July 23, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
The Folly of ‘National Conservatism’
Never-Trumpers are paving the way for a revival of liberalism.
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Some conservative intellectuals who self-identify as “Never-Trumpers” seem to be searching for a way of supporting the president in 2020 while avoiding any hint of ridicule and humiliation. Indeed, they appear to yearn to vote for the Republican because they can’t stand the idea of voting for a Democrat. So they are turning themselves into knots to rationalize voting for Donald Trump. It’s a sight to behold.
I’m not referring to the David Brooks and Max Boots of the world. I’m talking about an entrenched conservative intellectual apparatus that took root during the Reagan era and expanded rapidly after 1989 to dominate Washington and define allowable political discourse in the United States for the better part of the last four decades.
This cohort made their fortunes and reputations opposing pretty much any kind of state intervention in the economy and in the lives of ordinary Americans. Now they must contend with the fact that a Republican won by openly defying decades of anti-statist orthodoxy. Trump championed an activist government—remember his plan for $1 trillion in national infrastructure spending?—provided the beneficiaries are white.
They think they are solving a problem. But their problem has only begun.
Trump isn’t really a populist, as you well know, but that doesn’t matter to these people. What matters is power, and for now, many of them are on the outside looking in.
They have to come up with a new way of being relevant without looking like complete hypocrites. They can’t avoid that, rest assured, but they are trying mightily to fudge it. Hence last week’s three-day conference on “national conservatism,” whatever that is, hosting 500 conservative intellectuals. In attendance was Geoffrey Kabaservice. Quoted in the Times, the respected historian of American conservatism summed up their goals: “They are trying to find a way to retroactively justify their support of Trumpism under a broader conservative movement. But that’s a tricky assignment.”
It’s not that tricky. Conservative intellectuals have always been, in one way or another, in agreement with overt white supremacists. They just had the good sense of understanding the social liability of being openly racist in Washington, where such “impolitic gestures” might cost them a fellowship or coveted inches in the legitimate press. Moreover, conservatives have been at least OK, one way or another, with state intervention as long as the beneficiaries were the right ones. Conservative Democrats greenlit the New Deal’s expansion provided it excluded black people. Recently, Michigan attempted to exempt white residents from its Medicaid work requirements.
This remains true today.
During last week’s conference, Rich Lowry gave a preview of his new book, The Case for Nationalism. The National Review editor said the idea of America as an idea is “one of the most honored cliches,” and that such an idea actually “slights the absolutely indispensable influence of culture.” Those of us upholding the principle of American universalism, Lowry said, are forgetting that it comes from “a particular soil, a particular place and a particular way of thinking.” For this reason, immigrants can’t just come and do what they think is best for themselves and their new country. Lowry said we must insist “on the assimilation of immigrants into a common culture.”
First, “common culture” is nonsense. There is little that’s common in a big pluralist society such as ours. It’s uncertain that a “common culture” is necessary or even desirable. Second, “common culture” is narrowly defined here, so narrow it paves the way for mass exclusion. Trump wants that too. He just doesn’t trouble himself, as Lowry does, with a polite way of putting it. Third, Lowry appears to think that America can’t be universal and particular at the same time. He seems to think we must choose. We don’t have to choose. Indeed, liberals should always insist on both.
While conservative intellectuals are still trying to hide their racism, they are no longer hiding their support for an activist government. That’s a huge pivot, historically speaking, and a huge opportunity for liberals. For decades, liberals would not allow themselves to champion state intervention above and beyond defending the safety net or addressing national emergencies. But now liberals have a chance to not only revive their intellectual history—a history kept alive by African-American intellectuals—but put that history into action with real policies helping real Americans everywhere.
Conservative intellectuals think they are solving a problem. But their real problem has only begun. At some point, though not soon enough, a new liberal intellectual apparatus will take root in a post-Trump era to dominate Washington and define allowable political discourse in the United States for decades to come. May it be so.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.