One of the sad truths about the Trump era is that the Republican Party will return to being the Bush party as soon as Trump leaves office. The 2020 election could be a blowout, giving Trump a mandate to push through all sorts of populist projects, as well as giving the GOP a huge majority. Trumpism could become the default position of the base, but the party will immediately begin selling itself as a the kinder, gentler Trumpism as soon as Trump is in the rear-view mirror.
It is one of the enduring features of post-war America. Pat Buchanan pointed it out way back in the 1980’s, when he observed that the people vote conservatives to Congress, only to see them go native in a few years. It is a remarkable transformation made more obvious in the communication age. You can just follow the person’s social media feed to see the transformation. They go from representing their people in Washington to Washington’s representative to those people.
The question that has vexed the genuine Right is why this seems to be a phenomenon of the Right and not the Left. There are no examples of left-wingers going to Washington and becoming moderates. That only happens when the Overton window shifts Left. Yesterdays’ hair on fire crazies suddenly sound like statesmen. Back in the 1980’s, when Schumer and Pelosi hit town, they were considered embarrassments to the party, but today they are what passes for normal.
This is not just an American phenomenon. The rest of the English-speaking world has the same issue. In Canada it is called Red Toryism, a sort of center-right conservatism that trails along behind their Left. In Britain, of course, it is just called Toryism. There it is the default position of the ruling class, which is always drifting further Left. The Aussies, of course, have an upside-down version of this with a funny name. Weak and timid conservatism is the default all over the English-speaking world.
It’s not just that it is timid or disorganized. As the Canadian political theorist Ben Woodfinden notes, it is a reaction to the collectivist impulses of the Left. The Left seeks to use the state to reorganize society according to their current fads, so the Right opposes the state as a legitimate entity. Not just the state, but institutions in general, instead promoting radical individualism. Conservatism comes to be defined as something just as radical as what’s on offer from the Left.
What English speaking countries need is a conservatism that will transform the state into something that will strengthen and support traditional institutions. Instead they get a force that weakens those institutions. The conservative revolution of the 1980’s in America, unleashed rapacious global privateering in the name of free enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit. Instead of restoring the damage done by the radicals of the 60’s and 70’s, it created new mayhem.
You see that forming up in Britain and America in response to the rise of archaic socialism, in the form of Sanders and Corbyn. Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic are now working themselves raw about this new red menace. Instead of examining why these collectivist appeals, including the rise of populism, are attractive to the voters, they lurch further into radical individualism. This is every bit as destructive to the culture as the radicalism it claims to oppose.
The culture war is one side using the state to destroy tradition, while the other side makes it impossible to form a collective defense of the culture. The reason for this is that, at least in the Americas, there has never been an authentic conservatism. America has always been a radical bourgeois project. After the Civil War, that radicalism became the default of the political class and remains so today. This reformist impulse is the distinguishing feature of the American empire.
That reformist impulse has its roots in the founding. On the one hand, those people we call Puritans were collectivists reformers. They believed society was judged collectively, which gave them license to police the community for sinners. Advancing society, social progress, meant bringing the bottom up in a spiritual sense. On the other hand, a man’s relationship with God was his alone. Self-sufficiency was a sign of God’s grace, an indication that the person was in good standing with the Lord.
Both sides of this coin are quite radical, relative to Western tradition. In fact, it is fair to say the Puritans were anti-tradition. They stripped their houses of worship of all ornamentation and any reminders of past practice. They saw tradition and ritual as an excuse for not exercising the spirit through the regular study of Scripture. The collective impulse of the founding, as well as its individualism, are the result of a rejection of European traditionalism on spiritual grounds.
This is why reform in America has been impossible. The periods of radicalism in the name of collective reform have been followed by periods where the institutions are weakened in the name of individualism. These weakened institutions become vulnerable to a new round of radical reform. This cycle has locked the ruling class into a dance that always moves Left. No matter the response of the public at the ballot box, the direction is always Left, just with a different lead.
Ironically, this means that the only way a genuine conservatism can emerge, and in the case of Britain, reemerge, is by overthrowing the current order. This Progressive orthodoxy of radical reformers entangled with radical individualist will need to collapse into a single unified ideology, while something new arises to oppose it. That something new is the defense of traditional order, organic institutions and the popular will expressed through natural identity.
That means the way forward is an intermediate step of right-wing radicalism that first seeks to discredit and delegitimize the prevailing orthodoxy. From the rubble can be built new institutions and ideologies that are salient to the demographics age. A genuine conservatism can be intellectually conceived, but the traditions that it should rest upon have been eliminated, so it will require a dismantling of current institutions and the building of new ones, loosely based on the traditions of the West.
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