This week we have seen two more contenders join the Republican primary field, promising to be happy warriors to save America. Tim Scott from South Carolina and Ron DeSantis of Florida bring the field to eight, as far as the candidates with any chance of getting on the debate stage. With the exception of Trump and Ramaswamy, the field is all doing some version of conservative nostalgia. That is a mix of the crucible, the covenant, and the creed.
That last bit comes from a short little book titled After Nationalism which describes the three main ways the American ruling class has unified the country. The crucible is the melting pot story of America. The covenant is the claim that America has a special purpose in the world. The creed is the old familiar civic nationalist argument that America is just a collection of ideas. Conservatism has relied on all three to market candidates and programs over the years.
The theme of the book is that those three unifying narratives are no longer working as the country devolves into warring tribes. You can see that in the presentation from the Republican candidates as they announce their campaigns. The Tim Scott show was like a 1990’s Conservative Inc. fantasy about the black vote. The DeSantis campaign teased his announcement with this ad on Twitter, which is Bush era patriotism without the promise of a crusade against Islam.
What the Republican primary is going to give us is another unhealthy dose of the old conservative formula. On the one hand, you are supposed to ignore the fact that you live around people who look nothing like you. On the other hand, you are supposed to focus on those nebulous ideals that allegedly define America. As long as everyone forgets about the long list of harms that have been inflicted on them over the last several decades, we can unite to save the country!
The one exception to all of this is Trump, who is a weird product of the two main forces colliding in the present moment. The one force is the old civic nationalism that held the white middle-class together and tightly bound it to both the Republican party and the political system itself. The other force is the radical changes unleashed by the ruling elites who no longer believe in the old civic nationalism. Trump and his fans exist in that incoherent vortex created by these colliding forces.
In fairness to Ron DeSantis, he seems to share the moral outrage of the average white person over the things we are seeing. His opposition to the sexualization of children is genuine, as well as his opposition to the tribal politics of the Left. Unlike the rest of the field opposing Trump, DeSantis is a normal person who is properly offended by the lunacy that has been unleashed on normal people. Like most normal people, he does not understand why this is happening.
The terms Left and Right have lost their meaning, but we still use them because we have nothing else at the moment. We can, however, see the vague outlines of a new scale developing when we look at the Republican field. Instead of the old 20th century poles of Hitler at one end and Stalin at the other, the new poles are the post-Marx culture warriors at one end and the biological realists at the other. The former is more fully developed, while the latter is still evolving.
Most of the Republican field is left of center. They largely agree with the moral claims of the culture warriors. They disagree, mildly, with their tactics. Tim Scott has no real objection to the antiwhite pogroms run by the military, for example, he just worries that they make it more difficult to wage pointless wars of choice. Nikki Haley is fine with the woke capital media campaigns, but her consultants tell her that she has to pretend to be upset about these things when she is interviewed.
DeSantis is one guy right of center on this stuff. He does not agree with the culture warriors, but he thinks the old system remains intact and that these weirdos are just random lunatics that have slipped their leash. He thinks the system can deal with these people without making any changes to the system. All we have to do is go back to our American principles. In other words, he is a guy who sees the iceberg, but he does not appreciate the part under the water.
On this scale, Trump lies just to the right of DeSantis. In fact, the main difference is style, owing to the difference in temperament. DeSantis responds to the current madness by pulling out the rule book. Trump responds to the current madness by throwing a chair out the window. It is not that either man is more or less offended by what is happening. They have different personalities and different worldviews, based on vastly different lives, so they react differently.
Even so, Trump is still in the camp that thinks the system can solve this crisis, if the right people are running the system. Viscerally he senses that this may not be true which helps explain his vacillation. Since Trump came on the scene, he has been hearing the distant calls of right-wing nationalism, but he lacks the understanding to make out what is being said. He is a man being pulled in multiple directions because he senses that something is terribly wrong with the system.
This conflict between the past and the present is why the Republicans are about to replay their 2016 primary. They have a more diverse field than in 2016 and Trump is not viewed as a novelty act. DeSantis is a better version of Ted Cruz, but he is occupying the same place as Cruz occupied in the 2016 race. Trump, of course, is an improved version of himself, having suffered the full force of the regime. He is not just a rambunctious rebuke, but a legitimate victim of the regime.
Even so, this replay of the 2016 election is due to the fact that the party and the country are stuck in the past. Everything about our present politics is backward looking, as if no one really wants to face up to the present. The 2016 election should have broken both parties free of the past, but instead it made them cling tighter. This election will be a reboot of the old franchise, not because the original was so good, but because no one can think of anything new that better fits the times.
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