Over the weekend, something that kept popping into my mind was that the paleocons have never spent much time thinking about what they did wrong during their long struggle with the neoconservatives. They spend a lot of time rehashing old fights and discussing the things they fought, like the Civil Rights Act or the Reagan amnesty, but they always seem to stop at the water’s edge when analyzing these things. It’s almost as if they agree with the Left that these policies were inevitable, due to the tides of history.
Part of it, of course, is the losing side never wants to spend a lot of time dwelling on their own failures. Even the humbling experience of being hurled into the void is not enough to overcome ego. We see that on our side of the great divide, where some alt-right figures simply cannot come to terms with the fact that they screw up a lot. This reality does not prevent others from being objective about these things. History may be written by the winners, but the great lessons are almost always on the losing side.
One lesson that was more obvious in the past, than in recent days, is that the paleocons always assumed the other side would be bound by an agreed upon set of rules. They were plenty suspicious of Progressives, but they could never bring themselves to think of them as outside the set of rules that decent people applied to themselves. You see this in their willingness to participate in politics by the rules established by the Left. Read old paleo-conservative writing and they never question the basics rules of the game.
The one exception is Sam Francis. In Beautiful Losers he wrote about the difference between what he called the Old Right and the New Right. For him, the former was the conservatism of the 19th century, which was legalistic and theoretical. The latter was the Buckley style conservatism he saw flourish in the Reagan years. This was a conservatism willing to engage in the nuts and bolts of politics. He predicted that their embrace of the liberal rules would eventually lead them to embrace liberal ends.
He was right about the Buckley crowd, but the paleos escaped that fate, only to be hurled into the outer darkness, spending their time either trying to maintain their orbit around the Progressive sun or lamenting their fate. The paleos were not good at building alternative institutions and as a result they were always living like outlaws in a kingdom run by the Left, with so-called allies willing to act as sheriff. It is an inescapable fact that the people hurling paleocons into the void were always their friends on the Right.
That’s one of the more obvious truths about the past failures, but another less obvious mistake remains unexamined. Some time ago I was sent a link to this post by Thomas Fleming, about how to begin the fight again with the Left. It is a well-written post by a great writer, so it is worth reading simply on aesthetic grounds. It has one flaw, however, and that is it repeats the same mistake paleos and others always seem to make when plotting an alternative to the prevailing orthodoxy. That is, the obsession with principles.
A point I have become fond of making, particularly at secret handshake societies, is that principles are the things winners create after they win, to justify their winning. Winners always create an origin story for themselves that suggests their dominance is the product of the moral order. The fetishization of Lincoln, for example, happened after the winners at Gettysburg were firmly in control of the conquered. The spasmodic hooting about unity we hear from the modern Left, is an aspiration they rejected when they were the rebels.
A mistake paleos and others often make is to assume that having a goal requires a well reasoned set of principles, by which they mean morals. Some goals contain within them all the justification they need., For example, Jews want their promised land to be an explicitly Jewish country. Similarly, White Nationalists want a land of their own that is the exclusive domain of whites. In both cases, the goal is the principle and the principle requires no further explanation. To do otherwise suggests the goal is negotiable.
Similarly, paleos were prone to negotiating with themselves. The endless debating over principles is really just an excuse for not moving forward. It may not be intentional, but that is the result. When the conqueror sets out to sack a city, the one thing he never does is wait until he has a detailed administrative plan for managing the city after the siege. The winners of life never lose sight of this truth. Principles are the things you create after the victory to lock in your gains and give the people a reason to celebrate your dominance.
Another thing that all forms of conservatism in the democratic era have struggled to understand is the role of the pseudo-intellectual trimmer. These are the sorts of people who attach themselves to right-wing movements, and immediately begin working to turn them into useful losers. A good recent example of this is Ross Douthat, who thinks the goal of his tribe is to infiltrate populist movements and then purge them of anything useful, turning them into a uniform that poseurs like himself can wear in the morality play.
This is exactly what happened with the Tea Party. What started out as an authentic white middle-class revolt was quickly hijacked by charlatans. In fact, the grifters arrived so quickly it looked like the Normandy invasion. These types of people operate in the same way English pirates operated in the age of sail. That is, the people in charge give them a free pass, as long as they meddle in the affairs of dissidents. The Right has never figured out how to defend itself from this attack or even tried to understand it.
Finally, the thing that got many paleos in trouble is they could never figure out how to keep the lunatics out of their thing. I’m talking about the people who cannot control themselves and say nutty things in public. The Buckelyites just purged anyone they saw as bad for their racket. In fact, it is what defines them. Paleos hated this about the Buckleyites and the neocons, but they never found an alternative. As a result, they were often put in the position of defending people who maybe should have been reprimanded instead.
The alt-right is a good recent example of this. What started as an edgy internet movement was plagued by old school nutters from the white nationalist subculture, as well as by loons who simply lack self-control. As a result, they became defined by guys like Chris Cantwell, instead of people like Mike Enoch. An outsider movement can only be successful if it offers a respectable face to the skeptical public. Policing the ranks for lunatics and subversives is a requirement, but one past movements never mastered.