Trump: chief critic of American conservatism

A version of this article appeared in the IPA Review in 2016. It is a review of George Hawley’s book Right-wing critics of American Conservatism.

Since the Second World War, right-wing politics in the United States has been dominated by an order of intellectuals, commentators, and institutions that together make up what has been known as the conservative movement. The movement began in the early 1950s with the philosopher Russell Kirk and consolidated towards the end of that decade behind the flagship magazine National Review, founded by William F. Buckley, drawing together a diverse mix of traditionalists, libertarians, and, from the 1970s, neoconservatives. This alliance settled on a program of defending religious and social custom, free market economics, and the development of an overwhelming military capability, which it has attempted to implement through control of the Republican Party. But with the rise of Donald Trump to that party’s presidential candidacy, the terms of this right wing consensus are now in dispute.

In this context, George Hawley’s new book Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism is very timely. Hawley’s book is a taxonomy of right-wing thought, describing movement conservatism and contrasting it with other forms of right-wing thought that the movement has deliberately excluded, beginning with Buckley’s vanquishing of the paranoiac anti-communist John Birch Society through to the more recent shunning of members who evince racist attitudes.  However, despite the conservative movement’s tight policing of its boundaries, these other philosophies and styles never disappeared. The appearance of movement conservatism as a synecdoche for right-wing thought has always been false.

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