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The Failure Of American Institutions, Not Of Conservatism, Made Donald Trump Possible


The Washington Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti argues at length in an essay published Friday that populism has displaced conservatism in the Republican Party, creating a crisis for the conservative intellectual class and representing a triumph for the “New Right”. He opens with a description of the debate over the Panama Canal between Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley and their respective supporters, which you can watch here:

Within seconds you will be struck at the level of discourse between the future president and his interlocutors. The repartee is spirited, intelligent, respectful, detailed, and humorous. It is hard to imagine a similar intra-conservative dialogue being held today.

And yet, at some level, a replay of the controversy over the Panama Canal Treaty is exactly what the American right has been experiencing over the last 16 months. The conservative movement is divided over the question of Donald Trump, over his suitability for office, over the issues of nationalism, illegal immigration, criminality, corruption, and elitism he has raised in his campaign. The terms of and parties to this dispute are remarkably similar to those in the debate at Duke University almost 40 years ago. In some cases they are the very same people. The antagonism between the populism of Buchanan and the conservatism of National Review is remarkably persistent.

What makes that episode of Firing Line significant in retrospect is how it threw into high relief the differences between Buckley and the so-called New Right. Since founding National Review in 1955, Buckley and his colleagues had been the spokesmen of an intellectual and philosophical critique of democratic mass society as well as the domestic and foreign policies of American liberalism. Beginning with the Republican nomination of Barry Goldwater (whom Buckley supported) in 1964, however, and accelerating in the tumultuous 1970s, the National Review crowd found itself challenged by a group of activists, journalists, and politicians whose criticism of the elite was populist, vehement, bipartisan, and anti-corporate. The question of how these anti-Establishment newcomers from the south and West fit into the conservative movement and the Republican Party, the question of where to strike the balance between populism and conservatism, has bedeviled conservative intellectuals and pro-business GOP officials ever since.

This is an interesting description of that debate (which, by way of minor correction, took place not at Duke University but at the University of South Carolina in the Longstreet Theatre). I was particularly jarred by the use of “respectful” as representing Buckley’s demeanor. Even if you agree with Buckley’s arguments, he comes across to me as condescending, arrogant, and dismissive of the other side in a way that undermines his own points. This debate reveals the Achilles’ heel of Buckley’s perception of the world. And for those of us who’ve debated within the context of 2016, this attitude toward Reagan’s populist argument – “We built it, we paid for it, it’s ours, and we are going to keep it” – is recognizable.

The whole of Continetti’s essay is worth reading, but he closes with this:

The triumph of populism has left conservatism marooned, confused, uncertain, depressed, anxious, searching for a tradition, for a program, for viability. We might have to return to the beginning to understand where we have ended up. We might have to reject adversarianism, to accept the welfare state as an objective fact, to rehabilitate Burnham’s vision of a conservative-tinged Establishment capable of permeating the managerial society and gradually directing it in a prudential, reflective, virtuous manner respectful of both freedom and tradition. This is the challenge of the moment. This is the crisis of the conservative intellectual. What makes that crisis acute is the knowledge that he and his predecessors may have helped to bring it on themselves.

Already others are hailing Continetti’s piece – Michael Gerson praises it at length here.  It certainly has many good and accurate points. But it also seems to contain an overall mistake – that is, a need to place Trumpism within an evolutionary continuum on the right. It is not a progression nearly as much as it is a regression, disjointed as you ought to expect from a movement elevated by prior non-voters and alienated ex-Democrats, who used to cling to their Bible and their guns and now find those to be little solace.

Continetti begins his historical survey in the 1960s, but he doesn’t go back far enough. The conservative intellectual life of Trumpism is more accurately captured by Lionel Trilling from 1950:

In the United States at this time Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

This strikes me as a more accurate description of Trumpism, a description of the right pre-Buckley and pre-Reagan. Its particular form is not a direct consequence of the failure of conservative intellectuals, nor even of the conservative movement. Those failures exist and are manifest, of course, but in seeking root causes we shouldn’t fall into that trap, because this is about something much bigger.

From Reagan through George W. Bush, conservatives largely agreed on the traditional three-legged stool of the fusionist GOP: national defense, limited government, family values. All of that blew up in the aftermath of the Bush years. Conservative intellectuals perceive what’s happening now as a crisis because the political universe has changed so dramatically thanks to Iraq, the Wall Street meltdown, and the lackluster growth that’s followed. But a good part of that crisis mentality could be due to the fact that they still haven’t come to grips with how much the Bush presidency damaged perceptions of conservatism, even among Republicans, and made the old frame of fusionism impossible.

Many Americans today are very angry about 1) lost jobs, lost wars, lost money, broken families, broken neighborhoods, broken government, thought and speech policing, and 2) what they view as an aristocratic class who rigs the system and doesn’t care about any of these issues, and thinks people who do care are dumb. Trump won because he pretended to respect the people who care about 1), and framed those who opposed him as being part of 2). His aggressive tone made up for years of supporting all sorts of policies the old fusionist frame never would have allowed. And he’s still doing that even now.

Ask yourself why so many of Trump’s voters, even the middle class ones, are willing to listen when he says even something as big as a presidential election can be rigged against them. All this is happening because American society is in collapse, and no one trusts institutions or one another. It is due to the failure of government institutions, largely stood up by the progressive left, to live up to their promises of offering real economic security and education and the promise of a better life. It is due to the failure of corporate institutions, who have warped America’s capitalist system to benefit themselves at the expense of others. It is due to the failure of cultural institutions, like the church and community organizations, to help the people make sense of an anxious age.

The point is that while conservative intellectuals have their problems, this is much bigger than anything having to do with conservative intellectuals. The aims of conservatives, whether they are the “populist” or “intellectual” sort (an unsatisfying frame, given that Reagan was both), depends on a certain level of societal flourishing. As Yuval Levin writes in The Fractured Republic:

Our highly individualist, liberationist idea of liberty is possible only because we presuppose the existence of a human being and citizen capable of handling a remarkably high degree of freedom and responsibility. We do not often enough reflect on how extraordinary it is that our society contains such people.

There is a reason progressives spent half a century slowly eroding society’s pillars to the point where the people produced by our families, communities and schools no longer desire this, a point at which a reversion to this form of reactionary nationalism is possible. Trumpism is not the same as populism or the New Right, and it speaks to something much worse than an intellectual crisis. It is what happens when no one trusts anyone any more.