I never met Angelo Codevilla, and I never met Rush Limbaugh. I did meet Andrew Breitbart and spent more than hour with him in 2010, just a few months after launching a career as a blogger.
That makes me one for three in earning face time with the three great prophets of a 21st century conservative America.
Limbaugh’s contribution you surely already know. For more than 30 years he proved that conservatism is a popular, and populist, ideology by growing his audience up over 20 million people and by creating an entire industry out of talk radio. Even in markets dominated by Democrat politicians, Limbaugh was a broadcasting dynamo creating and energizing local stations which would pump out conservative messaging for many hours of every day. He spawned hundreds, even thousands, of other conservative broadcasters who have now broken loose from radio and into podcasting, though few to none can replicate his signature combination of political insight, ideological consistency, moral force, and brutally iconoclastic humor.
Breitbart’s contribution, over a much shorter time frame — a true tragedy if ever there was one — was no less significant. As Limbaugh showed that the Left couldn’t dominate the airwaves, Breitbart proved it also couldn’t dominate the internet. Breitbart filled the conservative movement with the courage to call out the pampered and perfumed princes of the legacy media for the frauds and nincompoops so many of them are, and over the relatively few years he was a national new media figure, he put them utterly to shame by exposing their refusal to act as the Fourth Estate American custom and constitutional law expects them to be.
Limbaugh and Breitbart were masters of conveying the message and relaying the truth. What Codevilla, who died at 78 Monday in California after being hit by a car, did as an even longer-standing luminary on the Right was to divine that truth and educate others.
You might notice that all three of the great figures noted above were self-made men. None were elevated by corporate or government elites. And none were beholden to anyone for their success. That matters, as this essay will hopefully make clear.
It’s a great pleasure to write for a publication which hosted so much of Codevilla’s insight over the years, and to have been influenced by his writings here and elsewhere for particularly the past decade is an honor a great many of us in conservative media are now challenged to capitalize on.
Perhaps the most influential of those writings, which appeared at TAS on July 16, 2010, was an essay entitled “America’s Ruling Class and the perils of revolution.” That work, delivered at the very height of the Tea Party movement in advance of the 2010 midterm elections which swept away Barack Obama’s governing majority in the House of Representatives, made such an impact on Limbaugh that he read the entire thing over the three hours of a show and unfailingly referred to it for months if not years later.
Indeed, any understanding of the modern Right, to include the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the way forward for the Republican Party — in fact, to understand the utter collapse of the GOP’s traditional leadership with the party’s own voters which has persisted and metastasized even today — must begin with that essay. Codevilla shortly published it as a booklet, for which Limbaugh wrote an introduction.
His formulation was an incandescently true one: America, particularly in the half-century since the social upheaval of the 1960s, has developed into an oligarchy, and there is a ruling class in the country which shares a number of characteristics in common. Those include an unfailing belief in a credentialed elite, a contempt for the lifestyle and values of the country at large, a globalist, anti-patriotic mindset, and the arrogance of power not just political, but financial and cultural. He contrasted that ruling class, which he indicted for its almost comic misperformance, with what he called “The Country Class,” the two-thirds of the American people who either didn’t go to college or, if they did, were not fully indoctrinated into the values and pieties of the faculty lounge, whose livelihoods don’t depend on government, and whose attitudes give primacy to meritocracy and productivity rather than the “fairness” required by the redistributive state.
Codevilla held that the ruling class and the country class are headed for an inevitable showdown. This was five years before Trump descended that escalator and became the embodiment of his thesis.
This is not to say that Codevilla was the ultimate Trumper. He was perfectly willing to criticize Trump harshly when the President deserved it. It is to say that Codevilla put into words what vast swaths of America felt, accurately contextualized it, and framed the battle.
From the perspective of someone who has filled this space in recent weeks with exhortations that the Right move beyond conservatism toward an embrace of what I’m calling Revivalism, the significance of “America’s Ruling Class” is that what created Trump as a political phenomenon was not Trump. MAGA, or Trumpism in the vernacular of the Left and its modern-day mugwump allies, has always been misconstrued as a personality cult. Trump’s genius was to make himself fit into the country class’s yearning for a champion. As Codevilla wrote on July 6 of this year…
In 2015 and 2016, candidate Trump’s disrespectful, disdainful attitude toward the ruling class put him at the head of presidential preference polls ab initio, and kept him there. Throughout the campaign, he said little of substance — just enough to give the impression that he was on the side of conservatives on just about everything. His leitmotif was “I despise those whom you despise because they despise you. I’m on your side, America’s side.”
Trump promised to “make America great again,” but did not explain what had made it great in the first place nor how to restore it. Never a religious person, and one who had once expressed support for abortion, Trump delivered more stirring thoughts on religious freedom and the right to life than any candidate ever, including Ronald Reagan.
Trump believed in the unity between himself and his followers, and that they would stay with him, even if he were to shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue. Millions of them reciprocated. The political, and even the moral content of that unity mattered less. He did not try to support his many accusations with facts. Millions who disagreed with him or who disliked him personally voted to make Trump president, and even more voted to reelect him.
But whatever Trump might have thought, his voters knew that hatred for the ruling class — not Trump himself — was why they supported him. It was about themselves, not Trump. The ruling class knew it, too. That is why, for most of the past six years, it brayed so much disdain from every available venue on him personally, trying to convince at least some of his followers that he is unworthy of decent people’s allegiance.
Codevilla went on to say that Trump’s practical accomplishments on behalf of the country class, vis-à-vis the ruling class, were grossly insufficient. Which is correct; particularly, for example, given the effect COVID-19 had in enriching the Facebooks, Amazons, and Pfizers at the expense of Main Street USA.
I bring this up not to diminish Trump but to point out that what is indispensable about MAGA, or revivalism, as they’re certainly related ideological emphases if the latter isn’t a distillation of the former, isn’t the candidate but what he stands for and commits to deliver. It is Codevilla’s work over the many years he was prolific in hammering out the truth of the American condition and the perils of our decline which is essential; a country class public which demands its embodiment in political candidates, and crucially is vigilant in maintaining that demand, will find them.
As Codevilla’s American Greatness editor Ben Boychuk said in a heartfelt and insightful tribute to his friend this week…
The shopworn cliché of any remembrance is that we will never see his like again — that the man was one of a kind. Of course, all of us are “one of a kind.” But Angelo Codevilla was surely unique as a teacher. He left us a great many lessons. We are blessed to be able to return to those lessons, learn and re-learn from them, and carry on — even build upon — the work he did not live to finish.
The man is gone, but after we grieve our loss, we can see to it that the teaching endures.
Very much so. As is the case with Limbaugh and Breitbart, whose work is no less relevant today than when they were creating it, Codevilla’s insights and lessons form the patrimony from which those of us who follow may draw.
It’s our responsibility not to fail their memory. We mustn’t merely keep up the fight. Armed with what they’ve given us, we have to win it.