The other day, I saw a clip on the Internet that made me think, “Where is American conservatism today? What do we stand for?” That is pretty much the bread-and-butter obsession of National Review.
The clip was an ad from America First Policies, which, as the name suggests, is a pro-Trump group. One of the group’s bright lights was Nick Ayers — I say “was” because he recently became Vice President Pence’s chief of staff.
The ad shows what is meant to be a parade of horribles — a parade of bogeymen: Chuck Schumer, Rachel Maddow, Meryl Streep, Joe & Mika, Kathy Griffin, Al Franken, Brian Williams, James Comey, and Nancy Pelosi. The ad promises that all of these people will be defeated.
“We will fight. We will win. We will Make America Great Again.”
Conservatives today, I think, have an easier time saying what they are against than what they are for. What unites us? Well, we have serious disagreements about America’s role in the world, the size and scope of government, the character of President Trump, and more. But we can fairly easily vituperate Schumer et al.
Earlier this year, Senator Ben Sasse, the Nebraska Republican, was asked what the GOP stood for. He said, candidly, “I don’t know.” What does the conservative movement stand for? I don’t know. Is there a conservative movement? I don’t know.
We were all Reaganites once, or most of us were. Now Buchananism is in the saddle. Pat Buchanan told Politico’s Tim Alberta recently, “The ideas made it, but I didn’t.” (Meaning, his presidential runs were not successful, but the ideas he campaigned on were victorious in the Trump movement.)
Late in the 2016 campaign, Trump was refusing to say whether he would accept the result of the election (if he lost, of course). In a column, Buchanan said that “the populist-nationalist Right” was “moving beyond the niceties of liberal democracy to save the America they love.”
Buchananism-Trumpism is not especially big on democracy. A couple of days ago, Freedom House noted that the cause of democracy was being downgraded in the State Department.
In late July, I did a podcast with Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Miami Republican. She is retiring after a long career. A refugee from Cuba, she is a tireless advocate of freedom, democracy, and human rights.
She is an object of spitting contempt from the Trump Right. I know this, because they let me know, in no uncertain terms.
On Wednesday, President Trump was tweeting about nuclear weapons. “Hopefully we will never have to use this power,” he said, “but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”
I tweeted the following: “Our nuclear deterrent is indispensable. So is the rest of our ‘hard power.’ But much of our power lies in our principles and ideals.”
In reply, one tweeter compared me with Neville Chamberlain. That is the new spirit on the right, and a regnant spirit, I think.
Also present is class resentment — the belief that fancy people who attend cocktail parties are conspiring to do down the little guy. Along with this is identity politics. These two things — class resentment and identity politics — have long been hallmarks of the Left. They are coming to distinguish the Right.
Well, what can conservatives agree on, comfortably? What can we agree on that is positive (forgetting the negative for the moment)? Patriotism? Yes, but this gets tricky, because the Trump Right prizes nationalism, which is different.
Earlier, I mentioned the size and scope of government. We’re all small-government types, right? Not necessarily. Consider this: In the 2016 presidential cycle, there were 17 candidates on the Republican side. Fifteen of them favored entitlement reform, saying it was an urgent necessity, and an obligation to our children and grandchildren.
Two candidates pledged not to reform entitlements. One of them was Donald Trump; the other was Mike Huckabee. One was elected the nominee, of course, and then president. The other is among Trump’s strongest supporters.
During the campaign, Trump said that we did not need to reform entitlements. Rather, we needed to ferret out “waste, fraud, and abuse” from the government. Democrats such as Michael Dukakis used to say that. Conservatives ridiculed them for it.
How about immigration? Can we unite on immigration? That is, can we unite against illegal immigration? Yes — but that’s as far as it goes. There are conservatives who think that immigration, for all its headaches, is a boon to America, enriching it, keeping it fresh, and helping to keep it on top of the world. Other people on the right are loath to say a good word for immigration, giving the impression that they consider it essentially a curse.
I heard someone suggest that the Right can unite on Israel — on the support of it. Okay. But the alt-Right complicates things. (“Alt” stands for “alternative,” but it also means “old” in German, and I regard this as entirely appropriate, because the alt-Right is both an alternative Right and an old one.)
(Pat Buchanan is famously anti-Israel. Here is a major difference between him and Trump, who is strongly pro-.)
Some issues, I think, unite the Right, or could, if the various elements let them: fighting the War on Terror; deterring or dislodging the North Korean and Iranian regimes; combating political correctness; defending the police against false charges.
And yet, I should probably take something back: Would the Paulistas and similar factions really support an aggressive approach to the Iranian regime? You see the problem.
In my business — the conservative opinion dodge (h/t William Safire) — there is a way to stay on the happy side of the Right. There is a way not to ruffle feathers, or to ruffle them in the right direction. What you do is attack or mock the Left. You avoid your own “side” and its troubles. You just “go negative,” as they say in politics.
And there is no end of targets. You never run out. We have old standbys and we have new targets, which crop up all the time.
What’s George Soros spending his money on lately? Is there a university of his we should shut down? Is there a new flaky actress in Hollywood? Of course there is. What’s she saying? Lena Dunham is an old standby: a gift that keeps on giving.
What’s Mattress Girl up to these days? Does Amy Schumer still exist? (If not, go to Uncle Chuck, or whatever the relation is.) What have the Clintons — Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea — been doing? None of the three is president, but talking about who is president can be problematic.
Then we have the media — always the media. Especially the New York Times. I have virtually made my living bashing the New York Times. (And they have deserved every bashing.) There is no story that we can’t get an anti–New York Times angle out of. (I could supply examples.) This is in part because they cover everything.
But sometimes they don’t — and we let them know it!
Etc., etc. You know the drill. I can do it in my sleep, and have.
A friend of mine wrote me recently, lamenting that I was criticizing the Right — what I consider to be the mental and moral collapse of it. “You were so brilliant at skewering the Left,” he said.
According to some, that’s my job: to skewer — brilliantly! — the Left while ignoring everything else. Well, nuts to that. Let other people be good little tribesmen. (“Good Germans,” we used to say, when I was growing up.) You and I are individuals (while appreciating the value, and the necessity, of alliances, coalitions, and movements).
The New York Times, Lena Dunham, Mattress Girl, and George Soros are important — very important. You can spend careers on them, and I almost have. I will devote myself to them again, no doubt. But sometimes the course of human events can force you to cast your gaze elsewhere: like at the White House, and the Republican party, and the conservative movement.
It is impossible to agree on what conservatism is. That is one of the beauties of conservatism, I think: It is beyond ideology, almost an anti-ideology. Two years ago, I wrote an essay called “What Is Conservatism?” I said that I was loath to act as an arbiter or a definer — a Commissar of Conservatism, I call them. And yet, I had been asked the question, in a public forum. A lady in Albuquerque asked me to define conservatism. I gave a fumbling answer. And I paraphrased it in that essay:
I believe that to be a conservative is to be for limited government. Personal freedom. The rule of law. The Constitution, and adherence to it. Federalism. Equality under the law. Equality of opportunity. Relatively light taxation. Relatively light regulation. Free enterprise. Property rights. Free trade. Civil society. The right to work. A strong defense. National security. National sovereignty. Human rights. A sound, non-flaky educational curriculum. School choice. A sensible stewardship over the land, as opposed to extreme environmentalism. Pluralism. Colorblindness. Toleration. E pluribus unum. Patriotism. Our Judeo-Christian heritage. Western civilization.
I added that I was anti-abortion — very much so. It is important to me, and to life, I think. And I also said this:
Now, it could be that I have simply declared what I believe in and called it “conservatism.” And I have no doubt that I’ve forgotten a few important things, as my critics on the right will no doubt tell me. (“Proof that Nordlinger is a Communist is that …”)
I also bear in mind something that Reagan often said: “If we agree 75 percent of the time, you’re my 75 percent friend, not my 25 percent enemy.”
Doesn’t that sound old-fashioned, in these days of all-or-nothin’, black-or-white? Further, I quoted Roger Scruton, the great conservative philosopher from Britain. (He is now Sir Roger Scruton.) In a podcast with Mona Charen and me, he said,
I think that, in the end, there is something that unites all conservatives, which is that they are pursuing something they love. My view is that the Left is united by hatred, but we are united by love: love of our country, love of institutions, love of the law, love of family, and so on. And what makes us conservatives is the desire to protect those things, and we’re up against people who want to destroy them, and it’s very simple.”
Are we, in fact, united by love? Or can the Right give the Left a run for its money in the hate department?
I go back to the split on the right, the schism. I can illustrate it starkly, in several ways. Take PJB, Patrick J. Buchanan: You ever read him on Lincoln and Churchill? He no like, to put it mildly. Others of us like, a lot.
Then there is what I call the “Marine Corps”: the admirers of Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, and other such rightists, with Vladimir Putin hovering over them, as a kind of godfather. The split between the Marine Corps and the rest of us is dramatic.
Then there is George F. Will. To some on the right, he is a villain. Whenever I mention him, Trump people hiss (as well they might). They do not consider him a conservative at all. Sean Hannity, yes, George Will, no. Others of us consider Will the very model of a conservative thinker and writer (and that’s the right order for him, by the way: He thinks before he writes, which is not true of all of us, very much including me, sometimes).
I do not always agree with Will. There is a streak of radicalism in me that does not seem to be present in him. So, there you go: the very model of a conservative thinker and writer.
In my presence, William F. Buckley Jr. greeted Will as “my leader.” (I heard him greet Charles Krauthammer the same way! And he meant it, both times.)
Some years ago, my comrade Jamie Glazov wrote a book called “United in Hate.” It was about the Left and militant Islam. United in hate is a lousy way to be, I think. But when people can’t agree on what they love — what they’re for — maybe they fall back on what they hate.
Which is better: to be united in hate or not to be united at all?
Shared hatreds can be very, very satisfying. I cherish a memory from The Simpsons. The wife of Apu, the Kwik-E-Mart owner, is pregnant, and he is sweatin’ it. Homer reassures him: “Kids are the best, Apu. You can teach them to hate the things you hate. And they practically raise themselves, what with the Internet and all.”
I should wrap up these rambling remarks. As I said before — see, it’s all repetition now! — alliances, coalitions, and movements are important. They are crucial. Without them, you can’t get anything done in politics, or in some other realms. Yet if you can find your links in love, rather than their opposites, all the better.
And ultimately, we are individuals — with our own conscience, our own principles and values, answerable to God.
A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.