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Conservatism’s Inevitable Decay Into Trumpism... And Fascism

David Brooks Now Considers Himself A Manchin-Sinema Democrat

Let's begin with a warning from the very worst of the worst. The Texas crackpot who introduced Florida crackpot (and sex deviant) Matt Gaetz in the video above was Louie Gohmert, currently in his last term in Congress. The troll next to Gaetz, smiling like a chimp, is Georgia's QAnon congresswoman Marjorie Traitor Greene. Psychotic dentist and insurrectionist Paul Gosar is off camera. Gaetz's motive was--and always is-- to smear and delegitimize the FBI, which is investigating his underage sex trafficking.

"It's been 47 days," he whined on behalf of school board disrupters and the violent insurrectionists who were arrested for sacking the Capitol, "since Attorney General Garland came to the House Judiciary Committee and misled our committee regarding the targeting of parents as domestic terrorists for attending school board meetings and having their voice heard. Because who's next? Is it going to be the parents who find themselves in the conditions that we see from the January 6 detainees, the January 6 detainees who are denied basic access to medical care and constitutional rights today. But tomorrow it could be the school board parents. The day after that, the rest of us, all of you [especially the sex traffickers]."

"It is now 174 days," he continued, just getting warmed up, "since my colleagues and I sent a letter to FBI Director Wray asking basic questions about the FBI's involvement in January 6. Americans should not be languishing in hideous, unconstitutional conditions waiting for basic answers like this, waiting for basic answers regarding evidence, waiting for access to counsel. This report [written by Traitor Greene] must be a guide post for ongoing Republican oversight effort in the Congress. Because we are going to take power after this next election. And hen we do, it's not going to be the days of Paul Ryan, and Trey Gowdy, and no real oversight, and no real subpoenas. It's going to be the days of Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Dr. Gosar and myself, doing everything to get the answers to these questions."

David Brooks hadn't seen this decitful, self-serving little display when he wrote Conservatism: An Elegy for the anti-fascism new issue of The Atlantic. Brooks, who considered himself a teenaged socialist, fell in love, he wrote, with conservatism in his 20s. It wasn't the ideology of Mussolini, Franco and Adolf; it was the old style Edmund Burke conservatism of Paul Ryan and Trey Gowdy that Gaetz, Gosar, Traitor Greene and Gohmert are all so dismissive of. In conservatism he says he found "not a mere alternative policy agenda, but a deeper and more resonant account of human nature, a more comprehensive understanding of wisdom, an inspiring description of the highest ethical life and the nurturing community." He's never recovered. But... he's frantic about what's happened [inevitably] to his lover. "What passes for 'conservatism' now, however, is nearly the opposite of the Burkean conservatism I encountered then. Today, what passes for the worldview of 'the right' is a set of resentful animosities, a partisan attachment to Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson, a sort of mental brutalism. The rich philosophical perspective that dazzled me then has been reduced to Fox News and voter suppression."

Brooks bemoans "what conservatism has devolved into... [and] that to be a conservative today, you have to oppose much of what the Republican Party has come to stand for." He wrote that "American conservatism has always been in tension with itself. In its prime-- the half century from 1964 to 2012-- it was divided among libertarians, religious conservatives, small-town agrarians, urban neoconservatives, foreign-policy hawks, and so on. And for a time, this fractiousness seemed to work. American conservatives were united, during this era, by their opposition to communism and socialism, to state planning and amoral technocracy. In those days I assumed that this vibrant, forward-looking conservatism was the future, and that the Enoch Powells of the world were the receding roar of a sick reaction. I was wrong. And I confess that I’ve come to wonder if the tension between 'America' and 'conservatism' is just too great. Maybe it’s impossible to hold together a movement that is both backward-looking and forward-looking, both in love with stability and addicted to change, both go-go materialist and morally rooted. Maybe the postwar American conservatism we all knew-- a collection of intellectuals, activists, politicians, journalists, and others aligned with the Republican Party-- was just a parenthesis in history, a parenthesis that is now closing."

Trump is the near-opposite of the Burkean conservatism I’ve described here. How did a movement built on sympathy and wisdom lead to a man who possesses neither? How did a movement that put such importance on the moral formation of the individual end up elevating an unashamed moral degenerate? How did a movement built on an image of society as a complex organism give rise to the simplistic dichotomies of manipulative populism? How did a movement based on respect for the wisdom of the past end up with Trump’s authoritarian campaign boast “I alone can fix it,” perhaps the least conservative sentence it is possible to utter?
The reasons conservatism devolved into Trumpism are many. First, race. Conservatism makes sense only when it is trying to preserve social conditions that are basically healthy. America’s racial arrangements are fundamentally unjust. To be conservative on racial matters is a moral crime. American conservatives never wrapped their mind around this. My beloved mentor, William F. Buckley Jr., made an ass of himself in his 1965 Cambridge debate against James Baldwin. By the time I worked at National Review, 20 years later, explicit racism was not evident in the office, but racial issues were generally overlooked and the GOP’s flirtation with racist dog whistles was casually tolerated. When you ignore a cancer, it tends to metastasize.
Second, economics. Conservatism is essentially an explanation of how communities produce wisdom and virtue. During the late 20th century, both the left and the right valorized the liberated individual over the enmeshed community. On the right, that meant less Edmund Burke, more Milton Friedman. The right’s focus shifted from wisdom and ethics to self-interest and economic growth. As George F. Will noted in 1984, an imbalance emerged between the “political order’s meticulous concern for material well-being and its fastidious withdrawal from concern for the inner lives and moral character of citizens.” The purpose of the right became maximum individual freedom, and especially economic freedom, without much of a view of what that freedom was for, nor much concern for what held societies together.
But perhaps the biggest reason for conservatism’s decay into Trumpism was spiritual. The British and American strains of conservatism were built on a foundation of national confidence. If Britain was a tiny island nation that once bestrode the world, “nothing in all history had ever succeeded like America, and every American knew it,” as the historian Henry Steele Commager put it in 1950. For centuries, American and British conservatives were grateful to have inherited such glorious legacies, knew that there were sacred things to be preserved in each national tradition, and understood that social change had to unfold within the existing guardrails of what already was.
By 2016, that confidence was in tatters. Communities were falling apart, families were breaking up, America was fragmenting. Whole regions had been left behind, and many elite institutions had shifted sharply left and driven conservatives from their ranks. Social media had instigated a brutal war of all against all, social trust was cratering, and the leadership class was growing more isolated, imperious, and condescending. “Morning in America” had given way to “American carnage” and a sense of perpetual threat.
I wish I could say that what Trump represents has nothing to do with conservatism, rightly understood. But as we saw with Enoch Powell, a pessimistic shadow conservatism has always lurked in the darkness, haunting the more optimistic, confident one. The message this shadow conservatism conveys is the one that Trump successfully embraced in 2016: Evil outsiders are coming to get us. But in at least one way, Trumpism is truly anti-conservative. Both Burkean conservatism and Lockean liberalism were trying to find ways to gentle the human condition, to help society settle differences without resort to authoritarianism and violence. Trumpism is pre-Enlightenment. Trumpian authoritarianism doesn’t renounce holy war; it embraces holy war, assumes it is permanent, in fact seeks to make it so. In the Trumpian world, disputes are settled by raw power and intimidation. The Trumpian epistemology is to be anti-epistemology, to call into question the whole idea of truth, to utter whatever lie will help you get attention and power. Trumpism looks at the tender sentiments of sympathy as weakness. Might makes right.
On the right, especially among the young, the populist and nationalist forces are rising. All of life is seen as an incessant class struggle between oligarchic elites and the common volk. History is a culture-war death match. Today’s mass-market, pre-Enlightenment authoritarianism is not grateful for the inherited order but sees menace pervading it: You’ve been cheated. The system is rigged against you. Good people are dupes. Conspiracists are trying to screw you. Expertise is bogus. Doom is just around the corner. I alone can save us.
What's a Burkean conservative to do? A lot of my friends are trying to reclaim the GOP and make it a conservative party once again. I cheer them on. America needs two responsible parties. But I am skeptical that the GOP is going to be home to the kind of conservatism I admire anytime soon.
Trumpian Republicanism plunders, degrades, and erodes institutions for the sake of personal aggrandizement. The Trumpian cause is held together by hatred of the Other. Because Trumpians live in a state of perpetual war, they need to continually invent existential foes-- critical race theory, nongendered bathrooms, out-of-control immigration. They need to treat half the country, metropolitan America, as a moral cancer, and view the cultural and demographic changes of the past 50 years as an alien invasion. Yet pluralism is one of America’s oldest traditions; to conserve America, you have to love pluralism. As long as the warrior ethos dominates the GOP, brutality will be admired over benevolence, propaganda over discourse, confrontation over conservatism, dehumanization over dignity. A movement that has more affection for Viktor Orbán’s Hungary than for New York’s Central Park is neither conservative nor American. This is barren ground for anyone trying to plant Burkean seedlings.
I’m content, as my hero Isaiah Berlin put it, to plant myself instead on the rightward edge of the leftward tendency-- in the more promising soil of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. If its progressive wing sometimes seems to have learned nothing from the failures of government and to promote cultural stances that divide Americans, at least the party as a whole knows what year it is. In 1980, the core problem of the age was statism, in the form of communism abroad and sclerotic, dynamism-sapping bureaucracies at home. In 2021, the core threat is social decay. The danger we should be most concerned with lies in family and community breakdown, which leaves teenagers adrift and depressed, adults addicted and isolated. It lies in poisonous levels of social distrust, in deepening economic and persisting racial disparities that undermine the very goodness of America-- in political tribalism that makes government impossible.
There is nothing intrinsically anti-government in Burkean conservatism. “It is perhaps marvelous that people who preach disdain for government can consider themselves the intellectual descendants of Burke, the author of a celebration of the state,” George F. Will once wrote. To reduce the economic chasm that separates class from class, to ease the financial anxiety that renders life unstable for many people, to support parenting so that children can grow up with more stability-- these are the goals of a party committed to ameliorating, not exploiting, a growing sense of hopelessness and alienation, of vanishing opportunity. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s brilliant dictum-- which builds on a Burkean wisdom forged in a world of animosity and corrosive flux-- has never been more worth heeding than it is now: The central conservative truth is that culture matters most; the central liberal truth is that politics can change culture.

Summary: your parents' conservative Republicans are moving in to take over the way-too-big tent Democratic Party which has also devolved-- into a party dominated by worthless conservative garbage like Manchin and Sinema in the Senate and Henry Cuellar, Josh Gottheimer, Ed Case, Lou Correa, Jared Golden, Jim Costa, Stephanie Murphy, Scott Peters and Abigail Spanberger in the House. Just right for the intellectually stunted David Brookses of the country. And a little warning: the fascists that Brooks was warning about plan to re-write the Constitution courtesy of ALEC, when they take over, enshrining their brand of conservatism as the governing party in perpetuity.

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