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The Performative Outrage Of ‘Conservatives’ Is Further Evidence Of Their Failure

Unable to cope with the failure of the conservative movement, its erstwhile champions resort to calling their critics fascist.


The performative outrage from professional conservatives over my column last week, which argued that the conservative movement has largely failed and we should stop calling ourselves conservatives, was as revealing as it was predictable.

Bill Kristol called me a fascist. John Podhoretz said I’m a power-hungry fanatic. David French warned I was fabricating an existential threat to the American idea. Matt Lewis, perhaps the most candid of the lot, was just happy that “far-right extremists” like me will no longer besmirch the good name of conservatism, which he’d like to keep for himself.

There are two things happening here. The first is a reflexive defensiveness from a class of establishment media pundits who have, as Iowahawk explained back in 2015, worn the “conservative” label like a skinsuit for decades. To claim, as I did, that the conservative project has failed feels to them like an indictment, which it is. 

The failures of conservatism stretch back more than a half-century, but over the past two decades in particular the left has made spectacular gains on nearly every front while issues that ordinary conservatives care about — immigration, traditional marriage, the ability to support a family in a decent community — have been more or less ignored by a conservative commentariat that whiled away the time on National Review cruises, agitated for endless wars abroad, and cracked jokes for octogenarian donors. It’s nice work if you can get it, but it didn’t conserve much. 

The second thing happening with these apoplectic reactions is just basic self-preservation. Claiming to be conservative is how the erstwhile leaders of the conservative movement project power and influence in the corporate media. If the conservative label is exposed as fraudulent, and the conservative project is revealed to be a failure, then their standing as arbiters of what is and isn’t conservative might simply disappear. They need “conservatism,” as it has long been understood, to be believable and relevant so they can keep up the appearance that they stand for something other than professional grift. Those CNN gigs don’t grow on trees you know.

There’s also a sense one gets that these guys are really just saying — spluttering, in Podhoretz’s case — “Hey, who are you to criticize me?”

To steal a line from another power-hungry fanatic: It doesn’t matter who we are, what matters is our plan. 

More on the plan in a later column, but here’s a spoiler: It doesn’t involve seizing power in a fascist coup, shredding the Constitution, and ushering in a Catholic theocracy. That ridiculous charge, as disingenuous as it is lazy, is nothing more than a cheap way to avoid long-overdue critiques of the conservative movement and its manifestly unfit stewards.

No wonder, then, that Podhoretz’s complaint on a recent Commentary podcast is that what I and others on the “New Right” really want — but don’t dare say out loud — is a political order based on Rerum Novarum, the papal encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, which Podhoretz grossly mischaracterizes as “hostile to capitalism,” “anti-modernity,” and the “birth of social justice.”

In reality, Rerum Novarum was to modern capitalism what Humanae Vitae was to modern sexuality: If everyone had just done what it said to do immediately, generations of bloodshed and suffering could have been avoided. It was the Catholic Church’s response to industrial capitalism and the socialist and communist ideologies that arose in reaction to it, and far from being hostile to capitalism, it affirmed the right to private property while also setting forth principles that employers should follow, like giving workers time off from work to worship God, paying them a wage that can support a family, and not requiring them to work in unsafe conditions. Radical stuff, that.

True, the encyclical was a foundational text of modern Catholic social teaching, but no serious person conflates that with today’s left-wing social justice movement. After all, Rerum Novarum attacked socialism, articulated the principle of subsidiarity, and asserted that the primary role of the state is to provide for the common good. As a guide for 21st-century conservative populism, Rerum Novarum is actually quite compelling. Rather than dishonestly portray it as some nefarious program for an integralist Catholic revolution, one would think self-proclaimed conservatives like Podhoretz would take the substance of Rerum Novarum seriously instead of gaslighting his audience about it to avoid grappling with the arguments of the New Right. 

But there’s not much these folks take seriously other than their entitlement to be “conservative” authorities and Very Smart People, whom the rest of us should listen to in mute awe. They often don’t even take their own positions on major issues all that seriously.

For example, just days after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs overturned Roe v. Wade, handing the conservative movement its greatest victory in a generation (albeit a defensive victory), Bill Kristol tweeted out a column by his Bulwark colleague Charlie Sykes, quoting the line, “The radicalism of the majority’s decision in Dobbs shouldn’t be glossed over; nor its lack of prudence.”

Like a lot of Never Trumpers, Kristol transformed himself into a boilerplate Democrat after Donald Trump won the GOP nomination in 2016. But for most of his long career as a public intellectual, he was staunchly anti-abortion and anti-Roe, or at least purported to be. A few Twitter users, including Andrew Sullivan, replied to Kristol’s tweet with screenshots of a lengthy Weekly Standard column Kristol wrote in 1998 headlined, “Roe Must Go.” The repeal of Roe, he wrote, “is crucial to reviving republican self-government.”

Somehow, though, what was once “crucial” became, in the flush of a stupendous victory for a cause Kristol himself had long labored, a “lack of prudence.”

Later in that 1998 column, he wrote:

Republicans talk a lot about being a majority party, about becoming a governing party, about shaping a conservative future. Roe and abortion are the test. For if Republicans are incapable of grappling with this moral and political challenge; if they cannot earn a mandate to overturn Roe and move towards a postabortion America, then, in truth, there will be no conservative future.

Kristol was right, all those years ago, about how crucial it was to overturn Roe. He was also right that without overturning it, there would be no conservative future. But now we can see, thanks in part to his rank hypocrisy, that there never was a conservative future as long as frauds like him were the gatekeepers of the movement.

Faced with candid assessments of their failure, these skinsuit conservatives are reduced to calling their critics fascists and integralists while insisting that they alone can claim the title of “conservative.” Fine, they can have it. In their hands, it’s become a title synonymous with failure, cowardice, and hypocrisy. We’ll come up with something else.

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