It’s easy to forget that, before Donald Trump piloted his Strength Through Joy pleasure cruiser of a presidential campaign into the general election, he unleashed a series of devastating broadsides into the conservative movement. For nearly a year, the result has been one of the most persistent and pathetic spectacles of this election cycle: a small crowd of conservative true believers, huddled together miles from shore in the groaning hulk of their once-proud vessel, shouting #NeverTrump at the indifferent sea.
These plaintive cries have been violating eardrums since January, when the National Review gathered the twenty-two responses it received by querying the “[email protected]” listserv and published them as its “Conservatives Against Trump” feature. In the months that followed, Republican voters responded to this overwhelming display of thought leadership by lining up behind Trump and carrying him convincingly to the nomination.
Trump-denouncing conservatives may have fulfilled the National Review’s mission statement of “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop,” but as it turns out, history no longer has a use for those who think that America’s hearts and minds are won in the pages of the National Review. The feature was better suited for publication as “We Asked 22 Conservatives About The Most Pathetic Salvo They Ever Launched At Donald Trump” on ClickHole; at least it would’ve been funny to see the line “Um, I’m not sure I understand. ‘Pathetic salvo?’” above a dour-looking photo of Bill Kristol.
Several months of uneasy back-and-forths have followed. Whenever the polls show Trump heading for defeat, movement conservatives serve up rhetoric that’s one part “I told you so” and three parts frantic attempts to distance themselves from the radioactive toxicity of the sentient decorative gourd that they spawned.
Don’t be fooled. A large chunk of the voters who thought of themselves as Republicans and conservatives sought out Trump’s words of contempt and animus and basked in them. Then those voters chose Trump as the Republican and conservative presidential nominee. Thus, Donald Trump is a Republican and a conservative. This is reality, and no amount of pseudo-intellectual posturing can change it.
But the ties between Trump and movement conservatism run deeper. They stretch back to the 1940s — before Reagan, before Goldwater, before National Review — when a unified conservative movement was little more than a vague notion in the balloon-shaped head of William F. Buckley. From the moment that conservatives began trying to make their movement “intellectually respectable and politically palatable” (in George Will’s words), they have made and doubled down on decisions that have left Trump as their rightful heir. Donald Trump is not the cause of conservatives’ problems, but the result of them.
When Buckley set down the manifesto of his movement in the National Review’s mission statement, he said that a conservative is someone who “stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop.’” This has been the basic definition of a conservative ever since.
Only “Stop” isn’t quite right. The historian of conservatism George Nash wrote that, as they pulled against the handbrake of history, “conservatives naturally turned to those features of the American past that seemed most opposed to the terrible menaces of the modern age.” In other words, conservatives didn’t just want to bring history to a standstill; they wanted to reverse its course and return to the values of a simpler, better time.
The fundamental insight of conservatism is the belief that the values of the past are better than those of the present, and thus, that society should return to the values of the past. This idea — that we’re living in the aftermath of fallen but restorable greatness — is a sort of nostalgia that has been the basic premise behind an increasingly powerful political movement, so it’s obviously an emotion that many people find satisfying.
But the dangers of constructing an intellectual movement on an emotional foundation are obvious: if people find a path to the satisfying emotion that doesn’t run through the intellect, the entire edifice could come toppling down. Early conservatives could’ve addressed this danger head-on by trying to bolt their movement firmly to its emotional foundation, so that conservatism and its core insight could never be separated. They didn’t.
It’s not because conservatives failed to ask the right questions. Buckley wrote in a major essay that “the question that must always be before [conservatives] is, what shape should the world take, given modern realities?” It was quite perceptive of Buckley to frame the fundamental tension of his movement as between would-be conservative shapers of the world and the modern realities that oppose them. And it couldn’t have escaped Buckley’s notice that the people most attached to modern realities tend to be those for whom the recent past was rife with segregation and slavery, disenfranchisement and sexism, or racial, religious, or sexual pariahhood, or some mixture of the above.
This naturally spawns other questions. If you believe that the past was better than the present, is it possible to enact what was good about the past without harming the people who were worse off back then? Can you even be sure that the past seemed good for reasons other than people like you enjoying privileges that directly resulted from the systematic oppression of other groups?
These are tough questions, perhaps intractable ones. Answering them would require a comprehensive intellectual defense of the values of the past in light of the realities of the present. Conservatives never mounted that defense. For instance, Buckley’s essay offers a single example of drawing a “conservative solution” from history to solve a problem imposed by modern reality: a woman learning how to bake homemade bread because of her husband’s complaints about modern loafs. Facing down the toughest questions for his entire enterprise, that’s the problem he chose — sliced bread, the innovation so admired that all others are the best thing since.
Following Buckley’s lead, conservatives have never seriously returned to the most basic questions that lay beneath their whole endeavor. Instead, they configured their entire thought apparatus to churn out decorously constructed arguments beginning with the unexamined premise that the past was good and ending with a conservative position on some economic or culture-wars issue (i.e., “Resolved: The women’s movement has been disastrous”). Buckley and his followers seemed to mistake their polysyllabic vocabulary and Socratic exertions for proof of their movement’s intellectual bona fides. Maybe they even thought that, by working slowly across the spectrum of issues, they were making their case comprehensive by exhaustion.
Which returns us to the largely unexamined premise of the whole movement: “standing athwart history.” That’s exactly what Donald Trump is calling for. Restoring fallen greatness is his campaign’s central promise; it’s literally on the hats. Conservatives have had sixty years to come up with an intellectually compelling reason why yelling “stop” in a Phillips Exeter patois while observing debate-club decorum is somehow intellectually superior to doing so at a modern-day Nuremberg Rally. Besides pointing out that their discourse doesn’t openly aim to offend, they’ve come up with few distinctions between the values held by conservative intellectuals and Trump-following conservative populists.
Even the preeminent conservative historian, George Nash, has no answers; he’s left grasping at the platitudes like “freedom, virtue, and safety” to answer the basic questions of “What do conservatives want? What should they want?” Despite having decades to fashion a bulwark against an exclusionary populist usurpation of their core insight, no one within the movement can point to a philosophical reason why the entire intellectual enterprise of the conservative movement is necessary.
The Genteel Few
With no intellectual ammunition to guard their movement’s core claim, conservatives have few defenses against Trump’s candidacy. Although conservatives have attacked Trump for his frequent incoherence and occasional heterodox policy positions, their primary mechanism of Trump-denouncing has been to invoke their bête noir: vulgarity.
An aversion to vulgarity has been a central feature of conservatism from the start. One of the movement’s vanguards, the philosopher Leo Strauss, went so far as to define a conservative as “a man who despises vulgarity.” The privileged position of anti-vulgarianism in the conservative movement reflected the shared worldview of its founders.
George Nash’s definitive history The Conservative Movement in America Since 1945 explains that the early conservatives, most of whom were or wanted to be “sublimely superfluous” trans-Atlantic intellectuals, cultivated an “aristocratic aloofness from vulgarity.” These genteel men of means and aspirant idle philosophers were essentially Henry James characters come to life, keenly aware of the “infinite vulgarity of things” and the self-evident “virtue of keeping one’s self unspotted by it.”
That movement conservatives should clash with a man like Trump is not simply a matter of vocabulary. Strauss defined the dreaded vulgarian in opposition to the movement’s self-image — unlike the noble, truth-seeking Jamesian gentleman-scholar, the vulgar man is essentially a profiteer, “concerned exclusively with calculations of success” and “blind to the nobility of effort.” Sounds an awful lot like the Republican nominee.
Make no mistake: Trump is incredibly vulgar, and unfit for any sort of public office. Movement conservatives have said as much (while sadly remaining silent on the subject of whether Trump’s vulgarity is of the short-fingered variety). Bill Kristol’s entry in “Conservatives Against Trump” quotes Strauss’s definition of a conservative as a despiser of vulgarity, leading Kristol to ask, apparently confident that any National Review reader can deduce the right answer, “Isn’t Donald Trump the very epitome of vulgarity?” George Will shares similar sentiments, calling Trump an “unprecedentedly and incorrigibly vulgar presidential candidate” who represents “an affront to anyone devoted to the project William F. Buckley began six decades ago with the founding in 1955 of National Review.”
Even Buckley himself decried Trump’s crassness. Writing in Cigar Aficionado (of course) in early 2000, Buckley rebutted the claim “that [Trump] is a successful businessman and that is what America needs in the Oval Office” by arguing that “the greatest deeds of American Presidents . . . had little to do with a bottom line.” Along the way, Buckley called Trump a “demagogue” and a “narcissist” who was “mesmerized” by his own reflection, concluding that, “if Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America.”
The fact that “he’s vulgar!” is the only meaningful defense that conservatives can level against the massive threat that Donald Trump’s candidacy poses to their movement is a result of their failure, by choice, to engage in any meaningful way with the implications of bringing the present back to the past. And it exposes a devastating truth about the conservative movement: its only claim to the moral high ground is its manners.
Trump has never seriously attempted to reconcile his quest to “Make America Great Again” with the fact that, for most Americans, it wasn’t so great the first time. Indeed, he all but admits that his proposals exist to help his followers and harm everyone else. But the thing is, movement conservatism also hasn’t seriously attempted to reconcile its quest to bring history to a screeching halt with the potential harms that might result to other groups. Both Trumpism and movement conservatism are, by choice, unconcerned with the question of whether their policies hurt other people. Thus, conservatives’ only moral argument against Trump is that they at least have the decency not to mention these things out loud.
The conservative movement has sold millions of people on the idea of standing athwart history. But the movement has never wrestled with the difficult philosophical questions arising from that central claim. It has never attempted to devise a framework for implementing past values in a modern world filled with people who once suffered under those values. Instead, conservatism invested its resources in producing credential-building arguments from its unexamined nostalgic premise.
Today, no conservative can answer the question of whether the movement’s quest to bring back the past will harm other people. As a result, the only moral argument against Trump that conservatism can raise is that conservatism couches its potentially harmful policies in nicer terms. Trump is the monster that these choices created. He is the rightful heir to the conservative movement.