Debating the Once and Future Conservatism

From the Weekly Standard:

It is with mixed feelings that I report that New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait vastly prefers Max Boot’s book on conservatism to mine.

As it happens I also like Boot’s book (actually quite a bit), but I think Chait is fundamentally wrong in his view of conservatism.

For the last several years, Chait has been arguing that the rise of Donald Trump is proof that conservatism was always and everywhere thoroughly racist, morally bankrupt, and populated with hypocrites and authoritarians.

This is, ironically enough, the mirror image of the argument made by those on the right who also insist that we should regard Trumpism as a logical, consistent, and organic outgrowth of conservatism. That is, of course the view from the (Sean) Hannitized right, which insists that conservative opposition to Trump is a form of apostasy.

On the left, Chait is part of a chorus making what amounts to an equivalent case. “Donald Trump Was the Inevitable Result of Republicanism,” declared the headline of a predictable Charles P. Pierce piece in Esquire. Some progressive critics denounce even the most consistent Trump critics for being “complicit” in Trump’s rise, because conservatism itself created the conditions of his rise. ‘You built this,” is a nagging refrain on social media. “No absolution for the right.”

Merely opposing Trumpism is not sufficient; in this view, the price of redemption is sackcloth and ashes. Chait sees Boot’s new book, The Corrosion of Conservatism as a powerful affirmation of that position

But the truly radical act in The Corrosion of Conservatism is its clear-eyed excavation of the movement’s history. The right has spent decades regurgitating a potted version of their own history that is so selective and sanitized that it amounts to an upside-down version of reality. The conservative creation myth, which any right-wing pundit, intern, or congressional staffer could recite from memory, runs as follows: In the mid-1950s, conservatism lacked any form or intellectual coherence. Then William F. Buckley emerged to build conservatism as a serious movement of ideas. He purged the Birchers, instilled intellectual rigor in the movement, and while their first foray into elective politics, the Barry Goldwater campaign, failed, it set the stage for the triumphs of Ronald Reagan and his successors. 

This is where Chait draws the distinction between Boot’s book, which rejects the “creation myth,’ and mine, which takes it seriously. For Chait, such arguments are weak tea, because they are not full-throated denunciations of the last 70 years of conservative thought. 

Even many anti-Trump conservatives cling tightly to this mythical history. It is the foundation of a much weaker book of the same form by Charlie Sykes. A conservative talk-show host, Sykes turned against Trump, and spends his book grappling inconclusively about how the great movement of Buckley and Goldwater took a sharp and inexplicable turn into Trumpism.

Fair enough. In How the Right Lost Its Mind, I tried to address that question of whether Trump represents continuity or discontinuity in conservatism and readily conceded that the dysfunction on the right was a pre-existing condition and that conservatives need to ask themselves some hard questions. So I found Boot’s book to be a valuable and provocative dissection of the things we had glossed over, rationalized, or ignored. He has sparked a debate that we need to have: to what extent does Trump retrospectively discredit the modern conservative movement? (We had a lively discussion about this on the Daily Standard Podcast earlier this month.) 
But as much as I appreciated Boot’s case, I still don’t buy the argument that Trump—or his populism, nativism, xenophobia, and fascination with authoritarian strongmen—is the legitimate or logical successor to Buckley, Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan.

My disagreement with Chait about this is not new. Last year we engaged in (a quite civil) online discussion on this very topic. At one point, he attempted to equate William F. Buckley Jr. with Steve Bannon. After I mentioned Buckley’s excommunication of right wing nut jobs from the movement, Chait wrote: 

Chait: I think it’s significant because, to me, it reads very similar to the way figures like Bannon have treated the extreme right. Bannon is dismissive of outright Nazis but also wants to retain support from people who follow them. This is almost exactly how Buckley treated the John Birch Society. You could quote Bannon’s denunciations of the far right and say he “purged them,” but that would be inaccurate. 

Sykes: We disagree on this. I knew Buckley, he was a friend of mine, and Steve Bannon is no William F. Buckley. Buckley marginalized the kooks. Bannon empowered them. Unfortunately, as we found out, the kooks never really went away. And there is no one with Buckley’s clout to marginalize the new generation.

A few points need to be made about the attempt to equate Trumpism with traditional conservatism. The first is the most obvious: If Trump was the inevitable and predictable outcome of the conservative movement, why did none of those critics predict his coming?

They also need to explain why Trump is more an “authentic” expression of conservativism than previous GOP nominees, like George H.W. Bush, John McCain, or Mitt Romney?

Distinctions are important here; it is unhealthy and intellectually sloppy to gloss over the fundamental differences between the conservatism of a Milton Friedman and the nationalist protectionism of a Steve Bannon, just as it is intellectually dishonest to confuse the progressivism of Adlai Stevenson with Che Guevera. Ben Sasse does not represent the same tradition as, say, Steve King. Nuance matters.

It also seems important to make a distinction between conservatism as an idea and “conservatism” as a movement. Politics, of course, is not about bloodless abstractions; it is also about coalitions, personnel, elections, compromises, and strategic decisions. Even the noblest cause will attract its share of crackpots and grifters. But not even the most repellent actors discredit the ideas that animated the cause.

While it’s easy (and tempting) to define a political movement by its worst aspects, it bears noting that modern conservatism also gave rise to Charles Krauthammer, Peter Wehner, George Will, Bill Kristol, and Jeff Flake. In other words, it didn’t have to be this way, and it doesn’t have to continue in the future.

Obviously, Trump has deftly exploited many of the grievances and attitudes that have festered for decades on the right. But that’s not the whole story. Trump has more in common with populist demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan than with conservatives like Buckley or Ronald Reagan. Until the last election conservatives had the good taste, sound judgement and the wisdom to reject and even marginalize those uglier voices on the right.

In that sense, Trump is the exception, rather than the rule. Perhaps the best way to think about Trump’s populist nativism is to see it as a recessive gene in conservatism, but one that had been kept in check for generations. That also suggests another tradition exists, even if it is now in eclipse.

But the real danger in seeing Trump as the logical, organic product of conservatism is that it normalizeshim. Discounting the peculiarity of his rise ignores the uniqueness of the threat he poses and the urgency of the need to confront the damage being done to the body politic and our political culture. If he is merely another Republican, there is no emergency, no cause for more than the usual alarm, and there is nothing really out of the ordinary in his chronic deceit, fiscal recklessness, xenophobia, or truckling to thuggish authoritarians. 
On a practical level, the argument that all conservatives are complicit in his rise also seems to preclude the creation of a genuine Coalition of the Decent, members of the center right and center left who recognize their common values and goals and are trying to make common cause.

Chait’s attempt to retrospectively anathematize all conservatism not only distorts the past; it makes the way forward even murkier.