Something that was quite clear at the end of the Cold War was that the Republican Party, without the Soviets as an enemy, was just a collection of unrelated groups. What held the GOP together, was a general opposition to communism. It was, at the simplest form, the party of patriotism, the weak form of nationalism that used to be the core of the American creed. That patriotism was, in large part, kept alive by the Cold War. The Soviet menace was a daily reminder that we had to stick together to defend our liberty.
What kept the GOP together, to a much greater degree, is what gave coherence to the Buckley Right. The thing that fused the various tribes on the Right together was external to all of them. They feared Soviet communism. To traditionalists and social conservatives, the godless materialism of communism was monstrous. To the libertarian capitalists, it was communist central planning. To the internationalists and expansionists, Soviet domination was the great menace they feared.
Once the Cold War ended, it was no longer obvious as to why the Republicans or conservatives should hang together, other than habit. The GOP first tried to recast itself as technocratic reformers, promising to make government more efficient. That was the general thrust of Gingrich-style politics. It was just a green eye-shade version of what came from the Democratic Leadership Council. Instead of pitching themselves as “new democrats” they would pitch themselves as “new republicans.”
This had an appeal to certain parts of the Buckley coalition as well. The libertarian wing was loaded with technocrats eager to try their hand at social planning. The Jack Kemp wing was sure that some tinkering in the tax and regulatory code would bring an era of boundless prosperity. Second generation neocons were eager to apply this same logic to international affairs. The Freedom Agenda was, when you think about, urban planning applied to the Middle East in order to save Israel.
All of this technocratic obscurantism concealed a fundamental truth about American conservatism, at least as far as the Buckley version. It was never a movement based in a core philosophy. It was just a buffet of rhetoric and policy positions borrowed from movements rejected by the Left. For example, if the Left had retained its Christian roots and enforced that morality, Evangelicals would be on the Left. Most are indifferent to economics. Their interest in foreign policy begins and ends with Israel.
No doubt, Christian readers would take exception to this, because they have been conditioned to believe Christianity is a right-wing phenomenon. That’s a carryover from the Cold War where the Left was identified with godless materialism. In America, the Left has its roots in Christianity. The 19th century reformers were all explicitly Christian and working from Christian morality. Go back and read the writings of abolitionists and it is clear they saw their movement as a Christian movement.
Similarly, the neocons have no obvious fit on the Right. Their worldview is the philosophy of Athens, while paleo-conservationism is the philosophy of Sparta. Conquering the world in order to make it safe for democracy was always on the American Left. It is what motivated the Wilsonian reformers and the New Deal radicals. It is what led Kennedy and Johnson to commit to a land war in Asia. The neocons were always a liberal tribe looking for a political home, not a philosophical one.
This reality of the American Right, that it is just a collection of misfit toys, was made plain in the reaction to Tucker Carlson great speech. If what he said was truly at odds with the core philosophy of the Right, the response would have reflected that. Instead, it was a grab bag of policy complaints (examples: here, here, here and here) The carrying on about Carlson questioning the sanctity of global capitalism strongly suggests these people don’t know why they believe what they believe. They’re just repeating lines from a hymnal.
Of course, this is not a revelation. It was obvious for a long time, but, again, it was papered over by the technocratic obscurantism of the libertarian wing and the Jewish liberation theology of the neocons. The Mitt Romney campaign of 2012 was like watching a robot read the lines of a rule book. No one could think of a reason why Mitt Romney should be president or why his party even existed. His campaign was a collection of slogans recycled from old copies of National Review.
That’s the reality of Buckley conservatism. It was always just a catechism of convenience that gave disparate groups a set of rules so they could work in concert. Over time, it became a racket and repeating those lines correctly became the secret handshake of those working in Conservative Inc.. As an organizing philosophy, it offers nothing, because it promises to do nothing. It’s just a list of reasons why a group of strangers with nothing in common should vote for more of the same.