As the Trump story arc reaches a conclusion over the next few weeks, there will be a lot of writing and talking about the meaning of the last four years. The racketeers of the conservative movement have already concluded that the last four years were just an anomaly and they can go back to the same old rackets. Like career criminals, they learn nothing from the past. Others appear to have been chastened by the experience and are coming out of the other end questioning their old ways.
One of those post-Trump men appears to be the editor of First Things, the conservative religious journal founded by Richard John Neuhaus. The editor, R. R. Reno, published this in the old left-wing magazine Newsweek, in which he sounds more like Pat Buchanan than the typical conservative. In fact, his essay probably would have been accepted by the old paleoconservative journal, Chronicles, as an olive branch to mend the three-decade rift between First Things and the paleos.
What makes Reno’s post interesting is that he was a fervent anti-Trump advocate the last four years. He participated in the now infamous National Review symposium, in which they demanded the rules of the Republican Party be changed to prevent Trump from winning the nomination. His contribution was to offer up the left-wing slur that Trump was a fascist in a business suit and that the people supporting him were stupid and disgusting. They were “trumpster diving.”
There seems to be a great deal of spiritual distance between the 2016 R. R. Reno and the 2020 R. R. Reno, at least in tone, if not substance. In fairness to Reno, he has not been a running dog lackey of Conservative Inc. He has been more of a barking dog around the conservative caravan, as it follows the Left from fad to fad. Often a critic, but never an opponent and always there by the caravan at each stop. He is a critic of conservatism, but one welcome at their events.
This is not a new posture by Reno. During the 2016 Republican primary he made some very sensible observations about Trump and the dynamic in the primary. While most of the conservative racketeers were in the streets rending their garments to show their liberal masters, they were horrified by what was happening, Reno noticed the obvious and was willing to say it. That said, he made sure to underscore that he thought Trump was a “dangerous figure in our public life.”
This is not the first time the First Things crew has struggled to maintain their position as friendly critic of conservatism. Back in 1992, they found themselves in a similar spot when Bill Buckley was purging the paleocons. Most of what First Things claims to support fall on the paleo side, but the money and good living were on the neocon side, so they threw in with Buckley. As George Washington once said, no man is so virtuous as to refuse the highest bidder.
Now, to be even more fair, Reno and the First Things crew could simply be working the same racket they have for years. On the one hand they advocate traditional conservative positions on culture, economics, politics and so on, while publicly opposing anyone that attempts to build a political movement on those issues. They supported the Buchanan message, but not the messenger, for example. They sympathized with the Trump voters, but opposed their candidate.
We will know soon enough if the social conservatives from Conservative Inc. had an epiphany during the Trump years. The rally scheduled for January 6th in the Imperial Capital is both unprecedented and a harbinger. Unlike the Buchanan or Perot movements, the Trump movement will outlive its founder. The people who voted for Trump did so knowing that the time for reform is running out. Many now think it has run out and it is time for something to replace the corrupt system.
Where the establishment social conservatives like R. R. Reno come down with regards to things like the America First movement, led by Nick Fuentes, will reveal if they are just running the old grift or have had an awakening. CPAC is next month in Orlando Florida and AFPAC will be holding their event there at the same time. Last year AFPAC drew hundreds and this year will be even bigger. The people getting tens of thousands in the streets of DC are building a genuine movement now.
For social conservatives like Mr. Reno and the First Things crowd, Fuentes and his groypers should be their ideal vehicle. They can be a little coarse, for sure, but that’s true of all young people. Otherwise, they make a clean presentation and are not afraid to express their Christian faith as part of the politics. While the First Things people are at CPAC next month, they should consider swinging by AFPAC. Mr. Reno could sit down and have a chat with Fuentes. It can be arranged.
The question for social conservatives with regards to politics is what compromises should be made in order to participate in the system. This was the dilemma faced by Buckley and his conservative movement. In their case, there was no compromise they were unwilling to make in order to have a place at the table. For social conservatives to avoid the same fate, they will from time to time need to back someone who is willing to go inside and flip over those tables.
That should be the takeaway for someone like R. R. Reno. Trump was always an imperfect leader, but he was available and willing to go inside the Temple and toss over those tables. He was never a savior, just a disruption in the system. The people who voted for Trump understood this, for the most part. They knew if he busted things up, then it would open the door for the social changes long advocated by social conservatives and the writers of journals like First Things.
The great mistake of the American Right was to accept the proposition that the Left gets to pick their leaders. The Left told them to jettison Buchanan and the paleocons, so they did and got nothing for their trouble. One lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that this does not have to be the rule. Social conservatives can pick their own leaders and make their own tables. That should be the lesson to the leaders of social conservatism as they come to terms with Trump.
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