Populism, I: American conservatism and the problem of populism: On the genesis and current trials of the American conservative movement

Populism, I: American conservatism and the problem of populism, On the genesis and current trials of the American conservative movement. By George H. Nash.

In 1945, at the close of World War II, no articulate, coordinated conservative intellectual force existed in the United States. There were, at most, scattered voices of protest, some of them profoundly pessimistic about the future of their country and convinced that they were an isolated Nockian Remnant on the wrong side of history. History, in fact, seemed to be what the Left was making. The Left — liberals, socialists, even Communists — appeared to be in complete control of the twentieth century.

But there was a revival of conservatism, or at least of the anti-progressive alliance, in the 1950s and 60s. It had five distinct strands:

Each of these emerging components of the conservative revival shared a deep antipathy to twentieth-century liberalism.

To the libertarians, modern liberalism — the liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt and his successors — was the ideology of the ever-aggrandizing, bureaucratic, welfare state, which would, if unchecked, become a collectivist, totalitarian state, destroying individual liberty and the private sphere of life.

To the traditionalists, modern liberalism was inherently a corrosive philosophy, which was eating away like an acid not only at our liberties but also at the moral and religious foundations of a healthy, traditional society, thereby creating a vast spiritual vacuum into which totalitarianism could enter.

To the Cold War anticommunists, modern liberalism — rationalistic, relativistic, secular, anti-traditional, and quasi-socialist — was by its very nature incapable of vigorously resisting an enemy on its left. Liberalism to them was part of the Left and could not, therefore, effectively repulse a foe with which it shared so many underlying assumptions. As the conservative Cold War strategist James Burnham eventually and trenchantly put it, liberalism was essentially a means for reconciling the West to its own destruction. Liberalism, he said, was the ideology of Western suicide. …

[After 1964] a new impulse appeared on the intellectual scene, one destined to become the fourth component of the conservative coalition: the phenomenon known as neoconservatism. Irving Kristol’s definition conveys its original essence: “A neoconservative,” he said, “is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” One of the salient developments of the late 1960s and 1970s was the intellectual journey of various liberals and social democrats toward conservative positions and affiliations. …

The left has able to label non-leftists as stupid since the 1930s:

Since the days of the New Deal, American liberals had held a near monopoly on the manufacture and distribution of prestige among the intellectual classes. From a liberal perspective the libertarian, traditionalist, and Cold War conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s … were eccentric and marginal figures, no threat to liberalism’s cultural hegemony.

The emerging neoconservatives, however, were an “enemy within” the liberal camp who had made their reputations while still on the Left and who could not therefore be so easily dismissed. By publicly defecting from the Left, and then by critiquing it so effectively, the neoconservatives helped to undermine a hitherto unshakable assumption in academic circles: the belief that only liberalism is an intellectually respectable point of view.

By destroying the automatic equation of liberalism with intelligence, and of progressivism with progress, the neoconservative intellectuals brought new respectability to the Right and greatly altered the terms of public debate in the United States.

The religious right was another strand in the  anti-leftist coalition:

[I]n the late 1970s: the grassroots “great awakening” of what came to be known as the Religious Right or (more recently) social conservatives. … It was … a groundswell of protest at the grassroots of America by “ordinary” citizens … in what became known as the “social issues”: pornography, drug use, the vulgarization of mass entertainment, … a state of vertiginous moral decline, … [and] … legalized abortion on demand.

Finally, particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to a weakening of the anti-communist glue that held the anti-left forces together, came the paleocons:

Initially, paleoconservatism was a response to the growing prominence within conservative ranks of the erstwhile liberals and social democrats known as neoconservatives. To angry paleocons, led by Patrick Buchanan among others, the neocons were “interlopers” who, despite their recent movement to the Right, remained at heart secular, crusading Wilsonians and believers in the welfare state. In other words, the paleos argued, not true conservatives at all.

As the Cold War faded, paleoconservatism introduced a discordant note into the conservative conversation. Fiercely and defiantly “nationalist” (rather than “internationalist”), skeptical of “global democracy” and post–Cold War entanglements overseas, fearful of the impact of Third World immigration on America’s historically Europe-centered culture, and openly critical of the doctrine of global free trade, Buchananite paleoconservatism increasingly resembled much of the American Right before 1945—before, that is, the onset of the Cold War. …

What now?

American conservatism, then, remains at heart a coalition. Like all coalitions, it contains within itself the potential for splintering—and never more so than right now. For as the Cold War and its familiar polarities continue to recede from public memory, new challenges and conflicts have been filling the vacuum. …

In precincts where “transnational progressivism” (as it has been called) holds sway, the very idea of a permanent and praiseworthy American identity seems increasingly passé if not slightly sinister.

Compounding conservative unease is another trend: a rising tide of amnesia about America’s past and animating principles. According to a report by the Bradley Project on America’s National Identity in 2008, “America is facing an identity crisis,” brought on in part by the failure of the country’s education system to impart an adequate knowledge of “our history and founding ideals” to the next generation. As a result, the Bradley study concluded, “America’s memory appears to be slipping away.” It seems no accident that Americans under thirty—the demographic most steeped in multiculturalism from grade school to graduate school—adhere less strongly as a group to the tenets of American Exceptionalism than do any other segments of the population. For conservatives of a patriotic/nationalist inclination, it is a disconcerting development indeed.

Today’s populist revolts:

In its simplest terms, populism—defined as the revolt of ordinary people against overbearing and self-serving elites—has long existed in American politics. …

Leftwing populism has traditionally aimed its fire at Big Money—the private-sector elite entrenched on Wall Street.

Rightwing populism of the Reaganite variety has focused its wrath on Big Government—the public-sector elite ensconced in Washington (and its votaries in Academe). …

[A] powerful conviction has arisen among virtually all conservatives that public policy in the United States has in some profound sense gone off the rails since the Great Recession of 2008. Rightly or wrongly, conservatives of all persuasions increasingly believe that ours has become a government not of and by the people but only for the people: government by edict from above. …

If the polls in 2010 were accurate, the Affordable Care Act was passed in willful defiance of the majority sentiment of the American people [only 39% supported it]. To understand the fury and ferment on the Right since Obama took office, historians must take into account this sobering fact. …

The populist-conservative revolt of 2009–10 quickly morphed into a bitter struggle, not only against the perceived external threat from the Left, but also against a perceived internal threat from the conservative movement’s imperfect vehicle, the Republican Party. Despite massive Republican victories in the Congressional elections of 2010 and 2014, many Tea Party populists felt frustrated and betrayed by what they saw as the inability and, even worse, the unwillingness, of elected Republican officials in Washington to fight effectively for the conservative agenda. Many at the grassroots — encouraged by populist sympathizers on talk radio — began to suspect that some of their elected leaders were not merely craven or inept but essentially on the other side, particularly on the question of dealing with illegal immigration. The mounting anger of “grassroots” conservatives — often derided by their critics as rubes and nativists — became part of the tinder for the firestorm that was about to occur. …

Early in 2016 a national polling organization asked Americans the following question: “The Declaration of Independence says that governments receive their authority from the consent of the people. Does the federal government today have the consent of the people?” An astonishing 70 percent of the respondents said no. …


What I did not foresee before the summer of 2015 was the volcanic eruption of a new and even angrier brand of populism, a hybrid that we now call Trumpism. …

Ideologically, Trumpism bears a striking resemblance to the anti-interventionist, anti-globalist, immigration-restrictionist, and “America First” worldview propounded by various paleoconservatives during the 1990s and ever since. It is no accident that Buchanan, for example, is thrilled by Trump’s candidacy.

But instead of focusing its anger exclusively on leftwing elites, as conservative populism in its Reaganite variant has done, the Trumpist brand of populism is simultaneously assailing rightwing elites …

The natives are restless:

I believe we are witnessing in an inchoate form a phenomenon never before seen in this country: an ideologically muddled, “nationalist–populist” major party combining both leftwing and rightwing elements.

In its fundamental outlook and public policy concerns it seems akin to the National Front in France, the United Kingdom Independence Party in Great Britain, the Alternative for Germany party, and similar protest movements in Europe.

Most of these insurgent parties are conventionally labeled rightwing, but some of them are noticeably statist and welfare–statist in their economics — as is Trumpism in certain respects. Nearly all of them are responding to persistent economic stagnation, massively disruptive global migration patterns, and terrorist fanatics with global designs and lethal capabilities. In pro-Brexit Britain and continental Europe as well as America, the natives are restless — and for much the same reasons.

Trumpism and its European analogues are also being driven by something else: a deepening conviction that the governing elites have neither the competence nor the will to make things better. When Donald Trump burst onto the political scene in 2015, many observers noticed that one source of his instant appeal was his brash transgression of the boundaries of acceptable political discourse.

Oh just say it. Trump and the new populists are willing to challenge political correctness, where as the “right wing” establishment parties are at least partly co-opted by the politically correct. The politically correct dominance of the machinery of government and opinion making has spread to financial dominance, which has created a very large class of the robbed:

The rise of Trumpism in the past year has laid bare a potentially dangerous chasm in American politics: not so much between the traditional Left and Right but rather (as someone has put it) between those above and those below on the socio-economic scale. In Donald Trump many of those “below” have found a voice for their despair and outrage at what they consider to be the cluelessness and condescension of their “betters.” …

[T]he spectacular efflorescence of talk radio, cable news networks, the internet, smart phones, and social media have radically enhanced “the power in the people” and diminished the ability of elites to control and manipulate public opinion. In 2015 and 2016 the success of Donald Trump owed much to his masterful exploitation of these relatively new media …

As globalization accelerates — in cyberspace and elsewhere — it has become plain that the United States is experiencing a potentially profound political and cultural realignment, pitting (in the words of social scientists) “globalist” and “transnational progressive” elites against those who style themselves “nationalists” and “populists.”

The left has encouraged tribalism and divisiveness along every fault line it can find to reduce the power of white males, and has fostered immigration. Now tribalism threatens to overshadow everything:

Trumpist populism is defiantly challenging the fundamental tenets and perspectives of every component of the post–1945 conservative coalition described in this essay. In its perspective on free trade, Trumpism deviates sharply from the limited-government, pro–free market philosophy of the libertarians and classical liberals. Despite some ritualistic support for the right to life and religious freedom, Trumpism has shown relatively little interest in the religious, moral, and cultural concerns of the traditionalist and social conservatives. In foreign policy it has harshly criticized the conservative internationalism grounded in the Cold War, as well as the post–Cold War “hard Wilsonianism” and distrust of Putinist Russia espoused by many national security hawks and neoconservatives.

What Trumpism has addressed, loudly and insistently, is the insecurity and disorientation that large numbers of conservatives now feel about conditions at home and abroad. Whether this will be enough to unite the coalition at the polls (and beyond) remains to be seen. …

To conservatives in the “Never Trump” movement who have vowed never to vote for him under any circumstances, Trump is an ignoramus and carnival barker at best, and a bullying protofascist at worst. To many on the other side of the Great Divide, it is not Trump but an allegedly corrupt and intransigent conservative establishment that is the threat, and they are attacking it savagely. The ideological tug of war has become personal, and arguments that turn personal are rarely easy to resolve.

Finally, the alt-right:

Joining the Trumpist effort to reconfigure the Republican Party on nationalist–populist lines is an array of aggressive dissenters called the “alternative right” or “alt-right,” many of whom openly espouse white nationalism and white identity politics and denounce their conservative opponents in the most vituperative terms. For many conservatives of the Buckley/Reagan persuasion who have prized their movement as an intellectual edifice built on ideas and enduring truths, the strident ethno-nationalism emanating from the “alt-right” represents a “return of the repressed” with which there can be no rapprochement.

Hard to see what happens next:

In these stormy circumstances, it would be foolish to prophesy the outcome. Suffice it to say that in all my years as a historian of conservatism I have never observed as much dissension on the Right as there is at present. It is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Read it all for a long discussion of post-war anti-leftist thought in the US by an expert.

Comments David Archibald:

Everyone needs their history told to them.  Children do better when their family history is told to them.

The wrath of the Trump populists is driven by the fact that the elected wing of the Republican Party has made no difference over the last six years despite controlling both houses.

Global warming used to be the litmus test of politicians — if they believed in it they were either evil or easily deluded fools. Most Republicans now know not to vote for global warming measures, whether from first principles or they are trying to avoid pain. The Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, failed straight up in an unforced error by advocating a carbon tax. He subsequently recanted but has shown himself to be an idiot.

There is another test of idiocy on Capitol Hill in Washington DC.  This is the Global Food Security Act 2016. This page lists how Congressmen voted. Of the Republicans, 201 voted for it.  33 were against.  Our future leaders are among the 33. This is the struggle ahead.  The 201 have to be defeated in 201 primary battles.

hat-tip David Archibald