ON THE CHANGING WINDS OF WESTERN CONSERVATISM
“A neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. A neoliberal is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality but has refused to press charges.”
― Irving Kristol
Donald Trump’s hopes for re-election in November will probably lie with the so-called ‘silent majority’. As of today, most polls see Biden leading by a handful of points. Yet mainstream media polls’ unreliability is nothing new; 2016 is very fresh in our memories. Rather than proof of Democrats’ popularity, poll’s results could instead easily be a reflection of the fear many hold to publicly display hostility towards progressivism — especially in a time where left-wing orthodoxy threatens the private and professional life of even the most powerful among us. But what is the ‘silent majority’, if there is one? And, besides wanting to see an end to the current civil unrest spreading across America, what does it want?
As Park Macdougald has pointed out for Tablet in February, since Ronald Reagan’s presidency and William F. Buckley’s National Review’s height of popularity, the GOP has been the party of capitalism, Wall Street, and the infamous libertarian ethos that ‘government is the problem’. Yet, over the years, the GOP hardly stood the test of time not because of their economic policies, but mostly thanks to old-school traditionalists — ordinary American citizens highly concerned about the radical cultural change their country has been subjected to. “[Republicans] keep thinking they’re winning because of their economic policy and losing because of their cultural policy, when really it’s the opposite,” Claremont Institute’s President Matthew J. Peterson reportedly said to Macdougald. Arguably, Donald Trump’s 2016 popularity was the culmination of America’s growing discontent with the Party’s direction. The ‘fiscally conservative, socially liberal’ Reaganism of the ‘80s — typical of college-educated Republicans — has been losing appeal among traditionalists and young people; hence the National Conservative conferences held in Washington, D.C. and Rome throughout 2019 and 2020 (the latter in which I took part) — sponsored by the Edmund Burke Foundation and led by the author of the much-discussed The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony. Both a symptom and a reaction, the conferences which saw present controversial politicians such as Hungarian PM Viktor Orban and Fratelli D’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni (among others), were, albeit unofficially, one of the first attempts to reunite Western Conservatism under a single umbrella.
These aren’t the only significant changes occurring within the western conservative right.
The same demographic shift saw among US college-educated conservative voters in 2016 is being recorded elsewhere across the West. A great example of how the winds are changing on the modern political sphere was starkly displayed in the UK, when the unbreachable Red Wall — a set of northern constituencies historically associated with Labour votes — came crumbling down for the first time in 50 years during the 2019 election. The humiliating defeat of the Labour party is widely interpreted as the ultimate repudiation by ordinary British people of the PC snobbery that is taking control of much of the Western left. Parties that were supposed to represent working-class people and working-class interests are now composed of pro-EU liberals, woke upper-middle-class voters, cheered by celebrities and sponsored by corporations.
Yet despite the Tories’ crushing victory and Trump’s surprising election, there are nonetheless, unaddressed, crucial questions that should be hovering over 10 Downing St and the White House. Here’s a few: If it wouldn’t have been for Brexit, would the Tory government still be in power? Does the foundations of the modern American right merely rests on a rejection of the left? Would Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson still had the support of most of the British public if Labour’s leaders didn’t run around announcing their pronouns on TV? What’s the actual strength of today’s Western conservative parties?
Unlike Johnson’s, Trump’s popularity among working-class and conservative voters in 2016 was self-explanatory. In the celebrity-obsessed modern American culture, exhausted by political correctness and disaffected by both parties’ economic policies — the likes of Ted Cruz and Senator Rubio didn’t stand a chance against the unapologetically rough, masculine profile of a TV Show host who promised to bring the industry back and run the country like one of his multibillion-dollar businesses. But there were other forces at work: his willingness to use the power of the State to Make America Great Again ran parallel to (among others) Christian integralists’ goals. Trump’s isolationist policies along with his promise of revoking trade deals — a refreshing break from Republican fusionism — appealed to workers as much as various strands of ‘post-liberal’ Catholicism (itself keen on using state power to advance the Faith). Modern integralists, such as Harvard Law Professor and Twitter personality Adrian Vermeule, call for the return to a more patriotic, less liberal society, and for the State to promote Catholic social teachings. Among those not too hostile to the thought of using the Government to achieve social and economic goals, we can also find the populist-sympathetic outlet First Things, led by R. R. Reno (which in early 2019 published the infamous collections of signatures declaring war to the “dead consensus”); but also (and especially) the Straussians writers and editors behind the Claremont Institute’s The American Mind (a publication faithful to the school of thought of political theorist and classicist Leo Strauss.)
Not everyone on the ‘Anti-Liberal Right’ is affectionate with President Trump. Rod Dreher, for example, senior editor at the American Conservative and author of The Benedict Option — a book that to counter liberalism’s cultural domination proposes a solution that could be (unfairly) summarized as CGTOW (Christians Go Their Own Way) — was one of the most recent social conservatives to express his dislike for Trump. After the President pulled his umpteenth and perhaps most bombastic postmodern stunt amid the firsts Floyd riots — when he (supposedly) cleared the streets of protesters to walk out of the White House and pose with a Bible in front of St. John’s Church — while many Trumpists praised the gesture seeing it as a sign of loyalty from their beloved candidate, Christian-conservative quarters were far from impressed. Dreher decried the episode as a sign of the President’s fake religiosity, calling it pure “propaganda” and even suggesting that that could go down in history as the day Trump lost re-election. “Flashing a Bible like a gang sign to get conservative Christians in line. It is pathetic,” he commented. An evangelic priest, equally disgusted, captured the same mood by telling him instead: “He’s standing in front of one of the most theologically liberal churches in America holding a Bible that is not his and that he does not read while appropriating the symbols of a religion that he doesn’t observe. Yeah, I’m really impressed.”
Dreher is not alone. Despite a lot on the New Right see Trump as an amusing and (occasionally) necessary figure to fight PC leftists and power-hungry Democrats, many, at the same time, seem to be getting tired of his persona and, above all, conservative shortcomings. The latter, are more seen as, overall, more damaging to the social fabric than beneficial to the apparently succesful pushback against cultural leftism. A great example of what clearly went wrong with American Conservatism it’s the mainstream movement anchored around organizations such as TPUSA — fellow-traveler Trump’s administration and a favorite target of the traditionalist side of the NR. The latter, led by Charlie Kirk, has made an ugly habit (and consequently a fortune) out of narrowing down the philosophy of conservatism to a set of low-resolution talking points and cliches. Such has resulted in Kirk — as well as popular libertarian figures such as Dan Crenshaw and Ben Shapiro — often getting accusations of being ‘grifters’ and, fundamentally, ideologically neoliberals (a word that has mostly been used as a slur among traditionalists and such) — tools of big capital and the very establishment they claim to be fighting against.
On the Christian side of the NR, however, conservatives know well that criticizing Charlie Kirk and Trump’s persona isn’t enough to make Conservatism great again. To begin with, laying the commercialization of the faith at the President’s feet would be unfair. The White House using the Bible as a propagandistic social media booster isn’t the first, nor the worst sign of a declining doctrine. Religion, family formation, and church following have been on a downward trajectory for decades. Yet there’s hope (even if a twisted one) for Christians; Trump’s quasi-cultish MAGA following on the right and BLM’s ideological fanaticism on the left (just to name two of the clearest phenomena), clearly expose just how deep our religious instinct has sunk in public’s consciousness. Its need for nourishment, at this point in time, looks desperate. Despite years of progressive’s domination in education and pop culture, all the signs in the West seem to point to a religious revival.
Conservatives should wait to pop the cork, however. As English writer Sixsmith points out: “renewed attraction to religion could be a negation, not an affirmation, of the modern West. It is to escape atomizing, shallow materialism — with less marriage, less childbirth, more loneliness and more addiction — that many have been drawn to religion more broadly.” Modern ideological dogmatism is very unlikely to stem from a desire to restore a sense of traditional, spiritual identity. It is rather the missing sense of belonging and a lack of purpose in our societies that is pushing people to channel their spiritual yearning increasingly towards ‘a cause’. While America’s fanaticism on the left (in the form of Woke) is growing unchecked, mainstream conservatives’ occasional flirtatiousness with traditional religiosity and their attempt to ‘bring back’ a more harmonious time in history often amounts to little more than paying lip service to a lost past, resulting in further accusations from the dissident side of being, mostly, uselessly ‘reactionaries’.
Adversity to the Great Tradition also comes in familiar forms. Perhaps the most uniting factor among the NR is its dislike of untrammeled, global capitalism. The rise of ‘woke capitalism‘ and market monopolies have made social-conservatives increasingly skeptical of the free-markets (corporate America’s unanimous endorsement of BLM might turn out be the straw that broke the camel’s back). Furthermore, as I previously pointed out in this article for Areo, its proclivity to turn every single human desire available into a product has revealed capitalism to be a lot more hostile to conservatism than many on the right thought — prompting them to ask: is capitalism conservative-friendly? A libertarian like Ben Shapiro might justly say that if what is stopping you from living a Christian life are the material temptations surrounding you, you’ve already missed the point. Yet it is still beside the point. Yes, the kingdom of God is not of this world; but Christian conservatives’ critique of consumerism isn’t a cry for help, nor a claim that it represents an obstacle from practicing their faith, but a warning against a force working directly against their vision of a good society. The incentive structures in Western societies have never been so opposed to the faith and its traditions. The truth is that, when an entire generation gets constantly bombarded with materialistic and hypersexual advertising, it won’t be long before the whole culture turns against and repudiates its religious roots. To wish to put a halt to the hedonistic trend promoted by the corporate world based on one’s faith isn’t seen as contrary to religious teachings.
Loyalty towards ‘Tradition’ isn’t universal. In charge of the so-called ‘Dissident Right’ (a more extreme fraction of the NR) we find weird characters such as Twitter personality and pseudonymous blogger Bronze Age Pervert. With his (at the time of this writing) over 46k followers, straight from the ‘apophatic’, anonymous, ‘Frog’ corners of the platform, his viral, short (hard-to-describe) self-published book Bronze Age Mindset, has attracted considerable attention in the right-wing intelligentsia, earned somewhat of a cult-like status online, and even made it to the prestigious Claremont Review of Books, where, reviewed by none other than Trumps’ former national security senior advisor Michael Anton (author of the 2016 viral Flight 93 Election essay), it was described as a work that “at first glance [looks] to be a simplified pastiche of Friedrich Nietzsche written by an ESL-middle-school-message-board troll.” Anton writes: “The talented kids who’ve found this book aren’t listening to us… All our earnest explanations of the true meaning of equality, how it comports with nature, how it can answer their dissatisfactions, and how it’s been corrupted—none of that has made a dent… In the spiritual war for the hearts and minds of the disaffected youth on the right, conservatism is losing. BAPism is winning.”
As for the left’s modern iconoclasm and current cultural revolution in the West — The NY Post‘s EIC Sohrab Ahmari (who set off a firestorm in conservative circles last year when First Things published his harsh critique of National Review‘s David French and his ‘too-liberal’ conservatism, also dubbed as ‘David Frenchism’) has rushed to point out that “it isn’t what it looks like,” promptly blaming neoliberalism instead of Maoism. Ahmari, with his also considerable amount of online following (like Vermeule or author Tom Holland), is one of the many unapologetic traditionalists on the New Right — a former atheist turned Catholic who pushes for State implementation of the Faith. We can summarize his (and his followers’) aversion to the dead liberal consensus when, on First Things, he asks: “what is ‘liberal conservatism?”, and answers quoting Irving Kristol: “more a persuasion or a sensibility than a movement with clear tenets.”
What most differentiates the New Right from mainstream conservatism is a general rejection of modernity, distrust of liberalism, a desire to preserve the social fabric at all costs and their calls to adopt policies that appeal to ordinary people. The “common good capitalism” promoted by Sen. Marco Rubio as well the new politic of highly popular figures like Tucker Carlson represents a strain of modern conservatism not only more aware of class-struggle (one often-cited intellectual is former neo-Marxist turned socially conservative Christopher Lasch) but also willing to look past the classical liberal consensus of our time, as indeed emphasized by Patrick Deneen’s assertion in Why Liberalism Failed (a work also much-cited) that “Liberalism failed because it succeeded.“
Most Republicans seem to believe that not much has changed since the dead consensus of the Cold War era. But the modern right seems to have taken a more post-liberal, communitarian route over the last years. While listening to neoconservatives like Ben Shapiro one could come away with the impression that the future of Republicanism still depends on its defense of small government and economic freedom from the everlasting threat of socialism, ordinary Republican voters have never been more open to using the State to achieve both economic and social goals — a position likely strengthened by the dim reality of post-Covid, post-Floyd America.
Given the current chaos on the streets, the worrying racial tension in the air, and the imminent threat of foreign enemies like China (not to mention the post-Covid economic recession), issues like religion and the discussion about traditional morality are very unlikely to play a major role in the upcoming US election. As of today, Republicans have bigger fishes to fry. But if the GOP wants to keep its loyal base in the future it might have to update some of its main priorities. A strain of Republican voters made of old-school William F. Buckley’s fusionists and laissez-faire neocons still believe the bells of freedom soon will chime, and America (and the West) will become great again through tax cuts and even corporate bailouts. But a new movement has emerged from the ashes of failure: one who believes the West can — and must — find its way out of the darkness with a more general traditionalist approach and an open-minded economy; giving to God what belongs to God and sometimes to God what belongs to the State. Republican’s job (and conservatives parties alike) will be to understand which of the two makes up the true voice of the silent majority.