hold to a Social Darwinism that sees society’s winners as virtuously deserving their winnings.  It’s just that Trumpians believe that the natural aristocracy consists of those aforementioned straight, white, Christian, American men, while the Reaganites believe it’s successful capitalists.  Trumpism is about identity, Reaganism is about money.  And the Trumpians are less principled, more expedient, more willing to play dirty to advance the interests of their tribe.  Such is the logic of tribalism.

We can agree – with Donald Trump! – to call the Reaganites the True Conservatives, since they’ve claimed the title for so long, and they probably are closer to the classically conservative Burkean ideal, with their worship of plutocrats as aristocrats born to rule at home and abroad.  A true Burkean would condemn Reaganite worship of free markets as destabilizing and intemperate.  But a true Burkean would even more forcefully reject Trumpian recklessness and thoughtlessness; as he would reject Trumpian majoritarianism, not because it fails to respect liberal individual rights, but because it fails to defer to its rightful aristocratic masters.  So even with their right-wing inegalitarianism, it’s fair to call the Trumpians Populists, since they share much substance with left-wing populists, in particular instinctual embrace of the popular and the everyday, and animosity toward the rich and powerful.

Given these ideological incompatibilities and conservatism’s abject policy failures, it was quite likely that something like Trumpism would come along and topple Reaganism from its precarious perch at the top of the GOP.  But the Trumpian revolt, unlike the Reaganite overthrow of the moderates, has occurred in one fell swoop.  That’s because they didn’t have to conquer someone else’s party; they didn’t have to convert anyone, or bring in like-minded outsiders, or drive out ideological opponents.  The party has been theirs for the asking all along.

Of course, the Reaganites fought against the Trumpian takeover tooth and nail, caucus vote by delegate count, negative ad by convention rule.  They’ve been on top so long, and they’ve spent so much time and energy convincing themselves they’re America’s ordained saviors, they can’t let go of the political party meant to be the instrument of that salvation.  And there are still Reaganites among the grassroots; that’s who voted for Ted Cruz.  Some have accepted their new subordinate status within the exotic new right-wing order and are supporting Trump as an evil lesser than Hillary.  But some diehards are promising to sit out the general election, some are working to deny Trump the presidency, some are considering a true conservative third-party campaign, and some are so unhappy with Trump they say they’ll even vote for Hillary!  Of course, much of the Reaganite opposition to Trump has less to do with the Trumpian program and more to do with the man himself, with his flagrant irresponsibility and doltish ignorance.  Though it’s hard not to wonder if some of those never-Trump folks would so adamantly oppose an irresponsible and doltish nominee who toed the Reaganite line.  After all, most of them defended Sarah Palin.

But Trumpism – with or without the man himself – is here to stay.  Reaganism is dead.  Because of its complex of think tanks and media outlets, the Reaganites will continue to make noise and influence the discourse for some time to come.  But for a long time to come, no GOP nominee will be openly advocate free trade or looser immigration policies.  And many supposedly conservative politicians and media personalities have already happily pledged support for Trump, demonstrating that they were really populists – or shameless opportunists – all along.  Even some of the right-wing media and think-tank crowd have turned out to be populists.  Some politicians, like Paul Ryan, are trying to finesse the differences.  Rush Limbaugh has shown himself just as brilliant at straddling the present-day Reaganite-Trumpian divide as Nixon was at straddling the Eisenhower-Reaganite divide of his day.  When there are full-fledged, self-consciously right-wing populist think tanks to confront the Reaganite ones, the dying roar of Reaganism will wind down to a whisper.

In the grand history of the United States, it may turn out that the ultimate role of modern conservatism will be to give birth to a powerful and resentful white populist nationalism.  Nixon and Reagan thought they had stolen Wallace’s power, but maybe all they really did was unleash it.  It’s likely that Trump is the Goldwater of right-wing populism, not it’s Reagan, and he’ll come in for a solid defeat in November.  But a smarter, shrewder, more presentable Trump is waiting in our future.  We may be saved from that coming populist Reagan by the continuing demographic shifts transforming our society, shifts that seem likely to make white nationalism an electoral dead end (at least at the presidential level).  But can anyone – other than demagogues, fanatics, and fools – desire greater racial polarization and animosity?  A popular white nationalist movement, even one with no chance of winning the presidency, can bring nothing but division and destruction and horror.  And, for the moment, it’s a white nationalist movement with a reckless sideshow clown as its leader. We stare, more starkly than we have in a long time, into the sinister side of our collective unconscious; we walk dangerously close to the edge of the deep, dark American abyss, with little more than Hillary and her bland, neo-liberal platitudes to keep us from falling directly in. 

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