June 19, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Trump Inches Toward Political Violence
Another reason to reassess the meaning of "conservatism."
The president came close to inciting violence today. Regarding his upcoming rally in Tulsa, Donald Trump tweeted that “any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma, please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!”
This is evidence, I would argue, of the president being the nominal head of a loose network of vigilantes inside and outside law enforcement prepared to use violence when normal democratic politics fails to yield the right results. This is an expression of confederate (i.e., fascist) elements always already at work in this country ready to burn down the status quo if the status quo gets in the way. This is a reality that isn’t even conceivable when we continue calling rightwing illiberalism by its wrong name.
The wrong name is “conservative.”
Rightwing illiberals use violence. True conservatives don't.
My friend Seth Cotlar teaches American political history at Oregon’s Willamette University. He asked recently if it might be better to rethink conservatism, especially what we are told it means. He located his question in the 1964 presidential election, which is generally considered the starting point of so-called movement conservatism in which Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory arose from the ashes of Barry Goldwater’s defeat. (Reagan launched the “conservative” regime that we are living in today.)
“What if we think of 1964 as the moment when the Republican Party committed to being a party of the illiberal far right,” Seth said, “and then it took 20 or 30 years for them to push out the remaining (classical) liberal conservatives in their coalition?” Seth then turned to the Democrats. 1968 is generally considered the year in which the ruling coalition the Democrats had enjoyed since the 1930s fell apart in the wake of the civil rights movement, specifically the white backlash to it, and the Vietnam War.
Seth asked if we should “think of the post-1968 Democrats (and their moderate GOP allies) as the true conservatives, as the folks devoted primarily to conserving the democratic and egalitarian elements of the New Deal order that the illiberal elements in the GOP sought to destroy?” Seth then asked us to “conceptualize ‘the American left’ as the portions of the Democratic party that sought not just to preserve the New Deal order, but expand upon it,” and that it was the American left that had “to battle the illiberals in the GOP as well as the conservatives” in both parties (my italics).
Hit the tip jar!
After this, Seth said, we might have different view of “conservatism.” He said: “I think it’s done much damage to our political culture that we’ve used the term ‘conservative’ to refer to a radical movement that sought to dismantle huge swaths of the American state and fight against social movements for equality and democracy.” Additionally, we have a different view of “liberal” and “leftist.” Amid the current “conservative” political regime that started with Reagan, the liberals have been conservative while the leftists have been pushing the franchise’s boundaries to include people who had not been included previously, for instance, transgender people. As the left keeps trying to open the door wider, rightwing illiberals keep trying to push it shut. Liberals and leftists believe everyone is American no matter who they are. The “conservatives,” however, define “American” according to a set of ancient hatreds and bigotries.
The conventional wisdom is that conservatives don’t like change but will go along if and when a majority of the people believe it’s time. According to this widely accepted definition of conservatism, conservatives will yield in time to popular sovereignty. But, as Seth hinted, “conservatives” since 1964 haven’t done that. Liberals and leftists have used the tools of democracy—free speech, grassroots organizing, legal advocacy, and science, to name just a few—to include more people. The “conservatives,” meanwhile, increasingly find themselves losing ground. Instead of adapting, as true conservatives like George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller did in the 1960s and 1970s, rightwing illiberals have increasingly found ways to sabotage the tools of democracy themselves. The next step, as the president intimated today, is an embrace of political violence.
True conservatives do not give up on democracy. Rightwing illiberals must. We need to understand the difference.
Many people think the Republicans turned their backs on democracy when Senate Republicans nullified Barack Obama’s right to name a new Supreme Court justice. But I think there’s another moment that gets little attention, because it’s about mass death and gun violence, not democratic norms. That moment was the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in which 20 six-year-old children were shot to pieces. That was when true conservatives in the Republican Party, seeking to preserve life and liberty—the very essence of that which must be conserved—would have acted. They did no such thing.
Sandy Hook proved there are no conservatives left in national politics. Indeed, the GOP went the other way. While Republicans at the Capitol held the line on “gun rights,” Republicans at the state level loosened or abolished gun laws, allowing them in cafes, churches, libraries, playgrounds and other areas where guns do not belong. The energy that pushed guns deeper and deeper into public affairs is the same energy now threatening state lawmakers acting in interest of public health and ordinary citizens exercising their constitutional right to protest a fascist president in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
True conservatives do not give up on democracy. Rightwing illiberals do. They must. I don’t think it’s possible to understand our current politics if we don’t understand that.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.