Declaring Independence from Independence
The big question about the impact of Donald Trump on the Republican Party is: will he be an aberration, a temporary departure from the normal rhetorical style and ideological composite of late-20th-Century conservatism—or will he usher in a "new normal," a new baseline for what the party stands for and what it will tolerate?
We're now seeing our answer. Trump and Trumpism is the new normal, and the Republican Party and the conservative movement are crossing lines that they won't be able to uncross after Trump leaves office.
I recently mentioned Trump's own use of racist and nativist tropes such as telling native-born US citizens to "go back where they came from," a cry taken up by his supporters at his rallies. But the most ominous examples aren't coming from Trump. They're coming from the conservative intellectuals—including many who used to be thoughtful and respectable—who are supposed to offer an alternative to Trump and put a brake on his worst inclinations. Instead, some of these intellectuals have been trying to jump on to the Trump gravy train and pander to his supporters by offering semi-intellectual interpretations of Trumpism.
One of the centers for intellectualized Trumpism is the Claremont Institute, an old conservative think tank in California that has taken a dark turn, as reflected recently in its awarding of prestigious fellowships to Jack Posobiec and Mytheos Holt. Here's Mona Charen explaining why that's such a disaster.
Among those Claremont is honoring in its new incarnation as a Trump-justifying toady is Jack Posobiec, the Internet phenom most famous for promoting the "Pizzagate" conspiracy. That was the rumor that Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, and others were running a child sex ring out of a northwest DC pizzeria.... In short, Posobiec is the id of Trumpism, bottom-feeding among conspiracists, kooks, and shameless liars.
Among the other "fellows" Claremont has proudly announced is Mytheos Holt, a very early adopter of Trumpism.
I remember Holt well because I was never as embarrassed to be working for The Federalist as when the publishers asked him to write a series of articles explaining "The Intellectual Case for Trumpism," and he did so by writing an article describing his attraction to white nationalism. And this was his case for Trump. To The Federalist's discredit, they went ahead and published this article. To their credit, they were embarrassed enough never to ask him to write anything again. So Holt went on to write for the Trump apologist website American Greatness and now to be embraced by a venerable conservative think tank.
Speaking of American Greatness, it is another center for pseudo-intellectual Trumpism. It is mostly an outlet for relatively obscure cranks like Holt, but it has also attracted some well-established conservative names: Victor Davis Hanson, Roger Kimball, Henry Olsen, Conrad Black. I also noted a while back that Chris Buskirk, the editor and publisher of American Greatness, was selected by New York Times editorial page editor David Leonhardt as a guest editor in an attempt to bring in more "intellectual diversity" from the right. So this does not represent the mainstream of conservatism—not yet—but citing American Greatness is not just nutpicking, either.
That's why it's significant that American Greatness recently published an outright racist poem titled "Cuck Elegy." The link has since disappeared—I guess they decided not to stand up and fight Political Correctness on this one. (Then again, the author was anonymous in the first place.) Jane Coaston, a generally fair and honest liberal reporter who covers the right, caught a screenshot of it.
This poem is crude doggerel rhyme and offensive for that reason alone. But there are two specific things that make it a turning point for the right.
The first is the use of the word "cuck" (short for "cuckold") as an epithet for old-fashioned conservatives like National Review's David French, at whom the poem seems to be aimed. This term originates with white nationalists, who use it very specifically as a reference to miscegenation, as their way of describing traditional conservatives as race traitors. The link I just gave you is from 2015, when the term was described as "a passing fad of probably less than 100 people who, between them, share a few hundred lightly followed Twitter accounts." It spread rapidly from there, and now it is beginning to worm its way into the conservative mainstream.
But the real smoking gun in this awful poem is the following passage:
The global south deigns to redeem you
Be grateful, for they generate revenue
For the masters you've failed to serve
Those men, the worms, who pose to conserve
Those values you have clearly lost
This is the Capitalist Pentecost
Submit to the modernist's spirit of avarice
Defer now to the mocha-skinned Lazarus
Know this, you are more rich than him
If not in cash, then in your white skin
So "mocha-skinned" people are the enemy, while the reader's own sense of personal value is supposed to be found in his "white skin."
To their credit, a lot of online conservatives have denounced this as "white power poetry." But it is still important to ask how American Greatness thought they could get away with it in the first place.
Jonathan Last puts it this way:
I don't know how to read this as anything other than racism—and not just racism, but actual, honest-to-God, KKK-style white nationalism....
It is not a coincidence that this post appeared on a website devoted to the perpetual and total defense of Donald Trump 72 hours after Trump started telling some of America's elected representatives to "go back to your own country."
This is how the cancer spreads.
Perhaps a better analogy is that Trump has affected Republicans like a drug addiction. He is political meth.
Despite their electoral successes, Republicans in 2015-16 were feeling more and more isolated and culturally marginalized, so in a moment of weakness, they took a hit of meth. It made them feel invincible, so they took more. It even appeared to have helped them succeed when they won the 2016 election. Three years in, though, the Republican party looks like...someone who has been doing tons of meth for three years. It's not pretty.
If you're deep into meth addiction, you've probably lost your job, friends, family, and self-respect. All you have is the meth. This makes you cling even tighter to the very thing that has ruined your life, because despite its terrible long-term effects, every hit (tweet) gives you another burst of that sweet, sweet power that first drew you to the drug.
To be more philosophically exact, the essence of Trumpism as a cultural phenomenon is not specifically about racism. If you ask Trump's most fanatical supporters, they will tell you that the big revelation they got from him was that they should stop caring about consistency, principles, and rules of propriety and should instead feel liberated to "fight dirty." In other words, Trump hasn't knocked down the right's moral inhibitions on one particular issue, he has knocked them down on all issues. He has knocked down concern for moral principles as such, which are now dismissed as being for suckers and losers.
This is the hit of political meth that the right took: that it is OK to be bad, to be unprincipled, to unthinkingly indulge whatever prejudices they happen to have. "White power poetry" is just a particularly garish symptom, and as with any addict, we can expect the ravages of addiction to continue until the addict reaches rock bottom. And I don't think we're anywhere near there yet.
You will notice in that awful poem that it manages to combine racist rhetoric with anti-capitalist rhetoric—sneering references to "avarice" and corporate "masters" and that sort of thing. That's the other enduring theme of the attempt to add intellectual substance to Trumpism: an attack on capitalism and on "liberalism"—that is, advocacy of liberty—in general.
To get an idea of how deep this goes, check out a kind of Intern Fight Club National Review seems to be running recently: a dueling set of essays between two young editorial interns at the magazine.
I've been writing recently about the increasing hostility to liberalism among Catholic conservatives, so it didn't surprise me that the first of these interns comes out against the Glorious Revolution of 1689, the foundational event for the Anglo-American tradition of liberty, on the grounds that it is anti-Catholic. The other, much better essay, describes how this whitewashes James II's tyrannical designs, as well as the Catholic Church's historical partnership with monarchical absolutism. It also ends with what I thought was an interesting observation.
Discussing liberalism as the airy creation of philosophers is important; Patrick Deneen is welcome to his vitriolic condemnation of Hobbes's "autonomous individual." But liberalism is also deeply rooted in actual historical experience, and deeply pragmatic. The Glorious Revolution, for all the bloodshed Leary points out, laid a path out of the conflict between Parliament and the Crown, and between religions. Liberalism has messy, complicated roots because it arose organically as a way to avert violence and stop societies from tearing themselves apart. It is not, as the anti-liberals like to pretend, the imposition of abstract philosophies upon unblemished early societies. It is what happened when people first tried to stop killing one another.
This is too much of a concession to the conservatives' longstanding (and disastrous) contempt for "ideology," which is to say for conceptual thinking. The Enlightenment and liberalism and the Glorious Revolution were products of philosophical ideas. But it is definitely worth pointing out that they were products of ideas that were grounded in real human needs, in answers to the concrete demands of real events.
But this goes far beyond a few interns. The new onslaught against liberty and liberalism was on full display last week at a conference in DC on "National Conservatism," which featured various figures on the right trying to jockey for who can define this conservative "nationalism" and attach it to Donald Trump's coattails.
A National Review summary has an admirably honest description of the conference: "They aim to establish institutions guided by the sentiments that led to Brexit and Donald Trump's victory in 2016." Get that? This is about ideas guided by "sentiments," i.e., feelings. And what was the dominant feeling? Resentment of capitalism, free markets, and the uncontrolled choices of individuals.
[A] common understanding of conservative nationalism took shape at the conference: The nation is the most logical vessel for political organization known to man, and supranational entities threaten the social attachments that allow for human flourishing. Those attachments have been frayed by decades of unfettered capitalism and inattention to traditional social structures, like the family and organized religion.
Speaker after speaker called for stronger government intervention in the economy, almost uniformly rejecting libertarian principles. Tucker Carlson, one of the keynote presenters, received a warm reception for his theory of the case, evidently shared by the conference hall. "The main threat to your ability to live your life as you choose does not come from the government anymore, but it comes from the private sector," the Fox News host said....
The National Conservatives almost reflexively view government as an instrument through which to beat back proponents of identity politics who run corporations and universities. Old orthodoxies about the role of the markets are peeling away. While on more than one occasion speakers paid lip service to the old enthusiasms of American conservatism—political liberty and capitalism—lip service was usually all it was. Their ultimate destination was a rejection of the individual as the basis for political life.
None of this is a surprise to Objectivists, who have spent decades warning that the defense of capitalism and individual rights requires a defense of individualism, and that this is ultimately incompatible with the anti-individualist philosophy behind the "traditional social structures" of "organized religion."
Oh, and while the conferences organizers made a big show of rejecting white nationalists, they kicked off the conference with an advocate of "cultural distance nationalism," an anti-immigrant nationalism that, she admitted, "means in effect taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites." Glad they kept out the white nationalists.
But race and racism isn't the heart of the new nationalism. Here is the heart:
Practically speaking, the nationalist agenda is largely focused on the need for a federal "industrial policy." For Breitbart's John Carney, that means tariffs, and lots of them. Americans need to be willing to pay higher prices to protect the jobs of their fellow citizens, according to Brog. For American Affairs founder Julius Krein, "protectionism is not sufficient.... It's not radical enough." The Manhattan Institute's Oren Cass laid out a plan involving research and development subsidies, infrastructure investments, preferential tax rates for favored firms, punitive taxes on companies that move jobs overseas, 'trade enforcement' to make other countries play according to our rules, and more. "We should have a National Institutes of Manufacturing just as we have a National Institutes of Health," he said.
What do all of these proposals—and the many others offered at the conference, from censoring porn to cracking down on opioids to preventing trans girls from playing on girls' sports teams—have in common? There is a tendency among the new nationalists to frame their movement as standing in opposition to supranationalism....
Yet the true object of the nationalists' ire is much closer to home: They cannot abide individual Americans making social and economic choices they do not like....
"Today we declare independence," [Yoram] Hazony said, "from neoliberalism, from libertarianism, from what they call classical liberalism. From the set of ideas that sees the atomic individual, the free and equal individual, as the only thing that matters in politics."... Anti-individualism seems to be the unifying theory of the ascendant political right
So Hazony is declaring independence from independence.
This is all part of the larger attempt I have been chronicling recently in which the right has been questioning and in many cases rejecting "liberalism," just as the left is also increasingly rejecting "liberalism" as a label. Which is exciting, in a way, because it leaves the term open to be reclaimed by the real advocates of liberty and individualism.
For Objectivists, frankly, this is our moment—a moment of opportunity and also a real challenge to us to step up when America requires our voices. The disturbing part of the past few years has been watching one conservative intellectual after another, one conservative institution after another, succumb to the new fad of illiberal conservatism—and to see that there is no real institution capable of mounting a strong, truly intellectual, philosophical defense of liberalism. The conservative infrastructure is not prepared for this because they are not equipped to present a fundamental philosophical defense of individualism. (Nor is the libertarian infrastructure, such as it is—less because they are incapable of defending individualism than because they are incapable of defending it philosophically.) This is why it seems like the illiberal conservatives are kicking down the door of a rotten structure—and I think they will make greater inroads into mainstream conservatism before they are driven back.
Coming to the rescue of the right, and of the country as a whole, is a job for which Objectivists are uniquely prepared. At any rate, I see this as a task for which I am uniquely prepared, and that's what I intend to be doing in the next few years.
If today's newsletter seems a little grim, here's an antidote. This weekend, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and that reminded me of a piece I wrote for the 40th anniversary, recommending "From the Earth to the Moon," a very good television miniseries about the Apollo program. I described that series, combined with another documentary about prehistoric human migration across the Earth, as "a permanent cure for pessimism in any form," because it shows the vast scale of human achievement, not just in 1969, but long before it. It's a record so big and comprehensive that all the evil in the world seems irrelevant by comparison.
If that isn't enough, also check out Washington, DC's terrific tribute to the Moon landing: projecting the Saturn V rocket, at full size, onto the side of the Washington Monument, followed by more images from the Apollo 11 launch and the Moon landing.
As Neil Armstrong made clear, the Moon landing is an achievement that belongs to all mankind. But let's be honest, there is only one nation that could have done it, because there is only one set of ideas that made it possible. So the combination of Apollo 11 and the Washington Monument seems particularly inspired.