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‘The American Conservative’ Tried To Warn Us

To celebrate its 20th anniversary, The American Conservative has published an anthology, ‘Main Street Conservatism,’ that demonstrates the magazine’s remarkable prescience during a period where movement conservatives foundered.


It would not be an overstatement to say I’ve been waiting for this book for almost 20 years. At the time, I was an undergrad at the University of Virginia, possessing many conservative impulses but unsure of where I stood in those early years of the global war on terror. A classmate pointed me to a little-known magazine, founded by the great populist conservative Pat Buchanan, which, my friend suggested, might bring clarity to my political uncertainty and orient me toward a more coherent brand of conservatism.

Two decades later, The American Conservative has published “Main Street Conservatism: The Future of the Right,” a collection of essays edited by Executive Director Emile Doak and Senior Editor Helen Andrews, proving how far ahead of the times TAC truly was. “We believe conservatism to be the most natural political tendency, rooted in man’s taste for the familiar, for family, for faith in God,” wrote Founding Editor Scott McConnell in the editorial of the inaugural issue of the magazine in October 2002.

Not that others in the conservative movement were particularly supportive of TAC’s mission. David Frum at National Review labeled TAC’s founding editors “Unpatriotic Conservatives.” The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol publicly expressed his disdain for Buchanan, whom he described as representing “the peasants.” Max Boot, who now risibly calls himself a “former conservative,” accused Iraq War skeptics of antisemitism.

And yet, as Doak observes in the preface, “The Republican Party in 2022 much more closely resembles Pat Buchanan’s vision than George W. Bush’s.” Though it would be justified, “Main Street Conservatism” is less a victory lap than an articulation of the continued relevance of TAC’s emphasis on “ideas over ideology,” exploring four broad issues on which TAC has proved remarkably prescient: foreign policy, American culture, political economy, and faith and family.

Foreign Policy

Six months before the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Paul W. Schroeder wrote in TAC’s pages that even if we were successful in toppling Saddam Hussein, America would be “saddled with the new responsibilities of occupying, administering, rebuilding, democratizing, and stabilizing Iraq … tasks of unreckoned costs and manifold difficulties…” That 15-year project actually ended up costing taxpayers more than $2 trillion and killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (mostly civilians); our military suffered about 35,000 casualties (which included about 4,500 deaths). Nor did foreign policy wonks well appreciate Schroeder’s warning that the global war on terror, or GWOT, would do more damage to America and the world than it would to terrorists in far-flung places where they possessed little ability to threaten our borders. Libya, anyone?

It’s also arresting to remember the expansive quality of the neoconservative foreign policy vision in those early years of the GWOT. A March 2003 piece by Buchanan noted that an open letter to the White House signed by prominent neoconservatives such as Kristol, Bill Bennett, Norman Podhoretz, Richard Perle, and Charles Krauthammer urged the president to not only attack Iraq, but target Hezbollah, Syria, and Iraq, as well. To suggest, as Buchanan so provocatively did, that such military adventurism would benefit Israeli interests far more than those of America was labeled antisemitic (One perceives a pattern in neocon slander, no?).

But TAC wasn’t right just about Iraq and the GWOT. A 2007 piece by Anatol Lieven warned that U.S. foreign policy in Eastern Europe was unnecessarily antagonizing Russia, drawing Georgia and Ukraine into an “anti-Russian military bloc.” Russia invaded Georgia the following year, and we all know what has happened in Ukraine. In all these years, China meanwhile invested huge sums of capital — and stole billions per annum from us — in their alarming attempts to reach military parity with the United States. As foreign policy expert and Boston University Emeritus Professor Andrew Bacevich bemoaned in a 2011 piece, “seldom has a nation relinquished a position of advantage as quickly and recklessly as has the United States.”

American Culture

When it comes to immigration, Buchanan has been warning for decades that our broken policies were costing taxpayers billions of dollars per year, weakening cultural unity, and undermining the American working class through unfair competition. John O’Sullivan in a 2007 piece argued that several social trends have coalesced into a new pro-immigration orthodoxy that makes solving our immigration crisis near impossible. These include the need of some corporations for cheap labor, the need of Democrats for cheap votes, the need of the media for new narratives of American bigotry, and increasingly dominant victimhood and diversity narratives.

Because of Trump’s position on immigration, trade, and foreign policy, Scott McConnell in the summer of 2016 predicted the Donald’s presidential victory. “Everything that has happened in the past 20 years has widened the opportunity for the nationalist persuasion in American politics. … Trump, with a unique blend of showmanship, independent means, and sheer nerve, has blown this door wide open,” he wrote. Or, as former TAC Editor Robert W. Merry observed in 2017, “America was in crisis, and crisis times yield crisis politics.” Nevertheless, Merry feared Trump’s personality and temperament would likely be a hindrance to presidential success. Why, for example, did Trump make warmonger John Bolton his national security advisor?

Political Economy

Buchanan in a 2003 article reminded readers that, while free trade may now be a dogma of many on the right and left, Alexander Hamilton used tariffs to end American dependence on Europe — by World War I, we were the wealthiest nation on Earth with the highest standard of living, producing 96 percent of what we consumed and exporting 8 percent of our GNP. Yet we gave that up, now running a trade deficit with China, offshoring much of our industrial capacity to the developing world, diminishing the middle class in the process. As James Kurth observed in 2006, our elites sought to “solve” growing economic inequality through the entertainment industry, including spectator sports; now we can add smartphones and social media to the list.

While everyday Americans got poorer, Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, the tech industry, and Big Ag, among others, got richer, as several TAC essays expertly explain. Matt Stoller and Lucas Kunce in a 2019 essay discuss how Wall Street financiers’ obsession with short-term profits, market power, and executive payouts offshored the strategically critical telecom industry, an industry America not long ago dominated. The result of globalism created supply chains entirely dependent on Beijing — for example, China is the single or sole supplier for chemicals used in munitions and missiles. We are now similarly reliant on China for rare earth metal resources used in our advanced weapons systems.

Faith and Family

Finally, the last two decades have demonstrated TAC’s analysis of the sexual revolution to be equally prophetic. A 2003 piece by Peter Wood warned that there was ample anthropological research indicating that normalizing homosexuality would cause a “dual-track system in which ‘marriage’ is reduced to a bare transactional relationship, while male homosexuality will flourish according to its own dynamic.” Wood predicted that if gay marriage became the law of the land, heterosexual marriage would weaken, the birthrate would decline, the status of women as mothers would erode, young boys would be a greater target of erotic attention by older males, and polyamory would become popular. All now our just deserts.

In 2008, Margaret Liu McConnell wrote that an overlooked effect of gay marriage was a rejection of the “bedrock principle that a parent should not abandon his child.” This is because once the state sanctioned gay marriage, it would by extension encourage arrangements where mothers and fathers would give their progeny to gay couples. Legally severing children from biological parents has, to kids’ detriment, resulted in the commodification of children across American society, whether one speaks of in-vitro fertilization or surrogacy.

“Main Street Conservatism” serves as both a capstone and a commencement for how we need to think about America this century. Its pages are filled with great writers: Roger Scruton, Michael Anton, Patrick Deneen, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and, of course, prolific TAC blogger and best-selling author Rod Dreher. I especially loved Helen Andrews’ essay “A Lesson from Robert E. Lee,” in which she makes the brilliant comparison between the much-maligned Confederate general and the 19th-century West African chieftain Samori Toure — the latter, like the former, fought a war to protect slavery. So-called anti-racist journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates also named his son after him. “History is complicated, isn’t it?” writes Andrews with delicious irony.

Yet in another sense, history doesn’t need to be complicated. TAC for two decades has been telling simple, common-sense truths about what America is and what she needs to be in order to survive and thrive. Long may she continue to do so.

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