/The Limits of My Conservatism

The Limits of My Conservatism

Which way will he go?
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

In the first year of the Trump presidency, I had a very pleasant dinner with Michael Anton, the brilliant, bespoke Straussian who went to work for Trump’s National Security Council for a while. I wanted to talk to him about reactionism, that streak in conservative thought that can become revolutionary in its hostility to modernity, but the conversation ended up sprawling far beyond that topic. Anton is something of an intellectual pariah — a Washington Post columnist wrote last year that “there is little reason to ever listen” to him — but he’s a pariah in part because he’s a reactionary with a first-class mind. And that’s why I often listen to him. He reminds me why I’m a conservative, why the distinction between a reactionary and a conservative is an important one in this particular moment, and how the left unwittingly is becoming reactionism’s most potent enabler.

A conservative who becomes fixated on the contemporary left’s attempt to transform traditional society, and who views its zeal in remaking America as an existential crisis, can decide that in this war, there can be no neutrality or passivity or compromise. It is not enough to resist, slow, query, or even mock the nostrums of the left; it is essential that they be attacked — and forcefully. If the left is engaged in a project of social engineering, the right should do the same: abandon liberal democratic moderation and join the fray.

I confess I’m tempted by this, especially since the left seems to have decided that the forces behind Trump’s election represented not an aberration, but the essence of America, unchanged since slavery. To watch this version of the left capture all of higher education and the mainstream media, to see the increasing fury and ambition of its proponents, could make a reactionary of nearly anyone who’s not onboard with this radical project.

That’s why Anton backed Trump. Trump was a crude weapon at hand to defend the values of the West — even though, to my mind, he was inimical to those values. Those of us on the center right who refused to back him, who saw Trump as an equivalent but even more deranged enemy of liberal democracy, were forced to back Clinton, however deep our reservations. She was easily the lesser of two evils, because although she would be dragged by the far left, and would, in my view, have been a terrible president, she was still a defender of liberal democratic norms and couldn’t be worse than Trump. But we also gritted our teeth and backed her because we didn’t believe the current left’s assault on American liberalism was such an existential threat it merited backing a bullying bigot.

This, it strikes me, is one core divide on the right: between those who see the social, cultural, and demographic changes of the last few decades as requiring an assault and reversal, and those who seek to reform its excesses, manage its unintended consequences, but otherwise live with it. Anton is a reactionary; I’m a conservative. I’m older than Anton but am obviously far more comfortable in a multicultural world, and see many of the changes of the last few decades as welcome and overdue: the triumph of women in education and the workplace; the integration of gays and lesbians; the emergence of a thriving black middle class; the relaxation of sexual repression; the growing interdependence of Western democracies; the pushback against male sexual harassment and assault.

Yes, a conservative is worried about the scale and pace of change, its unintended consequences, and its excesses, but he’s still comfortable with change. Nothing is ever fixed. No nation stays the same. Culture mutates and mashes things up. And in America, change has always been a motor engine in a restless continent.

One question conservatives are always asking themselves is whether these changes can be integrated successfully into a new social fabric, so we do not lose cohesion as a nation; another is whether this change is largely being imposed from above by ideological fiat, or whether it’s emerging from below as part of an emerging spontaneous order. That’s why conservatives support marriage equality and reactionaries oppose it; why conservatives support equal opportunity for women and reactionaries fret about it; why conservatives think twice before leaving the E.U., which has been integrated into the British way of life for several decades, and reactionaries want to wrench Britain out of it; or why a conservative might hesitate before junking the entire apparatus of international alliances that the U.S. has built and supported since the 1940s, while a reactionary will just rip it up. All these broader social changes are emergent ones that seem well within our capacities as a society to digest.

But there is a place where conservatives and reactionaries find common cause — and that is when the change occurring is drastic, ideological, imposed by an elite, and without any limiting principle. This is not always easy to distinguish from more organic change — but there is a distinction. On immigration, for example, has the demographic transformation of the U.S. been too swift, too revolutionary, and too indifferent to human nature and history? Or is it simply a new, if challenging, turn in a long, American story of waves of immigrants creating a country that’s an ever-changing kaleidoscope? If you answer “yes” to the first, you’re a reactionary. If “yes” to the second, you’re a liberal. If you say yes to both, you’re a conservative. If you say it’s outrageous and racist even to consider these questions, you’re a card-carrying member of the left.

In a new essay, Anton explains his view of the world: “What happens when transformative efforts bump up against permanent and natural limits? Nature tends to bump back. The Leftist response is always to blame nature; or, to be more specific, to blame men; or to be even more specific, to blame certain men.” To be even more specific, cis white straight men.

But what are “permanent and natural limits” to transformation? Here are a couple: humanity’s deep-seated tribalism and the natural differences between men and women. It seems to me that you can push against these basic features of human nature, you can do all you can to counter the human preference for an in-group over an out-group, you can create a structure where women can have fully equal opportunities — but you will never eradicate these deeper realities.

The left is correct that Americans are racist and sexist; but so are all humans. The question is whether, at this point in time, America has adequately managed to contain, ameliorate, and discourage these deeply human traits. I’d say that by any reasonable standards in history or the contemporary world, America is a miracle of multiracial and multicultural harmony. There’s more to do and accomplish, but the standard should be what’s doable within the framework of human nature, not perfection.

More to the point, the attempt to eradicate rather than ameliorate these things requires extraordinary intervention in people’s lives, empowers government way beyond its optimal boundaries, and generates intense backlash. What Anton is saying is that if you decide to change the ethnic composition of an entire country in just a few decades, you will get a backlash from the previous majority ethnicity; and if you insist that there are no differences between men and women, you are going to generate male and female resistance. That kind of left-radicalism will generate an equal and opposite kind of right-reactionism. And that’s especially true if you define the resisters as bigots and deplorables, and refuse to ever see that they might have a smidgen of a point.

This is not to say that some of the resisters are not bigots, just that no human society has been without bigotry, and that many others who are resistant to drastic change are just uncomfortable, or nostalgic, or afraid, or lost. The left responds by reifying all resistance to radical top-down change as “hate,” and takes it as evidence that even more social engineering is needed. The right, in turn, radicalizes, and starts to justify or excuse that kind of hate. That doesn’t explain all of our current political predicament, but it captures some of it. I feel it in myself. I’m a multicultural conservative. But when assaulted by the slur of “white supremacist” because I don’t buy Marcuse, my reactionism perks up. The smugness, self-righteousness, and dogmatism of the current left is a Miracle-Gro of reactionism.

This week, I read a Twitter thread that was, in some ways, an almost perfect microcosm of this dynamic. It was by a woke mother of a white teenage son, who followed her son’s online browsing habits. Terrified that her son might become a white supremacist via the internet, she warns: “Here’s an early red flag: if your kid says ‘triggered’ as a joke referring to people being sensitive, he’s already being exposed & on his way. Intervene!” Really? A healthy sense of humor at oversensitivity is a sign of burgeoning white supremacy? Please. More tips for worried moms: “You can also watch political comedy shows with him, like Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj. Talk about what makes their jokes funny — who are the butt of the jokes? Do they ‘punch up’ or down? … Show them that progressive comedy isn’t about being ‘politically correct’ or safe. It’s often about exposing oppressive systems — which is the furthest thing from ‘safe’ or delicate as you can get.”

It reminds me of a fundamentalist mother stalking her son’s online porn habit. Doesn’t she realize that it is exactly this kind of pious, preachy indoctrination about “oppressive systems” that are actually turning some white kids into alt-right fanboys? To my mind, it’s a sign of psychological well-being that these boys are skeptical of their authority figures, that they don’t think their maleness is a problem, and that they enjoy taking the piss out of progressive pabulum. This is what healthy teenage boys do.

More to the point, this kind of scolding is almost always counterproductive. Subject young white boys to critical race and gender theory, tell them that women can have penises, that genetics are irrelevant in understanding human behavior, that borders are racist, or that men are inherently toxic, and you will get a bunch of Jordan Peterson fans by their 20s. Actually, scratch that future tense — they’re here and growing in number.

Many leftists somehow believe that sustained indoctrination will work in abolishing human nature, and when it doesn’t, because it can’t, they demonize those who have failed the various tests of PC purity as inherently wicked. In the end, the alienated and despised see no reason not to gravitate to ever-more extreme positions. They support people and ideas simply because they piss off their indoctrinators. And, in the end, they reelect Trump. None of this is necessary. You can be in favor of women’s equality without buying into the toxicity of men; you can support legal immigration if the government gets serious about stopping illegal immigration; you can be inclusive of trans people without abolishing the bimodality of human sex and gender; you can support criminal-justice reform without believing — as the New York Times now apparently does — that America is an inherently racist invention, founded in 1619 and not 1775.

Moderate change within existing structures wins converts and creates conservatives, willing to defend incremental liberal advances. Radical change bent on transforming human nature generates resistance and creates reactionaries. Leftists have to decide at some point: Do they want to push more conservatives into Michael Anton’s reactionary camp or more reactionaries into the conservative one? And begin to ponder their own role in bringing this extreme reactionism into the mainstream.

I’d like to respond to a critique of my recent attempt to parse the parallels between the decline of the Roman republic, and, well, ours. It’s from my old friend, the historian Niall Ferguson, and it seems to me to miss my point. He’s right to point out, as I did myself, that Americans have long worried about this comparison. And he cites a 1962 novel as an example of a dumb analogy:

Inspired partly by the clashes a decade before between Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur and, more recently, between Kennedy and a noisily anti-Communist general named Ted Walker, the novel — set in the spring of an imagined 1974 — tells the tale of an attempted military coup against a liberally inclined president, led by a Caesar-like chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

That kind of thing, Ferguson reassures us, can’t happen because “the founding fathers themselves were haunted by the lessons of Roman history. That was precisely why they designed a constitution that was and remains profoundly different from that of the ancient republic on the Tiber, above all in the way that it circumscribes the power of the presidency.”

But there was no presidency in the Roman republic to be circumscribed. Its political offices, like those of consul or tribune, were held by two individuals with a mutual veto and short term limits, and many other offices proliferated. The Founders, in contrast, created a unitary Executive branch under one man who was very hard to remove — an office much more susceptible to abuse — made him commander-in-chief, and until the 20th century, provided no formal term limits at all. It’s not the generals we should be worried about; it’s the civilian who is their boss.

The Founders did indeed constrain that office, placing it, among other things, below the Congress in the Constitution and hedged by the courts. George Washington established the norm of its republican modesty. But the constraints and the norms need to be enforced by republican practice in the political elite, by rivals in the president’s own party and competitors in the opposition. My worry is that the wholesale abandonment of many of those norms and practices under Trump (and, to some extent, before as well) has made us vulnerable, as the Romans were with a much less autocratic setup, to one-man rule. The invention of political parties — not predicted by the Founders — also makes this worse. The capitulation of the entire GOP to a demagogue’s whims and moods was always possible — and has now become reality. If you think that’s not worth paying attention to, I think you’re being terribly complacent.

Then Ferguson argues that Trump cannot be a Caesar because he has “no appetite whatsoever for empire.” He may not. But he sure inherited one — and the most powerful military forces in human history. He has not withdrawn troops from 188 countries, hasn’t ended the war in Afghanistan (in fact, he’s spoken of bombing it until it doesn’t exist anymore), has massively expanded military spending, and has backed a Saudi and Israeli war against Iran in Yemen. And the strain of managing a huge empire did indeed weaken Rome’s democratic institutions — just as our empire has weakened ours, giving the president extraordinary powers (including the ability to end all life as we know it on the planet), a vast surveillance apparatus, emergency powers beyond anything imagined before, and a withered Congress. If you wanted a direct parallel with, say, Iraq, you could even point to the endless fight the Romans had with Jugurtha, a warlord in North Africa, in the second century BCE, a man who innovated an insurgency it took Rome a very long time to defeat.

But my key point is simply that a republic is about the dispersal of power and depends for its survival on the non-zero-sum behavior that allows such a divided government to function collectively. The Romans needed their mos maiorum, the non-zero-sum “habits of the elders,” just as we need the cooperative compromising norms that Trump continues to shred. Once Trump-style zero-sum thinking enters a non-zero-sum system, becomes ubiquitous and and is rewarded, it has a corrosive effect. Norms are busted; laws ignored; powers pushed beyond their limit; governments shut down; and a refusal to compromise leads almost always to deadlock, paralysis, and then a desire for a strongman to “fix it.” That’s the core parallel. It’s not one Ferguson engaged.

I don’t believe Trump is the Caesar of our day, but I do think his spirit is Caesarist, and that, if his legacy isn’t quarantined as a terrible cautionary tale by history, he has made the chances of a future Caesar far more likely.

I wonder if Donald Trump’s sole positive foreign-policy legacy will be the disengagement of the Democratic Party from unconditional support for the Jewish state. The shift has been coming for a while, of course, but the Trump-Netanyahu merger, after Bibi’s disgusting treatment of President Obama, has not exactly helped. Nor has Trump’s brutal conduct toward the Palestinians, his moving the embassy to Jerusalem, blessing the Golan Heights annexation, and so on and on. The old liberal Zionist argument that Democrats clung to — that we should always support Israel as it tries to find a partner for peace for a two-state solution — is now, undeniably, in rigor mortis. Israel, it has been clear to me for quite a while, has no interest in a two-state solution, and every intent to control the West Bank in perpetuity, immiserating its non-Jewish inhabitants in the hope of, at some point, getting rid of them altogether. It’s very hard to see how Democrats could continue to support such an apartheid state unconditionally — along with levels of military aid no other putative ally can dream of.

But the decision by Netanyahu to heed Trump and bar two Democratic congresswomen from visiting the occupied territories is a real moment. For Trump, it reveals his failure to understand that he is president of all Americans, and not just his base, or himself. It’s the same mind-set that cannot comprehend why eagerly accepting help from a foreign enemy in a presidential campaign is a not a no-brainer; or why it’s no problem to back a rival to a foreign country’s elected leader (Johnson over May); or to intervene so crudely in another country’s elections (as in Israel last time around).

It also used to be assumed that an American citizen would automatically get the American president’s (and ambassador’s) support in any conflict with a foreign power; with Trump, you have to ask first whether that American supports him or not. Now, we actually have the president putting pressure on a foreign government to single out for punishment two American citizens (and members of Congress to boot). The American ambassador to Israel actually backed Netanyahu’s government against American congresswomen. Even AIPAC couldn’t go that far. Is he sure he isn’t the Israeli ambassador to the U.S.?

Trump’s narcissism means he cannot absorb that he represents more than himself. There is no water’s edge to that pathology, as you can better understand by reading the first section of the Mueller Report. Even with his beloved Israel, badly damaged by this move in world and U.S. opinion, he comes first. With America too. But we knew that already, didn’t we?

See you next Friday.