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.
As Hawley points out more than once, the three traditional principles of the conservative movement do not necessarily cohere. There is nothing essential in social conservatism, classically liberal economics, and military nationalism that suggests they are inseparable. They came together in the way that they did specifically in response to atheist, command-driven, and nuclear-armed communism. Moreover, communism made plain what Hawley takes to be the central point of contention between left-wing politics and right. In his conception, the left is united in its pursuit of one goal above all others: material equality. The right is made up of every other political movement which places some other value above this idea of egalitarianism, whether it be religious virtue, liberty, hierarchy, or anything else. Twentieth-century communism was ruthless in its egalitarianism, prompting a reaction on the right, which had previously been, in the leftist critic Lionel Trilling’s phrase, no more than a series of irritable mental gestures. In the absence of a common enemy, the conservative movement faces an identity crisis, which Hawley posits may well lead to its dissolution:
It is… conceivable that organized conservatism’s weakness will open up new space for right-wing ideological movements that have long lived on the fringe.
Hawley is cautious not to overstate the possibility of a conservative crack-up. Such an event has been predicted many times in the past without coming to pass. But since the publication of this book, American right-wing politics has experienced an unprecedented shock. It is surely not a knock on Hawley to say that he did not anticipate Trumpism—almost no-one did. But a look at what Trump represents reveals a fatal flaw in Hawley’s logic. Hawley could never have predicted Trumpism, or anything like it, because he fundamentally misunderstands right-wing politics.
For Hawley, the right-wing ideology most likely to supplant movement conservatism is a moderate form of libertarianism. Because of social changes brought about by globalisation, information technology, and the demise of religion, and the demographic changes caused by decades of heavy immigration, right-wing politics—and its vehicle, the Republican Party—will need to moderate its social policy to maintain any possibility of nationwide appeal. For this reason, of the ideas that Hawley considers, the only one he pronounces dead is paleoconservatism. This is the ideology, most famously, of Pat Buchanan. Nationalist (and fiercely anti-internationalist), realist, suspicious of free trade, opposed to immigration, and always fearful of the coming collapse of society. Who does this sound like?
Hawley might even be proved correct in the medium-to-long term. But for now, in the wake of the disastrous second Bush presidency and the leftist agitation of the Obama years, the ideological space on the right is being filled by a populist candidacy, the chief appeal of which is that it is opposed to everything that Hawley, liberals, and, in its review of the 2012 elections, the Republican Party itself, all said right-wing politics simply needed to accept. Trumpism might be the dying gasp of white Protestant America, a temporary hiatus in the conservative movement, or a sign of a shift in right-wing thought. Whatever it is, and turns out to be, it is revelatory of something true and immutable about right-wing politics, something Hawley gives no indication of understanding.
Left-wing politics is not defined by its commitment to egalitarianism. And right-wing politics is not merely the opposition to this idea. Hawley’s book rests on a falsehood. The reductio ab absurdum of Hawley’s argument comes in a section dealing with the indisputable historical fact that many leftists in the first half of the twentieth century were racists. Hawley acknowledges that this is true but says that it is of no importance: “[F]ew voters seem to care where the respective parties stood on racial issues decades or even a century ago.” This point cannot however simply be dismissed by an appeal to popularity. If men and women of good standing on the left were committed to the inequality of the races, this indicates that egalitarianism is not the basis of leftism. Hawley compounds his error by stating that the racism of these progressives is now chiefly of interest because these ideas continue to reappear in right-wing thought. With this sleight of hand, Hawley absolves the left of its racist past and essentially implies that, were they alive today, Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Sanger would be right-wingers.
What makes the racist and eugenicist progressives persons of the left is that they were committed to the creation of a new social order based on reason. Left-wing politics is fundamentally the argument that society can be remade by human will. Thus the Rousseauvian emphasis on the will of the people, and on the education of children to become activist citizens. Thus, too, historical materialism and the Marxist conception of liberation as the overcoming of physical need. Rawlsian liberalism, a rational contract between abstractions, is an attempt to describe the conditions in which inequality is just, and greens, rejecting the doctrine of dominion, seek to fundamentally revise humanity’s relationship to the environment. Egalitarianism is often a by-product of the left’s critique of inherited hierarchies, which are considered arbitrary and subject to conscious and forceful revision. But all leftism has a need for a technocratic class (even and especially the softly, softly kind of Blair and Clinton), belying the idea that egalitarianism is somehow necessary or essential to leftism.
In contrast, the political right is committed to the defence of the natural order, however conceived. For religious conservatives, this is the order as divinely revealed. For libertarianism, our negative liberties are ours naturally and the restriction of them is a deviation from order. For conservatives, authority and hierarchy emerge from humans’ social nature. Even the neoconservatives (who are the mainstream group most difficult to comprehend as right wing) argue first for a global order made natural by the unique strength of the United states.
For all of those of the conservative disposition, the existing state of affairs is a product of history, of compromises reached by humans to support their mutual flourishing, and in that sense indicative of what it is to be human. The material circumstances of society can and do change, but the fundamental needs and desires of humans do not. The social order reflects those needs and desires, and rationalist attempts to remake the world conflict with them and must be opposed. Roger Scruton described this fundamental difference between left and right as mirroring the distinction between deduction and induction. The left begins with its premises (humanity’s limitless will and capacity to reason) and deduces the society that should follow. The right examines what society and individuals are actually like and argues for an order that accords with its observations. Early on, Hawley muses that it is quite strange, noting the origins of left-right terminology, that a nation predicated on the rejection of monarchy and nobility should be considered so right-wing. But while Louis XVI was literally a king, the king symbolises, and always has, an establishment in accordance with nature. That is what the right defends.
Seen this way, both left and right are coalitions of interests bound together because of how they reason. Their radicalism grows as their sense of society’s unreasonableness grows. And this brings us back to Trump.
As others have noted, the clue to Trump’s appeal lies in the last word of his slogan, “Make America Great Again”. Trump is a man of the right and his message is that the United States has strayed from its natural, historical order, which he claims he can restore. His diagnosis of where America went wrong includes a number of movement conservative nostrums, like free trade, high levels of immigration, and reducing the size of the government. But there is one idea of Trump’s that has resonated more than any other, and its reverberations threaten to open a wide fissure in the conservative movement, which it may not be able to overcome. The wall.
Trump’s proposal to build a giant wall along the United States’ southern border may do as much to divide traditionalist conservatives from libertarians and neoconservatives as it does to separate his country from Mexico. The wall is a symbol of an idea of nationhood prevalent elsewhere but long dormant in the United States. Trump’s proposal states very plainly that, liberal theory notwithstanding, the United States is not an “idea” to which anyone can subscribe. It is, like any other country, a place. And moreover, that place is the home of a specific people. Those people might be exceptional in their achievements but their country, contra the neoconservatives, is not formally different from any other.
The conservative movement is characterised by its “fusionist” philosophy, combining traditional conservatism and libertarian ideology. But the latter group, unlike the former, are committed to the idea that a country can be conceived as a social contract, which implies that anyone who agrees to the terms of the contract can be a party to it. Conservatives do not conceive of countries in this way. To the extent that there is something contractual about the individual’s relationship with the state, the key question for conservatives is how the parties are defined. The contract is between members of a group, and that group’s existence predates the contract. For social contract theory, this is the classic critique. Why should I contract with these people, and not with others? Why should the contract stop at this border and not elsewhere? This is the reason why many liberals and libertarians are for open borders, and most conservatives are not. “We either have a country or we don’t,” Trump likes to repeat (and repeat). His wall puts the very self-conception of the United States at issue, and in turn, makes a statement about what is the true natural order, one that other right-wing Americans may not accept or even recognise.
The conservative movement has acted as though shocked it might ever be challenged. But its present difficulty has been a long time coming. It has preferred abstract ideology to received doctrine. It has steadfastly defended its failures, like the war in Iraq, without apology. Movement conservatives have committed the mortal sin of right-wing politics: they have ignored life as it is actually lived. If the conservative movement wants to reclaim its wandering right-wing flock, it will need to defend its ideas in terms the right can understand—order, tradition, truth, and permanence—rather than repeating leftist cant about the inevitability of radical change and fearmongering about the non-existent “wrong side of history”. Trump is a TV clown, but don’t let his crassness obscure the seriousness of the ideas with which he playing, and the depth of his challenge to the right-wing status quo.