Can one be a proud, moderate conservative in 2021? Not according to The Washington Post’s playhouse of neoconservative pundits: Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, and Michael Gerson.
For them, the conservative mantle they once claimed deserves only derision due to capitulation to Trumpism. Max Boot says the Afghanistan debacle is Trump’s fault; Jennifer Rubin lectures Republican politicians for not rejecting the GOP’s embrace of the “big lie”; Michael Gerson denounces House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for being a Trumpist “groveler and sniveler.”
Ironically, these “moderate” former conservatives act out an inversion of the personality cult, making politics fundamentally about opposing someone. That hardly sounds like the politics of “betwixt and between.” That phrase, popularized in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped,” reflects something of what many conservatives, including myself, are trying to maintain in this time of extreme polarization.
In “Kidnapped,” a Scottish youth, David Balfour, is abducted by unscrupulous sailors paid off by the boy’s miserly uncle. When the vessel bound for the Americas is shipwrecked off the Scottish coast, David escapes with a Scottish highlander named Alan Breck Stewart, who is wanted by the crown for his support for Bonnie Prince Charlie, a Stuart claimant to the English throne.
Fleeing through forbidding forests and mountains, Stewart questions Balfour as to his political allegiances. “Betwixt and between,” Balfour asserts, trying to portray a certain moderation and neutrality. Stewart, a dyed-in-the-wool Scottish patriot who has witnessed the English oppress the highland Scots, thereafter mockingly refers to Balfour as “Mr. Betwixt and Between.”
But being “betwixt and between” ends up working in Balfour’s favor. He makes friends with the highland clansmen while avoiding criminal charges because of his association with Stewart. For Stevenson, to be the moderate, humble voice of reason is to be virtuous, sensible, and self-aware. And so it often is, as even ancient philosophers Aristotle and Confucius argued. To reside reflexively on an extreme, ideological polarity narrows our intellectual and moral vision, and frequently leads us to unfair and uncharitable caricatures of our opponents.
Yet this is not really what the never-Trumpers are about. Theirs is a tiresome, unimaginative, and knee-jerk repudiation of 2021 conservatism — be it of a variety found in The Federalist, The American Conservative, Claremont Review of Books, New Criterion, or Fox News.
That has made them increasingly irrelevant. This is not only because they have become patsies exploited by a leftist corporate media that have abandoned any sense of objectivity and operates as an extension of the Democratic Party. It is because their attempt to paint themselves as “Betwixt and Between” is deeply defective.
Constantly pillorying conservatives and the GOP because of their support or tolerance of populism (or at least certain manifestations of it) ends up creating the same sort of absurdist caricatures they aim to avoid. Many conservatives, however much they find the extremes of conservative populism obnoxious or even detestable, believe the stakes for preserving the American republic have dramatically risen.
Scholar Victor Davis Hanson lays out this thinking quite persuasively in his new book “The Dying Citizen: How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America.” Hanson highlights the declining economic autonomy of American citizens, much of which is a result of unfettered globalist capitalism that gutted even those industries necessary for national security, as the disastrous results of the pandemic so frustratingly proved.
He notes the American political class’s unwillingness to address illegal immigration, which in its intensity not only vitiates assimilation and integration but also undermines the economic survival of American workers, including recently arrived legal immigrants. He bemoans the tribalism that has overwhelmed our society, in which Americans define themselves not by their citizenship, but “superficial racial and tribal differences.” Technocratic, globalist elites, meanwhile, have been largely sheltered from the disastrous consequences of our country’s economic and social instability, while punishing those who refuse to submit to the latest sexual or racial craze.
Moreover, how “moderate” is a neoconservative politics that when it held sway in the White House, it promoted globalist, interventionist policies that destabilized large chunks of the Muslim world? Gerson did no less than pen the phrase “axis of evil” and George W. Bush’s second inaugural address that urged America to use its military to expand democracy across the globe.
This faction lives to caricature and ridicule the current right in all of its diverse manifestations simply because of its connection, however tenuous, to Donald Trump. This reductionism indulges in the same condescending zero-sum game one finds on the polarities of both the right and the left.
I too have hesitation about some expressions of conservatism in 2021, and I too am concerned about preserving my moral consistency, and that of conservatism, in these trying times. Yet the answer is not to demonize conservatives, but discern an authentic, coherent modus vivendi for our nation’s future that outlasts any single politician or fleeting “camp.”
We should seek, as Hanson’s book urges, a restoration of true American citizenship based around shared, inherited customs and pride in our nation’s accomplishments and religiously-informed character; a robust, vocal, and economically autonomous middle-class (something even Aristotle recognized as necessary for self-government); and active involvement in civic service and volunteerism.
It’s less clear what people like Boot, Rubin, and Gerson actually want from conservatives, besides absolute repudiation of Trump. They spend so much of their energy disparaging conservatives and the GOP, they have little space left to articulate a cogent way forward, besides capitulation to the left.
Most of the never-Trumpers seem to want to return to an early 2000s brand of conservatism in which America could throw its economic and military weight around in the cause of free markets and democracy while ignoring the consequences for everyday Americans. Those days, which in hindsight were anything but moderate, are well behind us. Such a neoconservative vision is not only obsolete given the economic, social, and political crises America faces on its homefront, it was naive if not hubristic from the beginning.
I do believe there remains a way for American conservatives to be “Betwixt and Between.” Such a middle ground involves fulfilling our professional obligations even under woke employers (barring violations of conscience, of course); raising pious, patriotic families that serve the common good; and shouldering valuable, even apolitical roles in their communities (like little league) — even in places increasingly antagonist towards us.
Doing so enables us not only to remain front-and-center in trying to preserve what is best about America and its cultural and political traditions but charitably, if passionately communicating our views to our ideological opponents. Even if we fail, we will have retained a model of integrity for our children to emulate. Will the same be said of those in cults of personality or anti-personality?