The Culture War ended. We lost.
The primary lesson gleaned from the defeat, as well as from the Right’s white flags thrown up against the onslaught of big government, directs conservatives to pick fights with other conservatives rather than liberals. They’re easier to beat.
Jonah Goldberg this week called for the excommunication of the Alt-Right from the ranks of the respectable Right. National Review’s animating principle of “stand[ing] athwart history yelling Stop” sounds like a plaintive cry against contemporary conservatism when juxtaposed with Goldberg’s column. For better and worse, it’s not 1955. No longer the flagship publication of the American Right, National Review sees (or doesn’t) its influence wane as Breitbart, The Blaze, The Daily Caller, and other venues attract more eyes. A pope issuing excommunications without people filling his pews does not wield power. He advertises his powerlessness.
Like so many terms prefixing conservatism, “Alt-Right” proves a perplexing one to define. If it means the racialist eugenic crusade championed in Jared Taylor’s Paved with Good Intentions (“sterilization and forced abortion…. approach the problem in proper terms”), then excommunication comes across as a redundancy. If Alt-Right means the desire to roll back immigration and mock social justice warriors that Milo Yiannopoulos, an immigrant of sorts who boasts of his sexual conquests with (or by?) black men, champions, then Goldberg swims against the current.
Confused about the meaning of Alt-Right, I contacted the man who coined the term.
“I used the term ‘Alternative Right’ in a speech that I gave in November 2008 before about fifty people at the H.L. Mencken Club,” Dr. Paul Gottfried tells The American Spectator. “At the time I was hoping to see something similar to the Old Right come back in a modified form led by a younger generation. I was appealing to much younger people on the Right who I thought might be able to resist the neoconservative influence on the conservative movement. As I stated then, the neoconservatives were forever pushing the Right toward the Left.”
But rather than revive something old the term catalyzed something new. Ever the contrarian, Gottfried rejects the since truncated Alt-Right label for himself.
“I don’t take them all that seriously as a political or intellectual force. There’s a lot of childishness in what they do,” explains the author of The Conservative Movement, The Strange Death of Marxism, The Politics of Guilt, and weightier tomes on Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt. As a movement “genuinely pissed off at political correctness in all forms,” Gottfried signs on. But in espousing a “white nationalism” seeking to transform America into “a pure Euro-American country,” the Alt-Right finds Gottfried parting company. “They don’t seem to be able to control their own excesses,” Gottfried observes. “Any responsible conservative movement has to practice discretion. It’s the indiscretion that bothers me.”
Ultimately, the Alt-Right plays as a rather marginal force in American political life with the term used more as a pejorative than a self-affixed label. After Hillary Clinton employed it as a brickbat to beat Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee conceded an unfamiliarity with the term.
Other internecine squabbles occur during the heat of election season when unity normally prevails.
David French blames Fox News for “killing the conservative movement,” noting that the network’s 20-year lifespan corresponds with just one electoral majority for Republican presidential nominees and the conservative “cocoon” fostered by the station in which folks on the Right talk amongst themselves.
Many of the leading foreign policy lights of past Republican administrations prefer the Democrat this go around. Former George W. Bush Administration Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz expressed “a little bit of hope for Hillary” in an interview with Politico published this week. Seemingly oblivious that the policies he championed helped bolster the Trump phenomenon, and almost unaware that he served as an architect for the interventionism that led to disastrous unintended consequences in Iraq, he armchair quarterbacked: “If things had been done the way I would have liked them done, they would have been done very differently.”
Talk show hosts Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck bicker, as many do, over Donald Trump. Hannity sentences Beck and other NeverTrumpers to “own” Hillary Clinton’s judges, immigration policy, and solidification of Obamacare should Trump lose. Beck humbly responds, “I wish this show [had] the power to elect a president.”
Beck seems aware of something the others discontented with the current state of conservatism grasp emotionally but not yet intellectually. They no longer move the masses. The brat fits frequently thrown by opinion molders this election season seem a subconscious response less to Trump than the reality that they no longer mold the opinions of conservatives. It’s the response of a host frustrated that when he speaks the rude party guests no longer listen.
Postmortems and purges generally follow the defeat of a presidential campaign. We don’t know whether Trump, certainly a live underdog at this point, loses. We do know that the premature postmortemists and purge callers lost sway. Even (especially?) if Trump wins, they lose. So, the recriminations that normally follow defeat arrive before the election because defeat arrived for them at the Republican National Convention.
The splintering of the Right into the altrightneoconspaleoconsreformiconslibertariansreligiousrightcompassionateconservatives etc. comes in large part because the principles that once brought conservatives together no longer do. The Cold War ended long ago. We witness culture warriors reduced to pleadings for Constitutionalist judges rather than any substantive argument against the advance of the Left on social issues. Shrinking the size of the federal leviathan animated neither Mitt Romney’s campaign nor Donald Trump’s. If anything now even approaches as a unifying force, opposition to the Left does. This reactionary stance strikes as dangerous in allowing adversaries to pick positions. More so than the Left, the Right derives its opinions from the New York Times. We love who and what they hate.
“Of all the illusions Trump has dispelled,” Samuel Goldman writes at the American Conservative, “none is more significant than the illusion of the conservative movement. Rather than being the dominant force in the Republican Party, conservatives, Trump revealed, are just another pressure group. And not an especially large one. In state after state, voters indicated that they did not care much about conservative orthodoxy on the economy, foreign policy, or what used to be called family values.”
The label remains even after the issues change. Restricting immigration rather than the growth of the state, and restraining the federal government from remaking other governments abroad instead of seeing Uncle Sam as the great armed emancipator, seem as two ways that Trump won conservatives by bucking movement conservatives. The conservative movement largely failed as kingmaker in 2016 because the king they genuflected before in 2000 and 2004 so besmirched their philosophy. Voters decided that winning required a clean break rather than another try at the rebranding attempted in 2008 and 2012.
Whether this reorientation works, only November knows. All Republican voters know before Labor Day is that it can’t work worse than in 2012 or 2008.